Ah, the old argument. You may read, while scouring the various firearm websites, a rifle described as "controlled round feed" or "push feed", not to mention the various references on forums across the web. Let's take a deeper look into the function of each style, and which will serve your needs best.
Beginning with some simple definitions, the controlled round feed - or CRF - designs will see the rifle's bolt face pick up a cartridge from the magazine, holding it - usually by means of a large extractor â€“ all the way to the chamber. It matters not whether the operator were to guide the cartridge all the way into the chamber, or to change directions prematurely; the CRF bolt will have a firm hold on the cartridge until it is ejected. The design hearkens back to the 1890s Mauser rifles, notably the 93 and 98 Mausers. There were over 100,000,000 Model 98 Mausers produced, so the design became a staple in the hunting community as well as among the military.
The large, non-rotating, claw-style extractor, along with a fixed, blade-style ejector is common to the design. Two large locking lugs at the front of the bolt, 180˚ apart (the Mauser 98 will also use a third lug at the rear for added strength) keep the bolt in place and seal the breech, and the lower portion of the bolt face is opened to allow the cartridge to snap into place. A groove for the blade ejector is cut into the bolt face as well. The Winchester 70 (in its pre-'64 configuration), the Kimber Model 84, The Heym Express, Dakota Model 76, Montana M1999, Ruger 77 and CZ550 are all examples of rifles with CRF receivers.
The push feed - or PF - designs use a bolt face that does not secure the cartridge once clear of the magazine, rather it simply pushes the cartridge into the chamber. The ejector is usually mounted on the face of the bolt, and is a spring loaded affair that can really send the empty brass cartridges flying. Because the cartridge doesn't slide up into the extractor, there is a complete circle of uniform steel on the bolt face of the push feed rifles. This design results in the use of different lug patterns - opposed to the rather standard Mauser design - on the push feed rifles, along with a bolt throw that doesn't require the 90˚ turn of the Mauser and its clones. Weatherby uses a nine-lug pattern, Remington's Model 700 uses two, and there are all sorts of designs in between. The push feed design is also generally less costly to produce, which is always a factor in firearms designs. The Weatherby Mark V, Winchester 70 (in the post-'64 configuration) and XPR, Savage 110 and Axis, Browning X-Bolt and A-Bolt, Remington 700, Ruger American, Sako 85 and Tikka T3 are all good examples of push feed rifle designs.
Which is the superior design? Does it matter? The answers are highly subjective, and will depend on your particular hunting scenario. I use both, and I feel they have different applications.
When it comes to dangerous game, I most definitely prefer the CRF rifles for a few reasons. One, I find them to be one of the strongest designs, and when it comes to dangerous game, that is very comforting. In the heat and dust of Africa - with my sweaty hands handling cartridges day in and day out - I appreciate the strength of the (possibly) over-sized extractor, not to mention the fact that the cartridge is controlled during its entire journey from magazine to chamber. When the adrenaline is up, especially after the first shot on game like Cape buffalo or elephant, you may find yourself cycling the bolt while the rifle is moving, and a push feed has shown the possibility of actually dropping a cartridge out of the receiver in the process. Doesn't happen often, but I've seen it happen.
A CRF rifle can - if needs be - actually cycle cartridges when upside down. It seems a bit far-fetched, but I've seen some crazy stuff happen when a shooter's adrenaline is running high. I've never seen a Mauser-style claw extractor break, but I have broken the extractor on push feed rifles, and trust me, it's not a good feeling. So, simply based on the strength of the Mauser design, I prefer it or its clones for dangerous game hunting. As an interesting note, the .416 Remington Magnum - a great safari cartridge that delivers identical ballistics to the older .416 Rigby, but at significantly higher pressures - had a bad reputation early on for having cartridges stick in the chamber in extremely hot weather. The culprit wasn't the cartridge, but the small extractor of the Model 700 rifle in which it was introduced.
For a deer rifle, or a predator/varmint rifle, I don't mind a push-feed rifle. Maybe it's all in my head, maybe it's the smaller calibers, but I've hunted .308s and .270s without issue in a push feed rifle; the extractors that did fail were at the shooting bench. Yet, looking at my own rifle collection, I find that the vast majority of my hunting guns are CRF, and that may be a result of wanting the strongest designs possible. The flip-side of that coin is that many popular military designs, including the M14, M16, M60 and M2 machine guns, so there's most definitely something to be said for the design. Not all push feeds are created equal; and the Sako 85 has a beefier extractor than some of the other designs. I prefer things to be over-designed, as I'm highly familiar with good old Mr. Murphy and his pesky Law.
Some condemn the Mauser design as being less smooth than the push feed designs, due to the band along the side of the bolt which terminates in the extractor. I've found a unique design that alleviates the side band, while maintaining controlled round feed. The Ed Brown M704 action cradles the cartridge in much the same manner as a Mauser, giving complete control of the cartridge, yet uses a huge extractor in the push feed style, and a fixed blade extractor. I really like this action, and it's served me well in several rifles.
So, when shopping for a new bolt-action rifle, look long at its design, and make sure you're comfortable with the style of the action. If a push feed receiver is what you prefer, that's fine, just realize what goes into the cycling action, and what moving parts there are that may require maintenance and/or attention down the road. Yes, the CRF rifles may be more expensive, but I find them to be utterly reliable, and as hard as I can be on a hunting gun, that is reassuring.