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What are the Benefits of Straight-Pull Rifles?

Bolt-action rifles are clearly the dominate force in the U.S., but you might want to consider the advantages of a straight-pull action for your next hunt.

What are the Benefits of Straight-Pull Rifles?

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It wasn’t the kind of buck I hoped he would take. In a week of unprecedented buck movement, Larry Tremaine was snake-bit. Didn’t matter which stand, the bucks were somewhere else. Happens. Didn’t help that he was handicapped by a special rifle he wanted to use. Don’t blame him; if that rifle were mine, I’d use it. After seven days of diligent effort, the 8-pointer we took to my barn wasn’t a Kansas giant. Didn’t matter. This buck was about the rifle, which all riflemen understand. Its original iron sights were a low-light handicap, but there was more. Nominally a 7mm, his cartridge, from a time when standardization was sissy, called for a COVID-unobtainable 0.287-inch bullet. So Larry was shooting 0.284-inch bullets rattling down the barrel. Modern bowhunters have greater range. Regardless of size, an awesome deer. Based on vintage and bizarre bullet diameter, some have already guessed. Yep, Larry Tremaine was shooting an original .280 Ross sporter, made in Canada about 1909. The first 7mm “magnum,” the .280 Ross approached 3,000 fps. Cartridge and rifle were proposed as alternatives to the British Lee-Enfield .303. A Canadian company had no chance against the British Empire, so the Ross cartridge and rifle are almost forgotten. The Ross rifle was not a turnbolt; it was a straight-pull action.

Speed

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The Canadian Ross rifle was just one of several early straight pulls developed for military use. Canadian forces used it in World War I, but production ceased after the war.

In the beginning there was Mauser, and it was good. Peter Paul Mauser rivals John Moses Browning as a firearms genius. Through the 1890s he continued to improve his turnbolt action. He got it so right in 1898 that we copied it closely with our 1903 Springfield. Maybe too close; Uncle Sam paid Mauser a royalty until we entered World War I. By then, rotating bolt actions were used by the majority of the world’s militaries. Variations of Mausers were adopted by the most countries, but there were others: Japan’s Arisaka, Russia’s Mosin Nagant, Italy’s Carcano, and Great Britain’s Lee-Enfield. Some, like the Mauser and our Springfield, cocked while opening the bolt. More, including the Lee-Enfield and our own 1917 U.S. Enfield, cocked the mainspring upon closing the bolt. In the day, debate raged over the speed of Mauser’s cock on opening versus cock on closing. Because of leverage, cock on closing is faster, but straight pull offers a different dimension…and is faster still. Larry’s Canadian Ross rifle was just one of several early straight-pull designs. Austria’s Mannlicher Models 1886, ’88, ’90, and 1895 were straight pull. In 1895 the U.S. Navy and Marines adopted the straight-pull Lee Navy 6mm rifle. Although its service life was short, it saw action in the Spanish American War, China’s Boxer Rebellion, and the Philippine insurrection. Most lasting of the early straight pulls was Switzerland’s Schmidt-Rubin, in service in from 1889 to 1958.

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The Austrian-made Strasser RS 14 is an attractive straight-pull rifle with switch-barrel capa- bility. Craig used one in 6.5 PRC to take this management 8-point whitetail in Texas.

Clearly, Mauser’s rotating bolt won. Only the Schmidt-Rubin survived into the 1920s. The next production straight-pull rifle was Browning’s rimfire T-Bolt, introduced in 1965. Amazingly, there wasn’t a centerfire straight pull in production until the Blaser R93 was introduced in 1993. Today, there are many new straight-pull bolt actions, but let’s not get ahead of our story. That straight-pull actions nearly faded away was never a matter of design failure. Rather, with late 19th/early 20th century manufacturing, straight-pull actions were difficult—and thus expensive—to make. The concept was always sound. To operate a rotating bolt, it’s necessary to push the bolt handle upward, pull the bolt all the way rearward, slam it forward to strip a cartridge from the magazine and into the chamber, then bring the bolt handle down to lock the action into battery. Using camming action, straight pull removes the up and down motion: Pull the bolt straight back, slam it forward, ready to fire. There is simply no question, the straight pull is faster. Raw speed is always to the good for repeat shots, but not of critical importance in many hunting situations. Most new straight-pull designs are European, and for good reason—speed matters greatly to European hunters because of the popularity of driven hunts. Semiautos often are not legal over there, so the straight pull was developed as the next best thing, fast repeat shots with as little movement as possible. With practice, the speed of a straight-pull action is amazing.

Sight Picture

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Like many European straight-pull rifles, the Blaser R8 is a modular system. Uniquely, the trigger group is integral to the detachable magazine. The fast action combined with the ability to maintain sight picture allowed Craig to make a rare double on Alberta black wolves.

But another benefit of the straight pull is, to me, even more important than speed. Peter Paul Mauser intended his turnbolt to be operated from the shoulder, maintaining sight picture while working the bolt. A century ago, in a bolt-action world, this is how all armies trained their soldiers to operate their rifles. I wonder how many of us who hunt with bolt actions train ourselves to keep the rifle on the shoulder and maintain sight picture while working the bolt? Recently, I had an Instagram exchange with a young friend of mine. A pundit told him the “proper way” to operate a bolt action was to fire, bring the butt half-down, then roll the rifle a bit to the left (for a right-hander), offering the most leverage for operating the bolt. No, no, and NO! The idea, with any manually operated repeating action, is to keep the rifle on the shoulder, maintaining sight picture while working the action. Smooth and simple with a slide action, a bit more difficult with a lever action, and most difficult of all with a turnbolt action. Okay, absolutely impossible for left-handed me when operating a right-handed bolt. Provided the bolt is on the proper side (left for lefties, right for the majority), learning to maintain sight alignment for repeat shots is the goal. It isn’t easy…more difficult with a scope…still more difficult with today’s almost universal cock-on-opening turnbolts, and complicated further by longer actions for larger cartridges. Few of us get it right every time. I switched to left-hand bolts 40 years ago, and I practice firing repeat shots while maintaining sight picture. In the field, I can pull it off most of the time, but I still find myself occasionally bringing the rifle half-down to gain more leverage to work the bolt.

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Guess what? This is all so easy with a straight-pull action! It’s sort of like the way a red-dot sight drives us to shooting with both eyes open. With greatly reduced movement, the straight pull drives us to flicking the bolt with the butt on the shoulder, cheek welded to the stock, eyes on the target, maintaining sight picture. Not quite as fast or movement-free as a semiauto, but almost. Combining speed with the ability to maintain sight picture, straight-pull .22 target rifles own Biathlon (shooting and skiing), and straight-pull centerfires have become the most popular action among European hunters…almost all of whom do at least some driven hunting. I’m sure most of us have seen clips from Wild Boar Fever. It’s a joy to watch skilled shooters work a straight-pull action on moving targets. Europeans are better at this than we are. Again, because of their cherished driven hunt, they have more opportunity to practice. Most European ranges include running (boar, deer, even moose) targets. Less common, there also are live fire “shooting theaters,” shooting at projected images, great fun. The only way to get really good at hitting moving game with a rifle is to shoot at moving targets…with a rifle.

Getting the Hang of It

Because the R93 was first, Blaser has been dominant in Europe. Although superseded by the R8 in 2008, the R93 remained in production until 2017. The Blaser is not an inexpensive rifle. Considering that, an astonishing 200,000 R93s were produced, with the R8 closing fast. Honestly, American shooters have been slower to accept the straight-pull concept than our European counterparts. Various factors are at play. Little American hunting is as fast paced as the European driven hunt. When more speed is desired, in most jurisdictions, we can use semiautos. And the fast all-American lever action, rarely seen in Europe, remains popular. Unfortunately, cost creeps in. Most straight pulls are European, and most are costlier than very serviceable domestic bolt guns. Many are what we might consider “fine guns,” no pricier than a domestic semi-custom but far beyond “basic.” However, this is also a cultural issue. European hunters are often limited in the number of firearms they can own, so they are accustomed to paying more to get exactly what they want. Also, many of the European straight pulls are switch-barrel rifles. This is important to Europeans because an additional barrel is usually not on a permit as an additional firearm. We Americans just don’t worry about these things!

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Craig used a straight-pull Merkel RX Helix on a roebuck hunt in England. Even though the bolt was on the “wrong” side, the rifle was extremely accurate and got the job done.

Finally, American shooters have often been slow to embrace new technology. Remington and Winchester had reliable semiauto sporters in the first decade of the 20th century. They sold, didn’t burn up the world. After World War II, it was widely predicted that the self-loader would quickly become the dominant sporting rifle action. Didn’t happen. Although a phenomenon today, the AR-15 platform, developed in the 1950s, was in its 40s before it caught on. To tell the truth, the first time I tried a straight pull, I didn’t care for it. It was in the late ’90s, when the R93 was just coming into the States. Biggest problem: I was the wrong writer to take it for a cruise! The test gun was, of course, right-handed. Right-handed shooters rarely get stuck with a left-handed bolt, but it happens to southpaws all the time. Like most lefties, I grew up with right-handed bolts. I can still make them work, reaching over the top. Wow, with a straight pull, double-awkward. In fact, to properly operate a straight pull, let alone realize its benefits, the bolt simply must be on the proper side. Most European straight pulls are available with left-hand bolts. The Savage Impulse, uniquely, has a bolt handle that can be switched from right to left in seconds. Clever. That right-handed R93 was a switch-barrel with .22-250 and .270 barrels. Both were wonderfully accurate, engineering fantastic. No wonder I wasn’t properly impressed. Again, with a straight pull, the bolt handle must be on the proper side!

Even then, there’s a learning curve involved. The back-and-forth bolt movement is entirely different from the rotating bolt we are used to. On many modern straight pulls, what looks like a tang safety often isn’t. Instead, it’s often a cocking lever. Pushing it forward cocks the mainspring; releasing it de-cocks the rifle. Wonderfully safe, but that, too, requires getting used to. It takes more thumb pressure than any safety. Most of us will flub the cocking lever…once. In early 2010, when the R8 was introduced into the U.S., Blaser brought a group of writers to Texas, not to hunt, but to shoot the rifle on a variety of ranges, including a running boar. This time, they did something smart: They had left-handed bolts on hand. It didn’t take long to become confident, and not much longer to fall in love. I bought mine a few months later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Early on, I took the Blaser for brown bear in Romania, with a .338 barrel. First night, not yet sundown, a good boar stepped out. This wasn’t my first try for a European brown bear, so I was in no mood to mess around. The first shot felt good, looked good, but I kept shooting. As big bears often do, he dropped to the shot, rolling, dark forest very close. I shot him twice more, flick, flick, so much quicker than would have been possible with any rotating bolt. I don’t use any make or action type all the time, but I was sold on the straight pull—and still am.

Choices

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The U.S.-made Savage Impulse is the most economical straight-pull rifle, and uniquely, the bolt handle can be instantly switched from the right side to the left.

Because the demand is so much greater in Europe, various straight-pull rifles are not marketed in the U.S. I claim no familiarity with all, and there are several that I’ve never laid eyes on. I’m sure all are good, but I’m not about to suggest better or best. After 13 years of hard use, I have the most familiarity with the Blaser system, so it wouldn’t be a fair comparison anyway. Some years ago, I borrowed a Merkel RX Helix on a roebuck hunt in England. Impressive rifle…but it had a right-hand bolt. Very accurate, I shot three roebucks with it, but I’d be lying if I said I got a true feel for it. Some years back, I also used a Heym SR-30. In production since 1996, so one of the “older” straight pulls, it’s a marvelous rifle…like all that bear the Heym name. The first time I ever saw the Austrian-made Strasser RS 14 straight pull, a switch-barrel design, was last November in Mozambique. My friends Gordon Marsh and Bill Green shared one, with 6.5 PRC and .416 Ruger barrels. On the range, it was wonderfully accurate. Switching barrels back and forth, they used it for everything from small antelopes to buffaloes and hippos. Later, I received a test rifle with left-hand bolt and barrels in 6.5 PRC and .375 Ruger. Not much that setup couldn’t do.

The Strasser is a wonderful piece of engineering, carrying its own tools for disassembly and changing barrels. The trigger assembly pops out, nesting an Allen wrench for removing the forearm. Remove the forearm, and it nests a wrench for barrel removal. I received the rifle at the tail end of deer season, still haven’t used it as much as I’d like to, but I was able to help my son-in-law culling some management deer on his Texas ranch. The Strasser proved very accurate, the bolt operation pure straight pull. At least in the configuration I’ve been shooting, it’s a beefy, heavy rifle. That’s not terrible because gun weight is always the simplest way to reduce recoil. I like it, intend to shoot a buffalo with it later this year. With that in mind, the one thing that concerns me is that its flush-mounted in-line magazine is limited to just two rounds in the larger cartridges. Perhaps the latest straight pull to reach our shores is the Chapuis ROLS, introduced in France in 2017, but is just now coming into the U.S. It is switch-barrel, but my ROLS test rifle is chambered to an archaic (though still wonderful) cartridge called .30-06. Famous in France, well-known in Europe, Chapuis is a small family gunmaking firm in southeast France, now under the Beretta umbrella. The marketing guy, my old friend Tom Leoni, saw fit to send both right- and left-hand bolts. Allowing me to appreciate how it feels right (left)…and how it feels wrong (right). The ROLS is an elegant rifle, in lines very traditional, in operation modern straight pull. The trim, flush-mounted magazine is rotary. So far, I’ve only had it to the range a couple times. Excellent accuracy, wonderful trigger, hoping to spend more time with it.

Recommended


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Made in France, the Chapuis ROLS combines traditional classic lines with an ultramodern straight-pull action. The bolt can be switched from right-hand operation to left-hand operation, which Craig greatly appreciates.

And then there’s the Savage Impulse, the first domestic straight-pull centerfire since the Lee Navy and the Canadian Ross, both long gone a century. Interesting. Following the Savage credo, the Impulse is priced friendlier than European straight pulls. Not as fancy, but a fine basic rifle that, like all Savages, shoots well…just happens to be a straight pull. It has the only right-left-switchable bolt handle I’ve seen, endearing it to my southpaw self. The Impulse was introduced in 2021. That’s where we are right now, but that ain’t all, folks. Also in 2021, Beretta introduced its switch-barrel, straight-pull BRX1. So far only in Europe, but I’m sure we’ll see it here soon. What remains to be seen is whether I am some kind of freak or if the American market will embrace the straight-pull concept as I have. Surely, I’m not the only American hunter who appreciates speed and constant sight picture.




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