Bolt Action Rifle

Bolt action rifle is a type of firearm action where the handling of cartridges into and out of the weapon’s barrel chamber is operated by manually manipulating the bolt directly via a bolt handle, which is most commonly placed on the right-hand side of the weapon (as most users are right-handed). When the handle is operated, the bolt is unlocked from the receiver and pulled rearward to open the breech allowing the spent cartridge case to be extracted and ejected, the firing pin within the bolt is cocked (either on opening or closing of the bolt depending on the gun design) and engages the sear, then upon the bolt being pushed back, a new cartridge (if available) is loaded into the chamber, and finally the breech is closed tight by the bolt re-locking against the receiver.

Bolt-action firearms are most often repeating rifles, but there are some bolt-action variants of shotguns and a few handguns as well. Examples of this system date as far back as the early 19th century, notably in the Dreyse needle gun. From the late 19th century, all the way through both World Wars, the bolt-action rifle was the standard infantry firearm for most of the world’s military forces. In modern military and law enforcement use, the bolt action has been mostly replaced by semi-automatic and selective-fire firearms.

Bolt Action Rifle
Modern Bolt Action Rifle


The first bolt-action rifle was produced in 1824 by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, following work on breechloading rifles that dated to the 18th century. Von Dreyse would perfect his Nadelgewehr (Needle Rifle) by 1836, and it was adopted by the Prussian Army in 1841. While it saw limited service in the German Revolutions of 1848, it was not fielded widely until the 1864 victory over Denmark. In 1850 a metallic centerfire bolt action breechloader was patented by Béatus Beringer. In 1852 another metallic centerfire bolt action breechloader was patented by Joseph Needham and improved upon in 1862 with another patent. The United States purchased 900 Greene rifles (an under-hammer, percussion-capped, single-shot bolt action that utilized paper cartridges and an ogivial-bore rifling system) in 1857, which saw service at the Battle of Antietam in 1862, during the American Civil War; however, this weapon was ultimately considered too complicated for issue to soldiers, and was supplanted by the Springfield Model 1861, a conventional muzzle-loading rifle. During the American Civil War, the bolt-action Palmer carbine was patented in 1863, and by 1865, 1000 were purchased for use as cavalry weapons. The French Army adopted its first bolt-action rifle, the Chassepot rifle, in 1866 and followed with the metallic-cartridge bolt-action Gras rifle in 1874.

European armies continued to develop bolt-action rifles through the latter half of the nineteenth century, first adopting tubular magazines as on the Kropatschek rifle and the Lebel rifle, a magazine system pioneered by the Winchester rifle of 1866. The first bolt-action repeating rifle was patented in Britain in 1855 by an unidentified inventor through the patent agent Auguste Edouard Loradoux Bellford using a gravity-operated tubular magazine in the stock. Another more well-known bolt action repeating rifle was the Vetterli rifle of 1867 and the first bolt-action repeating rifle to use centerfire cartridges was the weapon designed by the Viennese gunsmith Ferdinand Fruwirth in 1871. Ultimately, the military turned to bolt-action rifles using a box magazine; the first of its kind was the M1885 Remington–Lee, but the first to be generally adopted was the British 1888 Lee–Metford. World War I marked the height of the bolt-action rifle’s use, with all of the nations in that war fielding troops armed with various bolt-action designs.

During the buildup prior to World War II, the military bolt-action rifle began to be superseded by semi-automatic rifles and later fully-automatic rifles, though bolt-action rifles remained the primary weapon of most of the combatants for the duration of the war; and many American units, especially USMC, used bolt-action ’03 Springfields until sufficient M1 Garands were available. The bolt action is still common today among sniper rifles, as the design has potential for superior accuracy, reliability, lesser weight, and the ability to control loading over the faster rate of fire that alternatives allow. There are, however, many semi-automatic sniper rifle designs, especially in the designated marksman role.

Today, bolt-action rifles are chiefly used as hunting rifles. These rifles can be used to hunt anything from vermin to deer and to large game, especially big game caught on a safari, as they are adequate to deliver a single lethal shot from a safe distance.

Bolt-action shotguns are considered a rarity among modern firearms but were formerly a commonly used action for .410 entry-level shotguns, as well as for low-cost 12 gauge shotguns. The M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System (MASS) is the most advanced and recent example of a bolt-action shotgun, albeit one designed to be attached to an M16 rifle or M4 carbine using an underbarrel mount (although with the standalone kit, the MASS can become a standalone weapon). Mossberg 12 gauge bolt-action shotguns were briefly popular in Australia after the 1997 changes to firearms laws, but the shotguns themselves were awkward to operate and only had a three-round magazine, thus offering no practical and real advantages over a conventional double-barrel shotgun.

Some pistols utilize a bolt action, although this is uncommon, and such examples are typically specialized target handguns.

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