Bolt-action rifles became popular with military forces in the early twentieth century, and hunters soon began using sporterized versions of these early military arms for taking game of all sizes. Since that time, the bolt-action has become the most popular choice for big game hunting for a number of reasons. They are accurate, dependable, affordable, and they lend themselves well to the use of scopes. The bolt-action's robust design made it possible to utilize powerful new centerfire cartridges that extended the effective range of these firearms. Unlike tube-fed lever actions, they could also utilize spitzer-type bullets safely.
Hundreds of different bolt-action rifles originated in Europe and the United States, and today hunters have a wide selection of turnbolt rifles to meet every hunting situation and budget. The modern bolt-action rifle is lighter and more accurate than at any time in history. Over the past several years there have been numerous upgrades to bolt-action design in the form of synthetic stocks, improved finishes and better machining, but today's rifles remain very much true to original designs.
A few bolt-action designs stand out as the best in history. Some have a reputation for rock-solid dependability, some have become hunting field favorites, and others have revolutionized bolt gun design. Certain guns, such as the Winchester Model 70, have been the basis for a number of other, later designs that have also been successful. Others, such as the Remington Model 700, have become so widely accepted by shooters and hunters that you'll find one in virtually every hunting camp in the country. However, all of these guns, have earned a place in history as the best bolt guns ever created.
Here's a look at the 10 best bolt guns of all time.
The Mannlicher-Schonauer design was a 1903 update to Mannlicher's 1895 straight-pull design. The new rifle featured a standard bolt design (not straight-pull) and a very novel spool-type rotary magazine that has been copied elsewhere in history. By today's standards the Mannlicher is an oddball design, with a butterknife bolt situated well-forward of the traditional positioning near the rear of the receiver. This doesn't make the design any less functional, and the Mannlicher earned quite a reputation in Africa, the primary arm of the legendary elephant hunter Karamojo Bell, who used his 6.5 Mannlicher to kill elephants. The gun has influenced European rifle design more than American rifles, but it is still one of the strongest and most reliable bolt actions ever built, and there are still a number of custom sporterized Mannlichers in use around the world.
Paul Mauser's rifle design has remained extremely popular for more than a hundred years, and rightly so. The Mauser offered many features that we still find on other rifles, features that are so commonplace that we sometimes forget the rifle from which they came. One of these is the use of dual front locking lugs, a major improvement over the rear lug design that was common at the time. The front locking lug design allowed for more powerful cartridges, and it became the standard the world over. The best-known Mauser feature is perhaps the full-length claw extractor that provides what we commonly called controlled round feed. The Mauser also had gas vents and a three-position safety, and it is perhaps the most copied of all modern sporting actions. Guns like the popular CZ 550 share much of the Mauser's DNA, and large Mauser actions are still standard for hunting large, dangerous game.
Remington Model 700
The Remington Model 700
came to pass in 1962 and is one of the few rifles that has remained very popular since its inception. The Model 700 was the original budget rifle, capable of being mass-produced and affordable yet maintaining an outstanding level of accuracy. The Model 700 is the quintessential push-feed rifle, with a recessed bolt face, small extractor and plunger-type ejector mounted on the face of the bolt. The bolt features dual opposed locking lugs and it has a two-position safety mounted on the rear right side of the receiver. The Model 700 is accurate and dependable, and it is one of the most common actions used in the production of custom hunting rifles. It's also the most popular bolt action hunting rifle in the world, and it remains in production.
Bill Ruger designed a lot of great guns, and the M77 was one of them. Originally released in 1968, the Ruger
77 could have languished in the shadow of the Model 70 forever, but that was not the case. The M77 became popular with hunters who appreciated the rifle's built quality and list of features. The modern M77 features a controlled round feed action with a blade ejector and three-position wing safety, all features that have proven to be effective on other rifles, most notably the Model 70. The Ruger 77, though, managed to stand on its own and became known for good accuracy and dead-nuts dependability. The M77 Mark II Safari was a large action capable of chambering impressive cartridges like the .416 Rigby and the .458 Lott, and that rifle is still counted among the few bolt guns that African PHs swear by and trust for dangerous game. The modern M77 Hawkeye
is available in several interesting iterations, including an African version
, a Guide Gun
, and the Scout Rifle
. It's one design that seems only to get better and more popular with time.
is Finland's largest gun maker, and their rifles have a following the world over. That's because they're well-made, extremely robust and deadly accurate. There are several different Sako actions, but the ones most familiar to American shooters are the L61 Finnbear and the AV. Both employ large, front-mounted locked bolts and are a push-feed design. Sako's guns aren't particularly revolutionary in the sense that they brought something to the table that hadn't been seen before, but they are extremely accurate, well-built and function flawlessly. The newer versions of the Sako rifles (the 75 and, now, the 85) continue that legacy, and Sako now guarantees a sub-inch 5-shot group at 100 yards with their model 85s, which is a clear indication of how they expect their rifles to perform. Sako rifles, new or old, are costly, but they are a shining example of European rifle design.
Savage Model 110
110 was introduced to the world in the late 1950's, modified in the mid-1960's, and it has remained largely the same since then minus the addition of modern finishes and stocks. The design is simple and basic, featuring a push feed design with a plunger-type ejector and dual front locking lugs. The safety is tang mounted, which is slightly different than competing guns (aside from early M77 Rugers and Brownings), and it came with a large barrel nut, which was out of the norm for most bolt action American hunting rifles. But that barrel nut helped ensure proper headspacing, and the Savage earned a reputation as one of the most accurate rifles on the market. Best of all, it was inexpensive, so even working-class shooters could shoot tight groups and extend the usable range of their rifles. It was a completely different concept than the company's other famous sporting rifle, the Model 99 lever action. The 110 (and other closely-related variants with different numbers) has been in continuous production for almost sixty years, and its following is among the most dedicated and loyal of any rifle design.
There may be some who shake their heads at the addition of the Tikka
to this list, but it's impossible to ignore the rifle's impact of recent bolt action trends. The Tikka has a two-piece bolt with a Sako-style extractor and plunger-type ejector, and it utilizes a one-piece machined action with a reduced ejection port for added stiffness and, in theory, better accuracy. The Tikka also has a lot of plastic parts, most notably the magazine, which causes some grumbling from purists, and it has a light, crisp, adjustable trigger. When Beretta began importing Tikka rifles it became apparent that the design was capable of producing excellent accuracy in a budget rifle. Since that time, there have been many budget rifles that adopted the Tikka's use of reduced-weight (and cost) plastics, a good trigger and the reduced ejection port. The Tikka started changing what shooters expected from budget-priced rifles, and in doing so it has become one of the most important bolt action designs in recent memory.
Weatherby Mark V
Roy Weatherby needed a robust bolt action rifle to harness the extremely powerful cartridges he was producing. After years of trying to develop other actions to suit his needs, Weatherby
designed his own action and the Mark V
was born. It's a push feed design with a recessed bolt face and a plunger-type ejector, and in that regard it's similar to other popular designs like the Model 700. What's different about the Mark V is the number of safety features added to this gun to make it perhaps the safest, strongest action ever designed. The cartridge base is surrounded by 'three rings of steel, ' the recessed bolt face, the action, and the barrel. In the event of a case rupture there are vents to allow gas to escape away from the shooter's face, and the rear bolt face is fully enclosed. In addition, the Mark V features one of the original 'fat bolt ' designs, with a bolt that is the same diameter as the locking lugs, of which there are nine (six on non-magnum actions and the .240 Weatherby). This allows for a short 54-degree bolt throw for faster follow-ups. The Weatherby is still in production and it's one of the finest factory rifles ever produced.
Winchester Model 70
With the exception of the Mauser 98, no bolt action is more legendary than the Winchester Model 70
. It's the 'Rifleman's Rifle, ' a controlled round feed rifle made stateside that was (and is) legendary for its durability. It features a long claw extractor like the Mauser, but the Winchester
also has a three-position wing safety that has been copied on a number of other rifles. It's still a popular action for custom rifles, particularly for dangerous game guns where the CRF action is important. With Jack O'Connor as an early adopter, the Model 70 earned a place atop the U.S. rifle market, but the release of the Remington 700 prompted Winchester to move to a push-feed action, which resulted in wailing and gnashing of teeth among Winchester fans. In the late '90s some 'classic ' model 70s were produced with full-length extractors, and today all Model 70s follow the original design. Rifles are still available in a variety of configurations, from varmint guns to dangerous game rifles.
Shown here in an A4 Sniper configuration, the M1903 Springfield saw service in World War I and, in a much more limited role (primarily in the hands of military snipers), during World War II. After the First World War, returning GIs recognized the Springfield's accuracy potential and durability and began sporterizing the rifle for field use. Hemingway carried one in Africa, and he actually preferred his Springfield in .30-06 to his double rifle for dangerous game. That certainly didn't hurt the gun's popularity, but it was readily available and affordable for U.S. sportsmen. It was also the first rifle chambered for the .30-06 Springfield, which has proven to be a pretty effective cartridge for big game. Springfields still pop up from time to time, and some of the early conversions offer a lot of rifle at a budget price.