July 30, 2020
By Layne Simpson
The first bolt-action rifles appeared in America and Europe during the late 1870s. They were of turn-bolt design, and it was not long before military powers began taking a serious look at making them faster to operate. Pulling the bolt straight back to eject a fired case and then pushing forward to strip a cartridge from the magazine and into the chamber for breech lockup proved to be the answer to increased firepower.
One of the first successful straight-pull designs was the Schmidt Rubin introduced by Switzerland in 1889. America’s first and only military rifle of that type was the Lee Straight-Pull of 1895 in 6mm Lee Navy. It saw action in the hands of the U.S. Marines during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Lee was manufactured by Winchester, and the Sporting Rifle version produced until 1916 probably made it the first straight-pull rifle intended for sport hunting rather than for war.
Moving forward about 130 years, we have a straight-pull marvel of German engineering called the Blaser R8. One of the big design differences between it and earlier straight-pull designs is its method of locking the bolt into battery for firing. The midsection of the bolt—or bolt head as Blaser calls it—consists of 14 narrow, spring-steel segments, each having a small integral lug on its forward end. Just in front of those is a solid section containing a recessed breech face with a sliding extractor and plunger-style ejector.
As the bolt is pushed into the deep barrel recess, a tapered wedge expands the segments outward, causing their lugs to engage a groove around the inner circumference of the barrel wall. The bolt is now at 360-degree lockup with the barrel. Retracting the bolt withdraws the wedge, allowing the segments to spring back out of lockup. A left-side bolt handle for southpaw shooters is an option.
A cleverly designed safety system allows the rifle to be carried with a cartridge in the chamber and the firing pin in the decocked position. In this mode the bolt assembly is locked to prevent unintentional movement should its handle snag on brush in the field. To fire the rifle, cock the firing pin by pushing forward on the safety slide at the rear of the receiver and then pull the trigger. Safety movement is noiseless, and while more push is required than for the safety slide on your double-barrel shotgun, it becomes easier with practice. Cycling the bolt automatically cocks the firing pin for each additional shot.
To decock the firing pin, press down on the rear of the safety slide and it will move to its rearward position. This can be done with the chamber loaded or empty. To remove a cartridge from the chamber without cocking the firing pin, push the slide forward about 1/8 inch and pull on the bolt handle.
Through the years I have accumulated several switch-barrel rifles, but the Blaser is a switch-everything rifle with bolt heads, barrels and magazines that can be interchanged to accept members of different cartridge families.
If you have an R8 with barrels in .223 Rem., .30-06, .375 H&H Mag. and .500 Jeffery, you’ll need four different bolt heads and magazines for them. On the other hand, if your barrels are in .25-06, .280 Rem. and .30-06, the rim and body diameters of those cartridges are the same, so you’ll need only one bolt head and one magazine for all of them.
Some of the cartridge groups are quite large. The Standard group currently consists of 21 different cartridges ranging from .22-250 to 9.3x62 Mauser. The Magnum clan includes the .264 Win. Mag., .300 Win. Mag., .458 Lott and a dozen others.
The R8 action consists of an aluminum frame with inner raceways that accept rails on a reciprocating bolt carrier. Cycling travel is a bit less than four inches, and the carrier glides to and fro like hot grease on glass.
Switching bolt heads is easy. First, remove the lower assembly from the rifle (more on this later). Pressing down on a latch at the right-hand side of the frame frees the bolt carrier for removal. While holding the carrier bottom-side up, use a fingernail or a small screwdriver to hinge the bolt head retention lever to its vertical position.
Rotating the bolt head a few degrees will free it for removal. With it removed, the end of the firing pin and its spring will be left dangling in midair, but don’t panic because they won’t drop out. Now push the replacement bolt head into the carrier, rotate it in the opposite direction, push the lever to its latched position and you are done. Left-side-eject bolt heads are available.
The entire trigger group, trigger guard and the magazine are contained by a removable lower assembly made of polymer. Using thumb and finger to press inward on wing latches at the sides of the frame drops the assembly into your hand. In other words, when you remove the magazine from the rifle the trigger comes with it.
To ease your mind about the lower assembly being accidentally ejected and lost in the field, Blaser has addressed this quite nicely. With the assembly in place, the bolt retracted and the scope removed, reach down in front of the magazine, slide a grooved tab to the rear and the unit is locked into place. Longer magazines may have to be removed to access the tab.
With the lower assembly removed, switching magazines is easy, but the procedure will vary a bit among the various cartridges. Hook a finger into the front of the magazine, press inward on its left-hand side with the thumb and lift it out. To install another magazine, insert its bottom into the housing and push downward until a pair of short posts on its side engage slots in the side of the housing. With the magazine in place, upward pressure is exerted on its bottom by a large, flat spring.
The magazine is polymer with markings indicating the cartridges it is designed for. The one for the rifle I shot is marked .308 Win, .243 Win, 6mm BR Norma, 6xC and 6.5x47 Lapua. The magazine can be top-loaded while it is in the rifle, but I found removing it to be faster. To ensure smooth feeding, the magazine holds the top cartridge in perfect alignment with the chamber.
The 3.5-inch-long, non-tapered chamber section of the barrel beds on a rock-solid insert in the stock, and from there on out it free-floats. A vertical recoil lug in the insert engages a transverse slot in the bottom of the barrel. To install the barrel, align a pair of all-thread headless bolts at the bottom of its chamber area with holes in the stock insert and use a supplied T-handle Allen wrench to tighten nuts held captive inside the stock insert.
Nothing else about the rifle has to be removed, so switching barrels takes about 30 seconds.
There are several passive safety features. If the lower assembly is removed while the bolt is forward and the firing pin is cocked, the firing pin will automatically decock. If a cartridge is in the chamber when that happens, it cannot be removed until the lower assembly is inserted. But since the firing pin was not cocked and the trigger was removed, the rifle is still on Safe. The bolt carrier cannot be removed until the lower assembly is detached.
The 2019 introduction of the .22 Long Rifle option makes the R8 more versatile than ever. From mice to mastodons, Blaser now has it covered. Coaxing the big R8 action into reliably feeding such a small cartridge was surely quite a challenge, but Blaser engineers pulled it off quite nicely.
Like the centerfire barrel, the breech end of the rimfire barrel is deeply recessed, but a long feed ramp along with a pair of spring-loaded plungers was added to guide the short .22 LR cartridge through empty space prior to reaching the chamber. It sounds complicated—and it is—but the rifle I shot worked to perfection.
The only bobble experienced was my fault. While rapid-firing at dirt clods on the target backstop from the standing position, I short-stroked the bolt, causing a fired case to bounce forward and wedge between one of the guide rods and the feed ramp. A small blade from my pocketknife easily extracted it.
The bolt head has dual-opposed extractors and a spring-loaded, blade-style ejector is located in the .22 magazine. Due to its unique design, the .22 magazine is longer than the .308 magazine, and since its length fills the housing, there is no room for reaching in and pulling upward when removing it. A hinged side makes doing so easy.
Because the cartridge has to be struck on the edge of its rim rather than in the center, the centerfire firing pin strikes an offset striker located in the bolt head. Design limitations required reducing the number of locking lugs to 10, but that’s more than enough to handle the .22 LR cartridge. Magazine capacity is six rounds, and loading requires detaching it from the rifle.
The hammer-forged barrel has a groove diameter of 0.223-inch, and its 1:16 twist is standard for the .22 LR cartridge. It and the .308 Win. barrel have the same length and contour, but the .22 weighs four ounces more due to less metal removed when it was bored, rifled and chambered.
Accuracy was quite good. Two loads averaged less than a half-inch for five, five-shot groups at 50 yards, and not a single one of the seven loads exceeded an inch. Speaking of small groups, the centerfire barrel did okay as well, as you can see in the accompanying table.
The Ultimate stock worn by the R8 test rifle has the same synthetic composition as the earlier Pro Success thumbhole stock, and it proved to be quite comfortable. Pressing a flush-fit button causes the spring-loaded comb to leap skyward, and it is adjustable for three different heights.
Extra-cost options include an internal recoil dampener and a recoil pad that’s adjustable for pull length as well as north and south movement for adjusting shoulder placement. The stock is available only in a right-hand version. Like everything else about the R8, buttstocks and fore-ends are easily switched.
The rifle had one of the best triggers I have pulled on a factory rifle. Ten pulls with Lyman digital scale ranged from 2.25 to 2.8 pounds for an average of 2.6 pounds. It was buttery smooth and totally without detectable creep or overtravel.
The R8 arrived with a rail-style Blaser 2.8-20x50mm scope in a quick-detach, saddle mount, and as we have come to expect from top-quality German glass, its optical quality left me breathless.
The mount attaches to opposing notches machined into the barrel. While testing the two barrels, I removed and reattached the scope several times, and it never failed to return to precise zero. And speaking of that, regardless of the number of times bolt heads and magazines were switched or a barrel was taken off and put back on, the rifle never strayed from its zero.
And I don’t mean it was just close; it came back to dead on the money each and every time. That along with the fact that you can buy an R8 today and buy another barrel with exact headspacing years from now says all that need be said of German precision.
How much faster in repeated aimed firing is the Blaser compared to a good turn-bolt rifle? One of the most fun comparisons I was part of took place in Finland where obtaining a moose license requires passing a shooting test.
The wheeled cardboard target has two full-size, back-to-back, head/neck/shoulder/rib cage areas of a bull moose with the nose of one pointed left and the other to the right. The target travels in both directions on steel tracks.
It is 80 meters away, and while I don’t recall how long it remains in view, the few seconds tick by rather quickly. The first shot is taken with the target standing still and the second is squeezed off as it is moving. Both bullets must be in a vital area and that has to be repeated successfully for three runs.
Plenty of ammo remained after the qualification period had ended, so several of us decided to see how many bullets we could place into the vital area when taking the first shot as the moose began moving rather than while it was standing still. Most of the rifles were Sako turn-bolts in .30-06 or .308 Win., but mine was in 9.3x62 Mauser.
A hunter from Germany had the only Blaser in the group. Only a few of us failed to get two vital hits, and once we got warmed up, we frequently got in three hits before the target disappeared behind cover. From the very beginning of our little game the owner of the Blaser was consistently getting in three hits. And quite often, she got in a fourth.
Blaser R8 Specs
- Type: Straight-pull bolt action
- Caliber: Numerous; .22 LR and .308 Win. tested
- Capacity: 6+1 (.22 LR), 4+1 (.308); detachable magazines
- Barrel: 22.75 in., cold-hammer-forged carbon steel; 1:16 (.22), 1:8 (.308) twist
- Overall Length: 40.375 in.
- Weight: 7.88 lb. (.22), 7.63 lb. (.308)
- Stock: Black synthetic thumbhole
- Finish: Matte blued
- Trigger: 2.6 lb. pull (measured)
- Sights: None; barrel machined for Blaser mount
- Price: $4,168 (rifle); $2,292 (.22 conversion)
- Importer: Blaser USA, blaser-usa.com
Blaser R8 Accuracy Results