Bolt Gun Buyer's Guide
May 27, 2014
Henry Ford said you could have a Model T in any color so long as it was black, and once upon a time that was the general feeling about purchasing a new hunting rifle. The local gun shop had two or three guns from which to choose, and that was about all the options you had. Sure, if you lived by a big gun shop, you had more choices, and the very rare, highfalutin hunter owned a custom rifle, but for the bulk of middle-class America, your choice in rifles was like your choice in prom dates: You took what was available and attainable.
Today, however, there are tons of bolt action rifles on the market, and obtaining the gun you want is easier than ever. You can pour over spec sheets, read reviews, watch videos, order online, accessorize and outfit your new bolt-action with everything you need. Gone are the days of walking into the gun store, pointing at a rifle and saying, "I'll take that and two boxes of whatever ammo it fires."
Before you buy a new rifle it's best to know what options are available and have a basic understanding of how these options benefit the consumer. Some components, like improved triggers and glass-bedded actions, help improve accuracy. Other options affect cost; an injection-molded synthetic stock is going to be less expensive than a hand-laminated composite stock, and a really high-grade custom walnut stock can raise eyebrows with its good looks as well as its price tag. The rifle that fits your needs and budget is out there, but it's important to know the options that exist.
The two primary classes of bolt guns are push feed and controlled round feed (CRF), and both have their advantages. Several early bolt actions like the Mauser
98, the Springfield
03 and the original Winchester
Model 70 employed large claw extractors that 'œcontrolled' the cartridge and offered an extra measure of assurance when extracting spent cases. Push-feed actions lack the large claw extractor, and they normally employ a plunger-type ejector instead of a fixed blade. The dangerous game crowd has always favored the security of the full-length claw extractor, and there has been much written about the advantages of carrying a CRF rifle when hunting dangerous game. Push feed actions are simpler, more common, and, generally speaking, more economical. The Kimber
84 and the new Winchester Model 70 utilize CRF actions, and the Remington
Mark V and Nosler
48 employ push-feed designs.
Barrels: Once again, if you buy a straight production gun, you'll likely have no choice regarding barrel length, contour and rate of twist. Most hot magnums like the .264 Winchester Magnum and the various Weatherby Mags are going to require a longer pipe to achieve optimal results, and that extra length adds weight to your rifle. Mountain rifles typically have thinner, lighter barrels, and bench rest rifles have heavier tubes. One important item of note is the rate of twist of your rifle barrel. In most cases, the standard rate of twist in a production rifle barrel will serve the hunter well, and most twist rates are designed around the most common weight of ammunition for that particular caliber. There are, however, exceptions; some 6mm rifles have faster twist rates (such as 1:9, or one twist per nine inches of barrel). These fast-twist barrels will do better stabilizing heavier bullets for big game hunting, but if you want to use a very light bullet for varmints, you'd be better served with a slower twist rate in your barrel.
The battle between push feed and controlled round feed actions never seems to end, but the diameter of the bolt body also has an impact on the mechanics of your rife. The original Mausers and Winchesters utilized bolts that were smaller in diameter than their locking lugs, and there was consequently a fair amount of slop when working the bolt. Other rifles like the Weatherby Mark V have larger bolts that are the same diameter as their locking lugs, which provides a smoother bolt throw. Rifles with fat bolts and more than two locking lugs (the Weatherby has nine) offer a shorter bolt lift. Whereas many traditional bolt guns require a 90 degree lift to allow the bolt to be moved rearward (watch your knuckles), 'œfat bolt' guns typically have a bolt lift around 60 degrees or, in the case of the Mark V, even less. That means faster follow-up shots.
Once upon a time this wasn't a consideration, but today there are many options. Blued rifles are usually the most inexpensive, but they don't resist corrosion as well as rifles with tougher finishes. Several years ago, the only option was to buy a stainless steel rifle, but these days there are lots of finish and color choices. CZ's
has been nitro-carburized, which aids in corrosion resistance and hardens metal. Another popular option is Cerakoting, which is the application of a ceramic-based coating that prevents corrosion, and there are many color options available. The new Weatherby Vanguard Series 2 Back Country rifle
is an example of a rifle that comes standard with a Cerakote finish.
Most bolt-action hunting rifles today wear some type of optic, but if you prefer hunting with iron sights, there are plenty of options. Ruger
and other companies still offer hunting rifles with adjustable iron sights. Most shooters, however, will opt for a scope or some other type of optic. Many rifles, such as the Remington 700
, Winchester Model 70
and Weatherby Mark V
come with receivers that are drilled and tapped for scope mounts. Ruger's Hawkeye
comes with a receiver that is machined to accept the supplied rings, which simplifies the mounting process. CZ's 550
comes with integral dovetail mounts machined into the receiver as well. Other rifles, like Mossberg's MVP line
, come with Picatinny rails for mounting optics.
There are a variety of safeties that perform in different ways. Some are tang mounted, and some sit on the side (usually the right side) of the receiver. The Weatherby Mark V
, for instance, has a two-position safety that offers Direct Striker Intervention. The Model 70
has a wing-style, three-position safety that allows for loading and unloading in the middle position while the safety is still engaged. Most European rifles currently in production, however, have safeties that also cock and de-cock the rifle, such as the Blaser
R8 and the Steyr
SM12. On the SM 12, which I tested last year, sliding the tang-mounted safety forward into the FIRE position also cocks the rifle, and when the safety is engaged, the rifle is de-cocked, preventing you from carrying a cocked rifle when you're not ready to fire.
Depending on how much you're spending on your rifle, you might or might not have a lot of options here. If you're sticking to the low-priced budget guns, you will likely have fewer choices. One of the ways that rifle companies have been able to charge four or five hundred bucks for a sub-MOA gun is by selling it with an inexpensive injection-molded (IM) stock. There's nothing wrong with injection-molded stocks at all, (and, by the way, these aren't really synthetic stocks) but you're going to have to live with a few things if you go that IM route. First, most IM stocks don't have aluminum pillar bedding. Second, many injection-molded stocks sound like a drum when you bang them against trees and rocks because they're hollow (I find the body of an IM stock to be a good place to stuff all the tube socks my grandmother bought me over the years that I never wore; it deadens the sound and grandma will never have to know). True synthetic stocks are actually composites, and they often have bedding blocks and aluminum pillars. Output is slow, and the cost is higher than IM stocks. Wood stocks range from cheap to outrageously expensive, depending on the grade of the wood and whether or not the stock is custom fit or custom made. Wood is, well, wood, and it's not as impervious to the elements as similar IM and synthetic stocks, and drastic changes in temperature and humidity can cause wooden stocks to warp.
The very first centerfire rifle I ever shot was a custom lightweight sporter in .300 Weatherby Magnum. I was thirteen, weighed about a hundred and fifteen pounds, and the recoil was vicious. With regard to rifle weight, less isn't always better. You'll need to balance the rifle's weight with your own needs. Mountain rifles need to be light, and light guns are a joy to carry, but they increase the impact of recoil. Heavy rifles help dampen recoil, but they're a bear to tote on long treks in steep country. Stock fit, size and experience all affect your ability to absorb recoil and place the bullet where you want it to go, so finding the right rifle weight depends largely on personal tastes. If the rifle is too light and the recoil is too great, you won't shoot the gun well. If the gun is far too heavy, you might not make it up the mountain at all.
Bedding & Recoil Lugs
When a rifle is fired, the barrel vibrates, and for optimum accuracy these vibrations need to remain consistent. To achieve this in the most cost-effective manner possible, most modern production rifles are free-floated, which means the barrel doesn't contact the forearm (you've likely seen the photos of rifles with a dollar bill between the forearm and the barrel as a visual reference to this). Glass bedding is another option, and it's more expensive and complex, but the result is very consistent barrel vibration if the job is done correctly. There are other methods of bedding rifles, but these are the two most common fixes. The goal of rifle bedding is the same no matter which method you choose, and the end results are usually pretty good. Recoil lugs are designed to absorb the impact of the recoil and to prevent the stress of recoil from damaging the rifle. This is a key component on all rifles, and a good recoil lug improves accuracy and prevents the impact from damaging the rifle, which is a particular concern when shooting big bores.