Updated: Nov 16, 2022
With looming assault weapons bans across many states and the threat of a federal ban, many rifle shooters are looking into bolt-action rifles as an alternative. Bolt action rifles have been around for well over a century, and they’re still incredibly useful today.
In addition, long range rifle shooting competitions have been growing substantially in popularity over the last few years. What’s more, there are few rifle platforms better for hunting than a reliable bolt-action.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about bolt-action rifles so you can get your feet wet with these incredibly accurate and dependable rifles. We’ll explore the basics of bolt action, some history, different calibers, optics, and some popular brands and models.
If you’ve been thinking about getting into bolt-action rifle shooting or you’re looking for an alternative to an AR platform, you’re in the right place!
What Is a Bolt-Action Rifle?
Bolt action rifles are a modern rifle platform that traces its roots back over 100 years. While the bolt-action is a simple and older design, it’s still widely used to this day by police, military, and recreational shooters all over the world.
Once the shooter manually moves the bolt forward to chamber the round, the rifle is ready to shoot. After a round is fired, the shooter operates the bolt action until the magazine must be reloaded.
Due to a small number of parts and the easy operation of a bolt-action, they are incredibly reliable. In addition, bolt actions provide a very firm seat for chambered rounds, which leads to improvements in accuracy.
By today’s standards, bolt action rifles are utilized as a precision rifle platform for the intended use of superbly accurate shooting, even at extreme distances. Military snipers, long range competition shooters, and hunters all trust their success to bolt action rifles, so they have certainly proven their worth.
The Mauser Action That Started It All
All modern bolt-action rifles can trace their origins to what’s known as the Mauser action. In the late 19th century, German brothers Peter and Paul Mauser designed many firearms, the most famous of which is the bolt-action Mauser rifle.
The Mauser action was the first successful design for a bolt-action rifle and is the same mechanism that bolt-action rifles use to this day. The Mauser 98 was the first widely successful design that was used by many militaries worldwide. Since then, the Mauser action has been copied and tweaked, but has ultimately remained the same after over a century.
This just goes to show how great bolt action-rifles really are. After all this time and all the advancements in technology, they’re still just as relevant and don’t show any signs of going away.
Popular Calibers for Bolt-Action Rifles
Bolt-action rifles are available in just about every caliber you can imagine. Because bolt guns have been around for so long, many different calibers have been used with them.
These days, there are a handful of calibers that are the most popular due to their performance and success on the commercial market. Broken down by category, these calibers include:
Rimfire Calibers: .22 Long Rifle, .17 HMR, .22 Magnum
These rimfire calibers use small projectiles and offer little to no recoil. Although their range is limited, these calibers are great for target practice and small game hunting.
Straight Walled/Pistol Calibers: .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .450 Bushmaster, .350 Legend
These calibers have gained popularity in recent years for bolt action rifles due to caliber restrictions that are present in many state’s deer hunting regulations. While in the past hunters were limited to inaccurate shotgun slugs, these calibers provide a lighter shooting and much more accurate capabilities for deer hunting.
Small Bore Calibers: .223, .270, .243
These calibers have been popular for many decades with bolt action rifles, especially for deer hunting. Although they are a smaller bore size, these fast-moving calibers can be extremely accurate and effective for deer sized game with little felt recoil.
Larger Bore Calibers: .308, 6.5 Creedmoor, .30-06, .300 Win Mag
With a larger bore size and more powder behind it, these popular calibers have been used in bolt action rifles for decades. These calibers provide additional stopping power for larger game such as elk and are capable of some serious long-range accuracy.
Short vs. Long Action
When getting into bolt-action rifles, one thing you’ll notice is the discussion of short and long action cartridges. To put it simply, whether a rifle is a short or long action depends on the length of the cartridge its chambered in.
Long Action = Cartridges that are over 2.8 inches in length, but less than 3.34 inches. .30-06 is a common long action cartridge.
Short Action = Cartridges that are under 2.8 inches in length but over 2.3 inches. .308 is a common short action cartridge.
What are known as magnum action cartridges are also present, but these are much less common, so we’ll focus on long and short action cartridges.
There are advantages and disadvantages for both long and short action cartridges. Ultimately, shooting long or short action often comes down to personal preference, but the key differences include:
Short Action – Pros: Low recoil, faster reloading, more lightweight rifles. C
ons: Smaller bore size capabilities, limited range.
Long Action – Pros: Increased range capabilities, larger bore size possibilities. Cons: Higher recoil, larger/heavier rifle platform.
Although a general overview, these differences between long and short action should give you a good place to start. Its not so simple to say that one is better than the other, that will just depend on what you’re trying to accomplish with your bolt-action rifle.
Bolt Action Rifles for Long Range Shooting
A competitive sport that’s exploding in popularity all over the U.S. is long range shooting. These competitions test the capabilities of the rifle and shooter to see who is the most accurate at distances up to and more than 1000 yards.
That’s some serious distance, even for modern rifles. To accomplish that level of precision shooting, you’ll most certainly need a quality bolt action rifle and capable riflescope.
With advances in technology for rifle cartridges and a wealth of rifle choices, long range shooting is becoming more accessible to the average firearms enthusiast.
One of the most popular calibers for recreational long-range shooting is the 6.5 Creedmoor. This short action cartridge was specially designed for long range shooting, so if you want to get started with this activity, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a great place to start.
Pistol Caliber Bolt-Action Rifles
Aside from more powerful true rifle caliber bolt actions, growing in popularity are pistol caliber and straight walled cartridge rifles.
This is due in part to cartridge restrictions in deer hunting regulations for many states. After decades of being limited to poorly accurate shotgun slugs, many states have allowed pistol or straight walled cartridges for deer firearms seasons.
States such as Delaware allow deer hunting with straight walled pistol cartridges, but only in areas south of the Chesapeake and Delaware canal, check out our full article about Delaware straight walled pistol cartridge deer hunting. For example, .357 Magnum bolt action rifles such as the Ruger 77/357 may be used.
If you’re an avid deer hunter in a state that only allows these pistol cartridges, its more than worthwhile to consider a pistol caliber bolt-action rifle. These rifles are much more accurate and have far less recoil than a shotgun slug to be sure.
Optics and Mounting for Bolt-Action Rifles
Unless you plan to use an old surplus rifle or just prefer to use iron sights, you’re going to need some type of optic for your bolt action rifle.
Optics for bolt actions, also known as riflescopes, can have magnification as little a 2x, to as much as over 40x magnification. Many modern riflescopes have variable magnification, the most common being a 3-9x.
When choosing an optic, you’ll also want to consider the diameter of the objective lens. The larger the diameter of the lens, the more light it will collect resulting in a clearer view. At the same time, you’ll want to make sure the riflescope isn’t too cumbersome for the size of your rifle. The most common lens diameters are between 24 and 50 millimeters.
Along with a riflescope, mounting hardware will also be necessary. Most modern bolt-action rifles are drilled and tapped for scope mounts, so you will first need picatinny scope bases. Next. You’ll need scope rings, which should match the diameter of your scope tube and be high enough to leave room for the objective lens.
An improperly mounted scope, base, and/or rings will severely limit your accuracy and will limit the ability to zero your rifle properly. If you don’t know how to properly mount a riflescope, make sure to have it done by a reputable gunsmith.
Popular Bolt Action Rifle Models and Brands
There are many brands and models of bolt-action rifles available today. However, there a few brands and models that are popular due to their performance and overall quality. These include:
Remington 700 – Probably the best-selling bolt-action rifle of all time. The Remington 700 is available in many styles and calibers, so there’s something for everybody.
Savage 110 – Another titan among the best and most widely produced bolt-action rifles. The Savage Model 110 is available in many calibers and is renowned for its out of the box accuracy and dependability.
Weatherby Mark V – Weatherby makes some of the finest bolt-action rifles available,
and the Mark V is their flagship model that has been popular for many years. Along with some common calibers, the Weatherby Mark V is also available in many Weatherby designed cartridges you won’t be able to find with other rifle brands.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. There are many great bolt action rifles available today. Honorable mentions go to the Ruger American and Savage Axis line of rifles. These rifles offer an exceptional value because they are capable right out of the box, yet very affordable.
Bolt action rifles are just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. The timeless design knows no equal when it comes to accuracy and dependability. Whether you’re looking to get into long range shooting, need a new deer rifle, or just want to try out a bolt-action for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.
We hope this article has helped clear some confusion about what bolt-action rifles are, how they’re used, and some common examples and brands of rifles and optics. Now that you’ve got all the information, don’t hesitate to get your first bolt gun and have some fun on the range or in the deer woods!