Bolt Manipulation in the Offhand Position

Since were talking Offhand, and I run a bolt gun, it seems prudent to have a discussion on bolt manipulation.  Bolt action rifles have a special kind of elegance.  Another plus is that you don’t have to sit there waiting on the gas system to finish cycling (you’re going to have to get used to my sense of humor to recognize when I’m not being serious).

Not too many people are any good at running a bolt gun.  Maybe I just don’t run in the right circles, but you have to really spend some time on the internet to find anything impressive.  My real life experience has never brought me to a bolt guru.  I’m still working on getting good.  I consider myself “kind of okay” at present, right on the edge of acceptable.

My goal is to run my bolt such that I will not be at a disadvantage to a wussy semi auto shooter (again, I joke, please forgive).

In my carefully considered opinion, part of a bolt gunner’s follow through is cycling the bolt while maintaining visual contact with the target.  Why?

                                    -Basic Truth #1: You know you want to keep a round in the
                                                              chamber at all times (don’t try to fool yourself).

                                   -Basic Truth #2: Your ability to hit the target is dependent to
                                                              your ability to see the target.

                                    -Basic Truth #3: Sometimes one well aimed shot just isn’t enough.

In regard to #1, it’s an ideal.  It’s not possible to achieve, unless you never fired a round.  With practice, however, we can ensure that the chamber isn’t empty for more than 0.3-0.5 seconds.  #2 is self explanatory, but has to be paired with #3 for either of them to mean anything in context.  What they mean together, is that to achieve a follow up shot, should it be necessary, is that you are not going to squander precious time by doing something foolish like breaking your cheekweld or losing your eye relief while satisfying #1.

Bottom line: Bolt work must be automatic.  It must be efficient, and you need to keep your head planted and your eyes on target.  Follow through is complete when you are ready to break a second shot.

Another consideration is reliability.  You are more connected with the rifle system than with a semi, and bear more responsibility for reliable function.  A wimpy bolt cycle could jam up the works pretty good.  If you don’t get it all the way back, you may not get the spent case out before the bolt face is trying to grab a fresh round, and, bam!, you caused a double feed!!!  So don’t be coy when you grab that bolt.  It won’t break.  If it does then it deserved to.  Put a little verve into it!

Techniques:Notice that the article title is “Bolt Manipulation in the Offhand Position”.  The amount of reach you have changes depending on the position.  As I go over different positions that require a new explanation of bolt technique, I’ll do that.  Some of the videos of other shooters I reference are just talking about bolt technique in general.Here is a good video to start with on bolt manipulation.  It is by John McQuay, who is a former Marine Scout Sniper and owner of a tactical gear business, 8541 Tactical.  Check out his Tactical Ammo Burritos.  He references three techniques in the video.  What follows will refer back to them.  There will be an 80 question multiple choice exam, plus 2 essay questions at the end.  PAY ATTENTION :

What is referred to in the video as “grip it and rip it” is very fast.  I converted to it briefly after seeing this video:

The shooter in that video has, in my opinion, very fast bolt work.  I found that, in unsupported positions, that bolt technique was so quick and violent that it broke my visual contact with the target.  Maybe I didn’t practice it enough.  I ended up going back to my old technique, which is somewhat similar to the second method in the first video link.

Here are 2 videos followed by a detailed description of what I do:

Side View

Rear View

It begins with my index finger rising from the trigger and catching the bolt knob from beneath.  The firing hand is basically still in the shape of the firing grip with the trigger finger indexed.

The hand rises, causing the fingers to push the bolt up.  The thumb assists with this by pushing against where I rest it on the rear of the pistol grip.

As the bolt nears the top, the arc of the bending wrist is starting to head rearward.

The wrist bends upward to finish the rearward travel of the bolt.  It’s hard to tell in the picture, but the hand is almost vertical.  Note the thumb is close to the bolt knob, preparing to take over bolt control.

When the bolt hits the end of its rearward travel, the hand begins to move forward, bringing the thumb to the bolt knob.  The knob is between the thumb, index, and middle fingers.

The next phase is driven mostly by movement of the forearm moving everything forward.  You might let the wrist flex rearward to have a little more “snap” in reserve for the end.

Once the bolt can no longer move forward, the wrist snaps down, locking the bolt closed.

The firing hand then resumes its grip, trigger finger indexed, mind alert and assessing the situation.

It should feel as though the wrist is accomplishing most of the work through “springiness”.  The movement is like a smaller version of casting a fishing rod.  Another way to think about is like a whipping motion.  It’s all in the wrist.

Another way to think about the movement is like an arc, with the axis of movement at the wrist.   Use mostly wrist movement, especially to lift and lower the bolt, supplemented by a little forearm motion to move the bolt forward and back.  The way I’m describing the movement is, of course, step by step.  You will need to start slowly, but avoid the feeling of doing it by the numbers.  Each phase of the movement should flow into the next.  That’s why it helpful to think of it like an arc.  Keep it smooth.  You do not want the feeling of 1. Up,  2. Back,  3. Forward,  4. Down.

Something I have found that helps quite a bit is to apply pressure against the stock with the cheekweld to assist with leverage against the bolt and to keep the appropriate contact between cheek and stock.

When I work the bolt it doesn’t feel as quick as it looks when I watch the clip.  It feels easy, but I feel like I’m not moving quickly.  It gives me hope that there’s still some room for me to get faster.

My technique with the Remington is not quite as quick, probably adding another third of the time it takes on the Sako.  The bolt is just not as slick, and of course the bolt lift is 90° instead of the Sako’s 60°.

The third method is really super quick, especially getting from the trigger to the bolt, and vice-versa.  Here is John O. Ågotnes, apparently a very accomplished shooter, who uses that technique:

I love that shooter’s technique.  The split time is just under a second per shot, on average.  The disadvantage is that with a normal rifle, the firing hand is no longer free to pull the butt into the shoulder.  That shooter has enough sling tension so that he doesn’t need to pull at all.  Also notice that he moves his head slightly when he retracts the bolt.  That’s not preferable, but it’s better than hitting yourself in the cheek with the bolt shroud (if your a wuss).  Another thing to point out is that if you’re shooting with a sling like he is, you may not be able to reach forward far enough to use that technique.  There’s another bolt technique that I’ll cover later when we start slinging up.

Here is another shooter from the world of YouTube, who while faster, is not as smooth or accurate:

His split times seem to be at just under a half second.  While I did say that he’s not as smooth or accurate, I do appreciate what he’s doing, in that he’ll get smoother with practice, and that he did state that he wasn’t trying for accuracy.  Should you be so unlucky to find yourself with multiple targets at close quarters and a bolt gun in your hand, hopefully you will have this technique down.  It’s not a minute of angle technique, but probably minute of man.

To sum up, bolt work must be automatic.  It must be smooth.  It must be quick.  It must be hard.  Yes, still talking about rifles.

I’ll leave the final word to Col. Cooper.  “Bolt work must be vigorous.  Show it no mercy!” (Art of the Rifle, 19)

Find a method that works for you.  Take it to the range and report back.6/19/12 note:After about a year’s worth of work, I have improved to being what I consider “kind of okay”, right on the edge of acceptable.  Here’s a video of the current state of my technique with slow motion added:



8 thoughts on “Bolt Manipulation in the Offhand Position

  1. I should not be commenting so much on old posts like this…

    The video of the guy with the Enfield reminded me of the British soldier, Alfred Snoxall, who hit a 12″ target — at 300 yards — 38 times within a minute. Not bad shooting, I say.

    Your bolt work is both inspirational, and depressing, by the way.

    • First of all, thank you for letting me know about the dead link.

      I don’t think the guy with the Enfield was hitting anything, but the guy from Norway sure was, at about the same rate as Mr. Snoxall.

      I’m happy to have inspired and depressed you!

  2. I must agree with your basic truths. I truly enjoyed reading this post. I agree running the bolt with proper techniqe is something often over looked. The catch is this; if you are in a situation where there is a need for accurate shots in rapid succesion, a rifle with a manualy operated bolt is the wrong rifle. This is assumimg that the shooter has the luxory of choice. My “field rifle” is a semi auto. This doesn’t mean I have no use for a quality bolt action as I have two, and they both will hold half moa precision.

  3. Hey,

    I know this is an old post. But very informative. I hope one day to develop the technique necessary to reload with adequate speed. (note I am just working for adequate :).
    Those videos are inspirational and quite impressive.
    Here is a new video of good reloading technique that is what inspired me to get a bolt action.
    cheers, keep up the good work

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