One constant since the beginning of this blog has been that I have used a bolt action rifle almost exclusively. My first concept of the blog was to use a bolt gun as a one gun to do it all. I found out that my range of interest was included things that were too specific to be handled by a general “do it all” rifle.
I don’t think I was ever in denial that my fondness for bolt guns has been, in general, as much of an affectation as something borne of practical necessity. Something about the manual operation of a bolt action rifle made it more of a challenge that seemed worthwhile to accomplish, and something in my mind thought it would be cool to be able to be good enough that the manual operation wouldn’t put me at a disadvantage. I also thought that the operation and the limited capacity would force me to slow down and make each shot count for as much as I could.
I feel confident in my ability to cycle the action that it’s not really an issue any more. I also believe that ARs in .308 have gotten sufficiently precise and reliable to handle anything that I would be interested in using for cartridges up to and including the .308. That frees me up to have a less biased approach to action type.
The bolt action has certain attributes that make it useful in some ways. It is simpler and in many ways stronger than most semi autos. It’s a little more cut and dried to reload for, as you can worry about what the barrel likes instead of also having to worry about what cycles the gun correctly. It can be lighter than the semi auto due to the lack of a gas system and the accompanying parts. Lock time is usually a lot faster. Traditionally bolt guns have been more accurate, though this advantage has diminished to the point where in practical terms it’s probably meaningless. Where the bolt gun still rules is with cartridges that are bigger than the .308 family. If you need a lot of power, the bolt gun is still the way to go. Of course there are exceptions like the Barrett, but I have to live in the world where I can afford things.
On the other hand, there are disadvantages to the bolt action. A significant one is capacity and ease of reloading (changing mags). Currently most bolt action rifle hold four or five rounds in the magazine, and most of the time the magazine is internal and needs to be topped off via inserting single rounds into the action. Before the proliferation of scopes, it was pretty simple to use stripper clips to top off the rifle. The was relatively quick and practical. Stripper clips are cheap, there are no real springs to wear out, as in a magazine, so they can be left “loaded” indefinitely, and they are lighter than box mag. Conventional scope mounting made this unworkable, so now we have box magazines, which to me seem like an improvement. With a box mag the bolt action is limited to 5 to 10 rounds in most cases.
The conventional wisdom is that bolt actions are more reliable than semi-autos. From an engineering standpoint this is probably undeniably true. The problem is that the bolt action places the user, which I think is limited to humans, in an integral role to the function of the rifle. I’ve read a lot about instances of user induced short stroking. I have personally short stroked my rifle. Just after I repaired the broken bolt stop pin in the Sako I short stroked the rifle several times, likely trying to baby the action. I have read about numerous instances of misfires with the Remington 700. Gunsmith Charlie Milazzo has said that this is probably the result of the bolt not being completely locked before the trigger is pressed. I have done this myself, though not in a long while. Problems like this tend to be exacerbated when the user is under stress and does not have sufficient practice in their bolt work. With my current rifle, the absent FN (stuck in a gunsmith time warp), I have short stroked it once, and have had several magazine related malfunctions (perhaps 5) in just under 3000 rounds. One of my mags is on an older FN design and the springs don’t work well for very long.
Where an AR has more complexity in operation, more of its function is removed from control of the user. A properly set up AR should run a thousand rounds without cleaning. I have personally only run an AR carbine 500 rounds without cleaning. I don’t think I would ever even consider running a bolt gun for that long between cleanings, though expectations of precision in the platform play into cleaning schedules. I still think it would be interesting to compare stoppages in a bolt action and semi auto in a large scale study in which user error was allowed as a cause of the stoppage. The big difference is that the AR must be properly set up, while with the bolt action the user must be properly trained. One is easier than the other, though I don’t know that easier necessarily means better.