The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 1: Fundamental Principles

Parts 1 and 2 were written to be one article, but 1500 words was too long for everyone except you (you were always the smart one, everyone else, not so much).

Over the last several years, one of the main focus points of my considerable mental powers (I have many, many, many admirable traits, the greatest of which is likely my considerable humility) is bolt work. This emphasis is probably due to coming from a background heavy in Appleseed and shooting AQTs. Time is a premium there, and a bolt gunner is at a disadvantage. I thought it would be neat to use a bolt gun without being at a disadvantage.

I’ve covered bolt work before, so why do it again? Basically the reason is that I understand what I’m doing better, and I think I’m a more betterer writer than I was then. Let’s get down to it.

There are several ways of working a bolt. I used to take the stance that none were really better than any of the others, and a person just needed to pick the one they liked and get good at it. Well, people can do what they like, and people of skill are impressive to watch regardless of the particular technique, but I’ve gotten to the point where I definitely think that the method I currently use is better.


There are some requirements that I think are necessary to produce optimum bolt technique. I believe that all of the following components are necessary to make it the best it can be. If one is missing, it can be still be very good, but I want the best I can get. The necessary major components, in no particular order, are 1.) efficiency, 2.) reliability, 3.) smoothness, and 4.) utilizing the natural movements of the body’s joints. Notice that I didn’t mention speed. Speed is simply a bi-product of correct technique correctly practiced.

1.) Efficiency

Wasted movement is wasted time. Efficiency means using the shortest path from point A to point B. Additionally, the fewest number of moving parts, and the smallest amount of effort that can be expected to produce reliable results should be used.

2.) Reliability

Stuff should work, not only machines, but the people who run them. I would be very interested to see a comparison of rifle malfunctions, round for round, of manual repeaters versus semi-autos. I have no data other than my own observations, but I would guess that the semi auto wins round for round.  Semi autos appear to malfunction more frequently, but they tend to put a lot more rounds downrange. When the bolt gun has a malfunction, the most likely cause is the operator, although there has never been a shortage of people who alter perfectly functioning rifles to make them something drastically other than what they were intended for.

The important thing is to make reliability a consideration when determining or evaluating your technique.  Is it conducive to working every time under normal operating conditions?  What if something goes wrong?  It’s important to note that reliability and efficiency can run counter to each other, because reliability often means redundancy often means redundancy.

3.) Smoothness

Smoothness, more often than not, is a bi-product of practice, but some movements inherently lend themselves more to smoothness than others. What I think makes the difference in terms of bolt work is mechanical advantage and the ability to smoothly increase the level of force and acceleration without upsetting any of the other elements of marksmanship or inducing other unnecessary movement. This is similar to a compressed surprise break being infinitely smoother than mashing the trigger down in a hurry.

4.) Natural Movement

Pick a joint, flex and extend it, and observe the movement. Hopefully what you see is an arc. That’s how most of the joints in the body that I can think of right now move. We have the ability to produce straight motions of body parts through complicated compound motions of several joints together, but I believe that these are inherently more difficult and work against the way human bodies are designed in comparison to using arc-like movements.

Another requirement for proper bolt technique that seems so obvious that I almost forgot to mention it is that while the bolt is worked, the rifle’s butt needs to stay planted in the shoulder, the cheek on the stock, and the eye still trying to look through the scope.  Nothing moves from where it was when the rifle was fired, unless the bolt throw is so long that you will cause serious injury to yourself by maintaining cheekweld.

Those are the general technical requirements of good bolt work as I see it. I believe that a technique that operates in accordance with those principles will, with practice, be fast and strong.

The next installment will bring a bit more specificity to the discussion.  Stay tuned…

4 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 1: Fundamental Principles

  1. Slightly off topic, but practicing with the action of any firearm could be critical. I find it interesting that many shooters who like semi-auto rifles also like pump action shoguns. The usual reason is the fear that the semi-auto shotgun might fail to chamber the next round in a self-defense scenario. Like you I suspect that a well maintained semi-auto action with quality ammo is round for round more reliable. Human error is almost always an issue and it is possible to short stroke a pump shotgun action. My goal as a firearms owner is to be proficient with any weapon I own. This means I need to restore my Dad’s old Winchester model 94 and get some practice with the lever action. Right now the only bolt rifle I have is a single shot (no mag) Benjamin air rifle. One of the great things about your blog is that you cover topics that others seldom touch on. Bolt work, or efficient use of any action, is one of those topics.

    • I’m surprised I never replied to this comment. My work schedule at that time was crazy, so that was probably it. I agree with your theory on semi autos vs manual actions in terms of probable round for round reliability.

      Thanks for the kind words about my blog.

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