The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 2: Specific Theory

In applying the general requirements to bolt work as outlined in Part 1, there are some considerations to be made even before illustrating any specific technique. In my case, I have tried several ways of working the bolt, each time thinking it was possible that the technique de jour could end up being the best. What I am saying is that my level of inherent irrational bias towards any particular technique is comparatively low. While I would like to say that I arrived at my current technique through rational application of principles, that is not the case. Instead, the best I can do is to explain what principles seem to underlie the superiority of the technique that works the best.

Why grasp when a fixed, linear movement of a known direction is all that is required?

If you put a bolt action rifle in the hands of any human who was unfamiliar with the operation of a rifle and told them to operate the bolt, they would, in all likelihood, begin by grasping the knob between the thumb and at least one finger, most likely the index finger. I think that is the reason that the “grip it and rip it” method is popular. It lends itself to the primal urge to grab things. Note that this is not always the correct impulse, as new shooters also tend to automatically place their fingers on the trigger until training the impulse away.

When you push a car, do you need to grab the bumper? No, a flat hand against the rear of the vehicle will do. That’s because the intended direction of the vehicle, from the perspective of the pusher, is forward, and the job of the pusher is only to push. Is working a bolt so different? It only moves in one direction at a time, and that direction is limited by the constraints of the mechanism. Grabbing serves no purpose over pushing with an appropriate surface of the hand for whichever direction is necessary. Grabbing, in fact, is inefficient.

If grabbing will increase reliability it is worth entertaining. The question that comes to mind in that case is, “Is there a way to match the reliability of grabbing in manner that’s more efficient?”

On maintaining a fixed point of reference to increase reliability.

When the bolt work occurs quickly, it happens so quickly that it’s very difficult to track the movement in real time. When it happens best, the most one can register from it is a sensation of how it feels, which is often not very indicative of what actually happens. When things happen that quickly, the odds of everything moving to precisely the right spot depend heavily on how many correct repetitions of the movement have already been performed. There is something else that can make the movements more reliably accurate. That thing is having a trained service animal with you. Wait, wrong blog. That thing is keeping part of the hand attached to a fixed location until good contact with the correct part of the bolt is made.

When I played lead guitar in a metal band in the 90’s, I used the technique of maintaining a fixed reference point. Thrash metal is fast, frequently in excess of 200 beats per minute in tempo. Sixteenth notes are the norm, which equates to 800 notes per minute, sometimes faster. When you factor in crossing strings at that speed it really helped me to keep my 3rd and 4th fingers of my right hand (picking hand) touching the guitar when I played.

In bolt work, I use my thumb as that fixed anchor as a point of reference. I place it on the rear of the pistol grip, just behind the receiver tang. This, I hope, also keeps it neutral if there should be any unintended contraction of the hand during the trigger press. Because the thumb is now a reference point, it makes sense that care should be taken to ensure that it consistently is accurately placed in the same spot every time.

Side trip… I continue to discover how demanding shooting a rifle is in terms on consistency and repeatability. Any of the shooting sports at a high enough level demand an insane amount of consistent precision, but I think that the rifle inherently demands more than any other. The rifle stretches out one’s effective range beyond that of the pistol or shotgun. You have one projectile with which to hit the target. Every detail matters. Back to your regularly scheduled programming…

On the benefit of a fulcrum.

There can be some resistance to the movement of the bolt, particularly in the cocking phase of the movement. With most rifles, cocking occurs during the unlocking phase of the bolt, which is the first movement of the bolt knob, when it is lifted up. Primary extraction also occurs during this motion, which is when the bolt has the most leverage on the case and moves it slightly to the rear. The difficulty of the upward movement also depends on the strength of the firing pin spring, the overall design of the bolt (60º lift vs. 90º lift, the angle of the camming surface, etc…), and whether the case is stuck in the chamber at all.

Sufficient force must be developed to overcome the resistance of the bolt. Using the thumb as a fulcrum with which to brace the rest of the hand’s movement can be very helpful, much more so than allowing the hand to operate freely out in space.  Another benefit of bracing the thumb against the stock while initiating bolt movement is that both the action and reaction are put into the rifle, and largely cancel each other out instead of imparting movement to the rifle as a whole.  In other words, the upward movement of the bolt won’t affect your sight picture as much because the downward pressure of thumb to rifle negates the movement of the rifle to a large degree.

Find the sweet spots of the hand to contact the bolt knob.

The best spot of the hand to contact the bolt knob depends on the shooter and the rifle. One thing to keep in mind is that closer seems to be stronger, meaning that using a part of the finger closer to the hand seems to be more powerful and less prone to the technique failing in some way. On the other hand, getting closer probably means inducing more movement during the technique, which can compromise efficiency. Finding the sweet spot means striking a balance between efficiency and power.

It’s clear that bolt manipulation, like life in general, is a mix of competing and equally compelling interests that need to be correctly balanced to promote proper function and harmony.

In the next installment there is a much greater likelihood that there will be pictures so the Reddit reader can get an inkling of what’s going on.  Thanks for reading.

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