The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 5: Advice and Practice Tips

I covered technique in Parts 3 and 4. Knowing the correct motions is helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to instant competency. Of course, persistent, deliberate, and purposeful repetition is what really develops competency. Repetition also imparts both knowledge and experience. What I would like to try to do in this article is pass on some of the knowledge and experience that I have gained through my own repetition. Hopefully this will offer you a shortcut in comparison to the path that I worked through.

What else is there to learn in other than pure technique? Let’s approach this from a new shooter’s perspective. New shooters tend to baby the actions of their firearms, whether that is manifested by working a pistol slide slowly and softly or gingerly working a bolt. New shooters tend to form themselves around the gun rather than using natural posture and movements (this tends to be true in most physical disciplines) and handling the rifle in a way that brings it into harmony with those elements.  So other than pure technique, there is a way and an attitude in handling firearms.

I apologize if the following descriptions are too ethereal or too analogy based. The problem is similar to that of trying to describe to you what an orange tastes like. I can’t be sure that you’re receiving what I intend to convey unless you actually taste one, but I can probably give you some idea of what to expect.

Don’t let the rifle intimidate you into operating it weakly.

Think of bolt work like punching someone who needs to be punched. If you’re under 25 you might have learned in public school that punching another person is wrong under any circumstances and you should probably go find a quilting blog instead (that was just a joke and not meant to offend serious quilters- you wouldn’t have taken it up if you were too much of a wuss to take a joke, right?). To effectively punch someone, you need to disregard the external borders of their body and the resistance it offers. You don’t punch their body, you punch into or through their body (I think optimal penetration for a punch is approximately 4” depending on the puncher’s build, so “into” is probably more technically accurate). This is one of those simple mental adjustments that makes the punch much more powerful.

The bolt will offer some resistance to being cycled. It only moves in the same boring rectangular motions. This often intimidates shooters into letting it bully them into weak bolt work. Well, you know what to do with a bully. Find the proper authorities and report it! Oh wait, that was for my quilting blog. You make a homemade knife, shank them, then break off the handle. Whoops, that was for my “prison yard living” blog (what can I say, I have many interests and areas of expertise). Let’s just say don’t let the bolt back you down. Not any more. Not this time!!! (cue song: “Holding Out for a Hero”).

Getting back on point, take a look at what the correct motion looks like and practice it in the air. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just want to get the idea of a smooth, whip-like motion. In fact, I would recommend not trying to get the details right, just sort of an “air guitar” version. Watch the full speed bolt work video and play along in the air without your rifle.

When you think you’re getting the feel of the correct motion, come back to your rifle and try to incorporate that feeling. Don’t let the resistance of cocking the striker alter what you’re doing. Just go through it. The same goes for stripping the next round from the magazine. The rifle was designed to be worked with sufficient force to overcome the resistance offered by it. Remember the words of Jeff Cooper: “Bolt work must be vigorous. Show it no mercy!” (Art of the Rifle, 19).

Use sufficient movement to operate the system- no more, no less.

I apologize if this point is confusing after I just basically told you “Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition: A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.”  Oh wait, that was my karate instructor back in Reseda.  No…, no, I remember now.  That was actually a movie.  I make that mistake all the time.

I just got done telling you not to baby your rifle. In the previous point I was referring to speed and appropriate force.  I this point I am talking about the distance of the movement. There is such a thing as too much.  In the punching analogy, too much is where you hyperextend your elbow which could injure you, or overextend your technique, which could create an opening for your opponent.  I wonder if too much movement was a contributing factor to the breaking of the bolt stop pin in my Sako.

There is a right amount of movement. Since you will be operating the bolt with power you need to make sure you don’t batter the mechanism. There will be times when you use too much movement and other times when you use too little. The point is to continue searching for that “right” amount.

The kinesthetic cue for changing the direction of bolt movement is the mechanical limit of the bolt travel. That needs to be felt before the direction of the bolt is changed, or else the rifle is likely to be short stroked. That is a hard and fast requirement. Remember also that while it needs to be felt, it doesn’t need to be hammered through. Don’t have the feeling of pulling your bolt rearward out of the action when working it, just have the feeling of working it correctly.  Walk the fine line of correct action and decline not, neither to the right hand nor to the left.

Work with your breathing.

Correct breathing is a key component of marksmanship. The rifle should be fired at the bottom of the breath. Working the bolt is not a part of marksmanship, but rather it is part of gun handling. Remember that what we’re looking for is efficiency. Remember also that you can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Why go to all the trouble of learning a lightning fast bolt throw if you still have to take the extra time to breathe afterward? That would be foolish. Inhaling during the bolt cycle is the number one thing you can do to speed up your actual split times. I have given this advice to a brand new shooter who showed up to an Appleseed with a bolt action rimfire. He made Rifleman. This is such a no brainer, but not too many people catch onto it.

To build correct technique, find the cues and exaggerate them.

Learning pistol reloads was frustrating. It was more frustrating after I saw how quickly the better shooters could get it done. One thing I learned that put me on track was that it really helped to pause just long enough to see the magazine’s orientation in relation to the magwell. It is counter-intuitive that pausing will increase your speed. It’s not the pause itself that helped, it’s that I learned to see what I needed to see.

There have been many instances in my thousands of repetitions of bolt cycles in which I have missed the bolt knob. It has been a low percentage, but it’s troubling. Recently, this problem was exacerbated by the change in ergonomics that came with the new stock. When I set myself on correcting the problem, somehow a connection formed in my mind, and I thought to pause to make sure I arrived at proper hand to bolt contact before continuing on with the bolt stoke. It helped immeasurably.

Don’t continue with the movement until everything is placed correctly.

Like a pistol draw, putting the correct part of the hand on the bolt knob prior to movement will ensure that the total movement is correct and flows into the next thing. Moving before correct contact made will set the shooter up for a botched cycling. I read of review recently of a Bob Vogel pistol class in which he made the point that rushing a draw before establishing a proper grip might save a small amount of time in the draw itself, but would result in a slower and less accurate overall stage performance. The same goes for the relative microcosm of bolt work.

The two phases in which proper contact must be established are on the initial approach of the hand to the bolt after follow through but prior to unlocking, and just after ejection at the transition of the bolt body from rearward to forward. On the first one, make sure that the fingers properly contact the bolt to ensure sufficient lift will be available. On the second, make sure that the thumb to bolt contact occurs sufficiently near to the base of the thumb to avoid losing contact with the bolt knob, which would send the bolt flying forward uncontrolled.

Please note that many of these points relate to practice. In real life there are times just to power through and get it done without concern for perfection.

On the relationship between smoothness and speed.

Before seeking speed one must acquire an abundance of smoothness. First of all, smoothness usually results in speed, but to really get faster sometimes smoothness needs to be momentarily compromised to a degree. I believe there is a correct range of proportion for maintaining smoothness vs. pushing speed. An obscure analogy would be a comparison to the game of Go. Acquire sufficient territory (smoothness) before capturing enemy pieces (speed). I’m sure everyone reading this will rush to learn the game of Go now. It’s actually an interesting game of strategy. I like it because I can still crush everyone in the house at it. No one else likes it because such pleasure in mercilessly crushing them. I’ll throw out a number for those of you who foolishly disregard the game of Go. Let’s call it 85% smoothness and 20% speed (you think I’m going to waste my time on good math for non Go players?).

If that paragraph was not sufficient for you, I wrote an article that gets at the same topic.  Click me.

To get your speed really going, practice a related skill under time stress.

I have had the most success making my bolt work quick and smooth while working on snapshooting under time stress, specifically when using a metronome or when practicing dry fire snapshots on live critters. Once you have put a few thousand reps into specifically practicing mechanics, take your mind off them and you will likely see a dramatic improvement. The will to accomplish a purpose often trumps the desire for refinement.

This leads to the following point: to be operate correctly at appropriate speed, bolt work needs to be outside the purview of the conscious mind.

As I said before, there really is no substitute for repetition. Work hard. I hope that this article has helped you to work smart, which hopefully will hasten your development. Thanks again for reading.

I have one last installment ready for next time.  Yes I am serious.




10 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 5: Advice and Practice Tips

  1. For those who are contemplating, learning to play Go will not serve to make RS’s analogy any less obscure. Who woulda thunk?

    Seriously though, Go is a pretty fantastic game. The rules of gameplay are incredibly simple, but the strategy is incredibly complex. You have to learn to accurately anticipate, forestall, plan, and adapt several turns in advance, which is a good skill to learn for…just about every other discipline, really, including most applications of marksmanship, I’d say.

  2. Howdy there RS – really enjoying this series of articles. But I’ve just realised that all this time I’ve been reading the wrong blog – can you give us the link to your quilting blog? You don’t have any finger-knitting tips on there per chance?

    cheers mate, keep up the good work,

    • Hi Jonno (Top Bloke)!

      It’s been a long time mate. The quilting blog, being much closer to my heart, has a lot more content and tutorial type stuff. There are no links. You don’t go to it… it comes to you.

      Funny, I thought that being from Australia that the “prison yard living” blog would be right up your alley 🙂



      • Oh, I’ve been here all along, just haven’t had a lot to say (actually I just find it hard to type while I’m finger knitting).

        Re: the “prison yard living” blog – Haha, good call! But seriously, all that stuff’s behind me now – learning to finger knit during my last stint in the big house took all the aggro out of me – I’m a changed man mate. Working up to transition to quilting is my goal now. On a side note – a lot of what you have to say on bolt work carries over well to crocheting.

  3. “This leads to the following point: to be operate correctly at appropriate speed, bolt work needs to be outside the purview of the conscious mind.”

    Ditto on that. I have spent considerably more time working on my techniques with the pseudo-Scout (bolt), and the “Working Man’s Whitetail Rifle” (Marlin shorty), in the last year. Had the opportunity for some range time yesterday, and was gratified with live rounds in the chambers every cycle, which I consistently completed without noticing that I was doing so. What was that? Practice begets consistency?

    I’ll have to give your bolt technique a try. It may be an old dog/new tricks deal though.

    • Hi Larry.

      What technique are you using? You might consider waiting until after hunting season to play with new techniques, but you know what you’re doing.

      Did you have to travel for range time?


  4. On the bolt I’m using the standard thumb and index finger grasp. I’m up for some experimentation but , as you note, won’t change anything until after hunting. Especially with the bucks that are hanging around this year.

    I had to travel to do range time. Mostly I was just verifying zeros in anticipation for hunting. I managed one pretty good group at 200 yards, the maximum distance available where I shot, with the scout.

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