The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 6: Avoiding Problems and Pitfalls

Even when one has sufficient information on a topic and is well on the right track to gaining real proficiency in execution of a skill, problems will still arise that need to be fixed. When the shooter is operating at a higher level, these problems can be extremely difficult to become aware of on one’s own, and finding a knowledgeable partner can also be challenging. I’m going to share some of the things I have had, and in some cases continue to have problems with that I would not have known about unless I was documenting my shooting for the blog.

On maintaining cheekweld.  No, really maintaining cheekweld.

You remember that proper bolt work must occur without disturbing the position of the head, and even without breaking cheekweld. These factors should be trained to remain completely unaffected by working the bolt. What’s not so obvious is actually detecting the movement. There are two sources of this movement that I have noticed. The first is obvious to the shooter in most cases, which is actively taking the head up to look downrange or dodging the bolt. I’ll call this “active movement”, as although it’s incorrect, the shooter forms an intention to do it and manifests that intention.

The second source of unwanted head movement is difficult to detect without watching video or having a partner (except you’ll think they’re lying) to expose it for you. This movement occurs when the body must contort somehow to allow the hand to work the bolt. Consider unsupported prone with the sling. The firing side elbow holds up part of the body’s weight. To reach the bolt it’s often necessary to move the elbow. To move the elbow something else needs to take the weight that the elbow was just supporting. Back muscles are good for this. Contraction of the back muscles has a tendency to cause the neck muscles to contract sympathetically, which will move the head back, and away from the scope.

The following video shows an example of unintentional disruption of the cheekweld during bolt manipulation:

I assure you that in all the practice I did slung up in prone working the bolt leading up to that almost 2 year old video, I did not notice that I was breaking my cheekweld.  In fact, my perception was just the opposite, and I believed I was maintaining a sight picture. After I knew the movement was there it was apparent to me, but it took a detached perspective for me to realize it.

How do you fix such a thing? Just stop doing it would be the simplest answer. Easier said than done, but so is everything worth doing, except for working a bolt apparently (for all these articles so far, I have 10 pages, single spaced [even between paragraphs], 11 size font).

Don’t miss!

I already touched on correcting the problem of missing the bolt knob during the initial approach to it. Exaggerate and pause the moment of correct contact before proceeding with the movement. This needn’t be done every time, from here to eternity, but it works very well for establishing “muscle memory” and to freshen up the technique occasionally.

Maintaining proper focus.

It’s a given that the eyes should continue to be directed through the sights downrange during bolt manipulation. At least I think it is. I’ll think on it and correct myself if I find merit to doing otherwise. Proceeding on the assumption that it is correct, I noticed recently that my eyes might not be staying true.

I ended up with a hundred or so pictures of different stages of me in various stages of performing four or five bolt cycles. This was a continuous (full auto) press of the shutter button, and contained all the time between cycles. Out of each cycle I would typically get three photos, and I had to combine photos for different cycles to produce a meaningful photo montage for Part 3 of this series. For the most part my eye remained looking through the scope, but I noticed several photos in which my eye would look away, sometimes to the bolt knob, other times somewhere else.

There might be a few explanations for this. The eye naturally moves constantly collecting information for the brain to form an image, even though the person doesn’t perceive it. So it could be that I’m gathering information to form a more complete picture of my surroundings at little or no detriment to my picture through the scope.

It could also be that I’m distracted by something. I was in the process of demonstrating a particular technique for photographs that I was aware would later be open to public view from at least a quarter dozen loyal readers (and why do I still work my day job?). It might have cause me to focus in on it more than normal, which coincidentally, probably made the technique worse than when I’m actually shooting.  Because I was not exactly “in the zone” I was probably more susceptible to distraction, of which there are typically a high concentration in my house.

Another explanation is that I simply have not adequately trained my eyes to continue looking through the sights as I’m working the bolt. Observation requires force of will. Cycling the bolt represents a break in the firing sequence. The finger comes of the trigger, the position might be shifted for the hand to reach, a breath is taken in, and perhaps the focus is relaxed. It’s likely that the will would be relaxed along with everything else.  My guess is that this explanation is the likeliest, and I should endeavor to train specifically to address it.

A sticky subject…

Lastly, I would like to address stuck bolts. A crux of this heated debate (okay, probably an overstatement.  It is a heated debate between the voices in my head though) on bolt technique centers around the power to overcome a stuck bolt. Critics of my technique may say that reliability is compromised because I’m relying on weaker muscles to perform the movement, and that only by actually grabbing the bolt and allowing larger muscles to engage in the movement, can the technique be expected to overcome any unexpected difficulties involving, perhaps, a stuck case.

I will concede that grabbing the bolt knob, a la “grip it and rip it”, allows for muscles of the arm and shoulder to be more easily brought into play. The question then becomes, “Does having larger muscles involved actually increase the likelihood that a stuck bolt will be overcome without any delay in the movement?” This needs to be examined.

First, imagine a 12 oz. paper cup on a table. It is filled nearly to the top with carbonated, caramel-colored liquid. Then imagine walking to the table and picking up the cup. Then imagine that for whatever reason, the cup weighs 25 lbs. Do you think that you would have picked it up smoothly without any interruption in the motion, or any liquid spilled. I don’t think so, regardless of whether you were sitting a grasping it with one hand, or standing a using two hands. This is because your brain has an expectation of what the cup will weigh, and automatically adjusts the amount of force is inputted to the action. Likewise, your bolt has the same level of resistance probably more than 99 out of 100 times in live fire. In dry fire it’s probably more like 999 out of 1000. If you do sufficient dry fire, your brain is probably pretty well programmed. I think it is likely that regardless of the technique used, in the event of a stuck case there is likely to be an interruption in the technique, and a transition to something involving more brute force.

Secondly, there is a range of how stuck a case gets, from a bit more resistance than normal, as in, where you end the ladder test and back off the charge, to the other end in which something is very wrong in the chamber and the bolt just isn’t going to open for you. Where along the spectrum is the most likely scenario to be encountered by the shooter? Probably the hot weather scenario in which the normal load generates a bit more pressure than normal, or maybe in the rain, in which moisture in the muzzle causes a similar increase in pressure. Assuming the load is generally safe, these will cause the bolt resistance to increase to perhaps double the normal resistance, but nothing that will preclude the normal technique from working.

If the bolt is really stuck it isn’t going to matter which technique is used. What’s more important in that scenario is that the shooter recognize it quickly and get back into action if possible, or to a safe place, or get the rifle to someone that can fix it if that’s possible.

This completes my treatise on bolt work. You probably were starting to think it would never end. That makes 11 full pages, single spaced, of 11 size font for the total of parts 1 through 6. I believe that is proof that fast, smooth, reliable bolt work is easier done than said. Thank you very much for reading.



One thought on “The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 6: Avoiding Problems and Pitfalls

  1. Thank you very much for your articles. Using them ive been able to develop my own technique as i have meaty fingers and not much scope clearance. I offset my index finger slightly off the rest of them and raise the bolt with the edge of my middle finger. Once its at the top of its movement i can then draw my wrist/hand rearward which engages the inside of my index finger to pull the bolt back, then reverting to the thumb and your technique for the return. Fyi this is on an old parker hale not a buttery smooth modern rifle. My only issue is i still need to break cheekweld to avoid injury! Thank you so much again for your confidence inspiring articles

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