The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 3: Technique

I promised pictures for this installment. I have some, but not as many as I had hoped. My schedule is tighter than I would like, and I also had some issues with lighting and a rookie cameragirl. I was hoping for at least two views of stills and video, but I only have one of each. At least they are from different angles. I also wanted a live fire video, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get to the range in the last few days. I will add more media as I get the chance.

I have posted still frames of my bolt work before. In the past I would stop and pose for each frame. The problem with this is that when moving the bolt slow, I can only attempt to approximate the movement I actually use under actual speed. I found out that I had inadvertently been misrepresenting the technique I use, which hasn’t changed much over time or over rifles. What I have this year that I didn’t have before is a camera that takes several photos per second. This allows me to work the bolt at actual speed and still get some photos. I still run into the issue of not being able to get full detail of any one bolt cycle (the camera takes approximately 5 frames per second). I usually get three photos of each cycling. What I did was compile photos from several bolt cyclings and compile a photo montage that provides a decent representation.

Before I move on to a specific description of the technique I use, I need to discuss the application of some of the things I touched on in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

I discussed using natural, arc-like movements. Let’s take a look at how that might work when using a bolt that has a narrowly constrained, rectangular movement. The following photo represents the three possible extreme positions of the bolt.


Bolt Path- Resized


The blue line in the photo represents an approximation of the movement of the hand that I think should be taken. How can that be reconciled with the constraints of the mechanism itself? I think that the reason it’s possible is that the body parts in contact with and around the bolt have a bit of give that allows the bolt to find its own path to some degree. The why is not so important as the fact that it works well. The takeaway is that what I think is the most efficient movement is an arcing, whip-like movement.

The following video shows two bolt cycles at both full speed and 1/8 speed. I apologize for the lack of editing to make the video more time efficient, entertaining, “not horrible”, or “at all worth watching”. Maybe that’s because I’m not a “professional photographer”. I’m not what you would call “smart”. I don’t “shower every day”. I live in a “van down by the river”. Sorry. Video:



A bit more detail can be seen in the photos.  Note that I post the photo then discuss what’s going on below it (just so you know which picture I’m talking about):



At this point the trigger has been pressed and the striker has fallen. The hand remains in the firing position until follow through is complete.


The hand has just made contact with the bolt knob via moving directly to it. The thumb remains in the same place it was during firing for leverage and a fixed point of reference. The specific location of the thumb placement will vary depending on you and your rifle, but mine is part way on the stock, part way on the receiver tang.  This is also a kinesthetic anchor point for my technique, or one of the focal points I pay attention to


The bolt is completely unlocked at this point, and the knob is at the extreme limit of height. I believe that the thumb is still in place at its anchor point at this time.


The bolt knob has started moving to the rear, evidently due to the contraction of fingers and movement of the hand to the rear. The thumb at this point has left its anchor point, which keeps it from getting juiced like a grape.  


Continuing to the rear, I think that the elbow and shoulder to a lesser degree come into play.


The bolt is at the rear limit of travel. This is the point of transition. Note that the hand is flexed rearward, in preparation to “crack the whip” forward.


Moving forward now. It’s difficult to see but the point of contact, hand to knob, is at the thumb between the two knuckles, nearer to the base. Although it appears as though the hand is closed around the knob, it is open, and no effort is being made to keep it either open or shut.


The bolt has moved a bit more forward at this point. The only real difference in the body position is that the wrist has straightened out.


Now it really appears as though the hand is closed, but it is still open. It is probably tense, due to the need to gain sufficient leverage to close the bolt. Thumb position is key here. I believe that it needs to be right on top of the bolt knob to prevent slippage or loss of leverage. Also note the slight rotation of the wrist towards pronation. This gives a boost to the movement, adding extra snap without requiring a faster movement through space.  The wrist has also completely straightened out from its cocked back position, indicating that booster stage has delivered its complete payload.


The bolt is now either at, or more likely near, completion of locking.


Upon the receipt of the kinesthetic cue that the bolt is completely locked, the hand begins a smooth transition back to firing position.  I really slow things down at this point in preparation for a smooth, safe stop.  Note that my trigger finger is seeking to return to the trigger, where it was at the initiation of this motion. I think this is normal, seems to be “industry standard” and is my default. I have not considered whether it violates rule 3 or whether it is, in fact, safe. I have not yet caused an inadvertent discharge through the employment of this technique, but that does not mean that it’s safe.


The hand is now back in firing position, and the cycle is complete (cue music from Lion King soundtrack: Circle of Life Death- perhaps a Weird Al style remake?). The trigger finger does get set gingerly back to the trigger.

I hope that I’m getting close to a technique that has the four components of efficiency, reliability, smoothness, and utilizing natural movements. I want to make clear that I don’t consider any of this to be the final word. I’m still working on it, and I don’t think it’s perfect. A month ago I was missing the bolt knob more often than not due to the new stock changing the ergonomics of the rifle. I have been faster with this rifle, and to be frank I am still in the process of rebuilding the technique.

As for efficiency, from the slo-mo, it looks like it’s not bad, but that my hand moves unnecessarily to the outside as it approaches the knob. I also think there might be a slightly excessive gap between my thumb and forefinger at the transition between opening and closing the bolt, when it is stationary at the extreme rear limit of travel.

As for reliability, I think it’s very good. It could be better. I want to discuss that in a future article. It could be worse. I want to discuss that in a future article.

Smoothness is a cultivated attribute, rather than one intrinsic to the technique. I’m getting there and still working on it.

I think the movements I’m utilizing are very natural and flow very well into one another. This comes from repetition. The technique refines itself with work.

As for speed, which as I have stated, is a bi-product instead of an attribute of the technique, I think that any bolt cycle that takes less than one second beginning at the hand in a firing position, and ending in exactly the same position is sufficiently fast. I think a half second would be ideal, but probably not worth pursuing as a goal in and of itself. When there are so many other things to practice, it’s just not worth over-refining this. Also, to be completely realistic, any application for which one might choose a bolt gun over a semi-auto does not likely require a high rate of fire. This is my admission that I have been a little silly to spend so much time on bolt technique.  I have two excuses, I enjoy it, and to provide for the education of others.

I don’t advocate trying to micro-tune the portions of your body, e.g., individual joints, that move during your bolt technique based on my photos or video.  I don’t think it would work.  Although I went into detail as to what parts of the hand and arm were moving and when they were moving, I never think about it during the technique.  I hope that there are cues here that you can use to find your way, but in the end you have to practice and get a feel for it yourself.  I can point the way, but I can’t take you where you are going.  My advice is to find a good technique, get smooth, and just let the speed come with time.

In the next installment I will cover more specifics and an “internal” discussion on how to make the bolt work stronger and smoother.

10 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Bolt Manipulation, Part 3: Technique

  1. Well done!
    I did not go into such detail in my book, my main concern was to get people to keep the rifle shouldered and maintain the cheek weld while executing a smooth quick stroke of the bolt (or lever, or pump). I figured keeping them from lowering the rifle was the most important thing, since that seems to be the untutored default for too many.

    Cooper wrote of the stroke developing from up-back-forward-down to a smooth arcing open-close stroke such as you describe. A fast smooth stroke is a good thing to have, regardless.

    • Hi Pete!

      Even those basics are easier said than done. Perfectly maintaining cheekweld can be more difficult than it seems. I notice in video that my head moves on the stock due to other stuff than happens during the bolt cycle, but I don’t want to spoil part 5.

  2. Looks good. I’m thinking of setting up my camera in super slo-mo while I do some dry fire to analyse what I’m doing. Currently I’m bringing the bolt back very much like you are, but going forward my thumb naturally wants to be on the back of the bolt itself, not the knob. It seems to work, but it’s probably not the best.

    I have a light trigger (2.5lbs) in my rifle, and more than once I’ve had an AD bringing my finger back in at the end of the cycle. Each time I’ve stayed on paper, so it’s not hugely unsafe, but I really want to capture it on video so I can see what I’m doing there and fix it.

    • Mr. Patrol,

      I wonder if you’re doing what Blind Shooter is talking about. Maybe one or both of you could send photos. What kind of rifle are you using (if you don’t mind sharing)?

      I had never heard of an AD happening, but it did jump in my mind at the last minute when I was editing this article. My Sako 75 trigger is about 2.5#. I haven’t had any problems yet, but I probably need to knock on wood now. I have the feeling of coming back to the grip very lightly and delicately, but I’m really starting to wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter to come back indexed unless the target is so big and obvious to satisfy Rule 3.

      If you learn anything in your research I would be interested to hear about it.


      • Here is a quick and dirty video of two runs. I was in a hurry, so it’s not very good video and my form is far from what it should be, but it’s good enough for a discussion point.

        I’m using a Ruger 77/22, with a Jard trigger and 2lb spring. I’m currently thinking I may be brushing the side of the trigger with a finger as my hand comes back down with the bolt, the video certainly shows my fingers in that area. Of course, it’s also the case that the 77/22 manual calls for the safety to be in the “load” position while working the bolt, and I’m not doing that.

        • I wish I could get the video to embed in the comments.

          Your technique is very smooth, appears to allow you to maintain position without disturbing natural point of aim, and appears to be sufficiently fast for most applications.

          I don’t think there is a safety issue pushing on the striker, but I don’t know that for sure. Do we have a gunsmith in the house?

          The one thing that stood out to me was that the motion of bringing the index finger over the top of the bolt handle to lock the bolt is time that could easily be eliminated, but likely at the expense of inducing some movement that you may not want.

          Do you do the same thing with centerfires?

          Thanks for posting the video. I will continue researching a satisfactory way of embedding it.


          • Comparing my video to yours, bringing the finger around to close the bolt is definitely a time waster. But I developed this method as a compromise, the bolt on this rifle is rather short and has a small knob, and I have a very hard time wrapping my fingers around it when it’s back without really disturbing my NPOA.

            This is my only bolt action rifle at the moment, but I was using a friend’s Savage .30-06 recently, and with that rifle I was able to use a more conventional approach.

  3. I found that using the thumb as close a possible to the “root” of the bolt handle when closing allowed me to speed up without any added fear of binding.

    • Do you use the base of your thumb to bear against the top side of the bolt handle base? You must be a strong guy. Is this something that speed and inertia make possible? What kind of rifle are you using? Do you ever have issues hitting the scope?

      I’m curious if you couldn’t tell.

    • Question for clarification: by “bolt handle” do you mean the knob or shank? If you mean the knob, then that’s what I do as well. I had previously been picturing the base of the shank at the connection to the bolt body, which I didn’t understand.

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