Pump Action and Bolt Action Rifles

The following information on pump action and bolt action rifles comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.

The mechanism of the pump action is the same as that of the well-known repeating shotgun—a sliding forearm that ejects and reloads by means of a straight pull back and forth. Formerly this type of hunting rifle was chambered for many sizes of hunting cartridges, but in a day when hand reloaded ammunition was common, with the expanded and tight shells that followed as a matter of course, the straight pull lacked leverage in ejecting and reloading. For this reason, with the exception of the Standard rifle and the Marlin, manufacturers have been content to make the pump action arms in .22 caliber only. The Marlin Company is building a rifle in .25-20 and the Standard has gone still farther in turning out weapons in calibers from .25 to .35 high power with this action.

Pump action rifles are generally built in lightweight, from four and a half to six pounds, and are therefore, not especially designed for range and gallery, though very accurate and capable of making good scores. Its light weight, balance, rapidity, and general handiness make it the chosen weapon of the rifle snapshot, the man who prefers to use his weapon shotgun fashion, striking his mark while it is in motion. For small game, too, and as a companionable outdoor piece it is a prime favorite.

The Colt Fire Arms Company was the pioneer in pump action rifles, but has long since given up their manufacture. There might be a reason for this other than any inherent defect in the arms since that firm is very completely occupied in turning out revolvers and automatic pistols, nevertheless the impression remains that the action was not a success where large game and heavy cartridges were concerned.

The Colt rifles were deceptive in this way: Try out one in a gun store or upon the range and it appeared to work perfectly, but in practical service, in game shooting, the owner would be balked by it every now and then at a critical moment. The trouble is partly the inability to make a human being into a good working machine; under excitement he does things hurriedly and ineffectively, or what he then accomplishes must be of a very simple nature. I have never yet seen a man with a pump action gun, either rifle or shotgun, that was not balked by it occasionally. This matters nothing with small game, only one opportunity gone in a large number, but with big game that one lost chance might utterly spoil an outing. Of course with dangerous beasts it would be foolhardy to select a weapon that could jam or balk.

Notwithstanding this, I am inclined to believe that using the clean, smokeless powder ammunition, and never attempting to reload a cartridge, the mechanism would be quite satisfactory with certain high power loads, like the .25-35 and .30-30, certainly it works perfectly in calibers up to .25-20.

The whole question is merely one of leverage, for the action is faster than that of any other hand-operated repeating rifle. If equally reliable, it would be chosen in preference to lever or the bolt action rifles. It is simpler than an automatic, has cleaner lines, can be made lighter in weight, and in the hands of an expert is rapid enough for any practical purpose, but it is a question if it can ever be made non-balkable. On the whole, in these days of rapidly developing auto-loaders and increasing power and breech pressure, we may fairly conclude that the pump action will always be limited to small game and miniature cartridges.

Bolt Action Rifles

The bolt action, usually termed the military bolt, is by no means the modern invention that many suppose, the mechanism of the arm being in fact a gradual evolution, as is true of other styles of rifles. The patents of Dreyse, of Prussia, issued in 1838, contain the first idea of the breech bolt, his patents practically covering the needle gun adopted by the Prussian army in 1842. The American patents of Hall & Day, dated 1839, were the beginning of the bolt in this country; in principle their gun was the same as that of the Prussian. The Winchester Company began building a weapon of the bolt action type in 1878 which they termed the Hotchkiss. It had the magazine located in the stock after the fashion of the Spencer, and was a neater appearing gun in consequence than the present box magazine Springfield, but never became popular, being finally abandoned.

Game hunters in this country paid little attention to bolt action rifles until they were adopted by the United States army in the shape of the foreign Krag-Jorgensen some time in the early nineties. Even subsequent to this period the weapon was comparatively unknown outside of military circles. With the coming of the New Springfield, however, and the revival of target practice by the National Guard, this type of arm began to appeal to hunters as well as soldiers. The improvement of the .30-40 ammunition in 1903 and 1906 led to the further popularity of the gun and charge.

At present the military action threatens to become a fad among hunters, something readily accounted for. The modern Springfield is a sterling piece of work, and so wide is the interest in military shooting at this time that many sportsmen are affiliated with the militia, hence from preference carrying their familiar weapon into the woods. Moreover the New Springfield and similar rifles have undoubted merit as sporting weapons. The advantages of the Springfield are: it is one of the most accurate rifles made; its trajectory is the flattest of American rifles; it is powerful enough for the largest of our game; the piece will bear more rough usage than other styles of repeating rifle, being almost proof against rust and sand; the mechanism can be dismounted for inspection and cleaning without the use of any tool, while the gun is compact and of about the right weight for a hunter’s weapon.

The military slingstrap of this arm is the correct thing for carrying a rifle, besides being a positive advantage in off-hand shooting. The Springfield, too, is made of better than ordinary material, and, under certain restrictions it is sold by the Government to individuals at very moderate prices, about one-third of what would be asked for a similar arm built in Europe.

Of late the army Springfields are being remodeled by private gunsmiths in accordance with the lines preferred by sportsman, the weapon restocked with fancy wood, pistol grips hand-checkered with reduced length of fore-end, and so on. Thus altered, the arm is as handsomely designed a rifle as can be found anywhere, while at the same time the weight has been materially reduced. The Springfield was used in Africa by Roosevelt with much success, and other Americans, now hunting on that continent, are following his lead. Some go so far as to maintain that this weapon and its cartridge are powerful enough for any African game, but they are misled by a limited experience and over-enthusiasm.

Notwithstanding the truth of what has been said above, I doubt if bolt action rifles are the correct thing for the average hunter, especially if he has become accustomed to a faster mechanism. The bolt is decidedly slow since the hand must be removed from the grip to catch and work it, and most men will need to drop the butt from the shoulder in doing this. Then the motions in ejecting and reloading are complicated; first the bolt-handle has to be raised and then drawn back, shoved forward, and again turned down to original position. It is conceivable that circumstances might arise which would make a faster action extremely desirable. Greener says that bolt action rifles are too slow for charging game, animals certain to fight, like lions and tigers.

Moreover, while it is admitted that the bolt guns are superior when it is a question of long range and an extended “danger zone,” as the military have it, yet I believe that the old principle that an extremely long range rifle is not needed for game shooting still holds. Ninety-nine per cent of American game is killed at distances under three hundred yards, and no sacrifice of other essentials should be made in order to acquire an arm that is especially qualified for work at a thousand.

Among English and Continental sportsmen the bolt rifle is displacing the double barrel to quite an extent, but at this time, in Europe, the tendency is to discard the .256 and .303 in favor of larger bores like the .333 and .404. The velocities of these last named cartridges range from 2,200 to 2,600 feet; the bullets weigh from 250 to 400 grains, and the striking force of either is about two tons—double that of the .30-40-220. I need hardly add that such weapons are unnecessarily powerful for any game we have, with the possible exception of Alaska bear, while the recoil in a light bolt gun is very severe. The matter of recoil in proportion to weight of arm will be mentioned later on.

To sum up the case of bolt action rifles, the arm is strong, reliable, accurate, high in velocity, flat in trajectory, chambered for the most powerful ammunition in use in a repeating rifle, but the weapon is slow. Few would consider it adapted to use in the woods or for running shots.

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Pump Action and Bolt Action Rifles

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