Bolt-action centerfire rifles are some of the most popular firearms among modern sportsmen. A glimpse into any random gun safe would surely reveal one these trusted firearms. Whether it is a Browning A-Bolt, Savage 110, or the ever-popular Remington 700, no sporting collection is complete without a smooth firing bolt gun. This is largely due to the combination of reliability and extreme long-range accuracy that these rifles can offer. However, the driving force behind their creation was not for recreational use, it actually began with the need for a superior infantry weapon.
They were invented at a time when the speed in which soldiers could fire their rifles would determine whether they won or lost a battle. The bolt-action design advanced to the forefront of infantry firearm development. Gun builders everywhere began to pursue their ideas for a more efficient rifle. This resulted in some of the most enduring firearms ever made, and inspired the modern sporting rifles of today, which still hold the core of the bolt-action technology that was thought up more than a century ago.
It all began way back in the first half of the 19th century with the invention of the first mass-produced bolt-action rifle, the Nadelgewehr (Needle Rifle) by Johann Nikolaus Von Dreyse. This advancement in engineering sparked a firearm revolution, as gun makers around the world set out to build a breech-loading rifle that could provide rapid reloading capabilities and battlefield durability. Each attempting to develop a superior weapon to the last.
The concept of breech-loading weapons was in some estimates said to have been around since the 14th or 15th century. It wasn’t until Dreyse introduced his design for opening and closing the breech by use of a bolt, that the idea truly started to show promise for a more efficient firearm.
Most infantries at that time were still armed with cumbersome and time-consuming muzzle-loaded weapons or breech-loaded conversions. The concept of a quickly chambered rifle from the rear of the breech was seen as a major breakthrough.
The Needle Rifle used a needle-like firing pin that passed through a paper-encased cartridge and ignited the percussion cap at the base of the bullet. After noticing the benefit that the gun offered, in 1841 the Prussian Army quickly acquired it and put it into service. The rifle afforded them the ability to get off several shots per minute from hidden positions, which was a great advantage over the slower loading muzzleloaders, which required soldiers to stand during reloading and thus leaving them vulnerable to enemy fire.
Shortly after the Needle Rifle introduction, Lieutenant Colonel J. Durrell Greene in the U.S. Army attempted to build on Dreyse’s design. This resulted in the first American built bolt-action rifles in 1859. This gun, known as the Greene Rifle, had some limitations primarily because it required a percussion cap to be placed on a cone with the hammer of the gun cocked. The rifle offered no way of securing this feature in place, and was found to be far too susceptible to failure. Despite that it had very little advantage over the already issued muzzleloaders, a limited number were purchased by the U.S. Military. A few rifles even saw action in the American Civil War. Ultimately, the rifles proved to be very unreliable for infantry use and their production was short lived.
Though, it wouldn’t be long before this core principle was improved upon. Firearm engineers around the world continued the race to develop more efficient weapons to arm troops for battle. In the remaining part of the century and on to the next, the creation of many models would find at least a small place in the history of the world’s armies. The Palmer Carbine, Chassepot Rifle, Jarmann M1884, and the Gras Rifle (Fusil Gras mle 1874) would all have short stints of military use. The Gras Rifle being the first infantry bolt-action to use a metallic cartridge did have a longer service run than others in this group.
Upgrades to previous designs continued, and the next influx of weapons would slightly outlast their predecessors' usefulness. Soon tubular and box magazines, and the invention of smokeless powder and full metal jacketed rounds would raise the bar. Creating a need for the coming generations of bolt-action rifles to be built more capable than the last.
Several firearms that came into service during the latter half of the 1800’s would hold some military value well into the 20th century. Although these rifles are not the longest to remain in infantry use, they do hold the place between the quickly dismissed designs and those that enjoyed true longevity. Some of the most notable among these firearms are the Kropatschek, Lebel Rifle, M1870 Vetterli, and the M1885 Remington. However, a true standout in this generation would have to be the Lee-Metford, because it was one of the first bolt-action firearms geared towards creating a more efficient shooter and not just a more efficient rifle. This was accomplished by incorporating James Paris Lee’s rear mounted lug design, hence locating the bolt directly above the trigger, and thus reducing the rifleman’s reach. It also had a reduced rotation of the bolt, needing just a 60° turn to cycle the action.
These features made the rifle easier to shoot, and likely much easier to train a novice soldier. Lastly, and possibly the most significant innovation of the Lee-Metford was the incorporation of a detachable magazine, which made it an efficient repeater that could perform well in battle situations. The downfall of the rifle was that it took years to develop, and it was built for use with black powder. By the time it was ready for action, smokeless powder was the new standard. The rifle stood little chance of finding long term military use.
As the bolt-action revolution continued, each new feature would be scrutinized and gun designers could determine their own direction based on what worked and what didn’t. Trial and error and constant feedback from testing provided valuable information for improvement. The rifles that were still to come in the turn of the century era would have likely made Dreyse very proud to be the pioneer that started it all.
The Krag-Jorgensen, originally designed in 1886, had elements inspired by several earlier rifles. It featured a long extractor situated at the top of the bolt which was likely derived from the Jarmann M1884 design. It also featured an early Mauser innovation of using curved surfaces to easily cock and eject rounds. Though what really made this rifle unique was a magazine that was integrated with the receiver and was fed from the side through a hinged loading gate. The ammunition was pushed up and around into the chamber in a J-shaped pattern. Similar to the rotation of, but not to be mistaken for, a rotary type magazine, which consequently was an idea also being developed at that time by both Otto Schonauer and Arthur Savage respectively. The rotary magazine would appear shortly after in their successful models, the Mannlicher-Schoenauer M1903 and the Savage M1895 & Model 99 rifles.
The Krag also integrated a magazine cut-off that essentially created a single shot weapon for focused long range shots and helped keep the poorly trained infantrymen from wasting ammunition. It could easily be switched to feed the reserve rounds when rapid firing was needed. The rifle was a workhorse and evolved through several caliber changes and sight configurations over the years, remaining in some level of service until about 1945.
Spanning five decades of service is impressive, but the Krag pales in comparison to the next few rifles. Out of all of the original centerfire bolt-action designs these are the champions of success. They are such reliable and effective guns that they hold two distinctions: they were some of the most produced firearms ever, and they (or variations of them) remained in active service for the longest period of time.
Mauser Gewehr 98
Paul Mauser, who like Greene set out to improve on the original Needle Gun concept, was perhaps one of the most instrumental engineers of bolt-action development. He is credited with designing the turning one-piece bolt, which offered tremendous solidity and strength that was far superior to earlier separate bolt head configurations. His legacy also boasts the creation of his own smokeless powder ammunition to go along with his rifles. His 7.9mm (8mm Mauser) and 7x57mm Mauser rounds are still being produced today.
His most enduring rifle, the Mauser Gewehr 98 had the innovative feature of a control-feed action. It was a strong, safe action that was intended to avoid failure while cycling the bolt. It was equipped with a claw-like extractor that maintained control of the round the entire time. Variations of this rifle would remain in military use throughout both World Wars and are still readily available. In fact, modern production of the Mauser M 98 and M 98 Magnums resumed in 1999. Based on early 20th century drawings and respective Mauser patents, these rifles continue to meet the demands of many modern day enthusiasts. Estimates on the number of Mauser 98 variants produced falls somewhere between 20 and 100 million rifles.
Much like Mauser, James Paris Lee would continue to improve his earlier endeavors until he created a rifle that could stand the test of time. He achieved this success with the Lee-Enfield.
Lee-Enfield Rifles were first put into service in 1895 and adapted as the standard rifle by the British Military until around 1957. Its sniper variant, the L42, remained in use until the 1990’s.
This rifle was a redesign of the earlier Lee-Metford. The Lee-Enfield incorporated a ten round top-fed magazine, while most other rifles of the time only held five rounds, providing the British with a distinct advantage. J. Lee also kept the rear-locking lug system from the Lee-Metford that assured the rifle would be quick and efficient for the shooter to operate.
However, it wasn’t quite the infantry rifle it needed to be right away, so improvements were made to the original design a few years later. These changes made the rifle easier to build and much easier for infantrymen to maintain and operate. The newer rifles became commonly referred to as the SMLE, which is an acronym for “Short Magazine Lee Enfield”. The changes included the shortening of the guns overall length, the safety relocation from the cocking piece to the receiver, the dust cover removal from the bolt body, and the charging guide being milled directly onto the receiver. The SMLE is currently the second-longest serving military bolt-action rifle in the world and the total number produced is said to top the 17 million mark.
The Mosin-Nagant, first designed in 1891 by Captain Sergi Mosin and Leon Nagant, has the distinction of being used in more military installations than any other firearm. It has been in active service since the end of the 19th century, and has had a role in more than thirty wars or conflicts around the globe. The total number of these rifles produced is estimated to exceed 37 million.
Like the Mauser 98, the Mosin used two front-locking lugs to lock the action in place. The difference being the location of the lugs, Mosin lugs were in a horizontal position, where the Mauser 98 lugs were vertical. The Mosin incorporated the multi-piece bolt body to enable the use of interchangeable bolt heads, a feature that was also seen on the Lee-Enfield. The push-feed style recessed bolt head utilized a spring-loaded extractor that snapped over the cartridge base upon the closing of the bolt. Not quite as fail-proof as the control-feed, but still a reliable action that is being duplicated in modern rifles, such as the Remington 700 model.
It is truly a testament to the ingenuity of these early pioneers that the evidence of their creativity is still present all these years later. Even though the infantry use of the bolt-action rifle has faded, these durable guns are still in demand among modern shooters. Today’s sporting bolt-action rifles all hold elements of engineering that can be traced back to these original designs. Sure we have some modern adaptations like synthetic stocks, adjustable-triggers, and long-range riflescopes, but the core of the action was perfected a very long time ago. Next time you pick up a rifle, whether it’s the solid one-piece bolt and rotary magazine of a Ruger American, or a Winchester 70 with Mauser action and box magazine, just take a moment and you will find the obvious links to the past.