Running The Bolt
Get a fresh round chambered quickly and surely.
“There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!” (In the Neolithic Age by Rudyard Kipling). There are several ways to operate a bolt-action rifle (maybe not nine and sixty) and they mostly all work. Still, we all have preferences.
Some shooters like to keep the hand open while operating the bolt. Others keep the hand straight, raising the bolt with a kind of reverse karate chop. Personally, I use and recommend the “ball-and-socket” (also called the “closed hand” or “pinch”) style, with the bolt knob gripped between thumb and forefinger.
A few principles apply with all methods. The rifle remains shouldered as the bolt is operated. Firing a shot, lowering the rifle while working the bolt, then shouldering it again is slow, tacky, and just wrong.
Reload immediately after firing. The shot sequence doesn’t end when the shot is fired; it ends when the rifle is ready to fire the next shot. Reloading should be so quick and habitual the action is being worked while the shot is still echoing. If another shot isn’t needed there will be plenty of time to clear the chamber and reload the magazine.
Work the bolt briskly. Don’t abuse the rifle but don’t baby it either. Run it like you mean it. Whatever direction the bolt is traveling, keep it going until some mechanical feature of the rifle stops it.
A common error is for a shooter to see the fired case eject and immediately begin moving the bolt forward, before it has moved far enough back to pick up a fresh cartridge. Remember: The rifle, not the shooter, stops movement of the bolt. Lift the bolt until it won’t lift further. Pull it back until it hits the bolt stop. The bolt stop will take it. If it won’t you need a better rifle.
Reloading sequence notes (A-D): The rifle remains shouldered in firing position throughout
sequence. Here’s the reload sequence using a long-action rifle with short bolt lift. Technique
is the same; some shooters may want to move the head back slightly while reloading with a long,
or magnum action so the bolt doesn’t bop your nose. The rifle is Weatherby Mk V Ultra Lightweight
in .257 Weatherby with Leupold 4.5-14X scope.
I use a lot of different guns. I want any shooting technique to be as “broad spectrum” as possible. I use short, standard, and magnum actions, rifles with 90-degree bolt lift, others with 54- or 60-degree bolt lift, bolt handles with round knobs, flattened knobs, and butter-knife handles.
Consistency is more important to me than minor increments of speed. I’m sure there are many shooters who can operate a bolt faster than I can. What I want is a technique I can count on to work every time, with all kinds of rifles and under adverse conditions.
Raising the bolt can take a bit of effort, since two things are being accomplished: primary extraction (breaking the fired, expanded case free) and compressing the mainspring. One reason the old Lee-Enfield rifle was so fast to operate was initial bolt lift just extracted the case, while cocking was done as the bolt was closed.
I like the ball-and-socket or pinch technique as it works with most any bolt action, it is very consistent, and it provides plenty of strength on the bolt lift for situations where primary extraction is sticky or the rifle has an unusually heavy mainspring or rough cocking cam.
A close-up of the “ball-and-socket” or “pinch” method of bolt operation.
After firing a shot the shooting hand moves to the bolt, the forefinger begins
lifting the bolt, and then the thumb will close on top of the bolt knob as the
bolt is cycled. Bolt knob is held between thumb and forefinger throughout
the reloading sequence.
There are a few subtleties of bolt operation, which can only be learned by diligent practice. When lifting the bolt, most effort is upwards, but there should be a bit of backward pressure as well. The bolt should begin retracting as soon as the locking lugs clear their recesses. Similarly when closing the bolt, most pressure is forward but with a bit of downward pressure so as soon as the round is chambered the bolt begins moving down to locked position.
With long-throw magnum actions the shooter may have to move his head slightly to allow bolt travel. Some shooters practice moving the rifle forward a bit with the support hand as the bolt is being retracted, then moving the rifle back as the bolt moves forward.
Practice being smooth and consistent, and the speed will come. Remember the goal is to hit the target. Maintain a reasonable accuracy standard while practicing. Otherwise you’re just making noise and learning bad habits. At whatever range you’re shooting, endeavor to keep your shots within around a 4″ group.
By Dave Anderson