It Takes practice, But Sometimes
One Isn’t Enough.
One of the unfortunate flaws of hunting rifles are they occasionally miss. Of course this isn’t your fault or mine, but once in a while we do have to shoot again.
The first rifles didn’t miss as much as the smoothbore muskets they eventually replaced, but were more difficult to reload, since rifling full of black-powder fouling made shoving another ball down the bore more difficult. In fact, longbows were used in both war and hunting long after the invention of firearms: They were at least as accurate as muskets, and could be “reloaded” far faster than muzzleloading rifles. Eventually armies figured out how to use muskets and rifles in massed ranks; after soldiers in the front rank shot, they retreated to the rear to reload, while another rank moved up to shoot.
Hunters don’t usually go afield in organized armies (though they sometimes appear in unorganized armies); the reason the first solution to slow reloading was multiple barrels. More than two often proved more trouble than help, making the rifle cumbersome and confusing the shooter with multiple “fire control systems.”
Despite advances in modern repeating rifles, many African hunters believe a double-barreled rifle remains the fastest reliable way to put two big bullets into animals capable of sending us prematurely to the big hunting camp in the sky. In fact, double rifles have made a considerable comeback in Africa. For a while most hunters chose big bolt actions, due to the lack of ammunition for most doubles, plus the cost of buying an original British double, since darn few new doubles were being made anymore, even in Great Britain. Today’s manufacturing methods cut down the time needed to put one together, and several companies produce ammunition in the most popular chamberings, especially the .450/.400 and .470 Nitro Expresses.
Probably more whitetails are taken with pump-action rifles than any other game—
though this buck was taken in Texas, not Pennsylvania.
When I first started hunting Africa 20 years ago almost all professional hunters carried bolt actions, and the few who owned doubles considered every reloadable case a treasure. When I hunted Tanzania in 2011 both the PHs who guided me carried .470 side-by-sides made in Austria (Europe’s now the main source) and shot American factory ammo.
Even many amateur hunters now own double rifles, even if they’ll never take them to Africa. I’ve been tempted by big doubles myself, but even today’s prices can pay for another safari. I do own two not-so-big double rifles, an over/under .30-40 Krag built on a Ruger Red Label shotgun frame by an unknown craftsman, a pre-WWII German side-by-side in 9.3x74R, a fine medium-bore cartridge legal for Cape buffalo in a few African countries (though not where I’ve hunted buffalo).
Both are a lot of fun to hunt with on this side of the ocean, especially in timber, and do provide a very fast repeat shot—as long as you’re used to the double triggers on the 9.3x74R. These days many hunters have never shot a 2-trigger shotgun, thanks to the predominance of single triggers, but there’s never been a single trigger for any sort of double gun as reliable as two triggers. Many single triggers are quite good, but they can still fail to fire both barrels once in a great while, and once is enough with a wounded Cape buffalo or grizzly.
Even shooting a 2-trigger double fast isn’t always simple: On a really hard-kicker pulling the front trigger first, as on a double shotgun, sometimes results in both barrels going off, because recoil bounces the forefinger to the back trigger. The immediate reaction to severe recoil is to grab the gun harder—and the other barrel goes off.
If more than two shots might be needed, doubles can be reloaded pretty quickly by carrying extra rounds between the fingers of the fore-end hand. This is easiest with the rimmed cases chambered in many doubles, held with the rims facing the fore-end. Ejectors speed up reloading, but even without ejectors the rifle can be opened and twisted sideways to drop both cases out, a trick made possible by the relatively low pressures of most traditional double-rifle rounds.
For non-dangerous game modern semi-autos are just as suitable as a single-trigger double—if we keep ’em reasonably clean. They’re becoming more common, thanks to the AR trend, but are illegal for hunting in a few places. The most notorious is Pennsylvania, where a disorganized army appears every year during deer season; the reason Pennsylvania hunters call pump-action rifles “Amish machine guns.”
I’ve hunted quite a bit with both semi-autos and pumps, taking everything from small game and varmints to deer, wild pigs and even one elk. They really do offer very fast repeat shots, useful even on some stationary animals, especially prairie dogs, where an instant “wind correction” can be accomplished by tapping the trigger again. (However, everybody who’s used an AR-15 on prairie dogs finds their ammo consumption goes way up, and on a Remington-sponsored PD shoot a few years ago with R-15s the company only provided 5-round magazines. (Apparently gun writers are well known for their appreciation of free ammunition.)
Even single shots like this Ruger No. 1 can be
reloaded quickly with a little preparation.
But the most useful application of semi-autos and pumps is running game. My first pump rifle was (what else?) a Remington 760, purchased used when living on the plains of northeastern Montana. While 760s (and today’s 7600s) aren’t nearly as common here as in Pennsylvania, they do exist and my .30-06 proved very useful in that wide-open country. In the winter it accounted for quite a few running jackrabbits and coyotes, and the main method for hunting deer was jumping them out of prairie draws. The 760 took at least one whitetail buck I never could have shot at again with a bolt or lever-action, and the varmint shooting taught me above-average skill on moving targets.
Due to the post-WWII trend toward semi-auto shotguns, not as many hunters use pump shotguns as they used to, and there also aren’t nearly as many pump-action rimfire rifles being made. As a result 21st-century hunters often don’t run a pump rifle as fast as a semi-auto, or even very fast at all. Instead they shoot and then “admire the shot,” as some Africans say, before pumping the fore-end.
Often they even drop the rifle from their shoulder between shots, and some shooters lower semi-autos as well—though usually not AR-15s. To get off a second shot really fast with any rifle it’s essential to keep the thing pointed at the target, ready to shoot again as soon as possible. This is one advantage pump rifles have over other manual repeaters: The process is all back-and-forth, and the forward stroke even helps bring the rifle down out of recoil.
The British shotgun writer who wrote under the pen name Gough Thomas called the pump action “eumatic,” a word he coined meaning “natural to body motion.” A shotgunner who’s really used to pump guns can shoot so fast the action clatter can’t be heard between shots, and the reports of the shots blend together. Many older pumps would go bang as soon as the action closed if the trigger was held back, one reason that older exhibition shooters often favored the Model 12 Winchester.
But even practiced pump shotgunners can’t quite shoot pump rifles super-fast, since aiming a rifle is more precise than pointing a scattergun, though with practice it’s reasonably easy to keep an empty can skipping across an open hillside, or take another shot at a running coyote or deer. However, today’s abundance of whitetails in most states has turned most still-hunters (the guys most likely to shoot at running deer) into sitters equipped with scoped bolt actions for sniping standing deer.
The consensus in Africa is double rifles are faster
for two shots, bolt actions for more than two.
The lever action’s reputation for fast repeat shots comes more from old movies than reality, though a practiced lever shooter can get another bullet on the way pretty quickly. The big problem, once again, lies in most shooters dropping the rifle from their shoulder while working the lever, a tendency exaggerated by the lever pulling the rifle downward.
Many early lever rifles had crescent buttplates, which “hooked” the shoulder far more firmly than flatter buttplates, whether plastic or steel. The older rubber recoil pads would soon turn hard and slick.
Today’s super-soft synthetic recoil pads stick to a shoulder pretty well, and feel much better than a steel crescent when a relatively large cartridge goes off, but we don’t have as many lever-action hunters—and many refuse to put polymers on the rear end of their Winchester 94.
In reality, a bolt action operated correctly can be shot about as fast as a lever. Most shooters work a bolt by grabbing the knob in a death-grip with their fist, then lifting the handle, drawing it back, pushing it forward and turning it down. The death-grip is the main reason for checkered bolt knobs: For some reason most shooters are afraid they’ll lose their hold.
Unfortunately the death grip slows operation down, in three ways. First, like working a lever, it increases the tendency to drop the rifle from the shoulder, requiring more time to re-aim. Second, it makes short-stroking the bolt possible, since in a hurry many shooters push the bolt forward before it gets behind the rim of another round, resulting in either an empty chamber or a jam. Third, it requires four distinct motions—up, back, forward, down—when working a pump only requires two, backward and forward.
I first learned to work a bolt fast almost 40 years ago, when jumping whitetails out of those draws in northeastern Montana. Luckily, about that time, the late, great John Wootters published an article about how to work a bolt-action fast. John used the “slap” method: Instead of grasping the bolt knob, it’s slapped up and backward with the palm of the hand. When the bolt stops, the hand’s twisted 90 degrees, and either hooks the base of the thumb around the bolt handle below the knob, or palming the knob again, pushing the bolt both forward and down.
This method reduces the motion to back and forth, and absolutely prevents short stroking. After some practice it’s really fast. A few years ago I won a “charging Cape buffalo” competition between several amateur and professional hunters, some of who used lever-actions, with the slap method. Starting with the rifle held below my shoulder, my three aimed shots went off in about 4 seconds—and I know other shooters who can beat that time.
Another method was taught in the British military when the Lee-Enfield was still the right arm of the Empire. In one common variation, the bolt knob is pulled back by the tips of the first two fingers, with the tip the thumb behind the knob to form a ball-and-socket joint, while on the forward stroke the crooked index finger pushes the bolt handle stem. (This finger-tip grasp is also commonly used by lefties working a right-handed bolt action. I’ve watched some, including the late gun writer Finn Aagaard’s wife Berit, work a bolt rifle faster than the average death-grip right-hander.)
Big double rifles are common in Africa again these days.
Tanzanian professional hunter Fulvio Gianola has a red-dot
optical sight mounted on his .470 double, claiming it’s
even faster than the express sights.
The British method also prevents short stroking, and many shooters never remove their forefinger from the bolt handle, using their ring or little finger to pull the trigger. I once watched a Norwegian work a Krag-Jorgenson bolt while pulling the trigger with his ring finger.
This method is more easily used with cock-on-closing actions, particularly the Lee-Enfield, with its bolt handle further to the rear than most bolt actions. The technique’s impossible with a Mannlicher-Schoenauer, especially with a flat bolt handle.
Many shooters believe a straight-pull bolt action should obviously be faster than a turn-bolt, but the slap or finger-tip method make a turn-bolt basically as fast, partly because the trigger finger must still be removed from the trigger with a straight-pull action.
With practice it’s even easy to get off a reasonably fast repeat shot with the rifles Americans call single shots, and the British call single-loaders. The primary problem is keeping extra rounds handy. A cartridge between the fore-end fingers works, but holding one all day is kind of a pain. Many hunters prefer a buttstock shell holder, and I’ve used one, especially on safaris where two different types of bullets might be used. But for me the handiest location for an extra round is in the left chest pocket of a shirt or jacket, with the bullet facing away from the rifle. With a single shot equipped with an ejector, such as the Ruger No. 1, I can get off a second round as fast as the average death-grip bolt-rifle hunter. Single shots with extractors only aren’t quite as fast, but can still be reloaded fairly quickly with practice, whether a falling-block, break action or bolt action.
My largest gemsbok fell to a Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H at about 200 yards. The first shot went into the shoulder just behind the bone, but gemsbok are notoriously tough even when shot correctly, so I quickly ejected the empty, grabbed another round from my pocket, slipped it into the chamber and closed the lever—all with the rifle still on my shoulder. Within five seconds the reticle was on the bull’s shoulder again—but right then the gemsbok fell. “Well done!” the professional hunter said, mostly because I hadn’t sat there admiring the first shot.
By John Barsness
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