Speed Racer

Get your hustle on with a bolt gun

While bolt-action rifles have largely been superseded for military use, they dominate the hunting fields. The reason for this is a topic for another day but for now, I want to focus on the issue of cycling the bolt efficiently to reload after firing a shot.

The Lee-Enfield No. 1 Mk III, designed before 1900, is still unsurpassed in speed of reloading.
The bolt knob is above the shooting hand and it has a short, easy bolt lift and throw.

Finish What You Start

Reloading should be a conditioned reflex. A shot sequence shouldn’t end when the shot is fired, it ends when the rifle and shooter are ready to fire again if necessary.

It seems a lot of hunters never shoot at all except from the bench. When I’m shooting from the bench to sight-in or test equipment I have the habit, as do many shooters, of reaching across with the left hand to grab the fired case as it is being ejected and set it back in the box. I’ve actually seen hunters fire at a game animal, then carefully pick the fired case from the ejection port and pocket it before the animal is even down.

But who am I to talk? I recall something similar when I was young and thoughtless. I fired three shots at a fast-running whitetail with a Winchester 70 .270. The first two missed; at the third shot the deer did a spectacular end-over-end flip. Almost before it came to a stop I was scrounging in the snow looking for the fired cases. It would have really reinforced the lesson if the deer had got up and run off. In fact it had been killed almost instantly but it was still one of my dumber moves.

Dave’s Remington 700 Mountain Rifle in .280 Rem. He considered changing to a longer bolt handle
but since this rifle kills every deer he’s fired at, he’s afraid of angering the red gods!

Factors In Speed

The point here — the shooter’s mindset and conditioned reflexes are key elements in reloading. The shooter’s commitment to making the process a conditioned reflex is the most important factor. Nonetheless, the rifle itself is a significant component. Some factors to consider include the location of the bolt handle; bolt lift, both in terms of degrees of rotation and effort required; bolt throw; length of the bolt handle; and rifle fit, in particular length of pull and the material used for the butt plate or butt pad.

In my experience, no bolt action is easier or faster to cycle than the century-old Lee Enfield No. 1 Mk III. With a Lee I can easily fire an aimed shot every two seconds. If you really want to go fast, grasp the ball of the bolt with thumb and first two fingers, and pull the trigger with the ring finger. With this method I’ve got down to 0.75 to 0.80 between shots, admittedly with not much accuracy — but I suppose a platoon of soldiers all firing in this manner might be effective in countering an enemy bayonet charge.

Speed guns — fast-cycling bolt actions (from top) Sako Finnlight .243 Win., Savage 11 .260 Rem., Kimber Montana .223 Rem.

What Attributes Make The Lee So Fast?

• Bolt location. When the shooter is gripping the stock with a finger on the trigger, the bolt knob is directly above the hand.

• Bolt lift is very easy due to the cock-on-closing design. The only effort required is for primary extraction of the fired case, and to clear the locking lugs. Bolt rotation is approximately 70 degrees compared to 90 degrees for most two-lug actions.

• Bolt throw is relatively short for two reasons: The .303 British cartridge case is shorter than other military rounds of its era (2.222″ versus 2.471″ for the 8mm Mauser and 2.494″ for the .30-’06). The rear locking lugs of the Lee saves the additional distance needed to clear the front locking lugs from their recesses in the receiver ring.

A great feature of the Savage 110 (and variants such as this Model 11) is the excellent location
of the bolt knob, almost as ideal as the Lee-Enfield.

Today’s Guns

Since it is unlikely we are all going to go back to a rifle designed before the first Roosevelt became president, what about the rifles of today? One obvious difference is the Lee’s cock-on-closing design is passé. All modern bolt-actions of which I’m aware use cock-on-opening, a feature I like but which does lead to a heavier bolt lift.

What about actions with reduced bolt rotation, e.g. 60 degrees instead of the more common 90 degrees? Since the cocking piece has to be moved the same amount for reliable ignition, these actions can have heavier bolt lifts. It isn’t always so, as high quality workmanship (and sometimes longer bolt handles) can negate the issue. The big advantage of such actions is greater clearance between bolt handle and the scope eyepiece.

A long bolt handle ideally located, short (70 degrees) bolt lift, short bolt throw, and superb workmanship
on Dave’s favorite rifle, his little Sako Finnlight .243.

Stand Back

With standard or magnum-length actions you may have to move your head slightly so the bolt doesn’t hit your shooting glasses. Short actions with shorter bolt throw allow you to cycle the action without moving your head. And regardless of recoil, I want a soft rubber recoil pad to keep the rifle firmly on my shoulder while reloading.

For me, my Sako Finnlight short action .243 checks all the boxes. Bolt knob well located for quick access; short bolt lift; a long bolt handle and excellent workmanship for easier bolt lift; short bolt throw; excellent stock fit and a soft recoil pad.

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