Choice Bolt Actions for Custom Hunting Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
Any article like this is necessarily a matter of opinion. I have gotten enough e-mails over the years asking what action I recommend as the basis of a custom built rifle to conclude that, in at least some quarters, my opinion on this matter is considered informed. This article will address the question of suitable actions for bespoke rifles publicly.
All of the actions included below have certain factors in common. For example, they are all turn bolt designs that cock on opening. Their receivers are machined from steel billets and incorporate integral recoil lugs. The finished receivers have generous loading/ejection ports that make single loading cartridges convenient and clearing jams, should they occur, easier. They have one-piece bolt bodies with integral bolt heads and locking lugs, also machined from steel billets. Their bolts lock at the front using two or more lugs and have one-piece firing pins. The bolt stop is independent of the trigger. Their clean, single stage trigger systems are user adjustable for pull weight. They use one-piece bottom irons and the models with integral box magazines have hinged magazine floorplates. (The unique Mannlicher-Schoenauer, alone among the rifles listed below, uses a rotary magazine and the press of a button unloads the contents of the magazine out the ejection port.) They are, or were, produced in industrialized nations in Europe, Japan, or the USA.
The selected actions are divided into two groups, controlled and push feed. Controlled feed actions are preferred for hunting dangerous game, but in most other hunting applications the question of controlled or push feed is moot. Thus, if I were commissioning a custom-built dangerous game rifle, I would choose an action from the controlled feed list; for other hunting applications, I would consider the actions on both lists.
Controlled Feed Actions
Controlled feed means that the cartridge is positively controlled (normally by the extractor) in the action as it is slipped from the magazine and into the chamber. A controlled feed action can be operated in any orientation, including on its side with the ejection port down, as the cartridge is chambered. This exceptional feeding reliability is why a controlled feed action is preferred for hunting dangerous game, especially species that are often encountered in groups (buffalo, lion and elephant, for example).
These actions all have extractors that take a large bite on the rim, making it unlikely that they will pull through the rim of a cartridge stuck in the chamber. Their ejectors are mounted in the receiver, so the bolt can be operated slowly to drop a fired case into a waiting hand, a handy feature at the rifle range (where you usually must pick up your fired brass) and for reloaders.
The Mauser Model 1898 is the seminal, fully developed, turn bolt action. The Husqvarna HVA is a lightly modified, small ring Mauser 98 type action. The M-98, M-70 and HVA use a Mauser type box magazine with a staggered column of cartridges, a long Mauser type extractor and a blade type ejector mounted in the receiver. If the extractor has been beveled to allow it, a cartridge can be loaded directly into the chamber and the bolt closed, but it is generally preferred to load a single cartridge into the magazine and hence into the chamber.
The Winchester Model 70 is an "improved" Model 98 type action, so functionally it is very similar to the Model 98. The Model 70 is provided with a beveled extractor and a coned breech for smoother cartridge feeding and is made in the USA. The Mauser Werke (Germany) and FN (Belgium) no longer produce Model 98 actions, but Mauser 98 clones are still produced by CZ/Brno (Czech Republic), Zastava (Serbia) and perhaps others. The Swedish Husqvarna HVA was discontinued many years ago, but it is still occasionally encountered in used rifles; it is a very high quality action.
The discontinued Mannlicher-Schoenauer action (made by Steyr in Austria) was designed around a spool magazine. This gives it what is probably the most reliable feeding system of all bolt actions. It also uses a unique extractor design and a split rear receiver ring that serves as a bolt guide and makes the Mannlicher-Schoenauer the smoothest operating bolt action ever. The latter also causes problems for scope mounting, but the two-piece Redfield designed scope mount works well and is back in limited production for Mannlicher-Schoenauer owners.
Mannlicher-Schoenauer sporting rifles are extremely well made and command high prices on the used market. The thing to do is to look for a rifle with a split stock or a rusted bore from which the action can be salvaged. An alternative is a Model 1903 Greek Mannlicher-Schoenauer military rifle with a decent action that can be used as the basis of a custom-built rifle. The latter were designed around the 6.5x54mm M-S cartridge and are therefore short actions. The 6.5x54 is a fine sporting cartridge in its own right and 1903 pattern actions can be adapted to modern short action cartridges, such as those based on the .308 Winchester case, by a knowledgeable gun maker.
Mauser 98 by Larry Brace, .358 on Mauser 98, .30-06 on Mauser 98. Photo by Chuck Hawks.
Push Feed Actions
The bolt in a push feed action simply pushes the top cartridge from the magazine into the chamber. After the cartridge leaves the magazine lips and until it is locked in the chamber, it is not gripped by the bolt. Gravity keeps it in the receiver and if the rifle is turned upside down or swung rapidly in the direction away from the ejection port while the bolt is being operated, the cartridge can simply fall out of the action. This has happened to hunters with push feed rifles who pivoted suddenly to meet an unexpected threat while chambering a new cartridge, and it is why controlled feed rifles are recommended for hunting dangerous game.
On the other hand, push feed rifles can be single-loaded without cycling the cartridge through the magazine. All of the models below use a very positive plunger ejector that throws the fired case well clear of the rifle independent of how fast or slow the bolt is operated. They also use a small claw extractor of the Weatherby type that is strong and reliable.
The Weatherby Mark V is reputed to be the strongest production bolt action ever offered. This magnum (.375 H&H) length action uses a bolt body the diameter of the locking lugs to eliminate bolt wobble and a rebated bolt head. There are nine locking lugs arranged in three groups of three and the bolt lift is only 57-degrees, making the Mark V probably the fastest of all magnum length bolt actions to cycle, as well as the strongest. It handles escaping gas, should a primer be punctured or a case split on firing, very well, deflecting it away from the shooter's face. The entire Mark V bolt, including the bolt handle and knob, is machined from a steel billet. In fact, everything in this action is machined from steel, even the bolt shroud. This is a very smooth operating action. A shorter, lighter, six locking lug (in two rings of three) version of the Mark V is produced for standard (.30-06) length cartridges; it is otherwise identical in design, quality and operation to the long, nine lug, magnum action. The extremely well made Mark V action is currently being produced in the US; previously, Mark V actions were produced in Japan to Weatherby specifications.
The Weatherby Vanguard is a two locking lug bolt design (90-degree rotation to open) that incorporates as many of the features of the Mark V as possible, including its one-piece bolt construction and machined from steel billet receiver. It is an excellent action that is precision made in Japan to Weatherby specifications, very affordable and widely available in new Weatherby Vanguard rifles. The Vanguard is probably the most available, least expensive, high quality action on which to build a custom rifle.
The Browning/FN short extractor, push feed action was introduced by Browning when the FN/Mauser action became too expensive to manufacture for the Browning High Power rifle. It is a Belgian made, push feed action that retains as many of the features of the previous FN/Mauser 98 action as possible. Browning rifles with this action are still reasonably available on the used market, but they tend to be expensive. The thing to do is to look for a rifle with a split stock or a rusted bore from which the action can be salvaged.
The recently discontinued Sako 75 (manufactured in Finland) has been replaced by the Model 85 action. The Sako 75 uses a three locking lug bolt head that allows a shorter 70-degree bolt rotation compared to conventional two locking lug designs. Actions were manufactured in five configurations to fit a variety of cartridges from the .222 Remington to the .375 H&H Magnum and were sold separately.
If you are going to spring for a custom-built hunting rifle, these are good actions to consider building it around. I have listed them in my personal order of preference, but I have no quarrel with anyone whose opinion differs. Probably the majority of bespoke rifle customers over the years have chosen the Mauser 98 action over all others and I certainly cannot argue with that. These are all fine actions and you cannot go wrong with any of them.
Copyright 2010 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.