The Finest Bolt Actions Ever Produced

By Chuck Hawks

Every so often I make reference to a bolt action (I'm talking about the actual action here, not the complete rifle) in either favorable or unfavorable terms, as applied to big game hunting. My comments are based on the fundamental design of the action, its quality and the basic features that it incorporates. Big game hunting is different from varmint hunting, bench rest shooting, target shooting or sniping and requires different features from an action.

This article features the best bolt actions with which I am familiar, actions I would suggest using as the basis for a custom built hunting rifle. Some of these are used in modern rifles that you can purchase at your local gun shop and others are long out of production and are available only in used rifles. What they have in common is exceptional suitability for use in a big game hunting rifle.

Here are some of the features that are desirable in a top quality bolt action (beyond the most obvious such as suitable quality steel and correct manufacturing and assembly):

  • One piece steel bolt for strength and durability.
  • Front locking lugs to minimize cartridge case stretch.
  • Cocks on opening the bolt to take advantage of the superior leverage.
  • One piece firing pin (striker) for strength and positive ignition.
  • Recoil lug integral with (machined as part of) the receiver.
  • A design that routes hot powder gasses safely away from the shooter's face in the event of a blown case.
  • User adjustable trigger.
  • One piece bottom iron for strength and rigidity.
  • Hinged magazine floorplate.
  • Generous loading/ejection port that facilitates loading cartridges from the top.
  • Short bolt rotation (less than 90 degrees) to lock and unlock the action.
  • Full length (Mauser pattern) extractor for controlled feeding.
  • Safe and easy to manually feed a cartridge directly into the chamber and close the bolt.
  • Convenient, external bolt release.
  • Coned breech for smooth feeding.
  • Convenient shotgun style tang safety.
  • The safety should lock the bolt closed when fully on SAFE to prevent inadvertent opening in the field.

You will notice that some of these desirable features are mutually exclusive, while others are common to all of the actions described below. Just as with practically everything else in life, bolt actions are based on a series of design compromises and there is no perfect action. Some, however, come closer than others.

I am familiar with most of the popular commercial actions that are widely available in North America, but I'm not familiar with every bolt action in the world, so if your favorite is not included here I'm not implying that it's no good. Many popular actions that are acceptable in a rifle built to a price point would not be the best choice for use in a deluxe hunting rifle. (The Mossberg 100, Remington 700, Savage 110 and Tikka T3 would be examples.) Following are descriptions and brief comments about some bolt actions that are among the best, listed in alphabetical order.

Husqvarna HVA

This Swedish made, slightly modified Mauser 98 action was discontinued around 1970. Most of the modifications were made to simplify production and represent a step backward from the original Mauser design, but the changes were minor. These Include a very positive but difficult to operate spring steel magazine floorplate release in the front of the trigger guard and the lack of an external bolt release. (You remove the bolt by pressing down the receiver mounted pivoting ejector, which protrudes from the edge of the bolt face when the bolt is fully open.) Unlike a Mauser 98, but like most other bolt action rifles, the magazine box is separate from the bottom iron.

The safety is a slider mounted at the right rear of the action. It locks the trigger but not the bolt, which can be opened with the safety "on."

The Husqvarna action is very precisely machined from top grade steel. It handles escaping powder gasses as well as any other Mauser pattern action. It is one of the slickest, perhaps the slickest, Mauser 98 pattern action that I have ever used.

Other positive features include a one piece bolt, one piece firing pin, flat bottom receiver with integral recoil lug, adjustable trigger, one piece bottom iron, a generous loading/ejection port, and full length extractor for controlled feeding. Like all Mauser 98 style actions, the Husqvarna's full length extractor takes a very large "bite" on the case rim for positive extraction of dirty, oversize, or stuck cases. If you can find one, the Husqvarna is a very fine action and an excellent choice around which to build a custom rifle.

Mannlicher-Schoenauer

The 1903 Mannlicher rifles and carbines were the last designs of Ferdinand Ritter Von Mannlicher. The Model 1903 was the first of the famous Mannlicher-Schoenauer Rifles and Carbines and established the basic design of all the models that were to follow, including the variations introduced in 1924-25, 1950, 1952, 1956, and 1961. The Mannlicher-Schoenauer ultimately became too expensive to profitably manufacture and was discontinued in 1972.

All models came with a flat "butter knife" bolt handle that is located well forward of the trigger guard. (The bolt handle was swept rearward starting in 1952.) The flat Mannlicher bolt handle does not stick out to the side as much as conventional bolt handles with knobs, making the rifle particularly suitable for carry in a saddle scabbard or slung over the hunter's shoulder.

The M-S action has a split rear receiver ring through which the bolt handle passes as it is drawn back. The split rear receiver helps to prevent bolt wobble when the action is opened, but was to cause trouble later, when the use of telescopic sights became widespread, as it prevents the use of most conventional scope mounts on top of the receiver. Redfield designed a top mount specifically for the M-S and this style mount is still available from the aftermarket. However, most scoped M-S Rifles and Carbines are fitted with side mounts. Bolt rotation is approximately 90-degrees.

Cartridges were fed from a Schoenauer spool magazine (hence the name Mannlicher-Schoenauer). This spool magazine is arguably the finest, strongest, and most reliable cartridge feeding system ever incorporated into a bolt action rifle. It was also probably the most expensive to produce.

M-S rifles and carbines came with the buyer's choice of a user adjustable double set trigger or a single trigger. Either is a joy to use, light and crisp; the double set trigger almost unbelievably so.

In 1952 the M-S Carbine was improved by the addition of a swept back bolt handle and a couple of holes tapped into the flat above the bolt release on the rear receiver ring to accommodate a scope base. The gentle curve of the pistol grip was tightened somewhat.

The all forged steel Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt action was the simply the smoothest ever made. It is the only bolt action that I know of that will close and lock itself if the muzzle of an empty rifle with a fully open bolt is swung down to point at the ground. This is partly because of the outstanding machine work put into these rifles, and partly because the Schoenauer spool magazine does not drag against the bolt as does the follower in the box magazine of a Mauser style rifle.

The M-S action is not perfect, however. The forward location and unusual shape of its bolt handle slows operation for some users, it is not as strong as some competing bolt actions, and its lock time is leisurely by comparison to a Mauser 98 and most modern bolt actions.

Commercial Mauser Model 98 (as manufactured by Mauser Werke, FN, Brno, etc.)

Regarded by many experts as the finest bolt action ever designed, the Model 1898 was Paul Mauser's classic design. This is the action upon which most modern bolt actions are based. It is not perfect, as its bolt throw is 90-degrees, the bolt wobbles when fully withdrawn and there are stronger actions available (the Weatherby Mark V being preeminent in that area). Unless modified by a competent gunsmith, the full-length extractor is not beveled, which prevents loading a cartridge directly into the chamber.

However, the Mauser 98 design does offer an impressive number of positives. Included are a one piece forged bolt with two front locking lugs and a rear safety lug, flanged bolt sleeve, one piece firing pin, one piece bottom iron and magazine box with a hinged floorplate, a very handy floorplate release located inside the front of the trigger guard, simple external bolt release, controlled feed with a full length extractor, a fixed ejector and large loading/ejection port. The Model 98 also handles gas escaping from a blown case very well, routing it safely away from the shooter's face. Military Mauser actions came with two stage triggers, but most commercial Mauser 98 actions come with adjustable single stage triggers.

Military Model 98's have positive, but awkward, "wing" safeties mounted on the rear of the bolt. These will not clear a low mounted scope. Commercial actions usually come with a two position safety mounted at the right rear of the receiver.

In terms of quality and reliability, the Mauser 98 action is excellent. It remains one of the best bolt actions for hunting dangerous game, the highest praise that can be given to a hunting rifle.

Weatherby Mark V

When Roy Weatherby designed his turn bolt action he departed from the Mauser 98 inspired norm in many ways. He decided to address the issue of bolt wobble and largely eliminated the problem by making his one piece bolt as fat as the locking lugs, which are machined into a reduced diameter bolt head. Instead of two big front locking lugs, he used three rows of three small lugs, making a total of 9 locking lugs spaced to give a bolt rotation of only 55-degrees. Because the fat Weatherby Mark V bolt is so smooth in operation and has a short rotation to unlock and lock, it is one of the fastest of all bolt actions for follow-up shots. Inside the bolt is a massive, one piece firing pin.

The cartridge head is enclosed in "three rings of steel" (barrel, receiver ring and recessed bolt head), made famous by Weatherby advertising, and the action is immensely strong. The Mark V is, in fact, probably the strongest action in the world.

The extractor is a claw in the bolt head and there is a plunger ejector in the bolt face. The latter is actually more reliable than the fixed, receiver mounted ejector of the Mauser 98 type, as it is practically impossible for it to be bent or damaged.

In the event of a blown case the Mark V handles escaping powder gasses extremely well. There are three gas vent holes in the bolt body and a machined steel bolt shroud that completely encloses the end of the bolt to keep powder gasses out of the shooter's face.

The highly polished and finished receiver is machined from a block of solid steel. It has a flat bottom and incorporates a serious recoil lug. There is also a generous loading/ejection port and, typical of push feed actions, a cartridge can be fed directly into the chamber and the bolt closed.

The steel magazine floorplate is hinged at the front and the magazine floorplate latch is a button located in the front of the trigger guard. This button is easy to depress, yet takes a serious grip on the floorplate to prevent inadvertent opening under magnum recoil.

The Mark V comes with an excellent, user adjustable trigger mechanism. It's two position safety locks the bolt closed when on and was designed to operate in near silence to avoid spooking game. There is also a visible cocking indicator below the bolt shroud.

The 9-lug Mark V is a heavy action, basically designed for Weatherby magnum cartridges. Weatherby has addressed this by the introduction of a considerably lighter 6-lug (two rows of three) action for standard calibers.

Weatherby's Mark V is probably the best of the "modern," push feed bolt actions. It lacks controlled feed but offers great strength, smoothness, fast operation and very high manufacturing quality. It is one of the all-time great bolt actions and it was designed from the outset for a hunting rifle. For hunting the most dangerous game I'd probably prefer a controlled feed action such as a Mauser 98 or Winchester 70, but for most other purposes I prefer the Mark V.

Weatherby Vanguard / Howa 1500

Weatherby showed Howa how to make a superior, modern bolt action and they learned the lesson well. The Vanguard is a heavily modified Mauser pattern action that incorporates as many Weatherby Mark V features as possible. Its Mauser heritage shows in its small body bolt, dual opposed front locking lugs and 90-degree bolt rotation. Vanguard features common to both the Mauser 98 and Mark V include a flat bottom, forged and machined steel receiver with an integral recoil lug, generous loading/ejection port, one piece bolt, one piece firing pin and hinged magazine floorplate. The release for the latter is mounted externally in the front of the trigger guard.

From the Mark V action the Vanguard action derives its three gas escape vents in the side of the bolt body and a streamlined steel bolt shroud that completely encloses the rear of the bolt. There is also a cocking indicator below the shroud. The ejector is a claw in the front of the bolt and the ejector is a reliable spring loaded plunger in the bolt face, making the Vanguard a push feed action. The trigger is user adjustable.

Like the Mark V, cartridges may be fed directly into the Vanguard's chamber and the bolt closed. The bolt face is recessed to enclose the head of the cartridge. The Mark V may be faster, smoother and even stronger than the Vanguard, but the Vanguard is a very strong, well designed and well made action in its own right.

Winchester Model 70 (Controlled Feed)

No less an authority than Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American gun writers, wrote that the Winchester Model 70 was one of the two best bolt actions in the world (the other being the Mauser 98). The pre-'64 Model 70 lacks the one-piece bottom iron of the Mauser 98, but the latest versions have rectified this. The magazine floorplate release latch is at the front root of the trigger guard, a less convenient spot than the inside trigger guard location of the Mauser 98. The magazine box of a Model 70 is separate from the bottom iron.

On the other hand, the Model 70 is one of the few actions that incorporates a coned breech for ultra-smooth and reliable feeding, a desirable feature. The Model 70 has always been built from the finest alloyed steel. There is also a superior three position safety mounted on the right rear of the bolt that blocks the firing pin and trigger and locks the bolt closed when fully rearward. In the middle position it blocks the firing pin and trigger, but permits the bolt to be operated for unloading. The third, fully forward, position is "fire." The bolt release is a small, tidy catch at the left rear of the receiver, easy to use and far neater than the Mauser 98 bolt release. The full-length extractor is beveled to permit single loading a cartridge directly into the chamber. All Model 70 trigger mechanisms are user adjustable and the latest version is one of the best factory triggers on the market.

The bottom iron, magazine floorplate and trigger guards of Super Grade Model 70's are fabricated from blued steel. These parts are made of anodized aluminum to save weight on Featherweight models.

Otherwise, the Model 70 and Mauser 98 pretty much share the same collection of positive features and the question of which is superior will probably never be definitively resolved. As O'Connor wrote years ago, these two actions remain at the top for hunting rifles, and particularly for dangerous game rifles.




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Copyright 2006, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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