Bolt Actions: Controlled Feed or Push Feed?

By Chuck Hawks

There seems to be a lot of attention paid to how a bolt action hunting rifle chambers cartridges, either by controlled feeding or push feeding. Both systems have been around for a long time, but it was not until Winchester changed the Model 70 from controlled feed to push feed in 1964 that a debate erupted about the merits of the two systems. (Winchester later re-introduced controlled feeding in their "Classic" line Model 70's and today all Model 70's use controlled feed actions.) Let's begin with the definitions, then list the advantages and disadvantages of each type of action, starting with controlled feed.

Controlled Feed

"Controlled feeding" means the cartridge is captured by the extractor as it is stripped from the magazine and held against the bolt face all the way into the chamber as the bolt runs forward. During the feeding cycle, the cartridge is always held by (first) the magazine lips and then by the extractor; it is never loose. That is the "controlled" in controlled feed. Examples of classic controlled feed actions include pre-1964 Winchester Model 70's, Husqvarna HVA, Mauser's Model 98 (and its clones) and the Mannlicher-Schoenauer. Examples of contemporary controlled feed actions include the CZ 550, Kimber Models 84/8400, Ruger Model 77 Hawkeye and all current Winchester Model 70's.

Controlled Feed Advantages

  • Because a fresh cartridge is captured by the bolt as it leaves the magazine, controlled feed actions prevent jams caused by "double feeds."
  • The action will feed cartridges at any angle, including with the rifle turned so the ejection port is facing the ground.
  • If a rifle with a "right handed" action is swung rapidly to the left as a fresh cartridge is being chambered, the cartridge cannot be inadvertently tossed out the ejection port before it reaches the chamber. The same is true for a rifle with a "left handed" action swung rapidly to the right. Unfortunately, cartridges have been inadvertently thrown from push feed actions in just this way, particularly when a hunter is unexpectedly charged from the weak side by a dangerous animal. This is one of the reasons why controlled feed actions are preferred for African safari rifles.
  • Controlled feed actions typically use receiver mounted ejectors, which means if the action is opened slowly, a chambered but unfired cartridge or fired brass can be neatly deposited in the hand or on the surface of a bench rest, rather than tossed several feet away. Of course, when the bolt is operated rapidly, the case is tossed well clear of the action when the rim hits the stationary, receiver mounted ejector. How fast the bolt is operated determines how far a case is ejected.
  • The large, controlled feeding extractor gets a bigger bite on the case rim, allowing extraction of stuck cases that might defeat a smaller push feed extractor.

Controlled Feed Disadvantages

  • Other things being equal (such as labor and material costs), controlled feed actions are generally more expensive to manufacture than push feed actions.
  • A bolt face, spring loaded, plunger ejector is not an option with controlled feeding, because cartridges are held flush against the bolt face during feeding and a plunger ejector would eject a fresh cartridge as soon as it cleared the magazine lips.
  • Cartridges should be fed via the magazine, not single loaded directly into the chamber, as it is difficult or impossible for the extractor to ride over the rim of a chambered cartridge. Most modern controlled feed rifles have beveled extractors that do allow single cartridges to be loaded directly into the chamber (although it is still best to feed from the magazine), but most classic controlled feed actions, especially Mauser 98's, do not.
  • Because of their large extractor, controlled feed bolt actions typically use two large locking lugs and require a 90-degree bolt rotation to unlock the action.
  • Short-stroking the bolt may cause a failure to eject a fired case and could jam it in the action when the bolt is prematurely shoved forward.

Push Feed

"Push feeding" means when the bolt pushes a new cartridge from the magazine lips there is no mechanical attachment to the bolt face until the cartridge is fully chambered and the bolt closed, which is when the extractor is finally forced over the case rim. Gravity (a rather dependable force here on the earth) keeps the fresh cartridge in the action on its way into the chamber. Hence, the cartridge is simply pushed into the chamber without being attached to the bolt. The Browning X-Bolt, Howa, Marlin X7, Mossberg, Remington Model 700 and Seven, Ruger American, Sako 85, Savage 110, Steyr-Mannlicher, Thompson-Center ICON, Tikka T3, Weatherby Vanguard and Mark V are examples of contemporary push feed actions.

Push Feed Advantages

  • Push feed actions are generally less expensive to manufacture than controlled feed actions, allowing the finished rifle to be sold at a lower price for a given profit margin. This is benefits both the manufacturer and the consumer and is why the majority of today's bolt action rifles use push feed actions. (There are exceptions to this general rule, such as the push feed Weatherby Mark V and Sako 75, which are deluxe actions.)
  • Push feed actions allow cartridges to easily be single loaded directly into the chamber and the bolt closed, a nice feature at the range or in the field with an empty magazine when an additional shot is required.
  • Push feed actions typically (but not always) use extremely reliable plunger ejectors that throw fired cases well clear of the action. (The Sako 85 is an exception, as it has a receiver mounted ejector.)
  • Push feed actions allow a rim on the bolt face to completely surround the case rim, i.e. a recessed bolt face. Thus, Weatherby and Remington advertise actions that enclose the case with "three rings of steel": the bolt face, front receiver ring into which the barrel is threaded and barrel chamber. (The recessed bolt face might have some purpose with rimfire cartridge or obsolete balloon head cartridges, but all modern centerfire cartridges have solid heads, rendering a recessed bolt face superfluous.)
  • Push feed actions can use multi-locking lug bolts, thus potentially increasing action strength and reducing the bolt rotation required to unlock the action. The nine locking lug Weatherby Mark V, for example, requires only 57-degrees of bolt lift, while the three lug Browning X-Bolt and T/C ICON require only 60-degrees. This makes these actions faster to operate than a typical controlled feed action with two front locking lugs and a 90-degree bolt lift.
  • Even if the bolt is short-stroked and not retracted far enough to push a new cartridge from the magazine, a push feed action's plunger ejector will typically kick a fired case clear of the action. The result of short-stroking the bolt is an empty chamber, but not a potentially jammed action.

Push Feed Disadvantages

  • Push feed extractors are typically smaller and have less bite on the case rim. This means that the extractor is more likely to slip from the rim of a case stuck in the chamber, tying-up the action.
  • A cartridge can simply drop from the action on its way into the chamber if the rifle is held on its side (ejection port down) or swung violently to the shooter's weak side in an emergency. However, practically speaking, this is only a serious consideration in a dangerous game rifle.
  • Hesitation feeding can cause a double cartridge feed jam.

Summary and Conclusion

Most experienced shooters and hunters own and use rifles with both types of actions. From the shooter's perspective, there is no difference in the operation of the two types. With either, you rotate the bolt handle upward to unlock the action, pull it back to eject a fired case, shove it forward to chamber a fresh round and rotate the handle down to lock the action. There is no inherent accuracy advantage with either type of action.

Controlled feed bolt actions are considered to be somewhat more reliable (less likely to jam) than push feed actions. For this reason, they are generally preferred for hunting dangerous game. For example, the majority of African professional hunters who use bolt action rifles back-up their clients with controlled feed actions. However, both controlled and push feed bolt actions are usually very reliable.

When properly designed and manufactured, both controlled and push feed actions are much stronger than required for safe operation with all cartridges loaded to SAAMI or CIP pressure standards. Any action, of course, can be blown by seriously over-pressure "idiot fringe loads."

At a rifle range with a "single load only" rule, a push feed action is convenient. Single shot bolt actions use push feed bolts and this includes deluxe varmint rifles. All bolt action "economy class" centerfire rifles are based on push feed actions, but so are some premium actions.

Before closing, special mention should be made of the Sako Model 85 action, which is incorrectly advertised as a controlled feeding action. It uses a receiver mounted ejector, typical of controlled feed actions, but a push feed bolt face. The extractor does not catch the rim of cartridges as they are fed from the magazine. The Sako 85 ejects like a typical controlled feed action, but feeds cartridges into the chamber like a push feed action.

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Copyright 2013, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.