Hunting Rifle Magazines:
Detachable Box, Rotary, Internal Box and Tubular

By Chuck Hawks

I recently received an e-mail from a Guns and Shooting Online reader stating that he would be more impressed if Marlin made a lever action rifle with a detachable box magazine. This interest in military style detachable box magazines, sometimes incorrectly called "clips," has spurred several manufacturers (including, among others, Browning, Remington and Savage) to introduce such magazines in their sporting rifles. This trend is a definite a step backwards for hunting rifles.

I can't even begin to estimate the number of e-mails that I have received over the years asking where to get a replacement for such-and-such lost or damaged magazine. Often these magazine requests are for rifles no longer in production and new magazines are simply unavailable. Hunting rifles, after all, may remain in service for a hundred years or more, long after accessories such as a detachable magazine have been discontinued.

Detachable box magazines were designed for use in military rifles and they have been produced by governments in the millions for such rifles. Experience has shown that detachable magazines are indeed an advantage for infantry rifles. Army rifles (and their magazines) are essentially disposable due to the fundamental nature of combat. The primary advantage of the detachable magazine, speed reloads and the consequent high rate of sustained fire (given enough spare magazines), outweigh the drawback of an easily lost or damaged magazine in an army rifle.

However, the reverse is true for a hunting rifle. Fast magazine interchange is not required and detachable magazines are prone to being fumbled, dropped, damaged, lost, or not fully seated so that shots are missed. While a battle rifle needs sustained firepower, a hunting rifle needs to be able to deliver one to three absolutely reliable shots days or weeks away from an armorer, replacement parts, or any form of support. This fundamental difference between military and sporting rifle requirements makes detachable magazines a poor choice for the latter.

Probably the best and most reliable type of magazine for a hunting rifle is the internal rotary magazine. Rotary or spool type magazines, most often seen in Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt actions and Savage Model 99 lever actions, are precise, nearly indestructible and extremely reliable. Their principle drawbacks are that they are very expensive to manufacture compared to other types of magazines and usually must be emptied by working the cartridges through the action. These factors, particularly high cost, mitigate against their use in modern, mass produced, centerfire rifles.

Modern Ruger rimfire rifles use an inexpensive, detachable rotary magazine made largely of plastic. This is an excellent magazine for relatively inexpensive rimfire rifles and it has earned an enviable reputation for feed reliability.

For bolt action centerfire hunting rifles, the next best magazine system (after the rotary) is the top loading, internal box with a hinged floorplate. This type feeds cartridges reliably, better than a detachable box magazine because its position inside the rifle never varies, and it can be of single or staggered row configuration. A staggered row of cartridges allows greater magazine capacity, but the single row magazine feeds more precisely. The hinged floorplate allows the contents of the magazine to be unloaded into the hand at the press of a button, a great convenience.

When it is appropriate, a chambered cartridge can be extracted and ejected into a waiting hand by opening the action, pressed back into the magazine and held down while the bolt is closed. This results in a completely safe, empty chamber, but a full magazine. Very handy, for example, when frequently entering and exiting a hunting vehicle.

An internal box magazine with a blind bottom feeds just as well and the fixed floorplate cannot accidentally open under recoil, dumping the magazine's contents onto the ground. For this reason it is sometimes preferred for dangerous game rifles, particularly those chambered for "elephant rifle" cartridges that generate severe recoil. To unload, of course, the remaining cartridges must be cycled through the action.

The tubular magazine is usually placed beneath the barrel, although sometimes it is located in the butt stock. It is most commonly seen in centerfire lever action rifles such as the Henry, Marlin 336 and Winchester 94, as well as a great many rimfire rifles. It offers high capacity and very reliable feeding. (The feed reliability of a tubular magazine system is almost entirely a function of the action, not the magazine.)

The tubular magazine's primary drawback, when applied to centerfire rifles, is that the nose of one bullet rests against the primer of the next cartridge, creating the possibility of a recoil induced chain fire if spitzer bullets with hard points are used. The advent of Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition using spitzer bullets with soft polymer tips has obviated this problem. Another drawback of tubular magazines is that, in the centerfire Winchester and Marlin designs, unfired cartridges must be worked through the action to unload the magazine. The addition of crossbolt safety systems has made this process completely safe, even if the trigger is pulled with a cartridge in the chamber.

Those are the magazine systems most often found in sporting rifles. The final option, of course, is no magazine at all. No magazine means no mechanical feeding problems, breakage or loss. How can you get such a reliable device? It is easy: buy a single shot or double-barreled rifle!

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Copyright 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.