Our beloved tradition of campfire arguments often centers around which cartridge we should choose. That’s always fun, but maybe by now you’ve gotten my oft-repeated message that, within broad parameters, it’s kind of silly. We all know that the 6.5mm Creedmoor is the hottest-selling cartridge right now, but is any deer or steel target likely to feel the difference (or lodge a formal complaint) if struck by a Creedmoor, a .270 Winchester, a 7mm-08, or any of dozens of cartridges we can think of?
I think not. Actually, so long as the projectile strikes the desired point, the launching platform also doesn’t make much difference. Although each has significant variations, there are essentially five rifle actions: semiautomatic, slide-action, lever-action, bolt-action, and single-shot. For completeness, I suppose one could add the double rifle. I like doubles in certain applications, but it’s fair to say that the double is mostly a break-open single-shot with a second barrel and firing mechanism.
Semiautomatic, Slide-Action, Lever-Action, Bolt-Action, and Single-Shot: What’s the Difference?
Let’s stick with our five basic rifle actions. There are significant differences, and those depend somewhat on what you’re doing.
Remember: Familiarity is Important, Too
Familiarity is, of course, a major consideration. My old friend Kyle Lamb, retired special operations Sergeant Major, uses a semiautomatic AR platform for most of his hunting, an AR15 5.56 for varminting; and the larger AR10 action in 7.62mm for deer, elk, and even moose. His cartridge choices are suitable, and there’s never anything wrong with sticking with your comfort zone. A friend recently told me about an uncle who took just about everything in North America—including sheep and big bears—with a Savage 99 in . Maybe a bit outdated, but a good platform and a very versatile cartridge!
I’ve hunted with AR15s and AR10s, and I carried an M16 variant for decades in the Marines. I’ve also hunted with several other semiautos. All were accurate and dependable. I’ve also hunted with numerous single-shots and lever-actions.
I admit to little experience with slide-action rifles, but I’m lifelong Winchester Model 12 fan, and I’ve hunted with Remington’s famous Gamemaster and the Krieghoff Semprio slide-action centerfires. I know folks who swear by them! All said, however, in most applications the bolt-action is my comfort zone.
My point isn’t to convince you, but to discuss those significant differences. Speed goes to the semiauto! In hunting this is not always important, but if you have multiple coyotes coming to a call, you’ll notice the difference! Practice matters, but nothing is slower than a single-shot…and nothing is faster for the second shot than a double. The others are mostly a matter of familiarity.
A century ago, when the lever-action was king and the bolt-action was just catching on gunwriters did “speed drills,” lever-action against bolt-action. The results weren’t as predictable as you might think! Worked properly from the shoulder while maintaining sight picture, a bolt-action can be cycled very quickly. However, and based primarily on my experience with slide-action shotguns, I think the pump gun may be the fastest manually-operated repeating action–almost as fast as a semiauto!
Of course, there are mechanical differences in various models among all the rifle action types. I never used a Winchester ’73 until Browning/Winchester’s recent reintroduction, and with its short cartridge case (and thus short throw) I was struck by how fast it was compared to, say, a ’94 or Marlin 336. About ten years ago I started using a straight-pull Blaser R8…it took some getting used to, but with practice is much faster than any turn-bolt rifle!
Accuracy is a more elusive concept. Conventional wisdom gives the accuracy edge to the bolt-action, often aided by the consistent bedding of the typical one-piece stock. However, despite the common two-piece stock I’ve seen spectacularly accurate single-shots. Likewise, an AR mated with a good barrel and, after all, one could describe the AR’s multi-lug rotating bolt as the ultimate extension of Peter Paul Mauser’s genius. Krieghoff Semprio with fixed bolt and rigid lockup is amazing accurate but I’ve seen awesome accuracy from all the action types.
Strength and Reliability
Strength and reliability. Few actions known to man are as strong as falling-block single-shots, such as Ruger No. One, Dakota 10, Browning 1885, etc. That massive breechblock trapped by the receiver walls isn’t going anywhere. On the other hand, break-open actions are not as strong and have a natural tendency to flex during firing. (This is called “coming off the face.”) This is why doubles and many break-open single-shots are typically chambered to cartridges with lower operating pressures than the highest-intensity modern cartridges. Bolt-actions, with multiple and often redundant locking lugs, are extremely strong, and also have the positive camming power of the turnbolt in the event of a slightly sticky case.
Rear-locking actions, regardless of action type, are generally not as strong as forward-locking actions and flex more during firing. This applies to most traditional lever actions, which are typically chambered for cartridges generating moderate pressure. Modern lever actions like the Winchester 88 and Browning BLR are forward-locking and essentially as strong as bolt actions, but even so generally don’t have the positive camming power of a manually-operated bolt. This means that semiautos, lever-actions, and slide-actions can be technically as strong as a bolt-action, but by their nature are more finicky in the ammunition they will ingest, digest, feed, extract, and eject. Even the strongest single-shots do not have the camming power of a bolt-action to grab hold of and spit out a slightly sticky case. So, for overall reliability (and probably with the least maintenance), the bolt-action is hard to beat, closely followed by the single-shot.
Adaptability and Versatility
Adaptability is an interesting issue. Single-shot actions, including modern designs such as the T/C Contender/Encore and the Ruger No. One, have been adapted to a greater array of cartridges than has ever been possible with any repeating action. Repeaters, by receiver size, bolt length, magazine (or all three) are limited to the cartridge length and circumference they can handle. This is solved by different action sizes, but then it’s no longer exactly the same rifle. The AR15 is held to cartridges with similar overall length to the 5.56mm NATO. The AR10 is held to the 7.62 NATO family. There are now ARs chambered to .300 Winchester Magnum (and larger) but they’re bigger and heavier. Bolt-actions are probably the most adaptable among repeaters, but we still have short, standard, long, and “magnum” bolt-actions. Many manufacturers make more than one rifle action length, but very few manufacturers offer all rifle action sizes!
Adaptability to various sighting options is another story. Many older rifle actions aren’t adaptable to scope use at all, at least not without extensive modification. The rail mount, so prevalent on today’s AR platform and increasingly common on bolt and some lever-actions, is probably the most versatile system of all, gotta love it!
Silence and Ease of Loading and Unloading
One item that seems often overlooked but is really important to me as a hunter is silence and simplicity in loading and unloading. On a deer stand you may do this only twice, once when you get there, and again when you prepare to depart. When stalking or still-hunting I may keep the magazine loaded for hours, but I only load the chamber when I feel a shot is imminent. So, while negotiating obstacles, glassing, or taking a break, I may unload the chamber dozens of times.
Single shot rifles are simple and nearly silent, and bolt-actions are almost as good. Semiautos can’t be babied; almost universally it’s essential to drop the bolt to ensure it seats properly, which is noisy. Some lever and slide-actions require more positive motion than others.
But mechanical noise isn’t just the opening and closing of the action. Single-shots are probably the quietest and simplest, but once you remove the cartridge you must have a place to put it until you need it again. Options include a wrist holder, cartridge slide, or a handy pocket. Regardless of rifle action type, detachable magazines also require movement and noise to remove and reload, and with tubular magazines you often have little choice but to cycle the action to completely unload it, which makes much more noise and movement.
Purely from the stand or foot-hunter’s perspective, top-loading bolt-actions offer a sound solution. When you’re ready to unload the chamber, slip the bolt back, capture the cartridge and press it down into the magazine, hold it down, slip the bolt over it, make a visual check the chamber is clear, close the bolt slowly and quietly, and engage the safety. Mind you, some bolt-actions are noisier than others, but at least with a bolt-action you can baby the bolt forward slowly and quietly!
None of this means the bolt-action is the best choice, and for sure single-shots aren’t for everyone. It depends on what you like and what gives you the most confidence…and what kind of hunting or shooting you’re doing. I have rifles in all action types and I use them all, but these are little things worth thinking about that, collectively, may drive your choices.