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How Does a Bolt Action Rifle Work? — Complete Walkthrough

How Does a Bolt Action Rifle Work

Have you ever seen an action movie with a heated gun battle, showing off how particular guns operate and function?

Have you ever wondered how a bolt action rifle works? I never have.

I always just used to shoot with bolt action rifles, but never really bothered to learn how they work.

Either way, it always pays off to learn how your bolt action firearm operates. This article has all you need to know about how these magnificent rifles work!

How Does a Bolt Action Rifle Work?

1. Working Diagram

A bolt action mechanism is similar to a firearm action mechanism.

Hunters can manually operate the weapon’s bolt by opening and closing the breech (barrel) with a small handle.

Since I am right-handed, I can easily operate this because it’s usually placed on the right-hand side of the weapon.

When operating the handle, this is usually how the sequence goes.

The bolt is first unlocked then the breech will be opened. Next, the spent cartridge case will be evicted, and then the firing pin will be cocked.

Once the space for a new cartridge case is open, a new round/cartridge case is moved into the breech, and the bolt closed.

This firearm mechanism is often used for rifles, but I’ve seen it used on shotguns and handguns as well.

2. Loading Effectively

Most of these firearms provide an internal magazine that is loaded by hand using stripper clips.

Some designs can have a separable magazine, independent magazine, or even have no magazine at all.

The magazine usually holds about two to ten rounds, so some designs allow the magazine to be at the bottom of the rifle.

Thanks to this setup, I don’t have to worry about mud or dirt entering!

Some bolt-actions often have a tube magazine, which is usually the same length as the barrel.

The design uses a single-shot breechloader that closes out from the edge of the bolt and turns and opens the chamber.

I found the entire reloading process is more complex than updated designs because the firing pin had to be freely primed and activated to move the bolt.

3. Main Bolt Action Rifle Systems

There are three main systems that are used.

These systems are originally found in rifles like the Mauser, the Lee–Enfield, and the Mosin–Nagant system.

These are designed to fit into the receiver, use the same rotating bolt mechanism, and have the same number of locking lugs holding the bolt.

For some differences, the action is cocked in the Mauser system, while the bolt in the Lee-Enfield system is closed off.

The large majority of bolt action firearms make one of these three systems, with a small number making use of other bolt designs.


Mauser bolt action rifle

Mauser is a product of a German arms manufacturer that produces bolt-action rifles and semi-automatic pistols.

The Mauser M 98 bolt mechanism is one of the most common bolt systems in the world.

It’s used in all modern hunting rifles and also in military bolt-action rifles until the middle of the 20th century.

Mauser bolt action rifle 2

One of the advantages of the Mauser system is that it contains two locking lugs just behind the bolt head, making it better at handling higher-pressure cartridges.

In some models, this system also has a safety feature which is the third locking lug placed at the rear of the bolt.

One special point of the Mauser system is the feature “cock on opening,” which gives an upward rotating bolt when opening the rifle. 

A disadvantage of the Mauser M 98 system is that it is difficult to mass-produce because of its costly expenses.


lee enfield bolt action rifle

The first Lee–Enfield was made back in 1889, having the name of Lee–Metford, which later on became Lee–Enfield.

It is a “cock on closing” action that forwards the thrust of the bolt which then cocks the action.

The Lee–Enfield’s locking lugs are usually placed at the rear, so due to repeated firing for extended periods, it can stretch and leave excessive headspace.

Therefore, this system often has a removable bolthead, which changes the rifle’s headspace because the bolthead is now removed and replaces it with a safer distance.


Mosin Nagant bolt action rifle

The Mosin–Nagant bolt action system dates back to 1891.

The design has a separate bolthead that changes the bolt and the bearing lugs, which is different from the Mauser which contains a non-removable part of the bolt.

I found the Mosin-Nagant bolt quite complicated, but at least it’s extremely durable and rugged! It also uses a “cock on open” system.

These bolt-actions are rarely used in commercial sporting rifles, and it’s mainly used in Russia.

However, a large number of military surplus Mosin–Nagant rifles have been used as hunting rifles during World War II.


The Blaser R8 is a straight pull bolt action rifle

Another common bolt mechanism is the Straight-Pull system.

There are several variants of this system like the Swiss Schmidt–Rubin, the Canadian Ross rifle, and Austro-Hungarian Mannlicher M1895 designs.

The Mauser-style turn-bolt mechanism rotates the bolt handle counterclockwise first.

It then draws rearward and pushes forward, and then finally rotates clockwise back into the lock.

In a straight-pull action, the bolt lever can cycle in itself, so the rifle’s rate of fire could be greatly enhanced.

A new straight-pull action has recently been introduced by the Blaser company.

The locking of the straight-pull mechanism is reached by a series of concentric “blades.”

For some options that make use of mechanisms similar to these, you can check out our Buying Guide on 300 Win Mag Rifles if you’re interested.

4. Advantages

For some of its advantages, bolt action rifles can achieve superior muzzle velocity and have more accuracy than semi-automatic rifles.

They are one of my go-to’s because of their easy portability, reliability, and great accuracy at lower costs.

In fact, I have a guide that talks about two popular bolt action rifles on the market today: The Thompson Center Compass and the Ruger American.

Man unloading a bolt action rifle

The locking lugs of the bolt-action system are usually at the front of the breech, similar to a lever-action mechanism, increasing its potential accuracy.

This mechanism also has fewer moving parts and has a short lock action time. When it fires, only the firing pin and spring-loaded parts move.

Another plus is I can remain hidden since the cartridges are not visibly thrown into the air or onto the ground.

The total strength of bolt action designs is comparable to powerful magnum cartridges, but it gives no increase in the weight or size of the weapon.

5. Disadvantages

For its disadvantages, these rifles require four distinct movements.

It is quite slow compared to others that use a lever or pump action which only requires two movements.

disassembled bolt action rifle

Moreover, the trigger hand must abandon the gun and the weapon after the shot. I didn’t like having to regrip the weapon after each shot.

I would have to change sight and acquire the target again after every shot, which is a bit of a hassle.

It is also not suitable for left-handed people since the handle is on the right side of the rifle. 

There are some that offer left-handed models, but these are often more expensive.

6. Safety

When using bolt-actions, I always check the headspace with gauges before shooting.

This check can help force chambers and prevent the cartridge brass from any overstressing.

Some bolt action systems like the Lee–Enfield often use a series of different length bolts to increase the life of the rifle.

Sometimes, the bolt head is replaced and separated from the bolt and arranged in order of 0, 1, 2, 3, etc.

A bolt head can be replaced with no tools by dismounting the action to the bolt.


There are a bunch of bolt action firearms that make use of this mechanism, so it can be confusing to follow. I know I had a hard time following at first.

Nevertheless, I hope this article helped increase your knowledge of these rifles as a professional gunman or beginner!

FINAL TIP: For more reviews on bolt action rifles, you can take a look at our Remington 783 and 700 Comparison Guide.

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