Bolt-Action Rifles: Your Grandfather’s Gun is Still Relevant Today

Lately I’ve been looking at some semiauto alternatives to the popular AR15 platform, but then I started thinking “Why stop there?” Semiautomatic rifles are great at generating massive firepower, but, unless you’re clearing a room or assaulting an enemy position, do you actually need that? The answer is no, and, in most SHTF situations, you might be better trading in semiautomatic capability for the increased reliability and simplicity of a bolt action rifle.

Bolt actions were the standard military rifles from the late 19th century through to the Second World War, and plenty of major armies still had them on issue to reserve units or second-line troops well into the 1960s. They were replaced as infantry weapons because they can’t generate the volume needed to win the firefight in close quarter battle, but for most purposes they’re more than rapid enough, and they have one great advantage – they’re incredibly dependable.

A bolt gun has no gas parts or recoil mechanism to keep clean, and an inherently clean action – all the propellant gas goes down the barrel and the breech stays closed until you manually eject the round. That means no fouling can accumulate and cause stoppages, a problem which will eventually affect any semiauto if you put enough rounds through it. They’re also very resistant to sand and general dirt, and their simplicity is a big plus too – there are simply less parts to go wrong. Here are the most common military bolt actions:

Mosin-Nagant Model 1891 30
A Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/30

Mosin-Nagant Model 1891/30

Various models of the Mosin-Nagant rifle were the standard Russian service weapon until the late 1940s and the most common is the M1891/30. At least 18 million of these were made and they’re easy to find on the US market – a nice one can be picked up for less than $200. A lot of American shooters have a low opinion of it, but in fact it’s a highly accurate rifle chambered for the powerful 7.62x54R round. The action is simple and extremely reliable even by bolt action standards, and while the sights aren’t anything special it’s easy to fit either a modern scope or the Soviet PU sniper optic. Thousands of US-made M1891s were issued to the US Army in 1918 and 1919, and these models are prized by collectors.

Mauser Kar98k

The German service rifle from 1935 to 1945, this is based on the legendary Mauser bolt action and is chambered in 7.92x57mm, making it powerful and accurate. It has decent sights and, unless you get a late war example, a very nice standard of manufacture. There’s no shortage of them in the USA; military-specification rifles can be easily found, as well as many that were converted into sporting guns after the war. The Mauser action is famously strong and these were often rechambered in various magnum loads. The standard iron sights are good, but many have also been modified to take various optics.

Springfield M1903

The M1903 is a US copy of an earlier military Mauser, the G98, with some modifications to suit American manufacturing techniques and preferences. It’s also rechambered in the highly effective .30-06 caliber. It’s an excellent rifle, reliable and well balanced, and hundreds of thousands of them were sold through the Civilian Marksmanship Program. Even now, the US Army still occasionally finds a cache of unissued M1903s and sells them to interested shooters – this is a great way to get your hands on one, but it’s not hard anyway.


The standard British rifle from the Second Boer War until the mid-1950s, the Lee-Enfield is chambered in .303 British and uses the unique Lee bolt action. This is theoretically weaker than the Mauser action because the locking lugs are at the rear of the bolt instead of right behind the chamber, but it’s more than strong enough for service ammunition. The Lee bolt is also a lot faster to operate, and combined with a ten-round magazine – twice the capacity of the other three rifles here – allows a very impressive rate of fire for a bolt action weapon. British infantry were trained to fire 30 aimed shots per minute with it; the world record for a bolt action was set in 1914 by a sergeant instructor, with 38 hits on a 12-inch target at 300 yards in one minute. The most common model today is the later Number 4 Mark 1.

Bolt-action rifles don’t have the rapid fire capability of a semiautomatic – although the Lee-Enfield comes close – but they’re powerful, accurate and immensely rugged. They’re also a lot of fun to shoot, so if you’re looking for a rifle that will keep working long after all the semiautos have worn out, consider one of these military classics.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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