History of the Bolt Action Rifle: Why a Bolt-Action is a Must-Have Guns

July 1, 2019

The bolt action rifle first appeared in the early 1800s. The U.S. and most other armies had adopted these guns by the late 1800s, and the bolt-action remained the primary infantry gun for most soldiers worldwide until the second world war.

When an adult recalls his or her first rifle growing up, chances are it was a .22 bolt-action rifle.


Armies and civilians used muzzleloaders until the 19th century. Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, a German inventor and arms manufacturer, designed the first bolt-action rifle in 1836. He designed his guns to use his “needle-firing” cartridges, essentially a pin that, when the shooter cocked the hammer, was pushed forward, piercing the center of a cartridge containing mercury fulminate, firing the bullet.

The combined bolt action and center-fired cartridge allowed soldiers to sustain a very high rate of fire compared to the old muzzleloaders. The Prussian Army quickly adopted the gun, placing the first order by 1841.

Called the Dreyse Rifle, the gun became the primary weapon of the Prussian Army until eventually replaced, beginning in the 1870s, by the Mauser.

By World War I, all European and other Western nations had adopted the bolt-action rifle.

Early Bolt-Action Rifles in America

The U.S. Army first fielded a bolt-action rifle during the Civil War. The Union Cavalry adopted the Palmer Carbine, developed in 1863, late in the war.

For approximately 25 years following the Civil War, the U.S. Army used Spencer, Burnside, or Sharp’s carbines. These rifles had trap-door mechanisms or breech blocks that rotated up and forward.

By the 1890s the Army realized that the carbine should be replaced by some form of bolt-action rifle like the ones used by European armies based on the Dreyse Rifle design.

The U.S. Army Ordnance Board appointed a committee to determine a suitable replacement for the carbines. The Magazine Gun Board tested 53 rifles, including ten currently used at the time by other major world powers, along with U.S.-made guns.

The board determined that the bolt-action, Danish-made, Krag-Jorgensen rifle out-performed all others tested.

The Krag-Jorgensen Rifle

Politics forced an almost two-year delay before the U.S. Army adopted the Krag-Jorgensen. Many Congressmen objected to buying a non-U.S. produced gun.

Congress passed a measure mandating the army to conduct another test. The army did so and once again chose the Krag.

The Springfield Arsenal began production of the rifle by late 1893, with the first rifle coming off the assembly line on 1 January 1894.

Krag’s Advantages

The Krag used a horizontal box magazine located on the right side of the receiver. This location allowed the shooter to load or unload with the bolt open or closed.

Shooters reported the gun had an extremely smooth bolt action which used a single bolt at the front to lock the mechanism forward.

The gun had a magazine cut off also, allowing the user to load a single cartridge without using the magazine.

Model 1892 and 1896 Krag

The first Krag models produced for the U.S. Military had a 30-inch barrel, weighed 9.3 pounds and used a .30-40 cartridge.

Soldiers gave the rifle positive initial feedback. However, there were some problems, including the inability of the shooter to adjust the rear sight.

Within a few years, Springfield Arsenal redesigned the gun and produced the model 1896 Krag.

The Model 1896 incorporated several modifications including replacing the under-the-barrel cleaning rod with a three-piece rod carried underneath the butt plate and a better rear sight.

The designers also began producing a shorter, carbine version for the cavalry.

First Wartime Service

The U.S. military first used the Krag bolt-action rifles in combat during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The carbine version, however, had already seen action and performed well during military engagements against the Apaches in the mid to late 1880s.

The rifle did well during the war. However, the military realized that the Model 1893 Mausers used by the Spanish performed better under combat conditions. The Mauser’s clip loading allowed the individual soldier to reload much faster. The higher-velocity cartridges used in the Mauser offered better stopping power also.

The gun saw action in the Philippines and was used by American troops during the Boxer Rebellion in China.

Other Models

The military continued to provide feedback to designers, ultimately resulting in a few more assembly line changes and models to the bolt-action and the carbine Krags including the Model 1898 bolt-action, Model 1899 carbine, and some retrofit additions.

Krag also produced one of the first .22 caliber bolt-action rifles, gallery practice rifles.

The 1903 Springfield

By the turn of the century, the military began the development of a new service rifle that merged the best features of the Mauser with the Krag.

The result of this testing was the invention and adoption of the Model 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle that used a 30.06 cartridge.

By 1910 the Springfield had replaced most of the Krags in the Army’s inventory.

World War I

The U.S. Army had a total of 127,500 men when the U.S. declared war on German and its allies. Within one year, the army size increased to over four million men.

Although Springfields were the primary weapon used by the U.S. in the fields of France and Belgium, Krags and European-made Mauser bolt-actions supplemented the Springfields in many units.

The Rise of the Semi-Automatic

The semi-automatic rifle started to replace the bolt-action rifles as the primary infantry weapon. Most combat troops used bolt action rifles during the war, though eventually, the M1 Garand became the weapon of choice.

Many sniper units of many armies today still use bolt-action rifles due to their reliability, lightweight, and superior accuracy.

Hunting Rifles

Bolt-action rifles have not disappeared from production, however. There is a robust civilian market for bolt-action rifles used by hunters and hobbyists.

Bolt actions are excellent weapons for hunting small or large game. Bolt actions make great safari weapons, where a hunter can take aim at a long distance to bring down a large, dangerous animal.

Some companies manufacture bolt-action shotguns, although the bolt-action mechanism does not offer any advantage to the standard shotgun, and most find them awkward to operate.

Olympics and More

The accuracy of a bolt-action weapon has made it the standard gun used in the Olympic sport, the Biathlon. This sport involves over 12-miles of cross-country skiing and shooting at targets along the way. The competitors use .22 caliber bolt-action weapons due to the gun’s accuracy, lightweight, and ease of firing.

Reasons to Use a Bolt Action


There are several reasons why many gun owners consider bolt-action rifles as the most dependable and desirable weapons to have.

You can easily teach someone to shoot with a bolt-action rifle. Firing a bolt action requires a very methodical, 4-step process: work the bolt, aim, squeeze the trigger, and work the bolt again. Shooters learn to make every shot count. Unlike using a semi-automatic, a bolt action slows a new shooter down and allows you to learn how to concentrate and fire correctly and accurately.

For hunters, this slow, methodical way of firing provided by bolt-action rifles increases the odds of making a kill-shot the first time.

Learning on a bolt-action gun makes firing an automatic accurately much easier.

Another reason to use a bolt action is cost. If you want to teach someone how to shoot or enjoy plinking at targets to improve your accuracy, utilizing a bolt-action .22 rifle is a low-cost, simple way to do so as the ammunition costs very little.

Another great reason to use a bolt action is reliability. Bolt-action guns provide ample choices in ammunition. A bolt action can shoot a wide variety of ammunition and do so reliably.

For example, using low-cost, low power ammunition such as .22 shorts or subsonic rounds may not provide enough blow-back or gas pressure to recycle the bolt on a semi-automatic.

That problem doesn’t exist with a bolt-action rifle since shooters chamber all rounds manually.

Finally, a bolt-action gun lasts a very long time. Shooters don’t go through as much ammunition as they do with a semi-automatic rifle. You can easily shoot several thousand rounds through a semi-automatic quickly, eventually wearing down the mechanism.

You go through a lot fewer rounds with a bolt action.

The .22 Round and Bolt-Action Guns

What helped keep bolt-action rifles popular in the past century was the introduction of the .22 rimfire cartridge.

Smith & Wesson first developed the .22 short round in 1857 for use in the Smith & Wesson Number 1 pistol.

This round ultimately has become the oldest continuously produced round in the world.

Several iterations followed, including the .22 Long in 1871 and the .22 Extra Long soon after that.

Bolt-Action .22 Rifles

During the first few decades of the 20th century, Winchester produced several single-shot b0lt-action .22s that became very popular very quickly in rural America due to the weapon’s accuracy and inexpensiveness of the ammunition.

Young farm boys growing up learned how to shoot using these guns.

The Winchester Model 52, introduced in the 1920s, was the first bolt-action repeating rifle. Although by the 1930s Remington, Marlin, and others introduced repeating bolt-action rifles also, for small game, this became the go-to hunting rifle for the next 60 years.

In 1980 Winchester ceased production of this iconic rifle, adding several less-expensive models to the company’s lineup of .22 bolt-action rifles.

Bolt Action Hunting Rifles Today

The annual Shot Show has become a Mecca for gun enthusiasts. This year, the event featured several new bolt action weapons.

Browning X-Bolt Max Long Range Hunter

This quality gun features a comb-to-dial, eye-to-scope sight. The stainless-steel, fluted, heavy-duty sports barrel chambers a multitude of rounds depending on the game you hunt including 6mm, .308 Winchester, .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, and more.

Weatherby Mark V Camilla Ultra Lightweight

Designed by Weatherby with the female shooter in mind, this very lightweight, slender bolt action has an ergonomic cant in the recoil pad. The designers used composite materials and an aluminum bedding block. The weapon chambers .30/06 Springfield, .308 Winchester, .240 Weatherby Magnum, and a few other types of rounds.

Steyr Scout in 6.5 Creedmoor

The famous Steyr manufacturers have upgraded the company’s famous 20-year-old Scout model. Unlike the older models that chambered .308 Winchester, the new version uses 6.5 Creedmoor. Other new features include a threaded muzzle and protective cap.

Remington Model 783 Varmint

Leave it to Remington to create another quality bolt-action for varmint shooting and more. The Model 783 has a 26-inch heavy barrel, oversized bolt handle, and a Picatinny rail. Shooters can chamber .22-250 Remington, .308 Winchester, .223 Remington, and 6.5 Creedmoor.

Sniper Rifles


Some of the first bolt-action rifles produced over 100 years ago remain so reliable that despite some technological improvements over the decades, many services around the world still use the original models.

The oldest bolt-action rifle still in service is the Russian Mosin-Nagant, first adopted by the Russian Army in 1891. Using stripper clips, North Korea, China and Russia still issue these five-round bolt-action guns to reservists and rear echelon soldiers.

Almost everyone has heard of the British Lee-Enfield, which first saw service in 1895. The British used this 10-round, .303 caliber bolt-action weapon in India, World War I and World War II. The UK still issues them to reserve units. The Lee-Enfield remains the primary weapon for the security services of former British colonies Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Other century-old bolt-action rifles in service today include the Model 1903 Springfield and the German Karabiner 98K.

Final Word

The bolt-action rifle, since its introduction over 125 years ago, does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Sportsmen, Olympic athletes, and military and security services around the world still rely on this reliable, accurate, and quality weapon.

If you don’t have a bolt-action weapon in your personal arsenal, consider purchasing one today. Give us a call or search IFA Tactical’s online store and add a bolt action rifle to your collection today.

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