The first bolt-action rifle was produced in 1824 by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, following work on breechloading rifles that dated to the 18th century. Von Dreyse would perfect his Nadelgewehr (Needle Rifle) by 1836, and it was adopted by the Prussian Army in 1841. It became the first bolt-action weapon to see combat in 1864. The United States purchased 900 Greene rifles (an under-hammer, percussion-capped, single-shot bolt action that utilized paper cartridges and an ogivial-bore rifling system) in 1857, but this weapon was ultimately considered too complicated for issue to soldiers and was supplanted by the Springfield rifle a conventional muzzle loading rifle. During the American Civil War, the bolt-action Palmer carbine was patented in 1863, and by 1865, 1000 were purchased for use as cavalry weapons. The French Army adopted its first bolt-action rifle, the Chassepot rifle, in 1866 and followed with the metallic cartridge bolt action Gras rifle in 1874 .
European armies continued to develop bolt-action rifles through the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, first adopting tubular magazines as on the Kropatschek rifle and the Lebel rifle, a magazine system pioneered by the Winchester rifle of 1866. Ultimately the military turned to bolt-action rifles using a box magazine; the first of its kind was the M1885 Remington-Lee, but the first to be generally adopted was the British 1888 Lee–Metford. The Mauser Gewehr 98 was considered the epitome of this type of action, and its descendents became the standard against which all such rifles are measured. World War I marked the height of the bolt-action rifle’s use, with all of the nations in that war fielding troops armed with various bolt-action designs.
Mauser Gewerhr 98 (German)
The Mauser M 98 bolt system was introduced in the Mauser Gewehr 98 and is the most common bolt-action system in the world, being in use in nearly all modern hunting rifles and the majority of military bolt-action rifles until the middle of the 20th century. The Mauser system is stronger than that of the Lee–Enfield with its two locking lugs just behind the bolt head better able to handle higher pressure cartridges (i.e. “Magnum” calibre centrefire rifle cartridges), while the Lee–Enfield or Mosin–Nagant actions require some strengthening to do the same task. A novel safety feature was the introduction of a third locking lug present at the rear of the bolt that normally did not lock the bolt, since it would introduce asymmetrical locking forces. The Mauser system features “cock on opening”, meaning the upward rotation of the bolt when the rifle is opened cocks the action. A drawback of the Mauser M 98 system is that it cannot be cheaply mass-produced very easily. Many Mauser M 98 inspired derivatives feature technical alterations, such as omitting the third safety locking lug, to simplify production.
The controlled-feed Mauser M 98 bolt-action system’s simple, strong, safe, and well-thought-out design inspired other military and hunting/sporting rifle designs that became available during the 20th century like the:
- Gewehr 98/Karabiner 98k
- vz. 24/vz. 33
- Type 24 rifle
- M1903 Springfield
- Pattern 1914 Enfield
- M1917 Enfield
- Arisaka Type 38/Type 99
- M48 Mauser
- modern hunting/sporting rifles like the CZ 550, Heym Express Magnum, Winchester Model 70 and the Mauser M 98
- modern sniper rifles like the GOL Sniper Magnum and Zastava M07
Versions of the Mauser action designed prior to the Gewehr 98’s introduction, such as that of the Swedish Mauser rifles and carbines, lack the third locking lug and feature a “cock on closing” operation.
Ross .303in MK III (Canadian)
The Ross rifle was a straight-pull bolt action .303 inch–calibre rifle produced in Canada from 1903 until 1918.
The Ross Mk.II (or “model 1905”) rifle was highly successful in target shooting before WWI, but the close chamber tolerances, lack of primary extraction and overall length made the Mk.III (or “1910”) Ross rifle unsuitable for the conditions of trench warfare and the often poor quality ammunition issued.
By 1916, the rifle had been withdrawn from front line service, but continued to be used by many snipers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force until the end of the war due to its exceptional accuracy.
Model 1910 (Mk III) was made with a totally different bolt head; instead of having the solid bolt lugs travel in a vertical position and lock in a horizontal position, like for the Mk II. Ross turned it 90 degrees so it travels in a horizontal position and locks vertically. Then, he used screw threads on the lugs outside which are locking into the matching threaded receiver. Some very scarce Mk IIs with the same threaded lugs and receiver are known to exist. He also used the same shape of heavy barrel as used on the Mk II. The M-10, in .280 Ross, is considered by many as being the finest rifle ever made by the Ross Rifle Co.
M91 Moschetto De Cavalleria (Italian)
Fucile di Fanteria Modello 1891 (long infantry rifle Model 1891, detachable knife bayonet, adopted in 1891 in 6.5×52mm caliber) 30.7 inch barrel.
Carcano is the frequently used name for a series of Italian bolt-action military rifles and carbines. Introduced in 1891, this rifle was chambered for the rimless 6.5×52mm Mannlicher cartridge (Cartuccia Modello 1895). It was developed by the chief technician Salvatore Carcano at the Turin Army Arsenal in 1890 and called the Modello (model) 91 or simply M91. Successively replacing the previous Vetterli-Vitali rifles and carbines in 10.35×47mmR, it was produced from 1892 to 1945. The M91 was used in both rifle (fucile) and carbine (moschetto) form by most Italian troops during the First World War.
Steyr-Mannlicher M 1895 (Austro-Hungarian)
The Mannlicher M1895 (German: Infanterie Repetier-Gewehr M1895, Hungarian: Gyalogsági Ismétlő Puska M95; “Infantry Repeating-Rifle M1895”) is a bolt-action rifle, designed by Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher that used a refined version of his revolutionary straight-pull action bolt, much like the Mannlicher M1890 carbine. It was nicknamed the Ruck-Zu(rü)ck (German slang for “back and forth”) by Austrian troops and “Ta-Pum” by Italian troops who even wrote a song about it during The Great War.
The M1895 is unusual in employing a straight-pull bolt action, as opposed to the more common rotating bolt-handle of other rifles. It consequently renowned for combining a high rate of fire (around 30–35 rounds per minute) with reliability and sturdiness, although this requires decent care and maintenance with an extractor that is vulnerable to breakage due to a lack of primary extraction.
Originally they were chambered for the round-nosed 8x50mmR cartridge, but almost all were rechambered to accept the more powerful spitzer 8x56mmR cartridge in the 1930s.
Lee-Enfield No.1 Mk.III – .303 (British)
The Lee–Enfield bolt-action system was introduced in 1889 with the Lee–Metford and later Lee–Enfield rifles (the bolt system is named after the designer and the barrel rifling after the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield), and is a “cock on closing” action in which the forward thrust of the bolt cocks the action. This type of bolt can be used on modern magnum rounds and is found in several bolt-action .50 BMG rifles today. Since the Lee–Enfield’s locking lugs are at the rear of the bolt, repeated firing over time can lead to receiver “stretch” and excessive headspace; accordingly, the Lee–Enfield bolt system features a removable bolthead, which allows the rifle’s headspace to be adjusted by simply removing the bolthead and replacing it with one of a different length as required. In the years leading up to WWII, the Lee–Enfield bolt system was used in numerous commercial sporting and hunting rifles manufactured by such firms in the UK as BSA, LSA, and Parker-Hale, as well as by SAF Lithgow in Australia. Vast numbers of ex-military SMLE Mk III rifles were converted for civilian ‘sport’ use, post-WWII to create cheap, effective hunting rifles, and the Lee–Enfield bolt system is used in the M10 and No 4 Mk IV rifles manufactured by Australian International Arms.
- Lee–Enfield (all marks and models)
- Ishapore 2A1
- Various hunting/sporting rifles manufactured by BSA, LSA, SAF Lithgow, and Parker-Hale
- Australian International Arms M10 and No 4 Mk IV hunting/sporting rifles.
Fusil Berthier Model 1916 Infantry Rifle (France)
During World War I, a modified version of the 3-round clip Mle 1907 rifle called Fusil Mle 1907/15 was manufactured in large numbers (altogether 435,000 rifles) and issued to colonial troops, to the French Foreign Legion and to many minor allies (e.g. Russian Legion in France, Serbia, Greece, American Expeditionary Force African-American regiments detached to the French Army). It was also issued to some French regular infantry regiments after 1916 in order to bring relief to an endemic shortage of the Lebel rifle although well over 2 million Lebel rifles had already been produced between 1887 and 1917. Both the Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne and the MAC (Châtellerault) were the principal state contractors for the Mle 1907/15 rifle. French civilian contractors (“Delaunay-Belleville”,”Continsouza” and “Manufacture Parisienne d’Armes et de Mecanique Generale”) ) also participated massively in the industrial production of the Mle 1907/15 rifle.
Remington UMC also contracted to produce a French Army order for 200,000 Mle 1907/15 rifles. Although very well finished, the Remington order was rejected by French Government acceptance inspectors, who alleged that the rifles did not meet French barrel rifling and chamber dimensional standards. The contract was canceled after approximately half of the rifles were manufactured; and those rifles were sold on the private market. Rifles issued to American ‘African-American soldiers of the US 93rd Division’, were of French manufacture and not US made (B. Canfield, US Weapons of WW1). Many of these rifles subsequently appeared on the surplus market in the United States, often converted for hunting or sporting purposes. These rifles hold special significance to African-American historians.
In combat service, most infantrymen found the Berthier rifles and carbines, with their one-piece stocks and fast-loading en bloc magazine, to be an improvement. However, the limited ammunition capacity of the Berthier Mle 1907/15’s magazine (3 rounds) was viewed as a great disadvantage by troops in close contact with the enemy or participating in assaults or trench raids.
In response, French military authorities introduced a modified Berthier rifle in 1916, designated Fusil Mle 1907/15-M16 but generally called the 1916 rifle (Fusil Mle 1916). The new rifle had a five-round charger-loaded magazine. The Mle 1916 Berthier infantry rifle only appeared on the front lines in small numbers during the late summer of 1918. With its greater cartridge capacity, it was better received than the Mle 1907/15 rifle and later became widely issued to infantry troops during the post-war years after their production had intensified . Nevertheless, some commanders continued to lobby for reissuance of the older Mle 1886/M93 Lebel for their infantry troops. After World War I, the French Foreign Legion, which carried the 3-shot Mle 1907-15 during most of its post-1916 combat operations, was re-equipped with the older Mle 1886/M93 Lebel rifle.
The most successful and long-lived variant of the Berthier system was the short and handy carbine version of the five-shot Mle 1916 Berthier rifle, designated “‘Mousqueton Berthier Mle 1892/M16”. Contrary to the Mle 1916 Berthier five-shot infantry rifle whose manufacture had barely started during the late summer of 1918, the mass production ( over 800.000 “mousquetons” ) of the Berthier Mle 1916 five-shot carbines had begun much earlier, in May 1917, at the Manufacture d’Armes de Chatellerault (MAC) . The Berthier M-16 five-shot carbine immediately proved to be very popular with mounted cavalry, artillery, and reconnaissance troops. It was still in service with some French law enforcement units as late as the 1960s.
Mosin Nagant M1891 (Russia)
The Mosin–Nagant (Russian: Винтовка Мо�?ина, ISO 9: Vintovka Mosina) is a 5 shot, bolt-action, internal magazine-fed, military rifle, developed by the Imperial Russian Armyin 1882–91, and used by the armed forces of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and various other nations. It is one of the most mass-produced military bolt-action rifles in history with over 37 million units produced since its inception in 1891, and in spite of its age it has shown up in various conflicts around the world until the modern day, being plentiful, cheap, rugged and effective, much like the AK-47 and its variants.
With the start of World War I, production was restricted to the M1891 dragoon and infantry models for the sake of simplicity. Due to the desperate shortage of arms and the shortcomings of a still-developing domestic industry, the Russian government ordered 1.5 million M1891 infantry rifles from Remington Arms and another 1.8 million from New England Westinghouse Company in the United States in 1915. Remington produced 750,000 rifles before production was halted by the 1917 October Revolution. Deliveries to Russia had amounted to 469,951 rifles when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between the Central Powers and Russia. Henceforth, the new Bolshevik regime of Vladimir Lenin cancelled payments to the American companies manufacturing the Mosin–Nagant (Russia had not paid for the order at any time throughout the Great War). With Remington and Westinghouse on the precipice of bankruptcy from the Communists’ decision, the remaining 280,000 rifles were purchased by the United States Army. American and British expeditionary forces of the North Russia Campaignwere armed with these rifles and sent to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk in the late summer of 1918 to prevent the large quantities of munitions delivered for Czarist forces from being captured by the Central Powers. Remaining rifles were used for the training of U.S. Army troops. Some were used to equip U.S. National Guard, SATC, and ROTC units. Designated “U.S. Rifle, 7.62mm, Model of 1916”, these are among the rarest of American service arms. In 1917, 50,000 rifles were sent via Vladivostok to the Czechoslovak Legions in Siberia to aid in their attempt to secure passage to France.
Many of the New England Westinghouse and Remington Mosin–Nagants were sold to private citizens in the United States before World War II through the office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship, the predecessor to the federal government’s current Civilian Marksmanship Program.
Large numbers of Mosin–Nagants were captured by German and Austro-Hungarianforces and saw service with the rear-echelon forces of both armies, and also with the Imperial German Navy. Many of these weapons were sold to Finland in the 1920s.
M1903 Springfield (USA)
The M1903 Springfield, formally the United States Rifle, Caliber .30-06, Model 1903, is an American clip-loaded, 5-round magazine fed, bolt-action service rifle used primarily during the first half of the 20th century.
It was officially adopted as a United States military bolt-action rifle on June 19, 1903, and saw service in World War I. It was officially replaced as the standard infantry rifle by the faster-firing semi-automatic 8-round M1 Garand starting in 1937. However, the M1903 Springfield remained in service as a standard issue infantry rifle during World War II, since the U.S. entered the war without sufficient M1 rifles to arm all troops. It also remained in service as a sniper rifle during World War II, the Korean War, and even in the early stages of the Vietnam War. It remains popular as a civilian firearm, historical collector’s piece, and as a military drill rifle.
By the time of U.S. entry into World War I, 843,239 of these rifles had been produced at Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal. Pre-war production utilized questionable metallurgy. Some receivers constructed of single-heat-treated case-hardened steel were improperly subjected to excessive temperatures during the forging process. The carbon could be “burnt” out of the steel producing a brittle receiver. Despite documented evidence indicating some early rifles were improperly forged, actual cases of failure were very rare. Although several cases of serious injury from receiver failure were documented, the U.S. Army never reported any fatalities. Many failures were attributed to use of incorrect cartridges, such as the 7.92×57mm Mauser. Evidence also seems to suggest that improperly forged brass shell casings could have exacerbated receiver failure.
Pyrometers were installed in December 1917 to accurately measure temperatures during the forging process. The change was made at approximately serial number 800,000 for rifles made at Springfield Armory and at serial number 285,507 at Rock Island Arsenal. Lower serial numbers are known as “low-number” M1903 rifles. Higher serial numbers are said to be “double-heat-treated.”
Towards the end of the war, Springfield turned out the Model 1903 Mark I. The Mark I has a cut on the left hand side of the receiver meant to act as an ejection port for the Pedersen device, a modified sear and cutoff to operate the Pedersen device; a specialized insert that replaced the bolt and allowed the user to fire .30 caliber pistol cartridges semi-automatically from a detachable magazine. The stock was also slightly cut down on the left side to clear the ejection port. In all other respects, the Mark I is identical to the 1903. Temperature control during forging was improved prior to Mark I production. The receiver alloy was toughened by addition of nickel after Mark I production.