Rifle 101: The Difference Between Bolt, Semi-auto, Lever, and Pump Actions

For those inquiring minds who want to know the nuts and bolts differences between various rifle actions, pull up a chair and get the 411. The first muzzleloading rifles date back to at least the 17th Century. These simple single-shot black powder guns were “front stuffers,” being loaded with patch, powder, and bullet through the muzzle or front end of the gun. The name “rifle” is due to the rifling inside the barrel which imparts spin on the bullet, upping its velocity and thus increasing its accuracy and range. Rifles were far more capable when compared to smoothbore muskets and, by the 1850s, had largely replaced these older guns.

Then things started getting really interesting.

Bolt Action Rifles

Remington 700 DBL

Bolt-action rifles, such as this Remington 700 BDL, have been popular for well over 150 years, largely for their accuracy and ruggedness.

As breechloaders — which were loaded in the open rear of a rifle’s action rather than via the muzzle — became more common, the bolt-action rifle was not far behind. A German firearms engineer, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, began work on his “Needle Gun” in 1824 and the turn-bolt mechanism ushered in an era that has yet to go out of style. Bolt-action rifles, when later coupled with magazines that held extra cartridges, became king in the late 19th Century due to their accuracy and high rate of aimed fire when compared to single-shot breechloaders. Today, bolt-actions are still very popular for sport shooting, precision rifle and hunting applications for the same reasons.

Lever Action Rifles

Marlin 336 lever action rifle

The Marlin 336 has been in continuous production since 1948 although its basic design dates to the 19th Century. These guns, especially when chambered in .30-30, are icons when it comes to deer hunters.

Connecticut inventor Christopher Spencer in the 1860s created the basis for what today are known as lever action rifles. This downward-oriented hinged action manually works the rifle’s loading and unloading mechanism to eject spent rounds and replace them in the chamber with a fresh cartridge. Often called “Cowboy Guns” these rifles peaked in the 1890s with numerous designs from Henry, Marlin, and Winchester, many of which persist today in modernized variants. Still loved by outdoorsmen and Old West enthusiasts, the lever action is both fun to shoot and a traditional classic when it comes to rifle design.

Pump Action Rifles

Remington 7600 pump action rifle

The Remington 7600, chambered in a variety of popular centerfire hunting calibers, is the staple pump-action rifle and is well-liked with those used to operating shotguns with a similar action.

A concept borrowed from shotguns, the slide action or pump action rifle dates to Colt‘s circa 1885 Lightning series carbines. Described at the time as a “trombone” action, the manual sliding of the foregrip cycles the rifle’s mechanism, ejecting spent brass from the chamber and replacing it with a fresh cartridge from a fixed tubular magazine under the barrel or a box magazine under the receiver. Each backward pump kicks out a spent case, each push forward loads a new round. While rare on rifles, there are several pumps still in circulation, such as Remington’s 7600 series.

Semi-auto Rifles

Ruger 10/22 rimfire rifle

The Ruger 10/22 Carbine uses a 10-shot flush-fitting magazine and produces one shot with each pull of the trigger until the magazine is empty.

The first semi-automatic rifles, which uses the energy generated through a gas or blowback mechanism to load a new cartridge from a magazine into a chamber with each round fired, popped up in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, these early “autoloaders” hit the market in the form of the Winchester Model 1903. Today, popular semi-autos, which still produce one shot with each pull of the trigger, are popular for hunting, self-defense, 3-gun competition, and target practice. While often called repeaters when first introduced, these should not be confused with full-auto or select-fire rifles which fire repeatedly with just one pull of the trigger.

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