Guide to Rifle Actions: Break, Bolt, Pump, Lever, & Semi

When someone asks me, “What kind of action do you want?” I usually reply with, “A redhead!”

Ba-da-dum-TISH!

But when it comes to rifles, an action defines the firearm and is a big player when it comes to the rifle’s strengths and weaknesses.  It is the part of the gun that defines how it loads, fires, and ejects ammo cartridges.

So let’s talk about some of the most popular rifle actions.

Break Action

Break Action, Hunter-ed
Break Action Rifle, Hunter-ed

Contrary to what action movies tell us, not every rifle out there holds a million rounds and can shoot them all in 10 seconds.

Some rifles and shotguns hold only one or two rounds.

Think of the double-barreled shotguns you see on TV.  In a break-action gun, the shooter pushes a switch or lever on the rifle, and the barrel swings open on a hinge, “breaking” the gun and exposing the breech so you can load and unload the weapon.

Break Action .223 Rifle
Break Action .223 Rifle

Once loaded, the shooter swings the barrel back into place, cocks the hammer and fires.

Some rifles and shotguns require the shooter to pull the hammer back and some cock automatically when the gun closes.

Advantages:

A break-action gun is a pretty simple creature, which makes it easy to operate.

If you give one of these guns and a box of rounds to an orangutan, it won’t be long before the leadership dynamic at the zoo changes in a very startling way.

Cleaning the firearm is, likewise, very simple.  You break open the gun and run a bore brush and patch through it. No disassembly required.

Another advantage is that, having only one shot at a time, a shooter is more inclined to take their time and make that shot count, which, in the long run, makes a better shooter.  You can also get them in about every caliber you can think of.

Disadvantages:

There’s no immediate follow-up shot.

If you shoot at a rabbit or a deer and miss, by the time you reload, that tasty dinner you were aiming at is in another zip code.

Bolt Action

Remington 700 SPS Bolt Action
Remington 700 SPS Bolt Action

Bolt actions are very popular among hunters and military for their inherent accuracy.  Military and SWAT snipers to this day use bolt action rifles, and they’re available is just about every caliber you can imagine.  Most “sniper rifles” are bolt actions with scopes on them.

With a bolt action rifle, the shooter manually feeds and ejects each round by directly manipulating the bolt by rotating, pulling and pushing a bolt handle on the side of the rifle.  Rotate, pull, push, rotate, fire, repeat.

Check out our recs for the Best Sniper Rifle for Beginners.

Advantages:

Bolt action rifles have been around for a long time and there’s not much too them.

It takes no effort whatsoever to go to a gun store and find one issued to Russian troops in World War II sitting on the rack next to one that came from the factory an hour-and-a-half ago.

Czech Mauser Bolt Action, Miller's Guns
Czech Mauser Bolt Action, Miller’s Guns

Like the break-action, a shooter takes their time, but unlike the break-action you can jack another round in without having to move the rifle from your shoulder.

Cleaning is almost as easy as with a break-action, with the added step of having to remove the bolt first, usually requiring nothing more than hitting a switch or pulling the trigger when the bolt is pulled back to the rear.

Disadvantages:

It’s a little slow to load unless you have an old military model that uses stripper clips like an Enfield, but generally speaking a bolt-action is a solid piece used my militaries, hunters and sharpshooters for more than 100 years.

Pump Action

Henry Pump Action Rifle
Henry Pump Action Rifle

If you’ve never seen a pump-action shotgun on TV before, go to the nearest TV, turn on any action movie, and watch for about five minutes.

Pump action firearms (more shotguns than rifles, but there are some out there) are very popular among hunters and police.

Nothing stops a man in his tracks colder than the universal clack-CLACK of a pump shotgun.  With a pump action, you load the shells into a tube that runs below the barrel and then “pump” the fore end back and forth to load the first shell into battery.

Henry Pump Action, TwangnBang
Henry Pump Action, TwangnBang

Advantages:

Everyone instinctively knows how to use one of these.

They’re simple to operate, and thanks to American television, everyone knows how.

Pump shotguns are available everywhere and can be found very reasonably priced.

Disadvantages:

They can be a bit of a pain to clean and require some disassembly.

Be sure to read the instruction manual that comes with your firearm for the proper way to disassemble and clean it.

If you’re looking for a pump action rifle, rather than a shotgun, they can be very hard to find and usually only in .22LR.

Lever Action

Remember Terminator 2 and how Arnold’s T-800 swung his shotgun to load the next round?

Terminator 2 Lever Action
Terminator 2 Lever Action

That’s a lever action in…action.

 

A lever action rifle is the opposite of a pump action.  Instead of pulling and pushing, you push and pull.

The shooter’s trigger hand fits into a handguard lever.

You push the lever down and forward, which pushes the rifle’s bolt back, locking the hammer back and opening the breech.  Pulling the lever back to its original position pulls the bolt closed, chambering a round.

Fire, then repeat.

Lever actions are most commonly used today for hunting and cowboy action shooting.

Lever Action Henry Rifle
Lever Action Henry Rifle

Advantages:

Mostly the fun factor.

Better for close-in hunting than bolt action guns.  If you miss on the first shot, you can work the action with your trigger hand for a fast reload.

Disadvantages:

There’s more disassembly required for cleaning, and some, such as the Winchester 94, require you to bring it to a certified gunsmith for a full cleaning.

Another downside is that lever guns tend to be restricted in range compared to bolt guns.

You see, most, not all, but most, lever guns use a tubular magazine where the rounds are held in a line one after another.  This places the end of one bullet against the primer of the one in front of it.

Drop the rifle hard enough and BOOM!

The rounds go off in the magazine.

To keep this from happening, lever gun manufacturers make the rifles in calibers with blunt noses like the 30-30.  The blunt nose isn’t as aerodynamic and doesn’t go as far, nor is it as accurate.

In the past few years, Hornady has come out with its LeverEvolution line of bullets where the tip of the bullet is a soft polymer, making it safe to have pointed rounds in a lever gun and increasing the range and accuracy.

Even so, a lever gun isn’t going to be as accurate or have as long a range as a bolt gun.

Semiautomatic Action

Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11
Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11

One trigger press = 1 PEW!

A semi-automatic rifle such as the AR-15 or the Ruger 10/22 is designed to use the firing of one round to work the action and chamber the one that comes after it.

So instead of having to pump, pull or push, the gases released by the round going off do that job for you.  This is known as direct impingement.

Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement

All you have to do is manually chamber the first round.  After that, you just keep pulling the trigger until you’re out of ammunition.

Want to find out the Best AR-15 For You?

Advantages

It’s automatic (loading), hence the name.

Follow up shots are ready to go by the time you realize you need another shot.

Disadvantages

Compared to other actions, the semi-automatic is more mechanically complicated.

More moving parts means more points of failure.

It also makes cleaning more of a chore.

One more disadvantage, at least in my own personal opinion, is that semi-autos can make shooters lazy.  Knowing you have that next shot ready to go instantly can make you more willing to rush a shot, whereas if you know you only have that one shot, you’re going to make it count.

Conclusion

There are other actions out there like the falling block, rolling block, and even a rifle that uses a revolver action, but I wanted to give you an idea of what you’re most likely to see.

An action has so much to do with your rifle’s capabilities that it’s something that requires serious thought before you make your purchase.

What did you end up choosing as your first rifle action?

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