Fast bolt work -- how to fire a bolt action rifle quickly

Many riflemen prefer the bolt action. Its simplicity, reliability, ease of maintenance and, above all, its accuracy recommend it to the practically minded. "But it's slow." Is it, now? Well, I suppose it is, compared to a machinegun. But how slow is it? Too slow? With proper manipulation the bolt rifle is faster than many think.

When the bolt action was the principal kind in military use, you can be sure a good deal of attention was paid to how to shoot it quickly. When self loading rifles came into general use, those lessons were largely forgotten. Fortunately, they were not altogether lost; you can look up anything on the Internet.

A survey of the classics

Fr. Frog is a well known rifle enthusiast and has many interesting things to offer on his site. Among them is this compendium of what several authors had to say about working the bolt quickly. You will find several different ideas described. You will also learn how to operate a right-handed bolt rifle if you are left handed. In what follows I am speaking of right handed use of a right handed rifle.

My preference

In the above material you can find several means of working the bolt, with the palm, with the upper edge of the hand and the fingers or by grasping the knob in thumb and forefinger. I've tried them all. What I prefer is using the thumb and forefinger to firmly grasp the bolt knob. Holding onto the knob seems to me more certain and secure than other methods. It also transitions naturally into the "Tommy finger" firing method given below.

Don't think of the bolt stroke as up-back-forward-down, but as a two step process, up-and-back, then forward-and-down. As I raise the bolt with my right hand, my left twists the rifle slightly clockwise, which increases the force acting on the bolt. The rifle stays on my shoulder and my eyes remain downrange. I do not look down at the rifle. Why should I? I already know what it looks like.

A point that has become clear to me in practice is you must always work the bolt very hard. SLAM it open. SLAM it shut. You won't break it, but working it gently risks inadequate ejection, short-stroke jams and incomplete closing.

Giving the Tommy finger

There is another method for working the bolt, when speed is important and best accuracy is not. It is the fastest method of all. While keeping the bolt knob grasped in thumb and forefinger, you press the trigger with your middle, or saluting finger. You maintain your grip on the bolt as you cycle and fire the weapon, which you can do because you are not using your trigger finger to fire.

Depending on the size of your hand and the relationship between the bolt handle and the trigger, on the rifle you are shooting, you may need to use your ring finger or your pinkie instead of the middle finger, to press the trigger. Regardless of which finger is used, I call this the "Tommy finger," in honor of the Brits who came up with this method.

The author of these instructions claims it is easily possible to fire five rounds in four seconds in close combat. Feel free to skip to page 124 and begin reading there, since the rest of what it says has been covered already, or is not directly relevant to the subject at hand here, or else offends against modern notions of safe gun handling practices. If you would like the hard copy of these instructions, they are found in this book. Addendum: Scroll down to the end of this blog post for videos of the method in use.

So, in summary...

You must not take the rifle from your shoulder or look down at it. Work the gun where it is and keep your eyes downrange. Of the various means of working the bolt, grasping with the thumb and forefinger seems to me the most certain and secure, and it transitions quite naturally to the Tommy finger technique if you are put upon to fire at short range and in a hurry.

Safety message

Before attempting any kind of rapid fire, make certain that the rifle is operating correctly and cannot fire out of battery. Come to think of it, that isn't a bad idea for slow fire either.

Addendum (2013)

I found some Youtube videos of the Tommy finger in use. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is many pictures per second, I'll post them here for the public's greater edification.

Historical reenactor shows polished skill

A closeup view of how the method works

The next fellow has a good run, except he has a couple of bobbles that say to me that he should work the bolt hard, as I suggested above.

Begin by practicing slowly and smoothly, because slow is smooth and smooth is fast. 


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