Get the Best Out of Your Bolt Action Rifle

Follow these steps to access the extraordinary performance hidden in bolt-action rifles.

Set your big-game rifle up right, practice with it, and be loyal to it.

A century ago American doughboys were experiencing the awesome extended-range capability and authority of the bolt-action rifle as they shot their M1903 Springfield and M1917 Enfield rifles across no-man's-land.

Effective at distances far beyond the capability of the lever actions they'd hunted with before the Great War, the bolt-action rifle took root in the hearts of western hunters, and it's never let go.

For good reason. Nothing is as reliable and accurate as a good bolt-action rifle. Its stiff skeleton and simple mechanics provide best-possible accuracy, and its robust strength enables it to safely fire powerful cartridges that reach far and hit hard.

The fundamental mechanics of Paul Mauser's turnbolt design — and the many great actions it spawned — provide the foundation for the most capable hunting tools available. Here's how to get the best out of yours.

Setup

Any decently sighted bolt-action rifle can be a capable tool, but when properly broken in, fit with a superb trigger, and configured with a capable riflescope, an accurate turnbolt becomes an engine of pure performance.

For starters, pick a model with a naturally smooth action, such as Browning's X-Bolt, Tikka's T3x, Kimber's 8400, or Remington's Model 700. Alternatively, polish the bolt and raceway. How? Apply a dab of jeweler's rouge to the burnished spots on your bolt and work the bolt in the action for the duration of a good Tom Selleck movie. Reapply jeweler's rouge as needed. Be sure to keep the jeweler's rouge away from the locking lugs, as you don't want to affect headspace. By the end of the movie, function should be significantly smoother. Clean up polishing compound residue with sturdy Q-Tips. Apply a dab of gun grease to the contact faces of the bolt lugs, add premium gun oil to all other metal surfaces, and enjoy your silky-smooth action.

Next, you need a very good trigger. Some models (Kimber, Tikka, Browning) have good, tunable triggers. Contact the manufacturer for guidelines and adjust yours down to a very crisp 2.5 to 3.5 pounds. That's light enough for accurate field shooting and heavy enough for safety when your fingers are cold. But if yours is one of the many modern turnbolts fit with deplorable attorney-approved go-switches, swap that travesty out for one of Timney's superb match-grade triggers.

Reliability is critical. No matter how smooth your action and how crisp the trigger, if your bolt action doesn't go "bang" when called upon, it's worthless. To test your rifle's reliability, take it to the range and fill the magazine with cartridges. Cycle the cartridges through the chamber and eject them. Run them through slow and deliberately and run them through panicky-fast. If you experience issues, it's time for a quick trip to a qualified local gunsmith. Most feeding issues are a quick fix.

Last, put a really good optic on your bolt action. Superb glass and quality construction are absolutely critical. Stretch your budget as far as possible.

Tuning

No, your rifle is not a piano, but tuning it is just as important to making it perform.

To begin, sight-in at 200 yards. Zeroing your hunting rifle at 100 yards is a waste of a perfectly good flat trajectory. (Ignore this advice if there's no place in your state where you can see past 100 yards.) When zeroed at 200 yards, most high-power hunting cartridges will put bullets between 1.5 and 2.0 inches high at 100 yards and just a few inches low at 250 yards. It's far and away the most versatile sight-in distance.

Don't just rough-zero a couple inches high at 100 yards and call it good. Shoot three-shot groups at 200 yards, finessing sight settings and allowing your barrel to cool between groups. Repeat this at three separate range sessions and you'll eventually refine your scope setting to a true 200-yard sight-in.

Consult a capable online ballistic calculator, such as that offered on Hornady's website or at jbmballistics.com. Enter your rifle's particulars and an average of the environmental parameters where you shoot and hunt. Input a 10-mph crosswind. Create and print a compact range card showing drop and drift to 500 yards.

Next, perform your due diligence. Called "trajectory validation" by those who shoot long ranges, you need to test your point of im-pact on an actual range against that drop card. Shoot to 500 yards.

If needed, tweak the drop and drift numbers to match real-world trajectory and create a fresh chart. Pick a spot on your riflestock, clean it with rubbing alcohol, and attach the chart using heavy-duty, clear packing tape.

Handling skills

Unless you drive like a pro, a Ferrari is no different than a Rambler. Likewise, you need to know how to run your rifle to get the best out of it.

In addition to loading it for reliable feeding, it's critical to learn how to cycle the action and execute follow-up shots without breaking your position and to reload without looking.

Traditional hunting actions have hinged floorplates and typically must be top-loaded through the open action. Hold the rifle almost horizontal, and with the muzzle slightly elevated, drop each cartridge atop the magazine and press it down and rearward with the thumb. Ensure that neither the base nor the tip hangs or binds on the front or rear of the mag box and that each cartridge smoothly descends into the magazine.

Topping off the magazine can be critical. Let's say you're maneuvering for position to administer the coup de grâce to a wounded bear that's plunged out of sight into the alders. You have one loaded round left, and it's in the chamber. Before advancing, restock your magazine. Assuming you're right-handed, wrap your left-hand fingers around the bottom of the action, loosely covering the ejection port. Retract the bolt firmly with the right hand; the ejected cartridge will bounce off the left-hand fingers and back into the action. Press it into the magazine, where if need arises it's instantly available simply by closing the bolt and firing. If and while time permits, add fresh cartridges one by one until the magazine is full — by feel, while keeping eyes on the target — and close the bolt.

If your rifle has a detachable box magazine, leave the bolt closed on an empty chamber, drop the box, and — by feel — top it off.

One of the most common bad habits among hunters is the tendency to lower the rifle from the shoulder while cycling the action for a follow-up. Instead, keep the rifle shouldered and trained on your target, eye focused through the scope, while functioning the bolt. Practice this until it's ingrained into your muscle memory and you'll become a faster, surer game shot — and importantly, far more lethal when follow-up shots are required.

Familiarity

As the ancient sage said: Practice, practice, practice. Shoot as much as possible and dry-fire your rifle when you can't get to the range. Familiarity breeds proficiency, and ingraining your hunting rifle's feel until you can manipulate and fire it as if it's part of your own body will pay huge dividends in the field. Ask any big-game guide in the West. He'll tell you the biggest weakness most clients exhibit is their inability to get on target and make a clean shot before the window of opportunity closes.

Finally, once you've got a good rifle properly set up and tuned, be loyal to it. Don't sell it or switch to the latest, greatest new thing every time the whim strikes. Shoot one big-game (or predator) rifle consistently and you'll gain admirable proficiency.

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