Like most Americans, I grew up with bolt-action rifles. Bolt actions represented the apex of rifle development. Bolt actions were unsurpassed in beauty, accuracy, ruggedness, and dependability. We believed all other rifles were somehow inferior. The legendary Winchester Model 1894 lever action rifle was considered a stepping stone to powerful bolt action deer rifles.
Those times have changed. The semi automatic is now king. A whole generation of shooters now considers the bolt action as a quaint antique. Much the same as we thought of the Sharps or Remington Rolling Block. How did this happen? Well here are my reasons.
1. Bolt actions are not featured in movies or television like semi automatics. They are just not exciting enough. It is a grandpa’s gun, plain and simple. Another aspect is there are few historical dramas made. The “Golden Age” of the bolt action as a hunting or military arm is not portrayed.
2. Semi Automatics are the beneficiaries of technology. The new sights and many of the new cartridges are specifically designed for use on Semi Automatic rifles. The Ar-15 style of rifle is a principle beneficiary of progress. The modularity of semi automatic rifles appeals to practical minded shooters and the ability to tailor a rifle to a specific task has a lot of appeal.
3. Many women and novice shooter are more comfortable with light recoil and increased round capacity of semi automatics. For defense, the semi automatic rifle is clearly the king. Why would anyone handicap himself or herself with a manually operated rifle?
4. The semi automatic has achieved market dominance. In the past, gun shops contained racks of bolt action and a few lever action rifles. Now gun shops stock large numbers of semi automatics, principally AR type rifles.
5. Rifle collectors love the semi automatic versions of historical and modern small arms. These weapons satisfy the desire for historically important or exotic weaponry.
6. Even modern snipers prefer semi automatic weapons. Accuracy was the sole domain of the bolt action, now semi automatics equal it.
7. The standards of aesthetics have changed. Appreciation of fine artisanship and deep lustrous blue seamlessly mated to high-grade walnut has given way to utilitarian, businesslike seriousness. The modern AR looks like a stealth fighter; the high-grade bolt action is a 1930s Packard convertible in comparison.
8. Attempts to upgrade the bolt action have fallen flat. The composite stocks, stainless steel construction, have not improved the basic platform of the bolt action rifle.
9. The biggest reason, is simply the bolt action is overrated. The bolt action rifle was made obsolete, by the bolt action rifle. The bolt action never delivered the firepower needed in the military or the quick second shot for the hunter. Efforts at a reliable semi automatic rifle go back to the early part of the20th century. The two World Wars and a few lesser conflicts kept the bolt action on the center stage. In the First World War, machineguns, not bolt action rifles dominated the battlefield. The Second World War really showed how obsolete the bolt action really is. Almost every combatant country tried to get some form of semi automatic rifle in the hands of their soldiers.
10. No serious operators opt for a bolt action rifle. Even the vaunted scout rifle, is not considered for serious use by any army or government agency. The Scout, which is comprised of a 1890s action, mated to 1940s style laminated stock, and carries a 1960s long eye relief (LER) scope technology, is really a joke compared to a modern semi automatic rifle.
The bolt action is no longer king in the military or in the hunting fields. I say this with regret; I collect and greatly admire military bolt actions. For me they will always hold magic. For the younger shooters they have become interesting relics of a bygone era.