17

The main disadvantage of bolt action is that one has to remove the right hand from the trigger which leads to slower rate of fire. Neither lever nor pump have this problem. Rate of fire was viewed as an important military issue which lead to development of repeating rifles in the first place. Nevertheless, all major WW1 rifles (Mauser, Lee-Enfield, Mosin-Nagant, Springfield, tube(!) magazine Lebel) were bolt action. WHY?

The lever action mechanism does look "flimsy" (not "military-grade strong") when opened, this, I guess, might be the reason not to use it (although the Russians used Winchester Model 1895 - but they were generally starved for weapons).

When firing from a trench (with the rifle lying on the breastwork), the advantage of pump action obviously disappears (and could even be a liability due to dirt getting under the slider) - but no army planned to fight from trenches before the WW1.

The bolt action rifles were using more powerful center-fire cartridges (in box magazines) than the rim-fire cartridges (in tubular magazines) usually used with lever- and pump-action guns. This does not sound like a good reason - I don't see why the slider in pump action gun cannot operate the same magazine as the bolt-action.

So, how come all the major WW1 rifles were bolt action?

Why didn't they try to make a pump action rifle with a powerful long-range cartridge? (it's not impossible, e.g., Remington Model 7600)

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    Actually there was considerable trench action in wars going back to the American Civil War. – Oldcat Jan 16 '15 at 18:58
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    Found a nice picture of the Winchester M1895 in use by the Russians. forgottenweapons.com/… That site is chock full of oddball small arms information and has a great YouTube channel. You may also want to poke through their "lever action" category. forgottenweapons.com/category/lever-action-2 – Schwern Jan 16 '15 at 19:49
  • I guess a french rifle would be nice in your list (lebel?) – Nikko Jan 19 '15 at 10:49
  • @Nikko: done (note that it has a tube magazine!) – sds Jan 19 '15 at 21:00
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    Just to add, the British Army emphasised on training to fire at a high rate with the Lee Enfield rifles (Mad Minute). Official record is 36 hits at 300yds in a minute... This led to incorrect anecdotes that the opposing Germans confusing rapid rifle fire for machine gun fire... – Kanchu Apr 18 '18 at 12:21
23

Most of the rifles used in WWI were designed, adopted and procured 10-20 years prior during a period of great upheaval in military rifle technology. In the decades leading up to WWI there was a great change in ammunition which most lever designs could not accommodate. Militaries were rapidly adopting rounds with better ballistics in addition to larger and more powerful ammunition. The US Army went from the .45-70-405 in 1873 to the .30-40 Krag in 1892, then the .30-03 in 1903 and finally the very powerful .30-06 in 1906 with a Spitzer bullet (the classic pointed round).

The increased muzzle velocities and pressures of the newer rounds strained the reliability of existing designs, and levers would have it worse. Spitzer bullets were a problem in tubular magazines (see below). Changing a rifle to use a different and more powerful round is not trivial and would have caused problems with existing designs. Lever designs had the additional disadvantages of using a tubular magazine, more complicated mechanism and generally used lighter rounds. When WWI broke out, most armies were concerned with procuring existing, reliable designs. For example, the Lee-Enfield was supposed to be rechambered with a smaller around but was aborted by the outbreak of WWI.

There are disadvantages with the tubular magazines normally associated with lever actions versus box magazines associated with bolt action rifles. They hold less ammunition than a box magazine, and the pointed center-fire rounds used by militaries could go off in the tube.

Bolt action rifles are easier to fire prone, which was how you were often expected to be fighting. Trench warfare was not planned, and shooting standing up from firing blocks was not expected.

Since bolt actions have less moving parts which require less fine machining, they're cheaper, more durable, easier to field strip and clean, and can use a more powerful round. This is very important when you're talking about buying and maintaining a million rifles.

Not all lever actions had these disadvantages. The Winchester Model 1895 used a box magazine and were very sturdy. It could handle the 7.62x54mm used by the Russians. They bought 300,000 and was used extensively by front line troops. Here's a great shot of it in use and here's Forgotten Weapons speaking about and shooting the rifle, another about the Russian Winchester in more detail, and finally a very successful mud test demonstrating its viability in the trenches of WWI. At the end of that video, Ian McCollum discusses why lever actions were not adopted...

...for a long time the lever actions available were basically in pistol caliber cartridges. Until you got to the Winchester 1886 you had fairly weak lever action designs that were only capable of .44-40 and earlier even wimpier rim fire cartridges like the .44 Henry. Military forces didn't want light powered cartridges like those, they wanted heavy military rifle cartridges which wasn't an option in early lever action rifles. By the time it became an option, like this rifle [the Winchester 1895], first off, for a long time you still had - well, for like 10 years - you were still limited to tube magazines which might be fine for something like a flat nosed .45-70 but the military wanted pointed bullets and a tube magazine just isn't really effectively compatible... By the time you got to a rifle like this which is both capable of using a full power rifle cartridge and has a box magazine, so that you don't have the issue of bullet tips hitting primers, at this point everyone's got bolt actions, they're easier to work prone, they're generally considered stronger, and they were generally favored by military forces. So, really, the reason military forces didn't use rifles like this is this came along too late and is just didn't have the opportunity to be given a fair shake.

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    do you have a reference for "They wished to discourage rapid fire"? – sds Jan 16 '15 at 13:58
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    @sds Good call. I may be projecting earlier attitudes into WWI. Let me do some research. – Schwern Jan 16 '15 at 17:33
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    In the arming of the US in the Civil War, repeating rifles were rejected because of the fear that fast fire would waste ammunition. – Oldcat Jan 16 '15 at 18:56
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    @Oldcat: true, and they were also more expensive; but the question is about another war, half a century later. – sds Jan 16 '15 at 18:59
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    Here's an opposing piece of evidence, the British "mad minute". – Schwern Jan 16 '15 at 20:03
10

To quote from Field and Stream (1909):

All sportsmen are familiar with the bolt action military rifle and the lever-action sporting rifle. Each has advantages over the other according to how and where it is to be used. The strength, durability and ease of repair of the military bolt type appeals lo the sportsman going out for big game in the wilderness, away from civilization and a repair shop; while the man who is going to hunt near home for his game, is often attracted by the appearance, weight, balance and speed of fire of the lever action rifle.

My addition to this assessment would be to note that in the field, range is king. If your unit has rifles with an effective range of 600 yards (typical bolt action carbine) and the enemy's rifles have a range of 150 yards (Winchester repeater) you will have a big advantage. In that scenario the greater rate of fire of the repeater is relatively unimportant.

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    I'd like to note that range for small arms is nowhere near as important as you think. Actual combat takes place at very short ranges, and it was the discovery of this that lead to the development of the assault rifle and submachinegun. – Mark Jan 4 '15 at 11:19
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    But WWI on the western front was the sitting war - couldn't it have made sense to switch to the faster guns once supply lines were established? – user45891 Jan 4 '15 at 11:33
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    @user45891 The distance between trenches in WWI was usually around 200 yards--the effective range of a bolt action rifle in the hands of a mediocre shooter. A repeater like a Winchester in such a situation would have been much less useful. As I said in my post, in war range is king. Use of automatic rifles only became feasible when technology made them powerful enough to match the range of bolt actions cheaply. This did not happen until the StG44 was developed in 1943. – Tyler Durden Jan 4 '15 at 13:27
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    The question was: what prevented pump action rifles from having the same range? – sds Jan 4 '15 at 16:47
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    @sds The problems with a slide action rifle are the same as the lever action: more parts and multi-part chambers that prevent the use of high-powered ammunition cheaply in an easily carried form. Also, slide actions usually have the ammo magazine in an end-to-end configuration that cannot be used with pointed or hard-point bullets. – Tyler Durden Jan 5 '15 at 16:04
6

One reason might be that infantry doctrine prior to and during most of WWI still considered the bayonet charge a valid tactic. Indeed giving the enemy a 'taste of cold steel' had an almost mythical effectiveness and was seen as the ultimate goal of the infantryman.

As a result an infantry rifle had to be rugged enough to be used as a spear. A pump action tube magazine is probably not ideal to fit a bayonet lug around, but more significantly the slide would be a serious inconvenience for a bayonet thrust. It's also probably much more prone to damage being used in such a way than a closed bolt action.

4

Underbarrel magazines have many shortcomings:

  • displacement of the center of mass during shooting
  • placement of rounds one after another makes the rifle sensitive to shocks
  • the feed mechanism is more complicated and less reliable
  • and reloading this magazine is not as fast as with a box magazine (with en-bloc clip or stripper clip).
  • there are lever actions and pump actions with box magazines. – sds Jan 16 '15 at 13:57
  • @sds While the Winchester M1895 is a valid consideration for WWI, the Remington M760 was produced in 1952. – Schwern Jan 16 '15 at 19:23
  • @Schwern: my point is that it is possible to make a pump action with a powerful cartridge and box magazine. I don't think M760 uses any technology not available in 1900. – sds Jan 16 '15 at 19:24
  • @sds There were enormous improvements in gun design, metallurgy, ballistics, ammunition, powder, manufacturing, sharing of information... pretty much everything having to do with making a gun between 1900 and 1950. Even if it was conceivable to make the weapon in 1900, you had to make it consistent and affordable. For example, I could go back in time and make a Sten gun in 1900 (if I brought the plans), but it would be very expensive since stamped metal production was uncommon and quality steel was expensive. The springs alone would probably sink the whole thing. – Schwern Jan 16 '15 at 19:44
2

A bolt action is much simpler and more rugged than a lever action or pump action. The rate of fire on a battlefield is also subject to the weapon becoming inoperable.

The bolt action isn't as adversely affected by dirt and mud, and battlefields tend to have a lot of dirt and mud. Most of the bolt action's workings are external and tend to be self clearing, and the bolt can be removed quickly by flipping a lock tab that lets the bolt be pulled out if quick service was needed. No small parts to get lost in the process, too, the bolt remains one piece when removed.

Both lever and pump actions have fairly complex workings internally, that would be fouled by accumulated dirt getting inside the rifle's frame and staying there, and require a lot of time to disassemble the action to clear that dirt, assuming one didn't lose any of the internal parts while trying to clear them.

Rifles with tubular magazines face a number of problems on the battlefield, on top of the complex inner workings and vulnerability to dirt. The tube can become damaged, unless it is made with very thick metal (as the early Henry lever action rifles were), increasing the weight of the rifle.

And then there is the matter of the bullets. A powerful rifle round like the 8mm Mauser or 30.06 also has a pointed (Spitzer) bullet to extend the range even further. Put those rounds in in a tubular magazine, and that pointed bullet will be resting on the next round's primer. The recoil of the rifle can cause that pointed bullet to impact the next round's primer and set it off in the tube, something that did happen regularly when the Spitzer style bullets were first tried out in tubular magazines. Most lever action rounds tend to have blunt bullets, to prevent that from happening.

Theoretically, a rugged gas operated rifle like the Garand could have been developed in WW1, it was well within 1914 machining techniques. But, the Garand wasn't developed until the 1930's. Since machine guns in general were fairly new in WW1, the idea of a semi-automatic rifle for infantry use was beyond most military strategists to visualize. In fact, the Garand was the only semi-automatic rifle that saw widespread use in WW2... the other standard infantry rifles were the Mauser 98 (Germany), SMLE (UK), Arisaka (Japan), Moisin-Nagant (USSR), all bolt action.

2

Actually, several weapon systems were developed during WW1 that were not bolt action. The Pedersen Device mated to the existing M1903 Springfield rifle, the RSC Model 1917, and the ever popular Browning Automatic Rifle to name a few. I understand that the BAR was not intended to be a standard service rifle, but it does deserve a mention because of its impact on subsequent assault rifle development.

Some like the Pedersen and RSC were developed to take advantage of existing service rifles by simple conversion. Unfortunately, many others were rejected due to mechanical unreliability, late development or just the simple cost of rearming units with the newer weapons.

The 1907 Mondragon and the M1916 Mauser self-loading rifles both saw service, but only for a short time and, in the case of the Mauser, in restricted use. I have also heard, though I have not been able to verify it, the some Schmidt Rubin 1911 straight-pull bolt rifles somehow made their way into the war by way of Bavaria.

Bolt action rifles were quicker and easier to produce, were generally more reliable and could handle the pressures of the larger cartridges favored by most general staffs throughout the world. Still, designers and engineers saw the potential that self-loading rifles would have for future conflict. Consider this, that even though assault rifles are now as ubiquitous on the battlefield as the bolt action rifles were in WW1, the Schmidt Rubin K31 remained in service with the Swiss until the late 1950s!

Hope I helped.

  • While this is all good information, I think this misses the point of the question. All of what you mention are self-loading rifles. These are basically bolt action rifles where gas pressure or recoil works the bolt for you. I think the OP is asking about non-self-loading alternatives to the bolt action like lever and pump actions. – Schwern Jun 24 '16 at 1:15
  • @Schwern And you are right. I approached the question probably from the wrong angle. Lever and pump actions were pretty much ignored by designers of the time for the same reasons that others have noted above. I did include the Schmidt Rubin as an example of a operating action that might have been a compromise. – user19141 Jun 24 '16 at 1:26
  • Gas pressure and recoil are two different things. They involve a similar concept however of making sure the "bullet" is moving in a forward direction with Maxim Efficiency. The biggest problem with the Springfield was how loud the 30-06 "explosion" was if you were sniping. That huge noise could be great psychologically though. – Doctor Zhivago Jun 26 '16 at 19:56
  • @user14394 The mechanisms I'm referring to are not about firing the bullet, but everything before. Gas pressure or recoil pushes the bolt back extracting the case & cocking the firing pin. A spring pushes the bolt forward to strip a bullet off the magazine, chamber it, and rotate the bolt to lock it. Now it's ready to fire. This is the same thing you'd do by hand in a bolt action. This is why they were referred to as "self-loading rifles". Here's a good video about how the M1 Garand works, a self-loading, gas operated, rotating bolt rifle. – Schwern Jun 26 '16 at 20:29
  • You could call the M1 an "auto loader" but it wasn't a "machine gun" in the sense that the trigger had to be pulled to fire the round. So now you have issues of a "breach" to contain the bolt and an "actuator" (the construct of the "receiver" which was as you state "rotated" via the expulsion of residual gases from the explosion of the propellant in the casing) thus "auto expelling" the casing and through use of a "spring contraption" effecting the next casing and bullet to be inserted into the barrel requiring the user to pull the triggering mechanism again to launch said second projectile. – Doctor Zhivago Jun 26 '16 at 23:40
-1

There's a safety reason; namely, should the round explode in the barrel, the bolt will flip up but should remain in place forcing the blast forward and protecting the shooter. Since (as WW2 showed) almost no infantry ever even fired their weapon, a bolt action rifle was more than sufficient. As an added bonus, with a bolt action you can alwasy check to see if you've chambered a round. With a Winchester you might forget and eject a very valuable piece of ammo. You are also noisier with a lever action too.

A bolt action is deadly quiet with a round chambered...heavy, but deadly accurate. The sniper battles of WW1 were really amazing...1000+ yard kills were not uncommon at all on the Western Front.

Mirrors, snap shots, quick reloads, excellent barrel life...that Springfield is still deadly even today.

  • 2
    Rounds are supposed to explode in the barrel, its how a gun works. Maybe you mean a case rupture? So long as the gun is in battery there should be no danger to the shooter, bolt or lever action. Next, how do you check if you've chambered a round in a bolt-action without running the bolt? Also, ammunition just isn't that valuable and you can pick it up. Next, lever actions aren't necessarily noisier than a bolt action, it depends on the gun. Next, they're both quiet with a round chambered. Finally, do you have a citation that these were important in a military context for an average soldier? – Schwern Jun 26 '16 at 5:15
  • This is pure conjecture on your part but having seen a 7mm round fired in a 7mm magnum rifle the safety efficacy could not be understated as a: the round still fired in the forward direction b: the weapon was still servicable after said explosion and c: my Father lived to tell about as the bolt lifted up but did not retract into his head. Needless to say we were both very careful to check the ammo type before buying and loading afterwards. You can of course use your own "home made ammo"...which was often done in WW1. So I say again..."safety first." Next up: "will the weapon still fire?" – Doctor Zhivago Jun 26 '16 at 19:42
  • Also...again this is WW1...to check "chambering" you VERY QUIETLY and with modification "push the bolt forward, lift, observe and VERY QUIETLY lock back into place." At most you will then have 10-15 seconds to get your shot off and then duck and cover. This "sniping" was a regular occurence in the British Zone of WW1 and killed tens of thousands. German positions in the French Zone were pretty much impentrible. – Doctor Zhivago Jun 26 '16 at 19:49
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    Sorry, I'm still not sure what the exploding ammo thing is about. I'm very glad that your father didn't get injured, but you need to explain what this scenario is, how a lever or pump action would have handled it differently and, most importantly because this is History.SE, show it was a contemporary reason why militaries chose bolt actions. Same with checking you have a round chambered. Most of what you talk about might be important to snipers and designated marksman (though that role wasn't named in WWI), you need to show this was a consideration of the armies of WWI in choosing rifles. – Schwern Jun 26 '16 at 20:13
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    This answer would be improved if it included references. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 27 '16 at 0:29

protected by Schwern Jun 27 '16 at 23:11

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