The rifle has been one of the most trusty pieces of weaponry and self-defense since its invention in the early 1700s. Before the rifle, the only weapons that could fire projectiles were cannons and muskets, or some other variation of the two.
In the following article, we’ll go over what defines a rifle, what was so innovative about its invention, and what types of rifles you’re most likely to encounter. By analyzing different rifle types, it is our hope you’ll get a better understanding of how these tools work and how to use them safely and effectively.
What Defines a Rifle?
The word “rifle” comes from the one unique feature that sets these firearms apart from the muskets and canons used for the centuries previous. This was the addition of “rifling,” or a series of spiral grooves around the inside of the barrel. These grooves caused the projectile being fired to spin as it moved through the barrel, rather than just explode out like cannon or musket shot.
This spinning action resulted in a much more stable flight path for the projectile, or bullet. In short, rifling dramatically increased accuracy. For the first time since the invention of the firearm, a person could aim their weapon and be relatively sure of where the projectile would go. This innovation not only significantly improved bounty from hunting but gave riflemen a considerable advantage in armed conflicts.
Now that we know what all rifles have in common, let’s take a look at what makes them different.
What Is Meant By “Action?”
Before we do into defining various rifle actions, it’s best to get some common terminology out of the way. These definitions will provide a better understanding of what happens when you fire a rifle and serve as an introduction to the components involved.
- Cartridge – a rifle cartridge is made up of several parts: a casing, a bullet, a primer, and a chamber filled with powder. When a rifle fires a shot, a mechanism controlled by the trigger will hit the primer and cause the bullet to travel down the barrel of the gun. (Check out our guide on rifle calibers for more info.)
- Magazine – Cartridges are stored internally or externally, either in a spring-loaded magazine or tube that extends along the barrel of the gun.
- Action – This is how the cartridge is loaded, fired, and ejected from the magazine or tube. One of the most significant ways various types of rifles differ is in the motion and design of this mechanism.
Five Rifle Types Explained
The lever action was one of the first designs associated with rifles. Utilizing a handle located behind the trigger, a cartridge is pulled out of the tube running along the barrel and loaded into the chamber to be fired. These rifles are known to be a bit less accurate than other models and are often a bit heavier. That said, they usually have a high cartridge capacity, which can come in handy in many situations.
Lever-action rifles are almost always pictured in the hands of rustlers and cowboys, thanks mainly to their depiction in the Westerns of modern cinema. To this day, the Winchester Models from the late 1800s are the rifles most commonly-associated with these types of weapons. These rifles saw a variety of use in the old west after the end of the Civil War.
Bolt-action rifles utilize a small metal handle that sticks out of the right side of the weapon, just behind the chamber. With a simple upward, backward, and forward movement, the user can eject a used cartridge, load a new round from the magazine, and close the chamber for firing. This type of action is among the most widely produced in the world, thanks to its ease-of-use, durability, and accuracy.
Like other types of rifles, bolt-action rifles make use of either a built-in or external magazine to hold the cartridges. This design allows these weapons to utilize a broader range of cartridge sizes. One of the chief drawbacks of these weapons, however, is that the trigger hand must leave the gun and regrip if after every shot. Despite this, it is preferred overwhelmingly by most snipers and marksman. The Remington Model 700 is one of the most popular bolt-action rifles and worth looking into if long-range shooting is what you’re after. (The current rifles used by United States military snipers are modeled after the Remington 700.)
Bolt-action rifles are also my personal preference for deer hunting season. Check out our list of the best deer blinds – I’ve noted which are the best options for rifle use.
Semi-Automatic Rifles are a much newer innovation and have become immensely popular among sport shooters and marksmen around the world. With a semi-automatic rifle, a user needs only move the action into a firing position once. After that, the action will automatically discharge the old round and reload a new one with every pull and release of the trigger.
In many cases, semi-automatic rifles can be fired more quickly than other types of rifles, allowing them to discharge more rounds per minute. That said, they can often suffer from failures in the mechanism, which, due to their automatic design, can be hard to fix manually.
Though more often attributed to shotguns, one can find pump-action mechanisms in a variety of rifle designs. This action design utilizes a slide mechanism built around the barrel to eject and old cartridge and load a new one simultaneously. One of the main benefits of this action is one operates it with their supporting hand, not their trigger hand, which can make for higher fire rates and improved accuracy.
Like lever-action rifles, pump-action rifles often use tube magazines, which are slow to load, as the user must insert cartridges individually. On the other hand, these tubes are usually capable of holding more rounds overall, which can be a massive benefit in a variety of situations.
The break-action (also referred to as hinge-action) style is common in single-shot rifles and shotguns. In this action style the barrel (or barrels) are hinged and open like a door to allow loading and unloading the cartridges.
The following demonstration of loading a break action, single shot rifle makes the style easy to understand:
One interesting modification of the break-action style that’s worth checking out is the “tip-up” action used in the Smith & Wesson Model 1 3rd Issue handgun.
As you can see, though there are thousands of models of rifles out there, the type of action the gun uses is by far one of the best ways to tell them apart. Furthermore, though all five of these actions remain in production today, each has its advantages, disadvantages, and specializations. In the end, the rifle you want is the one that fits your needs and which you can fire both comfortably and accurately.