While incredibly popular in Europe, straight-pull rifles have never caught on in the states. Here’s an inside look at the straight-pull action and several modern straight-pull rifles currently available.
Why is it that the newest rifles coming out of Europe are straight pulls, yet not a single American manufacturer offers such a gun? In centerfire rifles, I’m talking the Blaser R-8 and R-93, the Heym SR-30, and the Merkel RX Helix; and in rimfire, the Anschutz 1727 and Browning T-Bolt. All are of foreign manufacture and differ greatly in mechanical details, but all share the basic characteristic of having a simple pull/push bolt cycle.
The straight-pull concept is not a new idea. There was the Austro-Hungarian Steyr-Mannlicher M95, the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin, the Canadian Ross and our own Lee-Navy—all straight-pull military rifles—and all came on the scene during a 20-year period spanning the onset of the 20th century. Reducing the four movements required to cycle a conventional bolt action to just a simple pull/push motion is simply intuitive.
The uplift of the handle on a conventional bolt action when shouldered is not only awkward, but the muscles involved are rarely used. If a fired case is even slightly sticky on the upstroke of the handle, it can range from difficult to impossible. That’s why so many hunters lower the gun to the port arms position to reload; it’s the only way they can get enough leverage to initiate primary extraction.
The best known and established of the current straight pulls is the Blaser R8 with its radial locking system. Lock-up is achieved via a steel tube, the front portion of which is comprised of 13 splines. Each of these splines, or fingers, has a small bulge at the forward end, which together form a radial locking lug that engages an annular groove within the barrel extension to provide a 360-degree lock-up. Instead of the barrel threading into the receiver, it simply lays in a V-block of aluminum that’s embedded in the stock and held there with two threaded studs that extend downward from the barrel and are engaged by two Allen-headed nuts held captive within the stock.
The barrel’s only connection with the bolt is when the bolt head enters the barrel extension and locks up with it. The bolt itself does not rotate at all; it simply reciprocates back and forth. In fact, the bolt handle is not even attached to the bolt, but rather to a bolt carrier. The handle rotates rearward in a short 5/8-inch arc before the bolt actually starts moving. It is this initial rearward rocking motion of the bolt handle that contracts the circular locking lug, unlocking the action. Conversely, the last 5/8 inches of the bolt handle’s forward movement expands the lug into battery.
The bolt locking up directly with the barrel makes possible two important features: First, the receiver becomes a non-stressed component allowing it to be made of aluminum, and second, it allows barrel/caliber interchangeability. On the Blaser the bolt can be removed from the carrier in about five seconds without tools and replaced with another of a different head to accommodate caliber changes across cartridge families. Bottom line is that you can go from, say, a .204 Ruger to a .338 Winchester Magnum in about two minutes.
The newest straight-pull on the scene is Merkel’s superb RX Helix. Like the Blaser, the Merkel’s bolt head locks up with the barrel rather than the receiver, so barrel/caliber interchangeability is one of its features. But unlike the Blaser, there is no rocking of the handle. In fact, the handle does not pivot at all; it simply moves back and forth, and in so doing rotates a multi-lug bolt head in and out of battery. Not only that, the bolt carrier and the handle are connected by a rack and pinion arrangement whereby there is almost a 1:2 ratio of handle-to-bolt movement. While the handle moves only 2½ inches, the bolt moves 4¼ inches! You can’t believe how fast this action can be cycled from the shoulder. Switching barrels/bolt heads/magazines on this gun can be done in about 30 seconds without tools. Reassembly is just as fast.
A feature the RX shares with the Blaser is that it must be manually cocked, but only for the first shot. By forcibly pushing a deeply serrated cocking lever up an incline at the rear of the receiver, the action is cocked. Depressing a small button embedded in the thumbpiece allows it to be eased back down to de-cock. This system allows the gun to be safely carried with a live round in the chamber—a great safety feature.
The least-known straight-pull rifle is the Heym SR-30 produced by a German company situated in the tiny village of Gleichamberg in Thuringia. Heym is best known for its superb double rifles, but this small company also makes a diverse array of other gun types, including box and sidelock drillings, O/U shotguns and rifles and three bolt-action rifles.
The two most distinguishing features of this gun is that the bolt handle pivots on a horizontal plane aligned with and parallel to the barrel bore, as opposed to the Blaser’s vertical pivoting movement. The other is that the locking “lugs,” for want of a better term, consist of six floating ball bearings oriented on 60-degree centers around the bolt head that engage an annular groove inside the receiver. With the closing of the bolt, these ball bearings are supported from beneath by a steel tube within the bolt body. As the bolt closes, this inner tube cams the ball bearings outward to engage the annular groove inside the receiver. It’s a slick and highly innovative design.
The basic mechanics as to how the handle moves and activates the locking system on the Heym SR-30 is similar to that of the Browning T-Bolt rimfire rifle. The specifics as to the locking system itself, however, couldn’t be more different. Essentially, the locking lugs consist of two circular “ears” on either side of the bolt body which, when in battery, fit into corresponding holes at either side of the receiver. The bolt handle is of a shallow L-shape and pivots on a vertical pin at its apex. The initial rearward movement of the bolt handle pivots the forward tip of the L outwards, pulling the circular locking lugs out of their recesses. It’s difficult to put into words, but a photo of the open action is the next best thing.
Lastly, we come to the Anschutz 1727, which was originally designed as a Biathalon rifle but is now offered as a sporter. Because reloading speed is essential to that Olympic sport, the Anschutz folks felt a straight-pull action would be just the ticket. And because the bolt travel needed to cycle the .22 LR was so short, they also concluded the action could be operated with just two fingers. Toward that end, they designed a bolt handle in the shape of an inverted “L” that extends downward along the right side of the stock to where the forefinger alone can open the action—and the thumb close it—without disturbing one’s grip on the rifle. Seeing videos of Olympic competitors using this rifle in competition is absolutely amazing; they get off shots about every two seconds!
One of the downsides to the straight-pull rifle, regardless of the design, is that none of them can offer the powerful camming force of a manual turnbolt to chamber and/or extract a recalcitrant cartridge or case. For that, nothing can match the conventional bolt action. But in all honesty, that’s mostly a problem with handloads rather than factory ammo.
Another is that all the aforementioned centerfires are much more complex than a conventional turnbolt and thus expensive to manufacturer. With the exception of the Browning T-Bolt, which goes for $749, all the others start at around $3,000.
Other than that, it’s hard to fault the straight-pull concept. The operational movements are more ergonomic and natural; the motions required are cut in half, as is the time needed to complete them. Sooner or later we’re going to see an American straight-pull rifle; I just hope it’s the former rather than the latter.
This gun review appeared in the October 2015 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.