This is a guest post by my author friend, William R. Bartlett. It continues his discussion of all things firearms. It was originally scheduled for earlier in the month, but we decided to push it back because of the horrific events in Florida. Even though nothing we share here could have affected that tragic event, I must stress that this series is only meant to help writers improve their writing and not to glorify weapons in any way.

You can check out the rest of the series on firearms here. Today, Bill explains how rifles work and describes some common writing blunders. Enjoy and bookmark! 

A Writer’s Guide to Firearms by William R. Bartlett

Part 4: Rifles


Rifles | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Several early examples of rifles. Source: Pinterest

A rifle is a firearm that comes with a shoulder stock and spiral grooves cut within the bore of the barrel. The grooves, called rifling, impart a spin to the bullet which stabilizes the projectile, increases range, and results in greater accuracy. Although handguns, both semi-automatics and revolvers, contain rifling, they lack the integral shoulder stock of long guns, such as rifles and most shotguns. The stock can be either in one piece and extend below the barrel or they can be in two pieces, with a forearm under the barrel and a butt stock that is held against the shooter’s shoulder. When stocks are in two pieces on a repeating rifle, that is a rifle with an ammunition magazine, the metal between the two stock pieces houses the action and is called a receiver. Stocks can extend to the muzzle or can extend little more than a than a third of the way down the barrel. On some rifles, the butt stock can fold forward, reducing the overall length of the weapon.

The area on the stock where the thumb and hand wrap around for shooting is called the ‘pistol grip’ in all rifles. Some pistol grips can be straight, as with the Winchester Lever-action rifle. Other pistol grips can be carved into the wood of the butt stock, resulting in a graceful curve. Still other pistol grips can look more like the grip of a semi-automatic handgun, like those of the AR-15 and the AK-47. Regardless of their appearance, all are called pistol grips and perform the same function: a place for the shooter to hold the weapon. All rifles, regardless of barrel length, (which do vary) are referred to by the blanket term, ‘long guns,’ as opposed to ‘handguns.’


Like all of the other firearms we’ve discussed, rifles have a barrel and a firing mechanism that includes the trigger. Rifles also have a stock that the shooter holds to their shoulder, allowing for greater stability during aiming. Most rifle barrels are longer than handgun barrels, usually within eighteen to twenty-six inches, or about forty-five to sixty-six centimeters.

How it works

Almost all rifle types have a military origin and they work in one of five basic ways, called actions: single-shot, pump-action, lever-action, bolt-action, and semi-automatic. Most modern rifles have an external, mechanical safety. Some of these safeties are engaged automatically when the breech is exposed.

Operation of Single-shot Rifles

These rifles have no magazine and work one in of three major ways: falling block, hinged action, and bolt-action.

In a hinged action rifle, the barrels pivot downward, in the same manner as a double barrel shotgun, exposing the chamber like the elegant Holland and Holland double rifles of the late nineteenth century. Hinged action rifles, like break action shotguns, can have two barrels side-by-side, and will have two triggers, one for each barrel. When the action is opened, spent cartridges are ejected and new cartridges can be inserted by hand. The barrels are pivoted upward and lock in place, putting the rifle into battery. Side by side rifles were used primarily by big game hunters in Africa and could be in very large calibers. Consequently, recoil was noticeable and could be severe. Double-barreled rifles were among two actions that had no history of military development or usage.

A falling block action rifle involves a lever near the trigger guard that connects to the breech block. Swinging the lever downward cocks the rifle, slides the breech block down, exposing the chamber, ejecting the cartridge, either spent or unfired. A fresh cartridge can be inserted, and the lever pulled upward to nestle under the stock, closing the breech block and placing the rifle into battery. A prime example is the British Martini-Henry rifle used by the Empire during the Zulu Wars.

Single-shot bolt-action rifles operate in a manner similar to magazine-fed bolt-action rifles, except they have no magazine. After shooting, the bolt handle is raised and the spent cartridge is ejected. The shooter then manually slides a fresh cartridge into the chamber, pushes the bolt forward, and rotates the handle downward to place the rifle into battery. Rifles of this sort are known for their safety, accuracy, and reliability. Children at summer camps are frequently introduced to shooting sports with a single-shot bolt-action rifle on a strictly supervised range. Many target competitions use single-shot bolt-action rifles.

Advantages of Single-shot Rifles

This type of action is typically known for its strength. Frequently, the receiver is milled from a single block of steel and can withstand pressures from ammunition in large calibers.

Disadvantages of Single-shot Rifles

Rifles with a falling block action or bolt-action must be reloaded after every shot. Double-barreled rifles must be reloaded after every two shots. Because the reloading can take a number of seconds, this results in a lower rate of fire that can be catastrophic in a military operation.

Operation of Pump-action Rifles

Pump Action Rifle | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Bolt Action Rifle components. Source: Sportsman’s Outdoor Superstore

Pump-action rifles contain magazines that can hold multiple cartridges. Contrary to what one might think, they have seen no military development or use. The magazine can be a fixed tube under the barrel or a removable, spring-loaded box, similar to a semi-automatic handgun. In a pump-action rifle, the forearm of the stock isn’t attached to the butt stock; instead, it is attached to the bolt. One pulls back the forearm to eject the spent cartridge and pushes it forward to chamber a new round. The shooter pulls the trigger and fires the new cartridge, then repeats the motion for the next round. The back and forward motion of the forearm is similar to operating a pump of some sort and is the origin of the name.

Advantages of Pump-action Rifles

They are fast to shoot, almost as fast as a semi-automatic. They’re simple to use and were frequently utilized by carnival shooting galleries where they shot low-powered ammunition at short ranges, mostly prior to World War II.

Disadvantages of Pump-action Rifles

Since there is no mechanical advantage in the extraction of the spent cartridge, the chamber may be a little larger, resulting in a slight loss in accuracy. Ease of operation may result in a greater expenditure of ammunition.

Operation of Lever-action Rifles

Lever Action Rifle | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Bolt Action Rifle components. Source: UK guns for sale

These rifles have either a fixed tubular magazine extending under the barrel, like the Winchester rifles seen in many westerns or a box magazine under the receiver, which are not so well known. As demonstrated in many films, the fingers of the trigger hand go within a lever that’s integral with the trigger guard, under the stock. After the shot is fired, the lever is moved downward, away from the stock. This extracts and ejects the spent cartridge while cocking the hammer. Pulling the lever back toward the stock chambers a new round and brings the rifle into battery, ready to shoot again.

Lever-action rifles with a tubular magazine may have a loading port on the right side with a spring-loaded gate. Reloading consists of simply pushing the bullet tip in through the gate, then sliding the cartridge in. The tubular magazine has an integral spring that pushes the cartridges down to where they are engaged by the closing action and placed into the chamber.

Lever-action rifles with a box magazine may have the magazine fixed or removable, both being forward of the trigger guard. With a fixed magazine, the action must be opened and can be reloaded using stripper clips. Removable magazines are low capacity, usually four or five rounds.

Advantages of Lever-action Rifles

Operating the action is both quick and easy, allowing for a fast follow-up shot, should one be necessary. Reloading of a tubular magazine is quick and doesn’t require the removal of the magazine. A shooter can expend half of his ordnance then reload to top off the capacity while keeping the weapon in battery and ready for deployment. Lever-action rifles are usually shorter and frequently used by hunters in situations where predominant bush restricts visibility.

Disadvantages of Lever-action Rifles

Generally speaking, they’re not as accurate as some other rifle types. Rifles with a tubular magazine must use a bullet with a rounded tip, as those with a pointed tip may cause unintentional firing with the point resting on the primer of the cartridge before it. Some lever-action rifles, such as the Winchester Model 94, eject the spent cartridge from the top of the receiver. This makes mounting and use of telescopic sights difficult, but not impossible. Generally speaking, the design characteristics of lever-action rifles result in a weaker lock at the breech. Some high-powered cartridges may overwhelm the lock and result in a catastrophic failure.

Operation of Bolt-action Rifles

Bolt Action Rifle | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Bolt Action Rifle components. Source: Zombie Awareness International

With the exception of the aforementioned single-shot rifles, bolt-action rifles are magazine-fed. The bolt contains a firing pin, a locking mechanism that the trigger engages to release the firing pin, locking lugs to keep the bolt in the safe position when firing, and a handle. The handle is lifted from the locking position and slid to the rear, which extracts and ejects the spent cartridge. The handle is then pushed forward, stripping off a fresh round from the magazine and pushing it into the chamber. The bolt handle is pushed down, which locks the bolt in place and places the weapon into battery. In most bolt-action rifles, cocking the firing pin occurs when the bolt handle is raised, although some, such as the British Lee-Enfield, cock as the bolt is being pushed forward.

Bolt-action rifles can be single-shot or magazine fed. Rifles that shoot more powerful cartridges have a magazine below the bolt, but bolt-action rifles shooting a .22 rimfire cartridge can have a tubular magazine under the barrel.

Advantages of Bolt-action Rifles

They are very accurate and are consequently the rifle of choice for most hunters. Even today, snipers will use a bolt-action rifle because of their accuracy. The technology was developed over a hundred years ago and has proven to be rugged, safe to operate, and reliable. Paul Mauser is generally credited with creating the bolt-action technology currently in use during the late nineteenth century, although some manufacturers developed rifles using a bolt-action technology nearly fifty years before his. Bolt-action rifles can use telescopic sights with consequent advantages in accuracy. Sporting models are usually lighter than military models because they lack military features such as a full-length stock, flash suppressor and provisions for bayonet attachment. Generally speaking, the bolt-action rifle is fairly light to carry. Military models will prevent the bolt from going forward when the magazine is empty. Most sporting models will not. Bolt-action rifles are available in a dazzling array of calibers. With little effort, one can find a bolt-action rifle chambered for almost any cartridge.

Disadvantages of Bolt-action Rifles

The time it takes to cycle the action, that is to cock the bolt, eject the case, and chamber a new round, can take several seconds. Although cycling the bolt doesn’t require the shooter to remove their head from the stock and lose the sight picture, this is almost universal practice. Shooters will lift their head while operating the bolt and must regain the target in their sights before shooting again, thus reducing the rate of fire. The bolt handle is almost always on the right side, making it difficult for left-handed shooters to operate.

I hope this helps with your writing. The next installment will cover assault rifles.


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