Top 5 Best Military Bolt Action Rifles

Steve Johnson
by Steve Johnson

Bolt action rifles were the mainstays of armies across the globe for nearly over half a century, and today we pick what we believe to be the five best ever fielded. The list factors in effectiveness, fun factor, historical significance, and ease of use. All five of these guns are fantastic, and we recommend you get behind them should the opportunity present itself!

Firearms featured:
Lee Enfield
MAS 36
Mauser K98k

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The full transcript is below …

– [Voiceover] Hello, this is Alex C. with TFB TV.

Today I’ll be covering my picks for the five best military bolt action service rifles.

All of these rifles served as the mainstays of their nation’s militaries for a period of time, and that was the criteria.

I excluded specialty rifles, such as sniper rifles, or anti-materiel rifles.

So let’s get started.

First I chose an unusual entry.

This is a Krag–Jørgensen rifle, specifically a United States Krag, that’s chambered in.30-40 Krag.

This is important because it was America’s first bolt action, and first rifle to use smokeless powder.

The Krag was adopted after a number of trials that deemed its loading gate, where you can top the magazine off with single rounds to be a desirable feature, which ironically led to its demise.

This specific example is an 1892 model, and it came from the Evergreen Flight Museum.

As I mentioned, the loading gate is a neat feature, and you can see it here in operation.

The protruding bit allows you to use your fingers or thumb to pop open the gate, and then load rounds individually, up to five at a time.

You can see the follower right here that swivels closed to spring load the rounds, to enable them to feed.

This is a unique feature, and it does make the Krag look a bit different and unique.

You can see here a magazine cut-off switch is in place, as was typical of rifles at the time.

The safety is also a standard flag type, but it lacks the middle position that is common on rifles like a Gewehr 98.

All in all the Krag’s features are somewhat familiar, aside from the loading gate.

So next I’ll showcase how to load the Krag rifle.

To do this, you open the loading gate, place your rounds in individually, so as to not get rim-lock which is not present on the Norwegian models.

With the magazine cut-off disabled, rounds will feed, allowing the soldier to engage in rapid fire.

With the switch down, it shuts of the magazine, and the soldier must individually load rounds.

Again, disabling the cutoff allows the soldier to go back to rapid fire.

One last feature of the Krag that I find specifically endearing is a feature of the rear sight.

By pivoting up the rear section of the sight, it provides the shooter with a very small, unique aperture suitable for precision, or long-distance shooting.

While the aperture is very small, it is very effective, and it is a nice touch, making the Krag one of my picks for the best military service rifles.

So next up we have a rifle that, quite frankly, if it was omitted would make this list completely irrelevant.

This is a Lee–Enfield, specifically an Australian Lithgow production Enfield, and this one was bought from another TFB member in un-issued condition.

Usually these rifles look like they’ve been through hell and back because, quite honestly, most of them have.

Soldiers of Empire carried them on almost every continent that I’m aware of, and they served many nations in the Commonwealth for years and years.

As of the recording of this video they still are in limited service with the Canadian Rangers although a replacement rifle is being implemented.

However the SMLE is serving hobbyists and sportsmen very well, as it is a fantastic shooter, and an interesting rifle.

Seen here is how the Enfield functions.

You can see the receiver is not quite fully bridged aside from the stripper clip guide, which doesn’t quite count, but it is a cock-on-closed design which does allow the shooter to fire more rapidly.

You can see I do wrestle with the bolt to get it to close all the way, and the firing pin does protrude from the rear as it is cocked.

When you lift the handle, it does spring-load back as a result of it being under tension.

And I lift the bolt handle again here, and you can see it does not cock the rifle until you pull the bolt back and push forward.

The sights on the Enfield are pretty standard for a rifle at the time.

They’re a typical notch and post sight arrangement.

All in all not bad for what you get, but not exceptional, nothing like the peep sights on a Garand, or a Springfield 1903A3.

So next up we have something I need to address about the Enfield and that’s that these rifles are not particularly strong.

They do lock at the rear with two locking lugs, one that runs the length of the bolt almost, and a small one below as you can see on the bottom of the bolt.

This does lead to issues with headspacing eventually as the two-piece bolt design with a swiveling bolt head can take the rifle out of headspace and require a new bolt head.

As you can see here, the bolt head does swivel.

It does make disassembly of the bolt quite easy however, but over time, with metal fatigue and other factors that bit there shrinks, and will cause the rifle to go out of headspace and require either a replacement bolt head or something else to remedy the situation.

However, it doesn’t mean the Enfield is not arguably the finest bolt action rifle to ever serve in combat.

But let’s see what’s up next shall we? Of course next I’ve chosen the Swiss K31.

K31’s are very well known for their reliability and above all, their accuracy.

The Swiss are very well known for their craftsmanship, albeit with a high cost, as the cost of labor on most of their firearms results in a very high price, even for their modern commercial arms.

However their surplus rifles are reasonably priced, and I would recommend that you pick one up should you see one available at your local store.

The receivers are brilliantly machined and everything about these rifles screams quality.

Sometimes the stocks are a little beat up, but you can always remedy that should you so desire.

As I spoke about the receiver craftsmanship, it’s simply unparalleled within surplus arms.

You have what’s known as the, “Beer keg,” as the bolt handle.

Instead of having to rotate a bolt, you simply pull back and push forward to cycle the action.

This results in an unusually fast follow up, and a fantastic action to just play with and cycle.

The ring on the back also acts as a safety.

The trigger is also spectacular, and is the two-staged trigger from the factory.

Something unusual to note about the K31s is the quality or lack thereof of their equivalent of a stripper clip which would be more appropriately called a charger.

These fiberboard chargers are filled with six rounds and orient to be disposable so they’re quite rare to find in good condition.

However they do do the job, and top off your magazine with six rounds of 7.5 Swiss ammunition which is available and priced very reasonably.

All in all the K31’s a fantastic rifle, and if I were shooting a match, I would probably take that over all the rifles in this list.

So up next we have an unusual entry that many people might not be familiar with.

This is a French MAS-36 rifle.

Some people refer to it as the ugliest surplus rifle on the market, but I think it’s a little endearing.

It actually doesn’t look too bad I think.

It’s very utilitarian, and the full length wood is kind of unusual in a military rifle in that it is quite bulky with a very squared-off receiver.

What divides a lot of people is the placement of the bolt handle.

It’s located very rearward, but it’s swept forward to enable the user to cycle the action appropriately.

Another nuance about this rifle is it does lock at the rear which some people deride, however there is some debate about if this really affects the strength of the action or not.

I personally do not believe it does, and I’ve consulted some other, well, experts, which I am not, and they would argue that the action is stronger than previously believed.

Another feature of the MAS-36 that I really like is the way the bayonet functions.

It’s a spike bayonet that’s hidden within the rifle, and the Germans even copied this design in their FG 42 paratrooper rifle.

The problem with bayonets is that they’re always loaded, and I’m exponentially more afraid of them than I am firearms, so handling them always puts me on edge, although the design of the MAS-36 makes it well concealed within the gun, and therefore I’m not as worried as I normally would be.

The Achilles Heel of this gun to me is the sights.

While the rear aperture is quite nice, instead of having a sight located on the middle of the gun, in front of the receiver ring, there is one very gaping problem.

The way you adjust for windage is you actually go to the armorer after shooting a group, and get a new rear sight leaf.

Elevation is adjustable here as seen, just pretty typical of any other rifle of the period, but up next you can see a sight leaf.

I noticed one day at the range that I was shooting on a paper and it was grouping very low, so I had to purchase an additional leaf to replace.

The one I’m holding here on the left is the factory one, the one on the rifle is the leaf meant to accommodate for the windage.

All in all the MAS-36 is a great rifle.

If it had a windage adjustment, I would place it probably nearer to the top, as the penultimate, or ultimate bolt action military rifle.

Unfortunately it doesn’t, but it still earned a place on the list.

Up next is the king of bolt action rifles.

This is of course a Mauser 98, specifically a K98k variant.

All Gewehr 98 variants, including the Karabiner 98a’s, the b’s and so-on and so-forth are fantastic, however many people regard the K98k to be the highest evolution for one reason or another.

The Mauser 98 simply is the perfect bolt action rifle.

It reigns supreme for a number of reasons, and the action is legendary.

Nearly every bolt action rifle today copies this action or at least mini-elements of it, to produce a sporting rifle or, well, whatever the purpose or intent may be.

You can see here the action has a full bridge.

It’s machined very well.

The bolt has two frontal locking lugs, including a massive large extractor claw that almost never fails and results in controlled feed.

There’s also a rear safety lug should both front lugs fail, that will prevent the gun, or excuse me, the bolt, from ejecting into the shooters face.

It has that famous Mauser three position safety.

In the middle it will not fire, but it will allow the user to empty the magazine or cycle the bolt.

Pushing the flag all the way to the right locks the action shut and disables the firing mechanism.

All the way to the left makes the rifle ready to fire, and the user can engage.

This action is simply perfect, and I really can’t nitpick it too much and it’s still soldiering on today in many designs.

Of course safety was a big part.

These two holes are to vent gases away from the shooter in the event of a rupture.

The sights are pretty standard for rifles of the time, they’re a simple notch and post, and there’s not really much I can say, negative or positive, as they do the job, but the front does have a nice cover to reduce glare and aid in target acquisition.

All in all the Mauser 98 is the king of bolt action rifles, it’s strong, robust, and they’re still making rifles with this action today.

In fact, the Mauser company has just entered serial production of the 98 Magnum.

So that’s it for TFB TV today.

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Thanks again for watching guys, this is Alex C., I hope to see you next time.

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson

I founded TFB in 2007 and over 10 years worked tirelessly, with the help of my team, to build it up into the largest gun blog online. I retired as Editor in Chief in 2017. During my decade at TFB I was fortunate to work with the most amazing talented writers and genuinely good people!

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3 of 96 comments
  • Jim Jim on Aug 13, 2015

    I might agree if you remove that horrible MAS 36 and replace it with the Springfield 1908 which is IMHO the ONLY bolt action rifle that come close to the K98. The MAS 36 is VERY heavy, has nothing more than a spike that they call the bayonet and NO SAFETY! If you load the rifle you have a round in the chamber and the rifle is cocked and if the trigger is pulled for any reason it is going to go bang. Even if the trigger is hung up on an article of clothing, stick, or anything there is no safety! I hated it and sold it the first time someone offered me slightly more than I paid for it.

    • Nathaniel F. Nathaniel F. on Aug 13, 2015

      @Jim Errr... The MAS 36 is half a pound lighter than the 1903.

      The MAS does not have a safety because French doctrine was to carry the rifles chamber empty, and they had rigid doctrine in place ensuring this was SOP. So the safety was to simply not have a round in the chamber. The short bolt throw means this isn't such a big deal, really.

      The cruciform bayonet originated with the Lebel was a very lethal design that was widely copied. The worst thing that could be said about it is it didn't double as a utility knife.

  • Shaun Whit Shaun Whit on Aug 13, 2015

    Despite the fact that I own two Mosins, I agree with it not being on the list. The Krag is a great rifle and I enjoy shooting them, but frankly the Arisaka in either 6.5 or 7.7mm is a better rifle. Uses stripper clips (!) and has THE strongest action there is. The Japanese had few SMGs and often lacked sufficent support weapons; it was insane what the Japanese soldier with the Arisaka managed to do in WWII. I aim to own one. I do have an Austrian Mannlicher and would keep it off the list just because it fires a terrible round. I like the inclusion of the MAS-36, I really want one.