July 12, 2021
On a hot August night in 1900, United States Marine Private Dan Daly, fighting alone, held his position on the Tartar Wall above the Legation Quarter in Peking (now Beijing) against a horde of Boxer rebels. When his rifle was empty, he fought on with bayonet and rifle butt. For his actions, Private Daly received his first Medal of Honor. His second Medal of Honor came in Haiti in 1915. In 1918, at Belleau Wood in France, Gunnery Sergeant Daly, urging his Marines forward, is said to have shouted, “Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?” He received the Navy Cross for his actions at Belleau Wood. He retired in 1929 as Sergeant Major Daniel Joseph Daly USMC (1873–1937).
The rifle Daly used to hold the Tartar Wall against insurmountable odds was not the Krag-Jorgensen carried by U.S. Army troops in 1900. It was the Lee Navy Model 1895, chambered to the long-obscure 6mm Lee Navy cartridge, and the rifle was not a rotating bolt, but a straight-pull bolt with a cam action. Adopted by the Navy and Marines in 1895, the Lee Navy remained in service until after the turn of the century; it was abandoned primarily due to ammunition issues and premature barrel wear with the fast cartridge in the 1890s steel.
In the early days of bolt-action rifles, the Lee was just one of several successful straight-pull military rifles. These included successive models from Mannlicher, the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin, and the Canadian Ross. The advantage to the straight-pull action was no secret: It took less hand movement to cycle the action. The problem was, with period manufacturing, the straight-pull actions were more complicated and costlier.
The Mauser rotating bolt with dual opposing locking lugs became dominant, and straight-pull bolt actions nearly passed into history, resurfacing first in .22 rimfire rifles, operating at a much lower pressure than centerfires. Best known in this country is the Browning T-Bolt, but there were and are a number of European and Russian straight-pull target .22s, popular in biathlon (skiing and shooting), where speed of operation is advantageous.
The first modern straight-pull centerfire is probably the Blaser R93—certainly the best known and most popular. Introduced in Germany in 1993, the Blaser took advantage of modern metallurgy and machining. Today there are a number of commercial straight-pull sporting rifles. Most are European where the driven hunt is a common technique continent-wide and a speedy reload is a great advantage. Semiautomatic sporting rifles are not allowed in most countries, making the straight-pull bolt action extremely popular.
The modular Blaser system is most common, with the R93 now replaced by the R8. Other straight-pull centerfires I’ve used include the Browning Maral, Heym SR-30, Mauser M96, and Merkel Helix. Operation is generally similar. Instead of rotating the bolt handle upward, it is pulled rearward to extract and eject, then pushed forward to load and lock.
After a lifetime of operating rotating-bolt actions, it takes time to become proficient with a straight pull. Some, including the Blaser, incorporate a cocking lever vice safety; pressing the lever forward cocks the mainspring; releasing it uncocks the rifle and it cannot fire. The safeguards are obvious, but this, too, takes some getting used to. Everybody’s gonna flub it once or twice, so it is far better to spend a lot of time on the range so this doesn’t happen in the field.
I’m left-handed, and not all the straight-pull rifles are available with a left-hand bolt. I used a right-hand Helix on a deer hunt in England and shot the “running deer” target on the Bisley range. Amazingly, even operated on the wrong side, the straight-pull was fast, with much less movement than a wrong-handed turn bolt. Operated on the proper side, there’s no comparison! With less hand movement required, cycling is much faster. With practice, it’s also more natural, with no loss of sight picture while working the action. A well-practiced shooter can cycle the bolt nearly as fast as a semiauto.
The Blaser R8 was introduced into the United States at an event in Texas in January 2010. Although I’d used the older R93, its stock was more European and didn’t suit me. The switch-barrel and interchangeable bolt head system is much the same between the R93 and R8, but the R8 incorporated what was, to me, a much more ergonomic stock. I immediately ordered one with a left-hand bolt and first used it in Nepal in March of 2010. On that hunt, I took a Himalayan tahr at 470 yards and a blue sheep at a bit over 500. I was beyond impressed, and although it took some practice, I quickly became comfortable with the straight-pull system. Since then, the Blaser has become my “go-to” rifle for most of my mountain hunting and, with different barrels, has been used on hunts around the world.
In much hunting, it’s the well-aimed first shot that counts most, and the speed of the second shot isn’t as important. But there are times, such as driven hunting in Europe, where speed of action makes a difference.
My Blaser was still fairly new when I took my European brown bear in Romania. Sundown was coming fast when a good boar entered the clearing. I believe in anchoring big bears, so I shot him three times, and each shot cycled faster than I could believe. I’ve seen the same speed on African buffalo, using .375 H&H and .416 Remington barrels. In none of these situations were additional shots essential, but in the moment that often isn’t clear.
On a subzero morning in northern Alberta, sitting on a bluff looking down on a frozen river 200 yards below, the straight-pull action was needed. Three wolves came trotting up the river, led by a huge black male. They were moving right to left on the first shot, and not much lead was required. The second shot was reverse, left to right, moving fast, crosshairs farther ahead. The third shot was much farther, a shallow quartering angle. With a conventional rotating bolt, I doubt I’d have gotten past the first shot.