Everything You Need to Know About Rifle Types

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Last Updated on May 22, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

If you’re interested in buying a rifle, you should understand the differences among the various rifle types to make the best possible choice. 

A rifle is a long gun with a rifled barrel. Rifling, as a technology, came about in the 16th century, enabling the barrel to impart a rotation to bullets in flight for increased stability.

Everything You Need to Know About Rifle Types

Rifles are available in various configurations, action types, calibers, and designs to accommodate every kind of shooting, target, and environment you can imagine.

If you want to select the optimal rifle for your purposes, you should know the differences between some of the most well-known rifle types. These include single-shot, bolt-action, lever-action, and self-loading.


Rifle Actions

Some of the most common types of rifle action include the following categories. 

Single-Shot

Single-shot rifles can be broken down into two basic categories:

1. Muzzleloading

In a muzzleloading rifle, such as the famous Kentucky longrifle, you load ammunition via the muzzle (i.e., front) end of the barrel.

2. Breechloading

In a breechloading rifle, such as the Sharps, you load ammunition via the breech (i.e., rear) end of the barrel. 

While breechloading may imply a manually operated repeater or single-shot firearm, it’s worth noting that cartridges are loaded from the breech end in modern small arms, either automatically or manually. 

Breechloading Single-Shot

In breechloading single-shot rifles, the shooter places a cartridge into the chamber and closes the breech by using a breechblock. 

One of the most common and strongest types of single-shot rifle action is the falling block. In this design, exemplified in the famous Sharps, you raise and lower a breechblock along vertical grooves to open and close the breech. 

Bolt Action

Bolt-action rifles are available in either single-shot or repeating configuration. In this type of rifle, the shooter manually manipulates the bolt using a bolt handle, usually located on the right side. 

Bolt-action rifles can be divided into turnbolt and straight-pull designs. In a turnbolt rifle, you lift the handle, rotating it to unlock the bolt from the receiver or barrel extension. The locking rotation, and thus distance the bolt handle must travel to unlock the bolt, is called the bolt throw

You retract the bolt to open the breech, extract the spent cartridge, and eject it from the weapon. In striker-fired rifles, the act of unlocking the bolt or closing the bolt may also cock the striker, depending on the design. 

In straight-pull bolt-action rifles, simply retracting the bolt handle unlocks the bolt using a camming system, allowing you to complete the cycle of operation. 

Many bolt-action rifles are fed from flush-fit fixed (i.e., non-removable) magazines. Others use detachable box magazines. Depending on the caliber, these fixed magazines typically hold 4–6 rounds of ammunition. You may perform the act of reloading by inserting one cartridge after another or, in some designs, by using a clip. 

Prized for their locking strength and inherent accuracy, bolt-action rifles are commonly used by hunters, long-range competition and benchrest shooters, and law enforcement or military snipers. 

Lever Action

Although lever-action rifle designs originated in the first quarter of the 19th century, the Henry repeating rifle and Spencer demonstrated the viability of this action for practical purposes. 

A lever-action rifle is a manual repeater that uses an external cocking lever located below the receiver and surrounding, or integral with, the trigger guard to perform the operating cycle. 

In lever-action rifles, you use your firing hand to apply pressure downward and forward on the inside of the lever, causing it to pivot. This forward stroke of the lever causes the bolt to unlock from the receiver and move rearward, which facilitates unloading and cocking. 

Many lever-action rifles are fed from tubular magazines, into which you load cartridges, nose to primer, through a gate in the receiver. 

The way cartridges are loaded in this design necessitates that the bullet tips be round or flat to avoid the nose of one cartridge detonating the primer of the cartridge in front of it under recoil. 

Others use a rotary or detachable box magazine, allowing the safe use of spitzer-pointed projectiles for increased aerodynamic efficiency and effective range. 

Lever-action rifles allow for rapid manipulation of the lever and a relatively high fire rate. However, the need to pivot the lever down and forward requires increased clearance with the ground, complicating prone shooting. 

Pump Action

Pump action, also known as slide action, is more commonly encountered on shotguns, but rifles ranging in caliber from .22 Long Rifle to .30-06 Springfield use this action. 

Pump-action rifles are typically designed for recreational/competitive target shooting and hunting. The fore-end is a movable piece connected to the bolt by one or more arms called action bars in a pump-action rifle. You cycle the action by retracting the fore-end with your non-firing hand and then moving it forward again. 

Self-Loading

Self-loading rifles use the fired cartridge’s energy to operate the bolt, unlock and open the breech, extract and eject the spent cartridge, and reload. These types of weapons have been in service since the late 19th century. 

This energy may be harnessed in several different ways. When you fire a rifle, the burning propellant’s expanding gases exert pressure against the breech face through the cartridge case head. In blowback- and recoil-operated firearms, this is the source of cycling power. 

Gas-operated rifles typically redirect the barrel’s expanding powder gas to drive a piston or operating rod, which strikes or is connected to the bolt/bolt carrier. 

Alternatively, the rifle may use a tube to directly feed gases from the barrel into the bolt carrier group. 

Self-loading rifles can be divided into two categories:

1. Semi-automatic

In a semi-automatic rifle, the self-loading mechanism is restricted so that squeezing the trigger once fires only one round. If you want to fire a successive shot, you need to release your finger from the trigger, allowing it to reset. You can then press the trigger again to fire. Most civilian-legal self-loading rifles are only capable of semi-automatic fire. 

2. Fully automatic/selective-fire

In a fully automatic rifle, squeezing the trigger and holding it will cause the weapon to fire repeatedly. It will fire without interruption until you either release the trigger or deplete the ammunition supply.

The term “selective-fire” implies that the weapon has more than one fire-control setting. These weapons are classified as machine guns by the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968, restricting their possession by private citizens.


Tactical and Hunting

The rifle types in common use reflect different needs or preferences regarding shooting. For example, dedicated hunting rifles, despite being semi-automatic, may not possess the barrel contours and operating tolerances necessary to facilitate sustained rapid fire reliably.

Magazine capacity and the ease with which you can change magazines can also directly affect the rapidity of fire. Keep in mind the design purpose of the rifle you buy. 

Don’t shy away from older designs because they seem antiquated. You should shoot and handle a variety of different rifles to find what works best for you.