I have a well-developed sense of history. I understand the emotional attachment some of us have for historical firearms. Just the same, I am not a collector, but by definition, I am an accumulator of firearms. I appreciate the great bolt-action rifles of the past including the Lee Enfield, Springfield, and Mauser. Wartime versions with the furniture intact are the most interesting and desirable rifles. I prefer a rifle that is correctly assembled and which functions properly—otherwise, date of manufacture doesn’t matter much.
Ammunition supply is a problem. Surplus ammunition may be corrosive primed. This means there are corrosive salts used in the primer that attract moisture and result in quickly corroding the bore unless the rifles are cleaned immediately after firing. This is the cause of the many dark red bores in surplus rifles. It is possible to find good quality ammunition in 8mm Mauser, .303 British and .30-06 Springfield without a great deal of effort. The 6.5 x 55mm Swede is more difficult and the 7.5 Swiss and 7.7 Japanese even more difficult.
Hornady has introduced a number of loads that give the military rifle enthusiast a good resource for firing these rifles. These loads are reliable with Hornady quality. They also use modern soft point bullets that are well suited to hunting. These loads will give you a chance to discover how accurate many of these rifles really are. Previously, the only course for full-power loads using modern bullets was handloading. The occasional shooter that doesn’t wish to handload, but wishes to obtain the best results from his rifle, will be especially pleased with this ammunition resource.
The Lee Enfield is arguably the most battle worthy bolt-action rifle ever fielded. The action is among the fastest ever designed. The Lee Enfield offers a 10-round magazine capacity, and with stripper clips, is fast to reload. The action is looser than other military rifles making for great reliability. A two-piece stock, generous variations in groove diameter, heavy trigger action, and thin barrel are not target-grade features. Nonetheless, the Lee Enfield is sometimes surprisingly accurate.
The Enfield is still in use in Afghanistan, although reports state that the ammunition supply is drying up. During recent troubles in India, the rifle was much in evidence in the hands of security personnel and police. It seems somewhat safe to say that the Lee Enfield’s service life is far from over. My personal Lee Enfield is a good, solid rifle in original condition, with a good bore and typical reliability. I have fired the rifle with a number of loads and found it reliable with average accuracy potential. It is interesting that even sniper variants of the Lee Enfield were not held to high standards for accuracy, with 4 MOA typical of surplus military rifles.
I carefully checked the rifle for loose furniture, and next ensured that all parts were tight before firing. With iron sights, 100-yard accuracy is difficult but with the proper shooting glasses and concentration, I have fired several 3.75-inch groups with this rifle. Hornady offers a Vintage Match loading with a 174-grain BTHP at 2400 fps, similar to the WWII service load. This load is stronger than most and burns clean with minimal muzzle signature. This load is similar in velocity and weight to the original service loading that served for over 40 years. I was able to fire a group considerably under 4 MOA with this loading.
Next, I moved to the modern 150-grain JSP. At 2685 fps this is a fine hunting load with plenty of power for deer-sized game, using the modern Hornady JSP bullet. Accuracy was good with a number of tight groups and an average of 3.5 MOA. There are more-accurate rifles than mine, but this is the rifle’s best showing.
The story was, the British built their bolt-action rifle for war, the Germans built a rifle for hunting, and the Americans built the Springfield for target shooting. This is a fair assessment. The Mauser 98K and the similar Yugo 48 are reliable rifles with smooth actions.
The sights could be better. Apparently, individual marksmanship was not stressed. Despite these drawbacks, the Mauser is potentially as accurate as any bolt-action rifle and often serves as the basis for custom grade rifles. The 8mm Mauser offers as much practical power as the .30-06 Springfield for game taking. The caliber has traditionally been loaded down by American makers. Hornady offers a full power 195-grain Interlock loading at 2500 fps that has great potential as a sporting load. I fired this load for sighting in at 50 yards and then at 100 yards for accuracy. The Hornady offering is definitely loaded to potential.
A three-shot group was fired that fell into 2.2 inches with one effort, reflecting the true potential of the rifle. My average groups were closer to 2.5 inches which seems my limit for firing an iron sighted rifle at 100 yards. (With a solid rest and shooting glasses.) I fired the 196-grain BTHP Vintage Match moving at 2500 fps. Results were incrementally better as far as accuracy. While not as fast as the Lee Enfield in rapid fire, or as accurate as the Springfield rifle, the Mauser’s controlled feed action is very robust and reliable—and it was very close to the Springfield for accuracy.
The Springfield 1903 rifle is perhaps the most accurate bolt-action service rifle ever fielded. The rifle is attractive, reliable, and among the most important service rifles in history. This rifle served in WWI and WWII and continued in service as a sniper rifle into the Vietnam era. The bolt-action Springfield is very similar in operation to the Mauser rifle, combining the Mauser’s dual front lock lugs and rear safety lug, safety operation, and non-rotating extractor with the cocking piece and two-part striker of the earlier Krag rifle.
The .30-06 Springfield cartridge is an inherently accurate cartridge and while the 8mm Mauser may give it a hard run for the money, the .30-06 is the most powerful and accurate of the three service cartridges. The rifle tested was built in 1932. .30-06 Springfield ammunition is plentiful in many configurations—unlike the other calibers tested. For comparison purposes, the rifle was fired with the Hornady M1 Garand loading.
This load uses a 168-grain A Max and is intended to function and give match grade accuracy in the M1 Garand. Results were excellent in the Springfield. I fired a singular 1.8-inch group, with the average of several groups falling into 2.25 inch. This rifle will shoot! Note: The Springfield is quite accurate but hardly embarrassed the Mauser rifle. The 98K is more accurate than I would have thought.
The Swedish Mauser as manufactured by Carl Gustav has earned a reputation for excellence of manufacture and sterling accuracy. The rifle has also earned well deserved accolades as a light recoiling and superbly accurate deer killer. The 6.5x55mm rifle cartridge features a long, and heavy for the caliber, bullet that has excellent penetration. The original 140-grain military loading was designed with these attributes in mind.
Hornady offers two standout loadings in this caliber. First is the 140-grain BTHP Vintage Match. This loading is guaranteed to accent the accuracy of an original Swedish rifle. For hunting, the 6.5 x 55mm 140-grain SST at 2600 fps offers modest recoil but excellent effect on game. There are also 7.5 Swiss and 7.7 Japanese loadings available. I have not fired them all, but Hornady’s quality is a constant.
These modern loads are an option for firing the older warhorses. The Hornady loads are powerful, clean burning and accurate. Modern hunting bullets are used in the Hornady loads and are useful for taking game animals. Dust these old rifles off and give them a shot. You will be glad you did.
Did your favorite, classic bolt gun make the list? Which one would you rank at the top? Share your answers or bolt gun story in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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