Different Types of Firearm Actions
When it comes to the different parts of a firearm, the “action” may have the most appropriate moniker of them all. That’s because a firearm’s action truly is where most of the action takes place. It loads, fires, and ejects the round used by a firearm and plays a major role in how a firearm functions. So, understanding the various actions and how they work is critical in selecting a gun that’s right for you and your needs.
Let’s dive into some of the actions used by modern-day firearms, starting with the simplest of them all, the break (or hinge) action.
Break (or Hinge) Action
Just as the name suggests, a break or hinge action opens like a door on a hinge, providing access to load or unload the firearm. This type of action is especially popular in shotguns, but it’s also used in rifles and pistols. When the action is open, a shooter can easily insert a round, then close the action, cock back the hammer, or take the firearm off “safe” if it uses a firing pin, and then pull the trigger to fire the round. Once the round has been fired, simply open the action again to unload and reload. Some break-action firearms eject the spent casing while, with others, you have to manually remove it.
This simple action is very reliable and has stood the test of time, but it does have one major drawback. If the firearm has only one barrel, you can only fire one round at a time before having to open the action and reload. If it has two barrels—as with a double-barreled or over-under shotgun or rifle—then you can fire two shots before having to reload. But firing more than two shots quickly without having to reload is not an option with a break action.
This type of action is primarily used on rifles, particularly hunting or longer-range precision rifles. A bolt-action firearm may be a single-shot gun, but typically bolt-action guns have internal magazines or detachable magazines that hold multiple rounds.
A bolt handle on the side of the rifle locks in place. To load the action, the bolt handle is lifted to unlock it and then drawn back, which pushes back the firing pin and holds it under spring tension. A round can then be manually loaded into the action or, if the magazine is loaded, a round is spring-loaded up into position to be loaded. The bolt is then slid forward, chambering the round, and the bolt handle is pushed down to lock into place.
With the bolt forward, when the trigger is pulled, the firing pin strikes the primer of the cartridge and the round is fired. Once a round is fired, when the bolt is unlocked and drawn back, the spent casing is ejected and, if the gun uses a magazine, another round pops up and into place, ready to be inserted into the chamber when you slide the bolt forward.
Bolt actions, which have been around for hundreds of years, are very reliable, accurate, and easy to use. They are simple, so there aren’t a lot of moving parts to break. The primary drawback of a bolt action is that your rate of fire is dependent on how quickly you can draw the bolt back, eject the spent casing, and insert another round into the chamber to be fired. Bolt-action rifles also tend to kick more than actions like semi-auto, where the action utilizes recoil to operate, thus dissipating some of the recoil.
If you’ve ever seen a Western movie, you’ve undoubtedly seen a lever-action rifle. In fact, the ubiquitous Winchester Model 1873, which features a lever action, was known as “the gun that won the West.”
A lever-action firearm features a metal lever located on the bottom of the gun behind the trigger. When the lever is pushed forward, in a downward motion, a cartridge is ejected and another cartridge from the magazine pops into place and is chambered when the lever is pulled back up and locked into place. Pushing the lever forward and pulling it back again also pushes the hammer back (most lever-action firearms use a hammer) and readies it to be fired or, if it’s hammerless, resets the firing pin. Lever actions are primarily used on rifles; however, there are lever-action shotguns as well.
The main advantages of lever actions are that they are fast to operate—significantly faster than bolt actions—classic in design, reliable, and light in weight. Their primary disadvantage is that many models can’t handle higher-pressure cartridges. They can also be more difficult to clean than other actions and, because they have two-piece stocks and typically thinner-walled receivers, they are not typically as accurate as other actions.
Pump (or Slide) Action
Pump actions are incredibly popular in shotguns, but they are used in rifles as well. In the hands of a well-trained shooter, a pump-action firearm can achieve a rate of fire that gives a semi-automatic gun a run for its money. They are fast, smooth, and allow a shooter to concentrate on their target while simultaneously working the action.
A pump action works by sliding a forend back and forth. Pulling the forend back ejects a round, resets the firing pin (or cocks back the hammer in some models), and places another round, typically stored in a tubular magazine under the barrel, into position to be chambered. When the forend is pushed forward, the round is chambered, and pulling the trigger releases the firing pin (or hammer), which fires the new round. Repeat the process to eject the shell casing and chamber another round.
Pump actions are fast, rugged, and reliable and relatively inexpensive to manufacture, so pump-action firearms, particularly shotguns, can be less expensive than guns featuring other actions. If you’ve ever seen a pump action used in a movie, you know that the sound it makes can sometimes be enough to intimidate a bad guy or home intruder in said movie into surrendering right then and there on the spot. But that same noisiness associated with pump actions can also prove to be a disadvantage in tactical or hunting situations where being quiet and stealthy is desirable. Also, unless you’re well trained, pumping the action could take you off target, which requires realigning your sights before squeezing off another round.
Revolving actions are primarily used on handguns known as revolvers, but there are also revolver rifles and even shotguns. Revolvers get their name because they feature a revolving cylinder into which cartridges are loaded. Once loaded, the cylinder snaps into place, aligning a chamber with the barrel. Then, each time the gun is fired and the hammer cocked back, the cylinder rotates and aligns another chamber with the barrel. So, if the cylinder has six chambers, the gun would be capable of firing six rounds fully loaded.
There are two types of revolvers: singe-action and double-action. With a single-action revolver, the hammer must be pulled back manually to cock the gun and rotate the cylinder. Then the trigger is pulled to release the hammer and fire the round. With a double-action, pulling the trigger rotates the cylinder, cocks the hammer back, and releases the hammer. A double-action revolver can also be operated as a single-action, meaning you can manually cock back the hammer, which makes pulling the trigger easier.
Because they’re relatively simple mechanically, revolvers are very reliable and have a lower risk of malfunctioning. They are also very easy to maintain and clean. Revolvers are also typically rather heavy, so they are accurate and easy to shoot and can shoot a wide range of ammunition types, including heavier loads. Their main disadvantage is that they have a limited capacity, which is dictated by the size of the cylinder. Double-action revolvers also have a heavy trigger pull when fired without first cocking the hammer back.
In its simplest terms, a semi-automatic firearm goes bang every time you pull the trigger. There’s no manual manipulation of the action required. Just load a round by releasing the spring-loaded bolt and letting it go forward, take it off “safe” (if it has a safety), and pull the trigger. When you pull the trigger, some of the gas from the fired round pushes the bolt back, ejecting the spent casing and resetting the firing pin in the process. Another round from the spring-loaded magazine then pops into place, is chambered by the spring-loaded bolt coming forward and locking into place, and then it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger again, setting the whole process in motion repeatedly until the firearm is out of ammo. Once it’s out of ammo, the action locks open. Then it is time to remove the empty magazine and insert a loaded magazine to continue firing.
Semi-automatic actions are used on rifles, shotguns, and pistols. The obvious advantage is rate of fire because every time the trigger is pulled, a round is fired. Since part of the firearm’s recoil is used to cycle the action, semi-auto firearms also have substantially less recoil than guns using other actions.
The major downside is that, because there are a lot of moving parts, semi-auto actions are more susceptible to malfunctions than other actions, simply because there are more things that could go wrong. But today’s semi-auto firearms are very reliable—especially if purchased from a reliable manufacturer like Daniel Defense—so you could literally shoot thousands of rounds without experiencing any difficulties. So long as the action is kept relatively clean and properly lubricated, a semi-automatic action is a great choice—particularly for activities like hunting or competitive shooting where getting off follow-up shots quickly matters.
Now that you have a better understanding of some of the more popular actions, before you take action to purchase a firearm, take some time to consider which action best meets your wants and needs. Do some research, visit your local gun retailer, or ask experienced shooters if you have access. What you’ll likely find is that owning several firearms featuring different actions covers you for just about any purpose or shooting activity.