This section is intended to give a brief overview of general issue military rifles, as used by various nations during the 20th century. This section is divided into two subsections – Bolt action rifles and Semi-automatic rifles.
The bolt action rifle is a weapon that requires manual operation to reload prior to each shot. The term “bolt action” comes from the “bolt” – the part of the weapon that is used to feed cartridges into the chamber and to lock the barrel upon firing. This part of the gun is more specifically known as the “breech block”, but the term “bolt” is used when referring to the longitudinally sliding breech block.
So, to fire each shot from a bolt action rifle, one must manually unlock the bolt, open it to extract and eject the spent case, then close the bolt. This feeds a fresh round into the chamber, then lock it again, ready to fire. When the trigger is pulled, the rifle fires and another set of manipulations (as described above) is required, prior to the next shot. Bolt action rifles could be further divided into numerous sub-categories, such as single-shot or magazine-fed rifles, rotating bolt or straight pull bolt action rifles.. etc, but this will not be discussed here, at least not for now.
The first bolt action rifles appeared somewhere in the mid-19th century, and the first magazine fed bolt actions were adopted by the Swiss Army in the 1870’s. This was in the form of the Vetterli-Vitaly Rifle. Since then and until the end of World War 2, bolt action rifles and carbines were the main long arms of infantrymen.
It should be noted also, that the term ‘carbine’ refers to a shortened and lightened rifle, it doesn’t matter if it’s bolt action or semi-auto.
Semi-automatic rifles differ from bolt action in that semi-automatics use some amount of the energy generated by each shot, to commence the reloading cycle (i.e. extract and eject the spent case, feed a live round and lock the action, and cock the hammer or striker).
Due to this mode of operation, semi-automatic rifles are also often referred to as self-loading rifles. So, as long as the cartridge supply to the action remains uninterrupted (the magazine is not empty), the gun will fire each time the trigger is pulled, without any other manual operation. However, when the gun is loaded for the first shot, it usually requires a manual loading cycle first.
The key difference between automatic assault rifles and semi-automatic rifles is that the semi-automatic rifle will fire exactly one shot per each trigger pull, while an automatic (assault) rifle will continue to fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down and the cartridge supply to the action is uninterrupted. The first semi-automatic rifles appeared at the end of the 19th century, but it was not until the 1930’s when semi-automatics began to proliferate into widespread military service.
The World Wars 1 and 2 gave birth to numerous designs that were issued to troops in the 1930’s – 1950’s, but the quick proliferation of assault rifles capable of fully automatic fire, tolled the end for semi-automatics in general military service.
Many bolt action and semi-automatic rifles are still in limited military service today in the form of Sniper weapons. These are discussed elsewhere on this site. This particular page describes mostly general issue infantry weapons.