Skip to main content

Whether you are interested in hunting or just looking for a fun firearm with which to plink at targets on the weekend, rifles can be the go-to firearm for these activities. But one of the most common questions for somebody looking to buy their first rifle besides, “Which caliber?”, is “What type of action should I get?”

And the answer to that as with many questions in life is, “It depends.”

Let’s look at the most common types of actions available to today’s recreational shooters and while personal preference often comes into play for what that rifle is best used for, the functioning of each action can certainly lend itself better to particular activities, whether you are shooting for fun, hunting or competitively.

So, what is a rifle action to start? Rifle actions refer to the mechanism by which a rifle’s cartridge is loaded, fired and the spent casing then ejected. Here are the most common types:

Bolt Action

The Action: Bolt-action rifles are among some of the most commonly seen and used today. In a bolt-action rifle, the shooter manually operates a bolt handle to cycle the action. This involves lifting the bolt, pulling it to the rear to extract and eject a spent casing, sliding it forward to chamber a new round (often fed by a box or tube magazine that has been loaded with cartridges, but can also be manually fed) and then locking the bolt in place before firing by lowering the bolt handle.
Best For: Bolt-action rifles are known for their simplicity, reliability, and accuracy. They have fewer moving parts than some other actions, which can contribute to tighter manufacturing tolerances and improved accuracy. Bolt actions are popular for precision shooting, particularly long-range shooting when paired with the proper caliber, as well as big-game and predator hunting.


The Action: Semi-automatic rifles automatically cycle rounds as they are fired, ejecting the spent casing and chambering a new round each time the trigger is pulled. They use the energy from fired rounds to accomplish this cycling, typically through internal springs or chambers that direct the gases from a spent round. Semi-automatic actions are available in both traditional-style firearms as well as modern sporting rifle designs.
Best For: Semi-auto rifles are fun to shoot and popular among target shooters and plinkers, as well as useful for some hunting, particularly predator hunting or small game.

Lever Action

The Action: Lever-action rifles use a lever located around the trigger guard to cycle the action. The lever is manually operated, which extracts and ejects the spent casing, chambers a new round and locks the action in place for a subsequent shot. This design became popular around the time of the Civil War and was commonly used as settlers moved across the West in the late 1800s.
Best For: Lever-action rifles have a classic and iconic design. They can offer a good balance between the rate of fire and precision. Lever actions are often associated with hunting both small and large game at relatively short distances, as well as cowboy action shooting.

Single Shot

The Action: Single-shot rifles can only hold and fire a single round before needing to be manually reloaded. They are most often break-action type guns that are opened by moving a lever that allows the barrel to pivot away from the stock so a cartridge can be slid into the chamber at the rear of the barrel.
Best For: Single-shot rifles are simple, lightweight and easy to operate. They can be a good choice for beginners as there is no way to accidentally fire a follow-up shot until the gun is reloaded. They are also good for some shooting competitions where precision is crucial or those shooters who wish to display their ability to deliver a single shot with extreme accuracy.

Pump Action

The Action: Pump-action rifles require the shooter to manually slide a forend or pump to cycle the action. This movement extracts and ejects the spent casing, chambers a new round and locks the action. The truth is these actions are very rare in rifles. They are much more common in shotgun designs, so it is unlikely you will have much need for one, unless your interest is in collecting. A common model of pump-action rifle is the Browning BPR.
Best For: Pump-action rifles are relatively simple and reliable. They offer a middle-ground between bolt actions and semi-automatics in terms of rate of fire and can make for a good hunting rifle where rapid follow-up shots are a concern.

For most new shooters, the two actions of most interest will be the bolt-action and the semi-automatic, which are most readily available, offer the most versatility and come in a wide array of calibers for any type of shooting.