Saturday, August 20, 2011

Feeding Your Rifle

by Ben Small

In 1964, Winchester made a change heard around the world. For years, Winchester had produced its famed Model 70 rifle to rave reviews and aggressive sales. The Model 70 had become known as "The Rifleman's Rifle." But the company faced rising production costs, and decided to make some changes to the model. Production changes, no big deal. Just some minor design changes that enhanced producibility at cheaper cost.

And yet these changes killed the Model 70. The new model did not find favor in the marketplace, caused sales to plummet and ultimately sank the company. Winchester stopped production entirely, and then sold out to a Belgian firearms manufacturer, FN. Wisely, in 2006, FN reissued the Model 70, returning to the old design and adding a few new features.

What destroyed the market for the Model 70 post-1964? Traditionalists will argue that you don't fix something not broken, that quality issues increased after the move to cheaper production methods. But, others will argue that it was the change from control-feed cartridge insertion to a push-feed bolt that destroyed sales.

Top: Post-'64 Model 70 bolt
Below: Pre-'64 Model 70 bolt

Go to any gun store that sells used rifles and compare pricing on Model 70s pre-'64 and post-'64 from '64 to 2006. You'll find that a pre-'64 Model 70 will cost double or more the price of a post-'64 Model 70, pre 2006.

Why? What's the difference between "control-feed" and "push-feed?" Which one is better?

As a writer, if you're going to use rifles in your plotting, you may want to take notice of this issue, because it offers some details that even a non-gunner can use in his/her story, preparing the good guy or the bad guy for the key shot, tracking his thought pattern through the shot.

Essentially, "control-feed" bolts are those which have a large claw extractor built in. Mauser invented this methodology for round feed, and it's still in use today on Model 70s, Mausers and other rifles using the Mauser load principles. Essentially, the way this works is a round is pushed up from the magazine, grabbed by the claw extractor and then held in place by the extractor, is fed into the chamber by the push action on the bolt handle. There's no jostling of the round; it's in the firm grip of the extractor.

Mauser Claw Extractor (Top)
In a "push-feed" mechanism, there is no claw. The round is pushed up from the magazine into the action, where it is aligned into the chamber by the forward action of the bolt only. There is no extractor holding it in place for insertion. The chamber channel flutes so the push action alone places the round where it's supposed to go.

Your rifleman will know whether his bolt action rifle is control-feed or push-feed. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, slight perhaps, but enough to kill the market (at least emotionally) for the Model 70 after it changed its design in 1964.

I asked a friend, an engineer knowledgeable in the fine aspects of shooting, what he thought of the difference between these two mechanisms. He shrugged, said, "Dunno. About the same in my book, re accuracy, I'd guess, but it's hard to chamber a push-feed round when you're hanging upside down in a tree."

And right he is. Without the Mauser claw extractor, attempting to load a push-feed rifle while hanging upside down would cause the round to fall out.

But how many people shoot that way?

Another difference relates to speed of your bolt insertion. With control-feed, it makes no difference, because the round is held in place by the claw. With a push-feed bolt, a slow push forward may cause the round to stick somewhere on the chamber ramp. A straight, smooth and firm bolt push will usually drive the round home with no problem. So, with a push-feed bolt, you want a firm, forward pressure to put the round in place. If the shooter's nervous, for instance, or hesitant, he or she might hesitate or slow the pushing of the bolt and round into place, which may cause a stick and maybe require a finger insertion to straighten the round. This may make a bit more noise than locking a round in with a control-feed bolt. And noise is an enemy to a stalker or sniper.

So, these considerations make a control-feed rifle, like the modern or pre-'64 Model 70, perhaps preferable
to a push-feed mechanism.

But there's a disadvantage to a control-feed action: Loading a single round into the open chamber rather than up from the magazine leads to a problem. The claw must first clamp onto the round's rim. That means bending the claw, and extractors are not meant to be bent. So you risk damaging the extractor, which means a trip to the gunsmith.

If you watched "Shooter," an excellent  Mark Wahlberg movie, there's a key scene where Wahlberg's character is slipped a round and he drops it into the chamber of his .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifle and jams the round home, before pulling the trigger and demonstrating that he'd switched the firing pins so the rifle wouldn't shoot.

He could only drop the round in and slam the bolt home in a push-feed rifle.

Excellent rifles come in both modes. Winchester's Model 70 is probably the most popular control-feed rife on the market, indeed in history, post-'64 to 2006 excepted. Other renowned names like Savage, Weatherby, Remington 700 and Kimber, are all push-feed.

Which is better? Is there any effect at all on accuracy?

Who knows? There are as many opinions as shooters. There's no question that the switch from control-feed to push-feed killed the Model 70 market from 1964 to 2006, but most people feel that the aversion to that change was more emotional than practical. Indeed, it's easy to find articles that claim the post-'64 Model 70 action was actually an improvement, one that the market just didn't accept. Indeed, I accept that reasoning; so much so, I looked for, found and bought a post-64 Model 70 in .270. It's one of the most accurate rifles I own. Plus, I don't shoot upside down hanging from a tree, so the feed difference means nothing to me.

The difference really, unless you're shooting upside down, is minimal. But in shooting, everything matters, especially to engineers, as a rifle is really just another piece of machinery. Engineers love to argue about O-rings, tolerances, lube and micrometers. And for the most part, the issue of control-feed vs. push-feed, is one of those issues, about which some will never agree and may argue about relentlessly.

So, while control-feed vs. push-feed may not make a big difference to the part-time or casual shooter, to a killer or one who's familiar with rifles and using one for defense, the difference may be important. And he or she will be very aware as he feeds a round which system he's using. He may even imagine the click of the Mauser claw onto the rim of a cartridge, or he may feel the resistance the chamber ramp may provide as he pushes the bolt on a push-feed system. Either way, recognition of the feed mechanism and its particulars can be made a description or detail point in a story to add realism or suspense.

A short video from the owner of Midway USA, a major firearms parts supplier, demonstrates these differences in a way you can visualize. Bolt Action Feed Video

Which rifles are control-feed and which are push-feed? I've given some suggestions, but to be wise, before you're going to use a rifle in your story, Google it, and look at the specs. One of them will mention the type of extractor or the feed mechanism. If there's a claw extractor, it's control-feed.

And consider...Will your shooter be firing upside down?


Morgan Mandel said...

Ben, I bow to your expertise. You are an amazing font of knowledge.

Morgan Mandel

Green Mountain Realty said...

My Dad owns one of the Winchesters Model 70, he loves his...

research proposal said...

Thanks for this post! i really enjoyed reading it!!!

Dudeitsnotadell said...

Have you tried pushing the bolt forward when the rifle is on it's side? It's possible that the cartridge might not line up correctly to the chamber.