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Basics of the Bolt-Action Rifle Manual Safety

Safety matters in any ballistic pursuit. Bolt-action rifles available today use a variety of manual safety designs, here we show and explain the basics.

Basics of the Bolt-Action Rifle Manual Safety

(Photo by Mark Fingar)

The safety in any bolt-­action rifle has substantial impact on how the rifle performs, yet little-­to-­no discussion is devoted to the subject. Safety is always said to be everyone’s “top priority” when handling guns, so let’s examine this important topic, though it might seem esoteric.

Before reviewing safety types, it’s beneficial to think about how triggers work and identify key components. The trigger is familiar to most of us and doesn’t warrant extensive discussion. The trigger engages a sear, which can confuse some who try to understand it. Imagine that a sear is as a lever that touches the trigger on one end and the cocking piece at the other. When the trigger releases the sear to move, the sear simultaneously releases the cocking piece. The cocking piece is often attached to the firing pin, so it and the firing pin move as a single unit.

Bolt Safety 1
Following the Winchester Model 70 pattern, Kimber’s Model 84 rifles use a winged safety lever that is integrated into the bolt shroud. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

There are a few different types of safeties. The safety — usually a pivoting lever — can be found at the back of the bolt body or shroud. Sometimes it’s a lever that protrudes up from under the stock next to the receiver’s rear; an example would be found on the Remington Model 700. It can also be a switch or lever that’s located near the action’s tang, as on a Winchester Model 70. With several contemporary rifles, it is a blade-­looking lever located within the trigger’s shoe. The Savage AccuTrigger is one such example. With some tactical rifles, the safety is a rotating drum lever as used on an AR-­15.  For some designs, safety is combination of the above; the Ruger Precision Rifle (RPR) offers both an AR-­type safety lever and a trigger safety that has to be pressed before the trigger can move rearward. Each of these approaches to safety design offer attributes that matter.

My preferred safety is the one located on the bolt shroud, specifically like those most famously used on the Winchester Model 70. Such a safety also appears on various models from Kimber, as well as Ruger’s Hawkeye M77 series. Moving the lever from the forward “fire” position back to “safe” rotates a cylinder or cam into place where it grabs the firing pin or cocking piece and moves it rearward. This pulls the cocking piece (i.e., a component inside the bolt body) off the sear so that no matter what’s going on with the trigger, the firing pin cannot move forward. I prefer this safety type because it is the most robust and it’s isolated from the trigger components. A trigger or sear can fail with this design, yet the firing pin will remain locked safely in place. The reason that this safety type isn’t more popular is because it requires the firing hand to leave the grip in order to deactivate it. It’s not possible to swipe it to “fire” without disturbing the shooting position first.

Bolt Safety 2
Sear-blocking safeties tied into the trigger mechanism offer manual levers behind the receiver, as with Remington’s M700 design. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

The next type of safety blocks the sear from moving when engaged, usually by sliding a block underneath it. Trigger assemblies that include a protruding lever at the receiver’s rear (such as the M700) or that use a tang safety fall into this category. These safeties get some unjust criticism because they are the easiest to misuse; too often the mechanism, not the operator, gets blamed. The key difference between safeties on the bolt shroud and these fire-control safeties is that the former controls the firing pin and the latter blocks the sear.

The chance of either system failing is low, provided they are made correctly and within manufacturing specifications. In my opinion, there is a distinction between the two. Should the unexpected happen, either during manufacture or field use, I believe the safety that physically controls the firing pin is more forgiving than the one that relies solely on its ability to block the sear’s movement. Given a big enough blow to the rifle, it’s easier to get the cocking piece to slip off the sear than it is to shake a firing pin loose from a safety lever.

Bolt Safety 3
A common arrangement for a sear-blocking safety uses a tang-mounted switch, as on some Savage Model 110 rifles. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

A third safety type worth discussing puts a blade-­style safety lever within the trigger shoe, which protrudes from the trigger assembly to physically block the sear until the safety lever is fully depressed. This safety should be used in combination with either a sear-­ or firing-­pin-­block safety as described. It is a highly functional, if inelegant, creation that not only enahances safety but also facilitates lighter, adjustable triggers. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for triggers on factory rifles to be loathsome. Many felt like pulling a dogsled down a gravel driveway. This was after the death of truly adjustable factory triggers that allowed consumers to set sear engagement, or how much contact the trigger had with the sear. Some users set such triggers with too little engagement in pursuit of lighter trigger pulls, which allowed the sear to slip off the trigger and fire the rifle once the safety was disengaged. Lawsuits followed, as we all remember, so manufacturers had to protect themselves by making triggers more idiot-­proof, and we all suffered for it.

Savage’s AccuTrigger arrived in 2002, and was soon copied. The AccuTrigger is a prime example of a new kind of safety measure. (Savage has an excellent video at that explains how it functions.) Should something cause the sear to slip off of the trigger, it impacts a sizeable portion of the safety lever and remains blocked until the central blade is depressed. Once the blade is depressed to where it is near flush with the trigger face, the rifle can then fire. The effort required to depress the lever after a sear slip is much greater than normal, but that is the only indicator or change in function. Savage’s system allows its AccuTrigger to adjust down to a 11/2-­pound pull weight on some precision and varmint models without being unsafe for mass production and distribution. This is as good as triggers get on an everyday production rifle. If a light trigger on a factory rifle is a requirement for purchase, look at those with a blade-­style trigger safety. Many manufacturers make a rifle with a trigger that functions similarly to the AccuTrigger because they are inexpensive to manufacture and allow lighter pull weights without compromising safety. (Mossberg’s Lightning Bolt Action (LBA) trigger system is another example of this concept.)

Bolt Safety 4
Trigger safety levers such as Savage’s AccuTrigger (above) allow for a light trigger and reduced sear engagement without risk. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

Adjustable triggers have regained some of their excellent feel because manufacturing capabilities have improved. Tolerances that were unthinkable 10 years ago are now common. Small trigger parts can be made with remarkable consistency, and the trigger-­sear engagement can be minimal while still being safe. The result are “no creep” triggers including those on the aftermarket from brands such as Jewell, Timney Triggers and TriggerTech.

Safeties, too, are more effective. The odds of a sear slipping off a trigger due to sloppy manufacturing are lower every year. Safeties now serve to prevent accidents resulting from operator error or environmental conditions. Blown primers or extreme dust can cause the sear to stick and fail to properly engage the trigger. The safety ensures that a rifle that is otherwise semi-­functional in these conditions doesn’t fire unintentionally.

One of the best safeties available isn’t really a safety. It is a practice used in the U.S. Special Operations sniping community: Lift the bolt handle when not in use. This is one of the best ways to prevent an accidental discharge because it rotates the bolt body into the path of the firing pin. This is not an ideal practice for someone hunting afield, but those hunting from a stand, shooting a match or plinking at the range can benefit from this technique. Run the bolt to load the chamber and then lift the handle to render it safe. Even with a loaded round in the chamber, if the bolt handle is in the “up” position, it’s impossible to fire. This has the added benefit of letting everyone near you know the status of the rifle, too, with a passing glance. All that’s required to fire the rifle is to pull the bolt handle down and shoot; no fussing with small levers is required.


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