Let’s talk bolt-action rifles for regular infantry in modern warfare.
Alright folks take it easy, I am not suggesting we adopt this policy wholesale and throw away years of military experience with semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles just because of this post – the purpose of this post is just to play around with the idea of using a bolt action rifle (like in World War 1 and 2) as a regular infantry combat rifle in today’s military setting. Find this unrealistic and not something you want to read? Click on a different article then, for the rest of us it’s play time!
Here we are at a point where modern ammunition is not powerful enough to penetrate – say – a concrete wall or sandbag fortification, the soldier needs a better weapon with more punch. Looking back at older firearms we see large calibers used in the lever action and bolt action days, and to the benefit of a skilled marksman at the time these rifles could hit targets way into the distance – quite the lovely benefit. Now a few weeks back I ran into this question and did some reading on the ‘what if’ scenario; what if we used bolt action rifles not as specialized sniper rifles, but as regular battle rifles in today’s modern armies?
Successfully utilizing a bolt action rifle will take a lot of training and practice to master, along with a high level of physical fitness for maneuvering around enemies with M16s (for example) which boast a higher rate of fire. Indeed the troopers using the bolt action rifles, while holding something with a lot of punch, are outgunned by a force that uses full autos and their superior rate of fire. Thus the army that takes on bolt action rifles must adopt special gear to the rifle and to the soldier in order to overcome this handicap. Right now the main reason for using rifles like the M4 (technically a carbine but bear with me) and the M16 service rifles is rate of fire and utility – they can be used for room clearing, close quarters, and mid-range combat. Back before World War 1, armies engaged one another across large open fields where distances were further apart – for close quarters it was bayonets, rifle butts, and knives.
Now the specialized equipment will be in the form of grenade launchers mounted on the rifle’s muzzle like how the M1 Garand had it’s launcher mounted. Soldiers would be given kits that helped to convert their rifles into grenade launchers and back again so that they can use heavy ordinance to overcome enemy positions; a fox hole full of M16-wielding riflemen can die just as easily from a grenade as a fox hole filled with soldiers using old bolt-action rifles. Then there are hand-held grenades like flashbangs, tear gas grenades and so on that can neutralize the enemy’s ability to use their fast-firing rifles, and so long as the bolt-action rifle shoots first while the enemy is still suffering from the effects of the flashbang it can tip the fight in the favour of the bolt-action rifleman.
Room clearing is going to be tough regardless, but short-barreled versions of the rifles (ie: Lee Enfield Jungle Carbine) can be used to fill in the gap, or even as the standard-issue rifle (because long Lebels used by the French are no fun in close quarters). Again flashbangs will help neutralize the enemy, but then there are the multiple contacts within the room – even with a 4 man squad you could be at a disadvantage; this is where the bayonet comes into play. Fix bayonets, deploy the flashbangs, and move in to get the drop on the bad guys. Should you confirm the room is filled with hostiles, flashbang, take a peek, then frag grenade the room and finish off the survivors – an enemy soldier cannot fight back if it has eaten a chunk of a fragmentation grenade.
Bolt manipulation is another aspect that will require a lot of work. Like the English Longbow of old, the bolt-action rifle will require hours of practice in order to achieve speed and rate of fire. Obviously gun design is also helpful, but I’ve seen people shoot Lee Enfields nice and slow before and it isn’t too encouraging. Thus in order to overcome the enemy’s rate of fire, bolt manipulation needs to be worked on every day until a certain rate of fire can be achieved.
Right now comes the hard part, physical fitness. Sure soldiers work on their fitness regularly, but the enemy has assault rifles (machine guns will be covered briefly later in this article) – I’m not saying run in front of it, but you will need speed and endurance to run AROUND the bloody things. Thus – like the police force – there should be an emphasis on anaerobic fitness as well as aerobic fitness. Being able to sprint at a moment’s notice and outrun the enemy’s traverse speed per se is key to being able to knock out their firing positions. Grenades (fire, frag, flashbang, smoke, and tear) must be deployed quickly in order to neutralize the threat – otherwise the soldier is just playing a very dangerous game of baseball there the pitcher holds all the cards and running from one point to another is like running from one plate to the next with no effect on the pitcher other than they are annoyed that they cannot hit you with their fully automatic assault rifle.
Now for positions equipped with Browning 50 Cal. and Squad Automatic Weapons (SAW) just throw in a incendiary grenade and be done with it (not like they can shoot you when they are on fire and screaming). Again, the grenade attachment is your best friend in this situation.
Next we arrive at positioning and the element of surprise. Today the only forces out there that use bolt action rifles are generally ad hoc militias who must make use of whatever is available. They, however, utilize superior positions and surprise to overcome an enemy force – after all ambushes are chaotic, and if the enemy can drop you before you can get your bearings, they win (assuming you and whoever else is with you are dead). Bolt action rifles should not charge directly at an enemy position as their rate of fire is insufficient to provide covering fire against enemy assault rifles.
Drawing upon the strengths of the rifle once more, we look at engagement distance. Like Sun Tzu once said: “Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle. They are not brought by him.” Drawing the enemy out into an area where you are are your strongest is most advisable for a force utilizing bolt-action rifles. The stopping power and distance of the rifles is what will help you win when the enemy is holding a firearm chambered in 5.56 NATO (for example). Stopping them dead with one shot is better than having to empty 15 out of 30 of your rounds just to stop a single guy (though getting shot hurts no matter the caliber, so just hit the target already – body armor not factored in for this example).
Finally I just wanted to briefly touch on the design of the rifle. Design of a modern bolt action battle rifle must be short, must hold at least 10 rounds, and must have a bolt mechanism that is fast and smooth. Soldiers are already at a disadvantage when fighting against an enemy with semi or fully automatic assault rifles (we’re focusing on fully automatic for today, but I wanted to state the semi-autos for the record), so an army looking to put into service a bolt action in this computerized age should always ensure that the rifle is as fast to fire as possible, hold at least ten rounds (12 is also a good number, and 14 is ideal), is short for close quarters, and is light enough for the soldier to carry around for a very long time (especially if they are light infantry). Older designs like the Lee Enfield can still be useful in today’s world, and indeed there is no shame in copying and mass-producing a similar bolt design in order to enable soldiers to perform their tasks with relative ease.
There you go nations low on money and looking for a cheap solution to fight low intensity wars, pull out the list of companies that manufacture bolt action rifles and order a good few hundred thousand – it can be much cheaper than buying full autos, and you can trust your soldiers with the ammo as the bolt action rifle usually has little waste when it comes to rounds fired verses rounds fired and hit target (it’s a green, environmentally friendly rifle – yay!). Putting aside this long discussion piece, today’s modern combat doctrine will not allow bolt action rifles to become the main service arm for armies. The poor rate of fire coupled with the length of the rifle and the inflexibility of the weapon make it less attractive to armies looking for something that can suppress the enemy quickly, and allow the battlefield to move verses digging in and firing away at one another – times change, and those of us who love surplus firearms and the good old rifles must remember that we are shooting for fun (recreationally and or for hunting), and not for combat – that is a whole different ballgame altogether.