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THE typical sporting rifle of to-day is a repeating arm. Repeaters are classified according to form of magazine and system of breech mechanism.
A tubular magazine under the barrel has several defects and no compensating merits. It is needlessly cumbersome and complicated, easily injured, awkward to recharge, prone to make a rifle jam in feeding. The position of the cartridge, end to end, is unsafe in principle. Soft-nose bullets are battered or scraped, and sharp-points cannot be used at all, in a tubular magazine. The balance and symmetry of the gun are spoiled.
A box magazine, with cartridges superimposed, has none of these faults. But if it protrudes much in front of the trigger guard it is unsightly and always in the way. Since it sticks out at the very point where a gun should balance, it will be a wearying annoyance on every all-day trip. A revolving magazine inside the receiver is a further improvement. It is somewhat bothersome to recharge, hard to unload, and occasionally may balk in feeding.
Decidedly the best magazine is a flat one within the receiver, flush with the forearm, carrying cartridges in double column, and charged either by clips or by dropping the cartridges in and settling them to place by one or two slight motions of a finger lever.
Whatever the system of magazine, there should be a cut-off whereby the arm can be used as a single-loader, so that special ammunition may be used when desired, with a magazine full of regular cartridges in reserve.
As regards method of operating, magazine rifles are either trombone action, lever action, bolt action or self-loading arms.
The trombone action with sliding forearm ("pump gun") can be fired faster, with good aim, than any other repeater that is operated by hand. It is the only system, except the self-loader, that can compete with a double barrel in getting in a quick and sure second shot. In rifles it is the best hand-functioned mechanism for small cartridges. For heavy charges it is not reliable, since it has not enough power to feed and extract refractory cartridges. It is too frail for weapons that are to be taken into rough service in remote regions.
Lever actions vary a good deal in merit. As a class, they are quite satisfactory for ammunition of medium power, and in arms that are to be used only on short and easy trips. If the bolt is closed by double locking bolts near head of cartridge, as in the '86 model Winchester, the action will withstand any strain that a barrel can stand. If, however, there is but one locking bolt, and it in the rear, there will be a certain spring or play of the bolt proper which affects accuracy. It is unreliable in case of a defective high-power cartridge or an unnoticed obstruction in the barrel. In some actions of this character the lever, being held only friction-tight, soon wears shackly and sags in a most annoying way.
Both lever and trombone actions are prone to jam, especially if the rifle be uptilted in reloading, as when one lowers his rifle from the shoulder while working the lever or slide. Such balks generally occur at the worst possible moment. I have had this happen with a brand new weapon at the second shot. While I was prying at the cartridge a deer actually stopped as if to hear what I had to say about the matter. Then it took genuine alarm.
Nearly all rifles that operate by lever or trombone slide are complicated, hard to take apart for cleaning or repair, and hard to reassemble. There is a multitude of small parts that are likely to roll away and be lost while you are struggling to fit things together. You must have two or three screwdrivers and a pin punch to work with. The job will take from half an hour to half a day, depending upon whether you happen to have printed instructions to go by or only the light of nature and average awkwardness. Of course, if your hunting range is near home, accidents will be few and the gunsmith handy; but if you are forty miles from Nowhere, with a gun that has dropped in the mud, or in the water, or has got sanded, or has snapped off a spring, or broken a firing-pin, and you have no tool to work with but the file you sharpen your axe with—then is the time that good little deer should not stop to listen.
No lever or trombone action can be cleaned from the breech (the only way that a good rifle should be cleaned) unless it has a detachable barrel. The common pattern of take-down works by an interrupted screw at the breech. The barrel thereby is weakened at the very point where it should be strongest. Such a mechanism will soon wear shaky. I have yet to see a take-down action that is trustworthy for big game rifles.
In this connection it may be remarked that everybody hates to clean a gun when he comes in at night, fagged out from a hard day's chase. The easier the gun is to clean, the likelier it is to be cleaned. And a night or two of neglect may ruin the finest rifle in the world.
It is significant that no lever or trombone action has ever passed a modern ordnance board or been adopted by any civilized army. While the requirements of rifles for small game and target practice are less stringent than for those built for military service, there is no difference at all between those of big game rifles and military ones, as regards strength, simplicity, ease of dismounting, and certainty of working properly in any emergency. There was a time when ordnance boards were conservative to a fault, and when private manufacturers took the lead in improving firearms, but that time has past. The sportsman of to-day who goes far into wild regions, and who must depend upon his rifle at times to preserve his life, should give close heed to the latest and best in military weapons, for the highest technical skill in the world is engaged on that class of firearms.
Bolt action repeaters of the best military or semi-military type are simple, strong, durable, and sure to function. In such a weapon the bolt can be slipped out in a second, so that the barrel can be inspected and cleaned from the breech. The entire working mechanism can be taken apart with the fingers, or, at most, with a single screwdriver or key. There are but few parts, and all of them amply strong. Coiled springs, practically unbreakable, take the place of flat springs that always are treacherous.