About what is says on the tin. There's this Empire, which for our purposes has a general industrial capacity somewhere around that of 1910s Imperial Germany, but which for various has long neglected improving the main weapons of its armies above the level of smoothbore muskets / percussion caps. Now finding themselves fighting a far larger, probably far longer lasting war with a technologically superior adversary which does have 'modern' bolt actions, which of those two paths outlined should they take if they want to modernise as much of their sizeable army as possible? Assuming that the technical ability to make either lever actions or early bolt actions exists, and that industry can be mobilized to make it.

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    $\begingroup$ What is the difference between primitive and modern bolt action rifles. What is the objective of the weapon modernization program. How is the ongoing conflict being fought? Will new rifles come with changes to doctrine or will it remain as is? Are we to consider procurement costs, or just the functional aspects of the weapon? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Dec 29, 2023 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ In real life, what rich and powerful countries do when they want to update their small arms is to put out a list of requirements and evaluate the designs submitted by inventors and manufacturers. (Examples: Russia 1889, Germany 1870, Germany 1888.) The point is that what you want is not a perfect rifle, but a good enough rifle which somebody can actually manufacture by the millions, and in a short time. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 30, 2023 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ Whats the ammunition capabilities as well? Bolt-action designs only really gain significant benefit with high velocity ammunition, with a clip or disposable magazine loading. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2023 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ Also, what do you mean by 'early' bolt actions? A Mauser 1898 family has pretty much all the core features of an action which served in to WW2, the Lee-Enfield action was developed in 1895. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2023 at 1:32
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    $\begingroup$ Best for what? speed, accuracy, cost, ease of use, compactness. there are trade off for everything different militaries will make different decisions based on different doctrine and preferences. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Dec 30, 2023 at 16:05

1 Answer 1


There's two answers here, the Historical Answer and the Answer I'm going to give

So, the Historical Answer - Everyone in WW1 went with a Bolt Action.


A myriad of reasons, but I'll give the abridged version:

  • Rifle Cartridge cases vs straight-walled Pistol-esque cartridge cases
  • Firing from the Prone position
  • Price (Bolt actions are generally easier to manufacture)
  • Doctrine of massed-volleys at formations beyond the range one could reasonably engage a single target
  • Hunting experience in Africa with various Game cartridges
  • Reloading from Stripper (ooo-er!) clips vs reloading a Tube Magazine.
  • Better accuracy
  • Able to handle higher pressure cartridges due to the locking lugs.

So, the 'Correct' answer is a Bolt Action.

However, There is much debate in the Firearms community around WW1 and would Lever actions have been a better choice. A lot of the decision making around the choice of Firearm was centred around getting impressive looking groupings on the range and in Competition - which although is nothing to scoff at, isn't always applicable in warfare.

My Answer is a Lever Action

To clarify - I own (among others) a 1949 SMLE Mk4 in .303 British (the same Rifle used by the British in WW1) and I own a Lever-Action in .44 Magnum.

The Lever Action is a Brush-Gun, that is for hunting Game Animals (Goats/Deer) in thick brush/forest - where a Rifle Calibre potentially could ricochet off of a Branch, whereas the .44 Magnum will punch through a branch (even though the .303 has significantly more muzzle energy - it's to do with Bullet shape and weight) - and it's not used for taking shots at distances much further than 100 metres.

Given your time period, Optics aren't really a thing except for a few Sniper units and even WW1 optics were 1-3 power IIRC. Which means your realistic engagement distance is going to be less than 400 metres - And Trench Warfare (assuming it happens) is around 100-200 metres - so something like a .44 Magnum is going to be at home here (could go for a different calibre - a 5.56 with a Lever Action would be ideal... but 5.56 doesn't exist at this time)

Now - the SMLE, notorious for being able to throw some serious lead down-range, especially if you use the Aussie technique of your middle finger on the trigger and keeping a hold of the bolt handle. It takes a bit of practice, but the British demonstrated in WW1 that with average infantry soldiers, the rate of fire that could be achieved was impressive....

It's even easier for someone with a Lever-Action to get rapid follow-up shots. and get serious speed. Reloading is a bit trickier having to single load cartridges rather than a stripper-clip - however, you should have dealt with all the immediate threats with your initial magazine dump.

Firing from Prone - yes, it's still a concern, but not as much, so I'm kinda skipping this.

In short - the main thing that a Lever Action has an advantage is a significant Rate of Fire increase, even for an inexperienced shooter over a Bolt Action.

The Draw-backs for a Lever-action when looked at with hindsight aren't that big of a deal as a lot of Military thinking going into WW1 was... 'Wrong' - which is why after WW2 when they actually studied this, they realised that full-power Rifle Cartridges were too much bang for the engagement distances, thus the intermediate cartridges were born.

Plus... Bolt actions are fun and all, but get a Lever Action and flog it at full speed and you will have a big ol' smile on your dial

  • $\begingroup$ Or you could simply go with both. Issue a magazine fed lever action rifle like the Savage Model 99 or the BLR to line troops and issue bolt action rifles (low rate production) to sharp shooters and snipers. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Dec 30, 2023 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer. In fact, I can't think of a reason why you couldn't have a magazine-fed lever-action rifle with a slightly longer (maybe +125mm) barrel. Given the time period, you could unload rounds faster than a bolt action would allow. It'd scare the crap out of the enemy and have a great steampunk vibe. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 30, 2023 at 5:00
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH - here ya go: soldiersystems.net/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/… Just imagine that with Copper and Bronze $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2023 at 6:17
  • $\begingroup$ Now we're talkin! Archmagos! This would be awesome. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 30, 2023 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH this armourersbench.com/2019/08/11/… this armourersbench.com/2020/12/19/…, or this armourersbench.com/2019/11/03/… maybe ? $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Dec 31, 2023 at 11:28

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