Controlled Round Feed vs. Push Feed: Which Action is better?

Controlled Round Feed vs. Push Feed: Which Action is better?

Why does it matter?   Let’s talk about controlled round feed vs. push feed. 

Among the more well-known ‘limited production’ bold action rifles are the Montana 1999 and the New Ultra Light Arms. Let’s take a look at these, because in many ways each embodies different sides of what a custom action is all about.

The Montana action is often described as a “pre-’64 Model 70” type action, meaning it closely resembles the famous Winchester action made between 1936 and 1963. This is mostly true, though not totally. The Montana includes a 3-position safety on the side of the bolt shroud, resembling one of the Model Winchester’s identifiable external features. A 3-position safety not only has the traditional “fire” and “can’t-fire” functions, (with the bolt handle locked down) but a third function, where the bolt can be opened with the rifle still on “safe.”

It also has a trigger mechanism strongly resembling the Model 70’s, and any trigger designed for the Model 70 will also fit the Model 1999, as will Model 70 scope mount bases. But the front end of the Montana action features the “inner collar” barrel mounting system of the 98 Mauser, generally considered superior to the coned breech of the Model 70 (borrowed from the 1903 Springfield, and considered by some a weak point of the Model 70).

The Montana is also a “controlled-round feed” action, with a long, spring-steel extractor attached alongside the bolt. As a fresh round is pushed forward, rising from the magazine, the extractor grasps the cartridge rim. The cartridge is either “controlled” by the magazine rails, the extractor, or both. This is supposedly the most fool-proof way to move cartridges from a bolt-action’s magazine to the chamber, and is the way it’s done in the 98 Mauser, 1903 Springfield, and pre-’64 Model 70.

Controlled-round feeding (or CRF, as it is sometimes called) is often considered necessary for any bolt-action used in dire circumstances, such as war or hunting dangerous big game animals. The reasons are somewhat complicated, but mostly involve short-stroking the action. In theory a CRF action will not jam due to short-stroking. This is a misconception (if not a downright lie), but widely believed.

The New Ultra Light Arms is a “push-feed” action. This means that the extractor doesn’t grasp the rim of the cartridge until the round is full chambered. In theory this is an iffy way to move cartridges from magazine to chamber, since for a brief period the cartridge is free of both the magazine and bolt.

Oddly, perhaps, the New Ultra Light Arms (NULA) action also has a 3-position safety. Since it isn’t mounted on the bolt but on the trigger (with the control lever along the rear of the action), it is not considered a “true” 3-position safety. Why? Because unlike the Model 70’s safety (or its copies), the NULA’s safety does not actually hold back the firing pin. Instead it merely blocks the trigger from being pulled. Thus, purists claim, it’s not as safe.

(These purists consider the pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 to be the rifle equivalent of The Second Coming, and patiently await the day when the rest of the shooting world will see the light. Any deviation from the original–conceived by divine guidance through Peter Paul Mauser and a host of disciples, including Elmer Keith–is almost blasphemous.)

There is one other obvious difference between the Montana and the NULA actions. The Montana has a hinged floorplate, so the magazine can be unloaded from the bottom. The NULA has a “blind” magazine, essentially a well in the stock, so that cartridges in the magazine must be popped free by pushing them out with the bolt.

Thus, these two actions embody the basic arguments that avid riflemen invoke when displaying their superior knowledge. The rest of the rifle-buying world is content to pick a rifle that appeals both to their esthetics and credit card limit. (Or maybe their father’s esthetics, because rifles, religions and pickup trucks are normally chosen because of family tradition more than anything else.)

Custom bolt actions exist because some people care enough about the details of function to choose something other than a mere factory action. Even then it’s debatable whether the choice is truly rational. Take, for example, controlled-round feeding.

When I was a young rifle loony back in the 1970’s, controlled-round feeding was almost as dead as Prohibition. Few shooters could even define it. This was because no commercial American-made rifle had CRF, especially the three most popular, the Remington 700, Ruger 77, and post-’64 Winchester Model 70. During those years, most American hunters ventured blissfully into the woods and killed deer, elk and bears with rifles that theoretically weren’t capable of repeated reliability. Perhaps because we were ignorant, we just worked the bolt handle and shot again as needed.

Nobody much cared about the death of CRF, except for a few grumpy millionaires who went to Africa and sat around the mopane fire in the evening, drinking old Scotch, smoking Cuban cigars and muttering about the high price of lions, pre-’64 Model 70’s and English double rifles. (This was long before every other insurance adjuster in Cincinnati started hunting kudu in South Africa.)

About 1990 Winchester brought back the pre-’64 Model 70, or something very much resembling it, thanks to the miracle of computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machinery. Thus, when the “new pre-‘64” Model 70 appeared, every gun writer in the world had to write an article explaining the virtues of CRF.
In fact Winchester had no plans to make very many CRF Model 70’s (now known as Model 70 Classics). They thought the Classics would only appeal to a small percentage of rifle buyers. Were they fooled! Pretty soon the majority of hunters wanted controlled-feed Model 70’s, even if half the customers didn’t even know what it meant.

Apparently in the years between 1964 and 1990, every big game animal in North America had suddenly started charging, even white-tailed deer. The demand for CRF became so great that other CRF actions became popular, such as the Kimber Model 84 and CZ 550, and even the Ruger 77 eventually morphed from push-feed to CRF.

In the meantime another market trend began. Some hunters apparently did not believe all big game animals had grown dangerous. Instead they’d shrunk to about the size of the burrowing rodents called “varmints.”

The boys who hunted these prairie-dog deer and woodchuck elk demanded groups smaller than an inch. They obtained it by “accurizing” or “customizing” standard bolt-action rifles, usually Remington 700’s. This was because the 700 had a host of features that supposedly made it more accurate, most importantly a round (stiff) action and fast lock-time, reducing the interval between tripping the trigger and the cartridge going bang. The Remington 700 also did not have controlled-round feed, and many shooters insisted CRF was detrimental to superb accuracy. The long, strong extractor alongside the bolt was a bad thing, since it put too much pressure on the rear of the cartridge, pushing it slightly sideways in the chamber. This started bullets down the bore a little cockeyed, and hence prairie-dog deer at any range beyond 100 yards might be hit around the edges.

Just a short bit from Chapter 2 of John’s Obsessions of a Rifle Loony. And  probably something you and your friends have already ‘discussed’ around the campfire.

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