In firearms terminology, an action is the mechanism that handles the ammunition (loads, locks, fires, extracts and ejects) or the method by which that mechanism works. Breech-loading weapons have actions; actions are technically not present on muzzleloaders, as all are single-shot weapons with a closed off breech.
Actions can be categorized in several ways, including single action versus double action, break action versus bolt action, and others. The term action can also include short, long, and magnum if it is in reference to the length of the rifle’s receiver and the length of the bolt. The short action rifle usually can accommodate a cartridge length of 2.8 in (71 mm) or smaller. The long action rifle can accommodate a cartridge of 3.34 in (85 mm), and the magnum action rifle can accommodate cartridges of 3.6 in (91 mm), or longer in length.
Dropping block are actions wherein the breechblock lowers or "drops" into the receiver to open the breech, usually actuated by an underlever. There are two principal types of dropping block: the tilting block and the falling block.
In a tilting block or pivoting block action, the breechblock is hinged on a pin mounted at the rear. When the lever is operated, the block tilts down and forward, exposing the chamber. The best-known pivoting block designs are the Peabody, the Peabody–Martini, and Ballard actions.
The original Peabody rifles, manufactured by the Providence Tool Company, used a manually cocked side-hammer. Swiss gunsmith Friedrich Martini developed a pivoting block action by modifying the Peabody, that incorporated a hammerless striker which was cocked by the operating lever with the same single, efficient motion that also pivoted the block. The 1871 Martini–Henry which replaced the "trapdoor" Snider–Enfield was the standard British Army rifle of the later Victorian era, and the Martini was also a popular action for civilian rifles.
Charles H. Ballard's self-cocking tilting-block action was produced by the Marlin Firearms Company from 1875, and earned a superlative reputation among long-range "Creedmoor" target shooters. Surviving Marlin Ballards are today highly prized by collectors, especially those mounted in the elaborate Swiss-style Schützen stocks of the day.
A falling-block action (also known as a sliding-block action) is a single-shot firearm action in which a solid metal breechblock slides vertically in grooves cut into the breech of the weapon and actuated by a lever. Examples of firearms using the falling block action are the Sharps rifle and Ruger No. 1.
In a rolling block action the breechblock takes the form of a part-cylinder, with a pivot pin through its axis. The operator rotates or "rolls" the block to open and close the breech; it is a simple, rugged and reliable design. Rolling blocks are most often associated with firearms made by Remington in the later 19th century; in the Remington action the hammer serves to lock the breech closed at the moment of firing, and the block in turn prevents the hammer from falling with the breech open.
A break action is a type of firearm where the barrel(s) are hinged and can be "broken open" to expose the breech. Multi-barrel break action firearms are usually subdivided into over-and-under or side-by-side configurations for two barrel configurations or "combination gun" when mixed rifle and shotgun barrels are used.
Hinged block was the earliest metallic-cartridge breechloaders designed for general military issue began as conversions of muzzle-loading rifle-muskets. The upper rear portion of the barrel was filed or milled away and replaced by a hinged breechblock which opened upward to permit loading. An internal angled firing pin allowed the re-use of the rifle's existing side-hammer. The Allin action made by Springfield Arsenal in the US hinged forward; the Snider–Enfield used by the British opened to the side. Whereas the British quickly replaced the Snider with a dropping-block Peabody-style Martini action, the US Army felt the trapdoor action to be adequate and followed its muzzleloader conversions with the new-production Springfield Model 1873, which was the principal longarm of the Indian Wars and was still in service with some units in the Spanish–American War.
Although bolt actions are usually associated with fixed or detachable box magazines, in fact the first general-issue military breechloader was a single-shot bolt action: the paper-cartridge Prussian Needle Gun of 1841. France countered in 1866 with its superior Chassepot rifle, also a paper-cartridge bolt action. The first metallic-cartridge bolt actions in general military service were the Berdan Type II introduced by Russia in 1870, the Mauser Model 1871, and a modified Chassepot, the Gras rifle of 1874; all these were single-shots.
Today most top-level smallbore match rifles are single-shot bolt actions.
Single-shot bolt actions in .22 caliber were also widely manufactured as inexpensive "boys' guns" in the earlier 20th century; and there have been a few single-shot bolt-action shotguns, usually in .410 bore.
Rotating-drum action first seen on the M1867 Werndl–Holub and later on the Magnum Research Lone Eagle pistol, the breech closure is a rotating drum with the same axis, but offset from the bore. When locked, a firing pin aligns with the primer and the breech is otherwise solid. When rotated open, a slot in the drum is exposed for extraction and feeding of a new round. Though first used on the Werndl-Holub, this action is commonly known as a cannon breech due to its association with the French 75mm Model of 1897 cannon. The French M1897 was, itself, based on William Hubbell's U.S. Patent 149,478.
A revolver houses cartridges in a rotary cylinder and rotates them in-line with the cylinder bore (actually a forcing cone) prior to each shot. Revolvers are most often handguns, however examples of rifles and shotguns and cannon have been made. The cylinder is most often rotated by manipulation of the trigger and/or hammer, although some are "double action" using the manual pull of the trigger to rotate the cylinder and cock the hammer.
In bolt-action firearms, the opening and closing of the breech is operated manually by a bolt. Opening the breech ejects a cartridge while subsequently closing the breech chambers a new round. The three predominant bolt-action systems are the Mauser, Lee–Enfield, and Mosin–Nagant systems.
In the Mauser-style turn-bolt action, the bolt handle must be rotated counter-clockwise, drawn rearward, pushed forward, and finally rotated clockwise back into lock. In a straight-pull action, the bolt lever can be cycled without rotating it, hence producing a reduced range of motion by the shooter from four movements to two, with the goal of increasing the rifle's rate of fire. The Ross and Schmidt–Rubin rifles load via stripper clips, albeit of an unusual paperboard and steel design in the Schmidt–Rubin rifle, while the Mannlicher uses en-bloc clips. The Schmidt–Rubin series, which culminated in the K31, are also known for being among the most accurate military rifles ever made. Yet another variant of the straight-pull bolt action, of which the M1895 Lee Navy is an example, is a camming action in which pulling the bolt handle causes the bolt to rock, freeing a stud from the receiver and unlocking the bolt.
In pump action or slide action firearms, a grip called the fore end is manually operated by the user to eject and chamber a new round. Pump actions are predominantly found in shotguns. An example of firearms using the pump action are the Remington 870 and Winchester Model 1897.
Lever release is a hybrid repeating action, that uses the physical manipulation of a lever to chamber cartridges (similar to lever-action firearms). However, unlike lever action, lever release firearms eject the cartridge independently of the lever, usually via blowback or gas operation.
Whilst the basic principle can be traced back to other self-ejecting rifles, such as the single shot Harrington & Richardson Model 755 rifle, the action has since been popularised in the UK by Southern Gun Company, who manufacture such rifles in a range of calibres, as the interrupted mechanism complies with The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 which bans possession of self-loading centrefire rifles.
Blowback operation is a system in which semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms operate through the energy created by combustion in the chamber and bore acting directly on the bolt face through the cartridge. In blowback operation the bolt is not locked to the chamber, relying only on spring pressure and inertia from the weight of the bolt to keep the action from opening too quickly. Blowback operation is used for low-powered cartridges due to the weight of the bolt required.
Delayed blowback actions use some mechanism to slow down rearward travel of the bolt, allowing this action to handle more powerful ammunition and/or reduced weight of the bolt.
Blow-Forward operation uses a fixed breech and moving barrel that is forced forward relative to the breech by the friction of the projectile against the bore as well as the breech recoiling away from the barrel. The barrel is spring loaded and returns automatically to chamber a fresh round from the magazine. Examples of this action are the Steyr Mannlicher M1894, Hino Komuro M1908 Pistol and the Schwarzlose Model 1908.
Recoil operation is a type of locked-breech firearm action used in semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms. It also uses energy from the combustion in the chamber acting directly on the bolt through the cartridge head, but in this case the firearm has a reciprocating barrel and breach assembly, combined with a bolt that locks to the breach. The breach remains locked as the bolt and barrel travel rearward together for some distance, allowing pressure in the chamber to drop to a safe level before the breech is opened.
Gas operation is a system of operation used to provide energy to semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms. In gas-operation, a portion of high pressure gas from the cartridge being fired is tapped through a hole in the barrel and diverted to operate the action. There are three basic types: long stroke gas piston (where the gas piston goes the same distance as the operating stroke of the action parts, and is often attached to the action parts), short stroke gas piston (where the gas piston travels a shorter distance than the operating stroke of the action parts), and direct impingement (AKA "direct gas", "gas impingement", where there is no piston, and the gas acts directly on the action parts). A fourth type, now considered obsolete and ineffective, are those systems based on the Bang rifle that utilize a muzzle cap to capture gas after the bullet has left the barrel. While this system is successful in boosting the operating power of recoil operated guns, it is insufficient and too susceptible to fouling for use as the primary operating system.