Long Action vs Short Action: A Guide

| Last Updated: May 14, 2021

Looking to buy a new rifle and not sure if you need a long-action or short-action one?

Or maybe you have a rifle and want to change out the bolt and need to know how to determine what type of action you have. 

Great, because that's precisely what we're going to cover in this article. Have a seat and get comfortable; we have a lot to discuss. 

TL;DR: Long Action vs Short Action

Long Action

Short Action

Pros

Pros

Better at long ranges

Better stopping for larger game

Smother bolt stroke

Lighter by a few ounces

Shorter by about ½ inch

Shorter bolt stroke

Cons

Cons

Heavier overall

Longer by about ½ an inch

Not great for large game

Can lose power at long range

Best For

Best For

Best for hunters who are after varying-sized large game.

Best for competition shooters and hunters that go on long hiking expeditions.

What is Rifle Action and How Does it Work?

Rifle action is a term used to describe the mechanical functions of a weapon.

The action involves the bolt extending to the rear, which allows a round, or bullet, to be chambered. Then the bolt is sent forward, allowing the shooter to pull the trigger. This causes the firing pin to strike the primer on the bullet, firing the projectile. The bolt then unlocks again and extracts the empty cartridge. Another round is chambered, and the process repeats itself. This series of events is known as the cyclic functions of fire or 'action'.

The rifle action is the part of the weapon that includes the firing pin, trigger mechanism bolt, bolt assembly, and other components dealing with the cycling and firing of cartridges.

When discussing what action is required for your rifle, you must know what size cartridges your weapon will fire because the round determines the action's length it's designed to fire. Let's go through some of the different types of actions and determine what size rounds they're intended for.

Mini Action

Mini action is the shortest action currently available for rifles. The mini-action is the 21st-century bolt-action invention to make use of the short-lived 2.36" Winchester Super Short Magnums and others. 

It's critical to describe that mini-action lengths aren't standardized. For example, the Remington M700 short-action magazine is 2.84" long, and the Winchester goes 2.875." The mini-action cartridges are typically about 2.36 inches, but they have more variability than actions. 

Short Action

Short-action rifle cartridges have a cartridge overall length of 2.3 to 2.8 inches. Smaller actions that hold smaller cartridges are considered Mini. Short-action cartridges are usually variations of the .308 Winchester.

The .308/7.62mm NATO is most likely the best-known example of the short action.

The 308 Winchester was the original model for the short action-type weapon. It was the outcome of shortening the 30-06 cartridge; as mentioned before, the cartridge’s overall length is established at 2.8 inches.

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Long/Standard Action

The long action or standard action is based around the 30-06 Springfield cartridge. The overall length of the cartridge is between 2.8 inches and 3.340 inches. 

Some might argue that the Mauser 7.92mm was the original version of the long action because it was used in the Mauser 1898, which was basically the first modern bolt-action rifle.

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Magnum Action

The magnum action was developed to hold the 375 H&H Magnum cartridges and any cartridge of the same length or shorter. The cartridge’s overall length comes standard at 3.6 inches. 

The early Weatherby cartridges were designed on a full-length 375 H&H case. So were the newer super magnums like the Remington Ultra Magnums, for example.

Cartridges designed for a magnum action rifle are extremely powerful. Many of your safari-type hunting expeditions will require a weapon capable of housing a magnum-style cartridge.

Relevant Characteristics Between Long Action and Short Action

Spec

Long Action

Short Action

Cartridge Length

2.8 - 3.34 in

2.3 - 2.8 in

Muzzle Velocity

Generally Higher

Generally Lower

Muzzle Energy

Generally Higher

Generally Lower

Similarities and Differences

So you're probably wondering how all this breaks down as far as usable information. Well, the best way to determine this is by looking at how these two types of weapons compare and contrast to each other. 

The differences between long-action weapons and short-action rifles are small. They should still be considered, so we'll look at them first.

Long Action and Short Action Differences

Probably one of the largest differences that matter is in the stiffness of the action. For most shooters, this might barely be noticeable, but it might be an important variable for others. 

Stiffness

The stiffness plays a bigger role when the shooter is using a rifle with a free-floating barrel. A free-floating barrel is a rifle whose barrel never touches the forestock or anything else after leaving the chamber. This quality plays a role in the barrel’s harmonics and the round’s minute angle. 

The stiffness matters in the case of a floating-barrel. With nothing to stabilize the barrel, the added stiffness might cause the barrel to travel a little between the cartridge explosion and the projectile entering the barrel. 

What does this mean? Basically, if you're shooting over greater distances, a fraction of a millimeter could add up to as much as 2 inches at the point of impact with the target. This variation in the distance could determine whether you drop your target or miss it entirely. 

Cartridges and Action

Long action rifles can hold larger cartridges. Because long-action rifles can hold larger rounds, they typically have better-stopping power than their short-action counterparts. 

For this reason, if you're hunting smaller species of deer like antelope or even whitetail, a short action might be adequate. However, if you're hunting bigger games such as elk or, especially, bears - a long action is most likely going to be the better choice.

Competition Preference

Most competition shooters prefer a short-action rifle because they tend to have a shorter stroke making for a faster reload. However, the difference in stroke between long and short is so small you would have to be a shooter who spends a great deal of time at the range firing lots of ammunition.

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It's worth pointing out that competition shooters aim only at paper targets or targets they only have to make contact with. They aren't trying to bring a living thing to the ground.

Weight

Short-action rifles will also be slightly lighter. By slightly, we mean 3-4 ounces at most. This isn't enough to be a factor; however, if you're planning on doing a long, mountain-hunting expedition, this might be a good consideration.

Not only is the short action going to be lighter, but the ammo that is fed into the weapon is going to be lighter as well, making short-action rifles ideal for hiking expeditions. 

Long Action and Short Action Similarities

Now that we’ve examined the differences, let’s look at some similarities.

Chamber Size

The differences in the long and short-action rifles like chamber size and weight are so minuscule; they're barely noticeable to the average human. You're more likely to notice a difference in the bullet sizes rather than the action difference. 

Mechanics

The mechanics of the weapon are the same. How the weapon chambers the round, fires the round, extracts the empty cartridge, then chambers the next round all happen the same way.

On average, the basic shooter isn't going to notice much difference in how a short action fires compared to a long action. The same fundamentals of shooting still apply, so there shouldn't be any difference in how they fire. As long as you maintain a good body position, you won't feel a difference other than the cartridge power difference. 

Accuracy

Also, if you maintain a proper sight picture, along with trigger squeeze and breathing, your ability to hit a target precisely shouldn't be affected. These are your basic shooting fundamentals and should be considered more vital than the type of action you're using.

Advantages of Long Action

The advantages of using a long-action rifle are abundant. This rifle style allows larger cartridges. This is such an advantage because larger cartridges mean it can handle more gunpowder, which means it can handle a projectile of more grains.

Or you can use the same size projectile and get more distance. The ability to use larger rounds doesn't just aid in shooting farther, and it also means you can take down larger games. 

Many mountain hunters will carry a long-action rifle even if hunting a smaller deer species because these rifles can punch through foliage better. If a deer is standing in some brush, a 30-06 round will travel through it with less travel variation than a smaller .308 or 5.56. 

Another reason mountain hunters like to carry a long action rifle is when they happen along with one of those pesky bears that want more than your picnic basket. In this situation, you're going to be glad you brought your long action instead of your short action.

Another reason the long-action rifles are better is that, in general, they have a better range than their short-action brother. Again, having the added range really comes in handy if you're hunting in the mountains or on Texas's flat plains. 

Many hunters will tell stories of how they saw a perfect 10-point buck. While they could see them perfectly in their scope, they could reach them with confidence with their short-action rifle.

However, had they been carrying a long-action rifle, they may have had a better chance of connecting with the animal and putting a little more meat in the fridge. 

Long-action rifles also tend to be better suited for hunting situations or protection while tending to a livestock herd on a ranch. If you're bringing in young livestock, there is always the possibility that a hungry mountain lion or even a bear might be wanting an easy meal. 

While you never want to shoot one of these animals, it's nice to know that if you have to, you can. If you're holding a short-action rifle, you might not have enough power to do the job. 

The Short of It

Overall, the long-action rifle is going to have more power and better range than the short action. The fact that the long action has these attributes make it better suited for most hunting environments. The most sought-after weapon caliber for hunters in America is the 30-06 long-action rifle

Also, the long-action rifle will allow for a larger grain round, giving the shooter the ability to pack a bigger punch when trying to take down big game like elk. The long action might be a little heavier, but in some instances, it's better to have too much weapon than not enough.

If you live in an area that is heavily populated with larger predator animals, then the long-action rifle will be a better choice.

Advantages of Short Action

The advantages of a short-action rifle are just as abundant as with a long-action rifle. The short-action rifle is slightly shorter in overall length by about half an inch. The short-action rifle will also tend to be lighter, even if it's only by a few ounces. 

The shorter overall length of the weapon makes it great to carry through a thick brush or hunt out of a small tree stand. Also, having a shorter overall length makes the short-action rifle more manageable if you're stalking your prey. 

In a stalking situation, being able to quickly bring the weapon up and turn with the rifle barrel will be a nice characteristic should your prey jump out from some cover and take off across your shooting plain. 

Being lighter is also a great attribute found in the short-action rifles because it allows for longer hikes when being carried. Also, because the short action requires smaller rounds, the ammo's weight is significantly less, compounding overall weight reduction. 

Many hunters on long hiking expeditions that might have the possibility of bringing down a deer for dinner will often pack a short-action rifle because of its lighter weight. 

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Even with a few ounces' lighter weight when combined with the lighter weight of the round, the difference between long action and short action becomes increasingly noticeable, especially over long distances across rough terrain.

Just because it has a smaller cartridge doesn't mean it can't take down a larger animal like an elk. But to bring down the larger animals, the shot must be better placed. If you're confident in your shooting abilities and do many long-distance hunting excursions, then a short-action rifle might be your best option.

The Short of It

The short-action rifle is an ideal choice for competition shooters and long-distance hiking or hunting expeditions. Its lightweight and shorter overall length make it better for hunters who prefer to stalk their prey.

Also, just because it has a smaller cartridge doesn't mean that it can't bring down larger prey when hunting. If you have good technique and know where to aim at an animal, then the short-action rounds will easily penetrate the flesh.

If you want a rifle that's good for taking to the range and letting some ammo fly while also reaching out a little farther than some other action-type rifles, then a short-action rifle is probably going to be a better choice for you. 

What About Magnum Action?

Magnum action rifles are made to house extremely powerful rounds. Magnum-action rifles offer an extraordinary range with a little fall-off in stopping power. 

However, magnum-action rifles are also going to be heavier in construction. The rounds themselves are going to add to that weight significantly.

Magnum-action rifles are often required on safari-style hunts or when hunting huge game like caribou or big bear species like Grizzlies. Most hunters don't like to carry them over long distances because of their weight and will typically set up in a blind or tree stand of some sort. 

Magnum-action rifles also tend to be quite expensive, and the ammo isn't cheap either. Generally, most people who purchase a magnum-action rifle do so because their species intends to hunt large. 

If you're looking to go on a hunt for moose or other large prey, then a magnum-action rifle is a great choice. Or, if you're simply looking for a large gun to shoot for the enjoyment of shooting a larger gun, this is definitely the perfect choice.

Someone might want a magnum-action rifle if they know they have long ranges to cover and need a rifle capable of reaching out further than 800 meters. A magnum-style action will reach out farther and reach the target with enough force to drop it.

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Bottom Line

When deciding between a long action or short-action rifle, you should consider a few things. 

First, what is the weapon's primary function? Is it for hunting or target shooting? If it's for hunting, it's wise to consider the maximum distance you'll need the projectile to reach. It's also important to determine what size of creature you'll be wanting to take down. 

If you're chasing small deer-like antelope, then a short-action rifle should be sufficient. However, if you're going after a larger game like elk, or even wild hog, a long-action rifle will more than likely be the best action type for you. 

While the differences between short-action rifles and long-action rifles might be small as far as length and weight are concerned. Their differences between caliber capabilities are night and day. Long-action rifles will have better-stopping power and are better at longer ranges. In contrast, short-action rifles are better for competition shooting and long-distance hiking and hunting expeditions. 

People Also Ask

There will always be a few questions requiring further information. Below, we have done our best to compile the most frequently asked of them all. 

How to Tell if My Rifle is Long Or Short Action

The best way to determine whether your rifle is long or short is to determine the cartridge's length used in the weapon. A long-action rifle will have an overall cartridge length of 2.8 inches to 3.34 inches. Any larger than this, and you're entering the magnum-action range. A short action, however, will have a cartridge length of 2.3 inches to 2.8 inches.

How Would You Know if You Need a Long-action or Short-action Stock?

The only way to determine what size stock you need for a long or short-action rifle is to measure the distance between the screw hole on the bottom of the rifle where the bolt attaches.

There isn't an agreed-upon distance when determining the distance between these two screw holes. Look for a stock to match the manufacturer of your weapon.



Josh Lewis the managing editor at Gun Mann and when he isn't writing about guns he is more than likely tinkering with them. He also enjoys hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors. As a lifelong gun owner he knows his stuff!