Do you prefer a short action or long action rifle? It’s a question many gun owners have been asked and it has kept alive a long debate on the merits of each action length. While a healthy debate is sure to produce many interesting arguments, none of this back and forth helps new gun owners without first explaining the differences between a short action and long action rifle.
A short-action rifle simply uses a shorter length cartridge than a long-action rifle. Short-action cartridges have an overall length of 2.3-2.8 inches while long action cartridges have an overall length of 2.8-3.34 inches. However, those numbers are only estimated as manufacturers sometimes classify them differently.
In the first half of the 20th Century ‘wildcatting’, the practice of modifying existing cartridges to suit different needs, really took off. The result was the number of available cartridges for civilian gun owners exploded from a couple of dozen to well over one hundred. While the variety was great for gun owners, having dozens of different cartridges all with unique dimensions is a headache for manufacturers.
Wanting to reach the widest audiences possible, rifle manufacturers had to have a way to economically produce rifles that could be adapted to accept every cambering on the market. While barrels could be made affordably, actions required more complex machining. Since the action was the most expensive part to make, it made sense to standardize the dimensions so 3 or 4 lengths could reliably use all the cartridges on the market.
Today, there are 4 main action lengths gun owners should be aware of:
- Magnum length actions accept cartridges that are over 3.34 inches in length with most cartridges being around 3.6 inches long. The 375 H&H magnum is a well-known example.
- Long/standard length actions accept cartridges that are over 2.8 inches in length but under 3.34 inches. The 30-06 is easily the most popular long action cartridge.
- Short length actions accept cartridges that are under 2.8 inches in length and generally any cartridge over about 2.3 inches. The 308 Winchester is the most popular short action cartridge on the market.
- ‘Mini’ length actions accept intermediate cartridges that are below 2.3 inches in length. The 5.56×45 NATO and its civilian equivalent, the 223 Remington are the most popular cartridges which use this action length.
For most people buying a bolt-action rifle, the main debate is in the merits between the short action and long action length. The main reason for this long-standing debate is that both of these action lengths are actually quite similar. There are some pros and cons to consider, but keep in mind that the advantages of one action over the other are pretty slight.
To compare and contrast short and long actions, it helps to use two cartridges that are very similar in performance to each other. To represent the long action, I will be using the 30-06 Springfield. For the short action, I will be using the 308 Winchester. Both cartridges use the same bullets, primers, and powders in their construction, meaning the cases are the only real difference between the two.
30-06 Springfield, Long-Action Legend
First made in 1906 after modifying the very similar .303 Springfield, the 30-06 was a cartridge made for war. Originally lobbing a 150gr bullet about 2,700 fps, the Springfield’s 1906 cartridge was designed to deliver similar performance to the Mauser cartridges which were popular with European militaries at the time.
While it went on to win two world wars and fight in smaller conflicts all over the world for 50 years, it was eventually replaced by cartridges like the 308 Winchester on the battlefield. However, on the home front, the 30-06 gained a reputation for being a versatile hunting cartridge. This reputation continues to this day, where the Springfield 1906 is still very popular amongst hunters.
If long-action cartridges (and hence the rifles which use them) have one advantage, it’s versatility. The 30-06 can use bullets all the way down to 110gr or up to around 225gr. The length of the case also allows for the powder to be loaded down for light-recoiling rounds or loaded hot enough to exceed the original factory loads by 200-300 fps. The result–a single 30-06 can be used to kill anything from a coyote to a moose.
The long-action cartridge extended family is just as versatile as the Springfield. The 25-06 is well known for being a dual-use cartridge that can kill varmints, antelope, and deer. The 6.5x55mm Swede has been used to shoot every type of game in Europe. The 300 Winchester Magnum can throw the same bullets as the 30-06 faster or heavier bullets at about the same speed. The 338 Win Mag will put down the largest game animals in North America.
For a lot of hunters, the extra couple ounces and slightly longer overall length is a small inconvenience compared to the versatility of long-action guns. In general, picking a long action cartridge opens up all sorts of possibilities at reliably killing game animals across the globe.
308 Winchester, Short-Action King
Debuting in 1952, the 308 Winchester is the cartridge that really started the short-action, long-action debate. Since 1906, the 30-06 had ruled the roost with American Hunters and soldiers. By the 1960s, the 308 Win had displaced the Springfield in the hunting fields and in the battlefields. The US military adopted the militarized version of the 308, the 7.62x51mm, in 1954 for the M14 battle rifle.
The idea behind the 308 Winchester is pretty simple. Using the better powders available in the 1950s, it was possible to propel the same 30 caliber bullets like the 30-06 to nearly the same speed while using less powder. The result was a cartridge that could do nearly everyone the 30-06 did, but the ammo was cheaper to make, lighter, and more compact.
In the hunting fields, having a rifle that is lighter and shorter is an advantage, even if the advantage is slight. Where the 308 really benefited hunters was the lower recoil energy. According to the Backfire.TV Rifle Recoil Table, the 308 Win produces an average of 18.27 ft-lbs of force at 11.62 fps. The 30-06 produces 21.34 ft-lbs at 12.55 fps. With a softer punch and less momentum, the 308 Win is suitable for a wider variety of people.
As for versatility, there are some who claim the 308 is just as versatile for hunting as the 30-06. While that might be true for 90% of the game animals on the planet, the dimensions of the cartridge limit it’s use at higher bullet weights. It is hard to find commercial 308 Win ammo with more than a 180gr bullet. The true strength of short action cartridges is not versatility, but rather adaptability.
The 30-06 has produced roughly a dozen wildcat cartridges, but only 270 Winchester and the 25-06 Remington enjoy widespread commercial support. In contrast, the 308 Winchester has been the parent case of the 243 Win, 260 Rem, 7mm-08, 338 Fed, and 358 Win. All five wildcat cartridges are used by hunters today, even if some like the 260 Remington aren’t as popular as they once were.
Rather than using a wide variety of bullets of the same caliber, short-action cartridges tend to use different caliber bullets to achieve the same effect. This can also be seen in families of cartridges like the Winchester Short Magnums (WSM) and it’s starting to happen in the Creedmoor family as well with the introduction of the 6mm and 22 Creedmoor, both adapted from the famous, or infamous, 6.5 Creedmoor.
So, Which Action Length is Best?
This is the question at the heart of the short-action, long-action debate. While the history lessons and comparisons can be fun, new gun owners are going to want to know which length action they should focus on for their first, or next, gun purchase.
Short-action cartridges (and rifles) will be best suited for the following situations:
- Short range big-game hunting (less than 400 yards) up to the size of Elk and Moose
- Mountain hunting with light-weight, light-recoiling rifles
- Precision target shooting (25yds-900yds)
- Semi-automatic rifle shooting (AR-10)
Long-action cartridges (and rifles) will be best suited for these situations:
- Hunting multiple species with one rifle (African Safari)
- Hunting large game at least as big as an Elk or Moose
- Long range, big-game hunting (over 400 yards)
- Extreme long range precision shooting (over 900yds)
For hunters, the question really is what game will be hunted and who will be doing the hunting. A deer hunter in the US or Europe would do well to consider a short-action rifle since shots are close range at mid-sized animals. In such environments, having a bigger, heavier, longer gun that kicks more is unnecessary when a precise shot from a slightly smaller cartridge will do the trick.
Where a long-action cartridge really comes in handy is when shooting large animals at longer distances or when dealing with dangerous game. In both cases, the extra powder gives the bullet a boost of speed and energy. Many hunters have taken a 375 H&H on African safaris just as many western elk hunters swear by the long range capabilities of a 7mm Rem Mag or the 300 Win Mag.
For precision shooting, the maximum distance to the target should be considered. Bullet drop can be compensated for and bullet shape will largely determine wind drift. However, one advantage long action cartridges have over short action is velocity. All else being equal, a bullet shot out of a 300 Win Mag case will travel further and remain supersonic longer than the same bullet from a 308 Win case.
The Backfire.TV Maximum Effective Range Chart shows that a 308 will drop below 1,900fps (about 800fps faster than the speed of sound) at around 377 yards while the 300 Win Mag goes all the way out to 723 yards. That’s a 350 yard advantage! Since two identical bullets will have the same amount of drag, that range advantage carries all the way to the supersonic limit.
Modern Sporting Rifles
When it comes to semi-automatic rifles, there is really no contest between short action and long action cartridges. Short action reigns supreme with these guns. Certainly, there are semi-auto platforms for long-action guns like the Falkor Petra (300 Win Mag) and the M1 Garand (30-06), but for the most part short action cartridges have come to dominate the ‘modern sporting rifle’ market.
The reason for this domination is pretty simple, smaller cartridges are more inexpensive, lighter weight, and overall more compact. It’s easier to carry a single 30 round 7.62 NATO magazine than three 10 round magazines for a 30-06. Not only that, but a gas-operated semi-auto or automatic rifle greatly reduces felt recoil. For short-action cartridges, this recoil reduction makes handling such guns easy.
At this point, it might be tempting to dive back into the short-action/long-action debate, but I would urge us all to take a different approach. In a practical sense, there isn’t that much difference between a short action and long action cartridge (or rifle). How the rifle fits and how it shoots are more important things to consider before how long the case of a cartridge is.
Sure, the 300 Win Mag has a huge distance advantage over the 308 Win, but how many people are going to make a 700 yard shot at anything? The 7mm-08 might be great for hunting in the mountains, but if it’s only 6 ounces lighter than a 30-06, there’s surely some stuff in the backpack that can be left behind to make up the difference.
Rather than trying to match a rifle to some imaginary ideal, it’s better to ponder what a specific rifle will be used for, and to buy or build that rifle accordingly.