You’ll often hear short action and long action tossed around at gun conventions or in the product descriptions of rifles you might be thinking about buying. But what do these terms actually mean, especially in the field? Let’s break down short action vs long action rifles in detail.
Short Action vs Long Action Rifles
What is an Action, Anyway?
A rifle’s action is the collective term for the firing pin, trigger, locking bolt, and any other mechanism or part that’s involved with cycling and firing a cartridge.
However, “action” can also refer to the length of a cartridge, since that length determines how long the action of a rifle has to be – actions that are of a shorter length can’t fit longer cartridges inside, obviously.
There are five broad types of cartridges with associated actions:
- Magnum cartridges are powerful and pack a huge punch. These are standardized at about 3.6 inches.
- Standard cartridges, also called “long,” are based on the classic 30.06 Springfield cartridges and have an average length of 3.34 inches.
- Short cartridges average at around 2.8 inches.
- Super short cartridges are more modern cartridges and average about 2.36 inches, but they have more variability than others.
- Lastly, because whoever came up with these terms wasn’t very creative, “really super short” cartridges. These are also not very standardized; you can find cartridges with links of 1.723 inches or 1.68 inches.
Short Action vs Long Action: What Does It Really Mean?
So, what does all this mean when you're firing a weapon?
A short action rifle uses cartridges of a shorter length, which means it has a shorter action as a result.
This provides a number of advantages or disadvantages depending on your circumstances or needs.
Short action rifles and cartridges are:
- Lighter in weight on average – This usually doesn’t add up to more than a few ounces of difference, but this may make a minor difference for specific target practice competitions or hunting situations.
- In need of shorter bolts and receivers – As a result, these rifles can cycle a little faster if they are bolt action models. Plus, they’ll weigh a little less (shorter receiver means less metal).
- More compact – but not by much. Think ¼ or ½ of an inch.
Long action rifles and cartridges, on the other hand, are:
- Often a little more powerful – Longer cartridges can logically hold more powder, which means a bigger boom. This is true even for cartridges that are essentially the same weight otherwise.
- Take heavier or larger bullets – This often translates to more stopping power or penetrative capability, but not always.
Short action and long action rifles differ in length by less than half an inch on average.
While this may be noticeable for some, in reality, we’re not sure if it’s a big deal, even for speed reloading.
There is, however, some talk around the gun enthusiast sphere that short actions are a little stiffer than their long action counterparts.
In this way, short action rifles might be a little less accurate at very long distances.
This doesn’t matter for typical hunting engagement ranges or even many target shooting competitions, but it could matter for sniper shooting and the like.
Does It Really Matter?
Not really in many cases.
It’s true that, if you’re building a custom firearm and want to have every detail exactly as you prefer, you’ll want to consider whether you’re building a gun for short or long action cartridges.
However, aside from a few edge cases and some very mild differences in weight and bullet powder capacity, your actual powder loads, shooting skill, and the quality of the other parts of the rifle will have a bigger effect on a rifle’s quality.
Both types of rifles can be worthwhile.
Between short action vs long action rifles, which one are you leaning on to? Let us know why in the comments section!