The General Purpose Bolt Rifle: A Self-Defense Tool?

As usual, if Jeff Cooper said it, we are still talking about it.  Col. Cooper was the man, I am always amused when some keyboard-commando idiot criticizes him.  The present craft of shooting would not currently be what it is if not for him.  Did everything he taught and wrote go unchanged?  Obviously not, but he built the foundation on which the modern leaders in skill development build further.

One of Cooper’s ideas that has never gone away is the concept of the “scout rifle.”  This is essentially a light-weight, short, and handy rifle, typically bolt action, set up to be usable for many roles.  The scout rifle that Cooper promoted wore a forward-mounted long eye relief scope and had backup iron sights.  The cartridge of choice was the versatile 308 Winchester.  While obviously not an ideal fighting setup the scout rifle was envisioned as a do-it-all survival gun.

So, does the scout rifle or variations thereof hold merit today?  Well, I will be the first to say that if I am going into a fight the rifle I want in my hands is a modern M4.  I sure do not want to fight with a bolt gun.  However, I think the general idea of the scout rifle proves practical for some things, although I like to consider it more of a “general purpose rifle” as I am not a scout.

Modern Variations on the Theme

To begin, I honestly think the forward-mounted scope only holds on for nostalgia.  In times past bolt guns that were fed from stripper clips would benefit from this design as the scope would not obstruct access to the action.  However, modern bolt guns are usually fed from a box magazine and getting to the action under a conventionally mounted scope is no issue on these rifles so even here I think the idea is worthless.  Forward mounted scopes also do worse in low light and I have a hard time believing anyone can shoot one faster than when using a good variable scope set to true 1x power.  That is what we use on ARs for maximum speed so what is different with a bolt gun?

Iron sights combined with a scope that has a quick-release mount can provide a redundant sighting system should the scope fail, which is always possible in the field even with the best of optics.  While this was a required feature for the scout concept most bolt guns today are not designed with irons as these rifles are usually made for hunting or precision applications and are intended for use strictly with optics.

My version of a general purpose rifle only has an optic but I think having a secondary sighting system makes sense for a gun that you may truly spend extended times in the field with.  Besides backup irons another viable option, however, would be to carry a small red-dot optic on a quick-attach mount while in the field that could be put on the rail in place of a compromised primary scope.  With the small, light, and rugged dot sights available today this would be a good option that would certainly perform better than iron sights anyway and this makes all of the great bolt guns that are produced without backup irons more viable for this general purpose and survival use.

Ironically, most purpose-built scout rifles on the market weigh more than a light-weight hunting bolt gun and this is the problem I have with dedicated scout rifles.  If I want a heavier rifle I would rather carry around a deck-out AR15 anyway, so the benefits of these modern takes on Cooper’s concept somewhat elude me as I find them too heavy for their purpose.  A light-weight modern hunting bolt action rifle fits the bill more appropriately for my needs as a general-purpose rifle and these designs can be found much lighter in weight than any of the dedicated scout rifles.

Potential Benefits of the General Purpose Rifle

With the addition of a conventionally mounted 1-4x or 1-6x scope does a bolt gun truly offer anything to the modern shooter beyond hunting?  I think so, and here are my thoughts:

  1. A light-weight bolt gun can be truly light. An AR, no matter how stripped down, will be heavier.  For a man on foot in the woods who is not anticipating a fight but wants the stand-off distance of a rifle, just in case, this may be a good option.
  2. Bolt guns are generally more rugged than any other design. I am hesitant to leave one of my ARs in a trunk as a knock-around gun.  Sure, it will probably be fine, but the AR needs some TLC to keep reliable.  A bolt gun?  Not so much.  Want a rifle to toss in the trunk or the back seat of a truck that you never have to worry about?  I think a general purpose bolt gun is hard to beat.  Put a good quality scope on it and it is ready to roll always.
  3. It is legal pretty much anywhere. Unfortunately, until we can Exile all leftists for being the traders to the Constitution that they are, we have to deal with certain states that are communist and don’t acknowledge the Second Amendment.  Even in these collectivist utopias, however, a bolt gun can typically go when your AR can’t.

So, while I don’t have a scout rifle set up to Cooper’s specifications, I do have a bolt gun that I consider my all-purpose rifle.  I have an excellent little Ruger American Compact Rifle in Stainless that is super light-weight, super handy, and very rugged.  It is chambered in 223 Remington, not 308 Winchester as intended with the scout rifle concept, so it is not a big game rifle or a grizzly country gun, but I don’t live in grizzly country and 223 offers numerous benefits including lighter ammunition and more capacity in the equivalent sized magazine.

A nimble bolt action rifle chambered in 223 is a great gun to keep in the trunk when out in the mountains and it is a great gun to take on a hike through the woods of Appalachia.  In this environment 223 Remington does everything I need from a rifle.  I even hunt deer with it now as I hunt where it is legal to use 223 (which is not the case in all states).  With modern loads 223 is perfectly adequate for taking white tail deer despite what some internet warriors think.  For the outdoors east of the Mississippi river this rifle will do anything I need.  If you need a defensive tool in brown bear country I think the scout rife standard of 308, or something even more powerful, makes more sense.

While I would not take this general-purpose rifle with me if expecting trouble, if trouble comes knocking unexpectedly you might be surprised what you can do with a bolt gun if you know how to run it.  Is Cooper’s scout rifle concept still relevant?  I think so, with just a bit of modernization I think it is even better and proves an ideal tool for the man on foot who wants to carry less weight but wants the range and power of a rifle.

One thought on “The General Purpose Bolt Rifle: A Self-Defense Tool?

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  1. An excellent article. In hunting, shot placement is vital. As we all know, virtually any center fire cartridge is adequate for north American big game. I, myself would not choose to hunt some of the dangerous big game with the smaller ammo. I am a “bolt action guy” through and through. My preference. I generally hunt with either a 250-3000, 7X57 or 3006. I have and feel confident in hunting anything with these three cartridges. As a re-loader, I can load them up and down for what I might be hunting, respectively. Loaded down, the 7X57 or 3006 are virtually as flat shooting as my 250-3000.

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