The Long and the Short of It

Long-action and short-action cartridges both have their benefits, but which type is “better”?


You might be thinking you need to buy a short-action rifle so you can shoot one of the vastly superior short-action cartridges, especially the .308 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor.

Think again.

There’s nothing wrong with short-action rifles and cartridges, but there are no major advantages in them, either. They are not vastly superior to anything. They won’t shoot farther, flatter, and harder than long-action or magnum-action centerfire cartridges. Nor appreciably more accurately. Unless you’re splitting hairs. They won’t knock a pound off your carry weight or cut your cycle time in half.

So what’s all the fuss about?


To figure this out, let’s define short action and long action. Essentially, all we’re talking about is the length of a cartridge and the rifle’s action—the part that includes the firing pin, locking bolt, trigger, and other parts involved with cycling and firing cartridges. This must be long enough to cycle those cartridges in and out of battery.


If the .308 Win. (ninth from left) is a short action, what do you call the shorter ones? From left are the .17 Hornet, .221 Fireball, .250 Savage, 6mm Rem., .204 Ruger, .223 Rem., .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Win., .270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., .375 H&H, .338 RUM, .338 Lapua, and .470 Nitro Express. The last one won’t even fit through a magnum action. Some manufacturers tailor actions to precisely fit the extreme sizes.


Cartridges, of course, come in a wide variety of lengths, diameters, tapers, rim types, and calibers, but most fall into five broad categories: magnum, standard (or long), short, mini or super-short, and “really super short.”

Let’s flesh these out a bit:

Magnum: This size was created to handle the .375 H&H Magnum cartridges and any of the same length or shorter. Cartridge Overall Length (COL) is standardized at 3.6 inches. The early Weatherby cartridges were based on a full-length .375 H&H case, as are newer super magnums like the Remington Ultra Magnums.

Standard or Long: This category is based on the .30-06 Springfield cartridge with a COL of 3.340 inches. Many belted magnums based on the .375 H&H case fit standard actions because they were reduced in length when designed. Popular ones include the .300 Win. Mag., 7mm Rem. Mag., .338 Win. Mag. and even .458 Win. Mag. A newer standard-length magnum is the .375 Ruger.

Short: The .308 Winchester was the model for this action length. It was created by shortening the .30-06 case. COL is established at 2.8 inches. Rounds like the .243 Win., .260 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Rem., .338 Federal, and .358 Win. fit here. A couple of little-known “sleepers” are the 6.5mm and .35 Remington Magnums.

Mini: This is a 21st century, bolt-action rifle invention to take advantage of the short-lived, 2.36-inch Winchester Super Short Magnums and others. Howa is currently offering a new mini action that is 12 percent shorter than its short action. It’s chambered for .204 Ruger, .222 Rem., .223 Rem., 6.5 Grendel, and 7.62x39mm.

An important point to note is that action lengths aren’t really standardized. For instance, the Remington M700 short-action magazine is 2.84 inches long, the Winchester goes 2.875 inches, and the Mossberg Patriot Predator 6.5 Creedmoor detachable box magazine is 2.868 inches. I measured a Kimber .243 Win. magazine at 2.812 inches and an Ultra Light Arms M20 in .284 Win. at 2.9 inches. Will the real short action please stand up?

Extra magazine and action length matter when trying to shoot today’s long, high BC bullets in short-action rifles. Similar things apply to long actions. The Rem M700 standard-length action is long enough to handle .375 H&H Magnum lengths, which includes the RUM cartridges. Until the 1980s Winchester ran all its short-action chamberings in long-action rifles. It’s current short actions offer a bit more room than Remington short actions.

“Really Super Short” Actions: Over the years some manufacturers have built really short actions to better fit peculiarly short cartridges, such as the .22 Hornet (1.723 inches), .17 Remington Fireball (1.83 inches), and .218 Bee (1.68 inches). Today, thanks to CNC machining, custom-length actions can be more easily and affordably built for nearly any custom application, further blurring the lines between long and short actions.


Howa’s Mini-Action is efficiently scaled to the length of the .223 Rem. and similar rounds like 6.5 Grendel. Talk about a short bolt throw! Sweet. (The scope is a Nikko Sterling Panamax 3-9×40 available as a package deal with the rifle.)



One action length we can count on for consistency is the AR-15 because that action was tailored specifically for the 5.56x45mm NATO (aka .223 Rem.), COL of 2.26 inches. Anything longer will not fit an AR-15 magazine. This is why we’ve seen development of such shorties as the 6.5 Grendel, .300 Blackout, 22 Nosler, and .450 Bushmaster.

It is primarily magazine length that determines what a lot of rifles will or will not handle, but action type also plays a role. To appreciate this, let’s step back to the blackpowder era of the late 19th century . . .


In the blackpowder days, cartridges grew from the 1.592-inch .44-40 Winchester to such monstrosities as the .44-100 Wesson, which stretched nearly four inches long. Those long cartridges were fired through break-action or falling-block single-shots, so length didn’t matter. You opened the extremely short “action,” dropped in the cartridge, and cared not a whit how long it was. Rifle length didn’t change regardless of cartridge length.

Lever actions, on the other hand, were limited to what they would cycle until longer, heavier, and more cumbersome models were built beginning in 1876 and culminating in the Winchester 1895. Browning’s current BLR is the only other lever action I can think of that handles .30-06-length cartridges.

The point is this: If you’re hoping to gain an advantage in reloading speed, carry weight, and action stiffness, a short cartridge only matters in bolt-action, pump, auto, and lever-action repeaters. All these have to cycle bolts back far enough to get behind cartridges feeding from magazine wells beneath them. Short-action superiority in a Ruger No. 1, Dakota Model 10, or T/C Encore/Contender single-shot is a dubious claim.


The short action of this Dakota M10 falling-block single-shot rifle doesn’t care what length cartridge you run through it. Feeding is by hand, so action length doesn’t need to be any longer for long cartridges. Leupold VX3 2.5-8×36 keeps things light and trim, and the .25-06 Rem. really reaches out.



There are other things that muddy the short-action waters. Many early 20th century cartridges like the .220 Swift (COL 2.68 inches), .250 Savage (COL 2.515 inches), .257 Roberts (COL 2.78 inches), and 6.5x55mm Swede (COL 3.15 inches) come in odd lengths. Many were tailored to specific rifles like the Savage M99, Savage M20, or a military bolt action. German Mausers were even built in short (Kurz) editions for shorter cartridges such as the 6.5x54K Mauser clear back in 1898. (Sorry, the 6.5 Creedmoor was decidedly not the first 6.5mm.)

It wasn’t until the U.S. Springfield bolt action in .30-06 came along that bolt-action length became a bit standardized around the .30-06 length. For many years thereafter shorter cartridges were run through these standard-length actions. Magazine boxes were blocked or shortened as needed. This enabled perfect cycling but bothered efficiency experts who saw waste in the extra half-inch difference between the COL of the .30-06 and new .308 Win. of 1952. A big part of the military’s reason for adopting the .308 Winchester, aka 7.62 NATO, was to reduce gun and ammo weight. Both GIs and supply trucks could haul a lot more short rifles and cartridges. And the new autoloading Garand rifle could function faster and better with a shorter bolt throw.

Despite creating the .308 Win., Winchester itself didn’t build a short-action M70 until the 1980s. Remington built its short-action Model 722 in 1948 with a 2.8-inch magazine to better fit then “short” cartridges like the .257 Roberts and .300 Savage.


The length of an AR-15 action like this SIG M400 is consistent because all such rifles are designed to fit the common magazines engineered around the 2.26-inch .223 Rem. cartridge. (Scope is a SIG Whiskey 3 3-9×40.)



Fast forward to 2017 and we have shooters with a somewhat fuzzy perception of a short-action cartridge’s value. So effective and popular are short rounds like the .308 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor, and .243 Win. that folks have begun assuming too much. Suggest that a .270 Win., .280 Rem., .25-06 Rem., or .30-06 is a great round and they’ll come back with “but it isn’t a short action!”

So? Let’s be honest, what advantages are we loving in the short action? What about it makes if significantly better for taking a groundhog, mule deer, elk, grizzly, or buffalo? Let’s outline some possibilities, and then you, gentle readers, can determine this for yourselves.


Shaving a bit of mass and bulk from a bolt-action rifle is a good reason to embrace a short-action cartridge. The Ultra Light Arms M20 in .284 Win. weighs less than five pounds without the scope.



1. Shaves about four ounces off rifle weight. (This is a plus for me!)
2. Reduces overall rifle length and bolt throw by about ½-inch, increasing cycling time by some fractions of a second.
3. Stiffens actions slightly to potentially increase accuracy due to less flex behind the bolt. (Important for target shooters.)
4. Shorter actions may reduce the tendency to short-stroke a bolt. (Can’t think of anyone hunting dangerous game with a short-action cartridge unless maybe .358 Win. or .35 Rem. Mag. as bear defense.)
5. Concentrate more of their powder near the initial primer flash for potentially more efficient burning. (A fine-tuning issue for target shooters.)
6. Extend barrel life by burning less powder (at the cost of lower muzzle velocity).
7. Most target-shooting world records have been set and are being set with short-action cartridges.


As a hunter, I like short actions mainly for their feel and weight savings. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate the minimally shorter action, shorter overall rifle length, and minimally lighter weight. Even the smaller cartridges make a difference when you’re carrying them on a ten-day backpack mountain hunt. And, if I can buy or build a short action to fire something like a .284 Winchester, 6.5-284 Norma, or .300 WSM, I get the short-action advantages without sacrificing velocity, trajectory, or downrange energy.

Short-action cartridges aren’t supernatural, but they do offer advantages that might work for you. Consider them carefully, and buy them for the meat, not the magic.


For more from Ron Spomer, visit his website,, and be sure to subscribe to Sporting Classics for his features and rifle column.


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