Today, there are primarily two major types of rifles that comprise the majority of what hunters use for game: the traditional bolt action and the more modern semi-automatic.
But is one better than the other?
Both bolt action and semi-automatic rifles share one major thing in common: They began their careers as infantry weapons for militaries. After they had been perfected for battlefield use, they were then adapted for sporting and hunting use by civilians back home.
Between the two, the bolt-action design is older and the more traditional option. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the semi-automatic has become more and more popular for hunting purposes over the years, especially as soldiers coming back home from overseas have begun to use ARs and other “military-style” rifles for hunting big game.
Ultimately, it mostly comes down to the shooter’s personal preference, but if you’re caught at a crossroads between trying to decide between the bolt action and a semi, it’s important that you know about the pros and cons of each.
We’ll start with the bolt action. It’s debatable, but most bolt-action rifles will have a larger variety of furnishings and configurations to add on. It was only a matter of years ago that almost all bolt-action rifles had wood stocks. That changed when a range of new composite stock designs became more popular, cheaper, and were found to better resist the elements.
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Bolt actions are also very reliable. The bolt is simply turned, pulled back to eject the cartridge, and then a new cartridge is placed into the chamber as the bolt is pushed forward as well. The con to this is a slow rate of fire; if a deer or an elk springs out of the brush and you need to get shots off fast, the bolt action puts you at a natural disadvantage. At the same time, it’s very rare that the bolt action will ever fail you. Even if dirt or grime gets into the action or if there’s a dent in the case of the cartridge, most bolt actions will continue to run fine. In contrast to this, semi-automatics will tend to require more attention in such a scenario.
The triggers of most bolt actions also tend to be more crisp and smooth than those of a semi-automatic. This aids in accuracy and precision in a rifle design that is already extremely accurate and designed to place bullets where you want at a long distance. There’s a reason why most long-range competition shooters still prefer bolt actions over semi-automatics to this day.
A final strong advantage to the bolt action is that they are offered in far more rifle calibers than semi-automatics are. Your typical choices (most of the time) for a semi-automatic will be .30-06 Springfield, .308 Winchester, 7.62x54r, 7.62x39mm, or 5.56x45mm NATO.
While some semi-automatic rifles such as the Browning BAR are also offered in .270 Winchester, .300 Winchester Magnum or .338 Winchester Magnum as well, the overwhelming majority of military-style semi-automatics (such as ARs or M1As, for example) simply are not. In contrast to this, there’s a bolt-action rifle made for almost every rifle cartridge out there.
In short, bolt-action rifles are very accurate, dependable, have smoother triggers, and come with more options in terms of caliber and stocks than most semi-automatic rifles. In defense of semi-auto rifles, there are models that have these exact same qualities as well. Nonetheless, there are still a number of advantages to the semi-automatic rifle that don’t exist with bolt-actions simply due to the separation in design.
We’ve already talked about one such advantage of a semi-auto: They shoot faster, which translates to faster follow-up shots. Obviously, one reason why semi-autos shoot faster is because all you have to do is pull the trigger instead of chambering a new round. But a second reason why semi-autos are faster shooting is because they tend to have less recoil than bolt-actions, which can really punch you hard in the shoulder hard if it’s a heavier caliber and/or a light rifle.
The reason for this is because of the design of the gun. A lot of semi-automatic rifles are gas operated, meaning that the recoil of heavier calibers such as .30-06 Springfield is better absorbed and delivers less of a muzzle flip. This, in turn, means that not only that you can squeeze off more shots at a galloping deer or elk, but you’ll be able to keep them on sight because your muzzle won’t flip as high. In contrast to this, if you miss your first shot with a bolt action you’ll have to chamber a new round in addition to likely having to re-finding your game in your sights or scope.
Not all semi-automatics are “military style” like ARs, either. Granted, ARs are commonly used for hunting and are more than up for the task. But for hunters who are turned away by the tactical look of an AR (or an M1A, G3-style, FAL, Mini-14, AK, etc.) style of weapon, there are more traditional semi-automatic options as well. The Browning BAR, which is a very elegant and accurate weapon, is a prime example of a semi-automatic rifle that doesn’t look tactical. Like we’ve mentioned, the BAR is also offered in some bigger calibers that “military style” semi-automatics typically aren’t.
Last but not least, the majority of semi-automatic rifles on the market carry more rounds in the magazine than bolt-actions do, so you won’t have to carry as much spare ammunition on your person if that makes a difference to you.
Semi-automatics have the capacity, lighter recoil, decreased muzzle flip, and faster firing abilities that bolt actions don’t have. When it comes down to it, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each to decide what works best for you, but just know that both designs will continue to be around for decades if not centuries and will continue to be improved.
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