Bolt Action Rifle vs. AR Semi-Auto for Hunting
With the increasing availability and popularity of AR-10 and AR-15 barrels chambered in high powered cartridges suitable for hunting such as the .308 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 Remington SPC, many seasoned hunters are gradually transitioning from traditional bolt action to AR as their preferred hunting rifle platform. But are ARs truly better in that role than their long-established predecessors?
Of course there is no definitive answer, but there's still more to consider than subjective preferences, generalized opinions, and anecdotes. Each platform has their own distinct advantages over the other, so the important thing is determining which factors will most practically impact the individual’s hunter's needs. A hunting rifle is an important investment, in training, recreation, provision, and self-reliance. Often it's a legacy that is passed down to future generations as well. So naturally, you want to make the most satisfying and optimal decision possible, and not one you will steadily regret the more experience you gain to reflect on.
Cost obviously is one major factor. Not everyone has $5,000 or more to spend on a new rifle, but regardless of bankroll, everyone wants to get the best possible bang for their buck. There are many proven, reliable budget bolt action rifles in the sub $500 range, such as the Remington 783, Savage Axis, Thompson Center Compass, Ruger American, Marlin X7, and Mossberg Patriot. All these are plentifully available out of the box in .308 Winchester, which is typically sufficient to take down any North American game with proper shot placement.
An entry level AR-10 chambered in .308 on the other hand will generally cost a minimum of $800 with a DPMS Oracle or PSA PA-10, and it quickly goes up from there. Complete AR-15s in 6.8 SPC and 6.5 Grendel, which are both comparable to .308 in ballistics, can be found in the same price range. Building an AR-15 for an appropriate cartridge from scratch, or a complete upper and lower, can potentially bring the cost closer to $500, but it's still more on average than a bolt action.
Furthermore with any budget firearm, manufacturing tolerances will be relatively low. So when choosing that route, there’s always the slight chance you will end up with a very inaccurate product. But with more components going into the AR’s functionality than bolt action, there is naturally going to be more variance in quality.
Those who practice hand loading will also find additional savings with the bolt action. This is because the human operated bolt lever allows for slower, controlled ejection of brass casings so they can be reused more times. In contrast, an ARs gas system will violently throw casings to the side, damaging them much more quickly. As a side note, this also makes bolt actions more quiet.
Overall, the price advantage definitely goes to the bolt action rifle. It is worth noting however, that for a single all purpose rifle capable of both hunting and tactical applications, an AR-15 chambered in 6.5 Grendel or 6.8 SPC would serve you better, potentially saving you the cost of a second rifle. But with these two firearm types being so different, it would be inattentive to equate cost in a vacuum as value. There are still plenty other elements to consider.
In terms of accuracy, both systems have proven performance. However when it comes to shooter operation, bolt action rifles are much easier to handle. This is due to the nature of their recoil. While the AR has much lighter recoil overall, it's broken into three phases. First it directs energy to the rear as the bullet exits the muzzle, then again as the bolt strikes the buffer, then finally it pushes forward with the bolt as it drives to load another cartridge. This makes the bullet trajectory more difficult to stabilize, and the knockback harder to anticipate than a bolt action’s single forward thrust recoil motion.
Furthermore with ARs, some gas is vented out of the barrel through the gas port into the receiver to cycle the next round. This means a slight loss of muzzle energy compared to bolt action. The difference is negligible at close distances, but the further away your target, the greater the loss in accuracy and ballistic effectiveness.
Another difference that can affect accuracy is the amount of moving pieces in each system. On a bolt action, after the bolt is closed manually by the operator, the rifle acts as one solid unit. The AR in contrast, has many moving components to stabilize, with the majority of movement coming from the upper and lower receivers. This can cause, as well as amplify any shooter movement thus altering bullet trajectory.
Another issue with the relative complexity of the AR is reliability. There are many necessary components such as the gas system, receiver, spring, buffer, firing pin, ejection port, etc. Each piece in the chain is one more thing that can potentially go wrong, effectively making the margin for failure multiplicative. This effect becomes more severe when the rifle is exposed to dirt, mud, or harsh weather conditions. In practice, it is safe to say that over a thousand rounds out of an AR barrel, even in ideal conditions, a certain number of malfunctions is expected. Even under extreme element exposure, with bolt actions this is typically not the case.
In terms of simplicity and reliability, bolt actions are about as solid as you can get. Once the bolt is locked, which is operated manually, the only moving pieces are the trigger and firing pin. There's exceptionally little that can go wrong, because it's based on conversion of human force being exerted.
Weight is an additional worthy factor to mention, with AR-10s typically weighing 8.5-10 lbs, bolt actions typically weighing approximately 6.5 lbs, and AR-15s roughly the same. Although ARs tend to weigh more in the field, this is due in part to higher capacity magazines (which aren't mandatory) and generally more aftermarket accessories being installed. So while the weight difference is in favor of bolt actions, the difference may not be as significant as some people make it out to be, and may simply boil down to preference and comfort. For long treks through the woods, or smaller statured hunters, this could be an important factor. But many oddly fail to realize that heavy rails, 25-round magazines, flashlights, night vision, handguards, and storage buttstocks on AR-15s are all optional. On a side note though, it’s certainly not bad having those options.
With the interchangeability of AR-15 uppers, in addition to the classic 5.56 or .223, you have access to a myriad of different larger cartridges suitable for hunting big game from .300 AAC Blackout, to 6.8 SPC, 6.5 Grendel, 7.62x39, .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM, and .50 Beowulf. With the exception of the 6.5 Grendel and its superior ballistic coefficient however, these cartridges all suffer from the same drawback. Making a .270 or higher caliber bullet compatible with the AR-15 magazine and receiver comes with strict
limitations. The cartridge needs to be short, which reduces aerodynamics and therefore comes at the cost of diminutive accuracy and ballistic performance the more distance increases. The AR-15 is simply not designed and optimized to fire a .270 caliber cartridge. And it’s probably for this reason that even larger .450 Bushmaster, .458 SOCOM, and .50 Beowulf ammunition is very rare and thus expensive.
While bolt action rifles are not built with this same cartridge interchangeability, they are still available individually in more than just .308 Winchester. You have access to more powerful rounds such as the 7mm Winchester Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum, and .338 Lapua. While earlier I mentioned that .308 is sufficient to take down any North American game with proper shot placement, a .300 Winchester Magnum will do so with greater consistency and speed, meaning less tracking, and less suffering for the prey. Not to mention against a large predator such as a bear, I'd definitely feel more protected utilizing a .300 Win. Mag than a .308.
Now while AR-10s are available in 300 Win. Mag., one properly engineered for the cartridge could cost close to $3,000 or more. This is because the AR-10 wasn’t originally intended to fire rounds longer than the .308, so it requires a special magwell and receiver. Not only that, but with low production, it seems to be more of a high end novelty. And with the powerful recoil of the .300 Win. Mag, the practical benefit of having one in semi-auto is situational if not dubious. Finally, the life of a .300 Win. Mag. barrel is typically only 1000-1500 rounds, and semi-autos tend to blow through rounds much faster than manuals.
An AR is far more effective at follow up shots, not only due to its faster cycling and lighter recoil, but also due to the simple fact that the gun cycles the round for you, whereas a bolt action must be cycled manually. Cycling a bolt action quickly and consistently without interrupting sight alignment requires lots of practice, and even then you still need to move your head temporarily to avoid obstructing the bolt, then place your dominant hand back into the firing position. So in situations where you are presented with multiple targets, or your first shot simply does not secure the prey for whatever reason, the AR will have much greater adaptability. This makes it the perfect platform for shooting varmints, especially predators such as wolves, coyotes, cougars, and wild hogs. Not only can you eradicate more faster, but you will have more reliable means of protection in the event that they decide to charge at you. Also, for many species of varmints, a .223 round is sufficient.
The final point in support of the AR comes from a training perspective. The AR and bolt action are definitely very different beasts, but in a self defense situation, when it counts, obviously an AR-15 will almost invariably be preferred. Now of course this is an article about hunting, but as I mentioned earlier, one of the benefits of hunting is training.
Many of the greatest sharpshooters of war mastered the art through years of hunting practice. Among them are the famous Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev who killed 225 Nazi soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad and grew up hunting wolves and deer, Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä, who had 253 confirmed kills during the Soviet invasion of Finland, and grew up as a farmer and avid moose hunter, and American Marine sniper Carlos Hathcok, who had 93 confirmed kills during the Vietnam War, and grew up hunting rabbits and squirrels to provide for his very poor family. Hathcock wrote in his autobiography, "it was the hunt, not the killing" that he enjoyed, and "I like shooting, and I love hunting."
Clearly, hunting is different from both sniping and close quarters combat. But the point is simple. The majority of defensive tactical situations will occur at close to medium range, where ARs are most suitable. And in a self defense situation, any practical experience is invaluable, but history has clearly demonstrated that hunting experience translates particularly well into battle. So for the sake of illustration, assuming all things were roughly equal, why not kill two birds with one stone and spend that time in the country mastering the weapon that is more fit for tactical use?
Overall, the bolt action is a superior hunting platform, except where speed is concerned. In the vast majority of hunting situations, speed is not a major contributing factor. Nonetheless, an AR can do everything a .308 bolt action can do, albeit slightly worse. But the ability to easily follow up, and take down multiple prey quickly, creates a distinct advantage and wider flexibility for the AR.
On the other hand, bolt actions are also available with more firepower than .308 such as .300 Win. Mag. If you are considering hunting larger prey such as elk, bear, or moose, then this superior stopping power tremendously outweighs the edge in speed of the AR. If .308 stopping power is sufficient for your needs however, definitely go with an AR for its higher versatility if you can afford to. For in that case, there's absolutely no reason not to.
About the Author
Joshua Thompson is an avid shooter, hunter, and outdoorsman with years of practical experience and knowledge. He is the founder, president, and lead product designer and researcher of Peritian. He is also the chief of Front-Line Protective Services, a Texas-based security company specializing in high risk armed accounts. In his spare time Joshua enjoys honing his self-reliance skills and researching practical information to expand his area of expertise.