Which is Right For You? Bolt Action or Semi-Auto Big Game Hunting Rifles
October 07, 2010
The merits of various center-fire actions have been debated for decades, bolt-action and semi-auto rifles are the most commonly chosen by hunters. Which is right for you?
In every hunting camp, when someone begins extolling the virtues of his personal choice in big game rifles it's sure to start an argument. While there are several action types in common use today, two of them -- the bolt action and semi-automatic rifles -- comprise the vast majority of rifle actions that hunters carry into the field.
Author Mike Marsh shoots a DPMS Panther LR-308L. This modern sporting rifle is one of the company's hunting rifle series chambered for the .308 Winchester. Extremely reliable, it weighs less than 8 pounds and is gas operated to attenuate recoil and allow for fast, accurate follow-up shots. - Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh.
Both styles of rifles had their beginnings as military weapons. As with all military weapons, warriors became familiar with and respected them, then adapted them for hunting use upon returning home. The bolt action is the older action style and traditionalists bring many good arguments in favor of the turn-bolt gun to the debate. However, as the years have wound on, many arguments that once favored bolt actions have fallen by the wayside as modern technology incrementally overcame some of the semi-automatic rifle's original shortcomings. Modern rifle selection for today's hunter for all practical purposes will really boil down to just two things -- the shooter's style of hunting and the game he intends to hunt.
There are good arguments in favor of selecting a bolt-action rifle. The first is esthetics to the traditional eye. A bolt-action rifle is sleek and stylish and can be furnished in so many different stock styles and configurations the variety is virtually endless. Wood stocks, especially walnut, were the norm for bolt-action rifles until a couple of decades ago. But two things happened to displace natural wood as the gunstock material of choice. First, beautifully grained, durable walnut and other preferred stock woods became harder to come by and, consequently, more expensive. Second, composite stock materials and designs increased in quality, became progressively more available, and less expensive.
While natural wood stocks are still available, most modern rifles stocks are made of fiberglass, carbon fiber and polymers and wood laminates. While natural wood stocks can only suffer a certain degree of manipulation, synthetics can be carved and curved into any configuration imaginable.
Bench-rest rifle competition "stool shooters" using bolt-action rifles were the first to acclaim the benefits of synthetic stocks. Some of their stocks were, and still are, highly colored, like personalized bowling balls. They were stiff, accurate and could be molded to any style and molded to accept any action or barrel. Since bench rest rifles were bolt actions, their stock designs were the most quickly adapted to the hunting field. Bolt-action rifles lend themselves better to innovative stock designs, but semi-automatics have caught up fast in all aspects of stock design.
Military rifles also once had wooden stocks. But composite stocks allowed creation of many different workhorse stock designs that cannot be carved from wood. A blend of the two, the laminated wooden stock, is all the rage and is a good compromise between stability and esthetics for both types of rifle actions.
Bolt actions are one of the most dependable action types as well as one of the safest. Like the door of a bank vault, the bolt head closes behind the cartridge in the chamber, no matter whether there's a bit of grit or powder fowling or if the cartridge case has a small dent. Extraction is just as reliable. Turn the bolt, haul it back and the cartridge case is extracted and ejected.
Remington's Jason Spradling (right) and Mike Marsh go over the details of one of the company's recent versions of the Remington 700. This is the 700XHR Xtreme hunting rifle and the ammo is the .30-06 Premier Copper Solid in 150-grain bullet weight. The rifle has a triangular barrel for greater accuracy and faster cooling, non-slip Hogue overwrap on grip areas, user-adjustable trigger and a special SuperCell recoil pad to reduce felt recoil. Photo courtesy of Mike Marsh.
The accuracy of bolt-action rifles is legendary. As a testimony to their accuracy, most non-military conformation long-range rifle competitions are fired with bolt-action rifles.
While semi-automatic rifle triggers have improved, eliminating much of the ponderous pull weights and trigger creep of the past, the run-of-the mill semi-automatic rifle's trigger is not as crisp and has more creep than the trigger of an out-of-the box bolt action. While the triggers of either action can be tuned to a fine degree or replaced with an after-market trigger or trigger group that provides an improvement over the factory trigger, most hunters seeking a light trigger that trips with the feel of a breaking glass rod in an out-of-the box rifle will go for the bolt action.
Another benefit of the bolt-action rifle is the number of calibers in which they are chambered. Name a caliber and there is a bolt-action rifle that shoots it. This is one area where the typical bolt-action hunting rifle still maintains a large advantage over the typical semi-automatic hunting rifle. For dangerous game, the bolt-action is the winner because bolt-actions are chambered in a host of big-bore magnum cartridges that semi-automatics are not. For example, Remington's Model 700 comes in 29 different styles and in dozens of calibers both large and small. The 700 XCR II bolt-action rifle is even chambered for the .375 H&H and .375 Rem. Ultra Mag cartridges for hunting dangerous game.
But one big downside to a bolt-action rifle when compared to a semi-automatic rifle is felt recoil. Larger calibers, from some favorite deer calibers such as the .30-06 on up, generate heavy recoil the average shooter may not tolerate well. Gas-operated semi-autos attenuate this recoil.
Another plus favoring semi-autos is faster reloading for follow-up shots. Combine less recoil for eliminating muzzle jump with faster loading and getting the sights or crosshairs on target for a second or third shot and the semi-auto wins out over the bolt action.
Two styles of semi-automatic rifles are typically used for hunting. The first is the traditional-style hunting rifle and the other is the military conformation or AR-style rifle. Some hunters erroneously believe AR is mil-speak for Automatic Rifle, but AR is really the model designation for rifles made by ArmaLite, Inc., a company that became, and
still is, a major manufacturer of military-style rifles and survival rifles featuring synthetic stocks. An AR-style rifle in today's parlance is technically referred to as a "modern sporting weapon."
Freedom Group, Inc. is an umbrella company that has acquired many different firearms manufacturers, including Remington and DPMS Panther Arms. Remington's current, traditional style semi-automatic hunting rifle model is the 750 Woodsmaster, which is offered with a wood or synthetic stock with metalwork in a blued or matte finish. Calibers include .243 Win. .270 Win. 308 Win., .30-06 Springfield and .35 Whelen.
Remington's R-15 is a modular style, modern sporting rifle with a camouflaged finish. Calibers for the R-15 are based on the 5.56 NATO (.223 Rem.) case, with the 30 Remington AR a viable deer caliber at moderate ranges and the 450 Bushmaster a heavy-hitting, short-range option. Remington's R-25 is the same modern sporting rifle design, but it is chambered for some of the most popular, all-purpose deer calibers that are based on the 7.62 NATO (.308 Win.) case, including the .243 Win., 7mm-08 Rem. and .308 Win.
The DPMS Panther is offered with black or camouflaged metalwork finish with a composite stock, also in black or camo. The DPMS Panther's AR15 platform is chambered for ammunition based on the 5.56mm NATO (.223 Rem.) case including the .204 Ruger, .223 Rem., 5.56x45mm, 6.8x43mm SPC II, and 7.62x39mm. The DPMS Panther LR308 is chambered for calibers based on the 7.62 NATO (.308 Win.) case, including the .260 Rem, .243 Win. .308 Win., .338 Federal and 6.5 Creedmoor.
Both the traditional style and modern sporting rifles have actions that are gas operated and both come with four-round box magazines for hunting. Both are easily mounted with scope sights. Pick one up, then the other and they look and feel different. But they both are built for hunting.
For those who have been hunting with traditional bolt-action or other hunting actions, the 750 Woodsmaster will probably win favor. However, for those who have no preconceptions at all about how a hunting rifle should look or handle, the Remington or DPMS Panther rifles and similar modern sporting rifles could be the better choice.
On the plus side for modern sporting rifles are their straight stock designs and muzzle brakes. These features attenuate muzzle jump and recoil for even faster follow up shots than the traditional semi-autos like the Model 750.
While some big game hunters argue that a turn-bolt reloads and fires fast enough, there are situations where the eye staying with the target, rather than straying as the bolt is worked or through the effects of recoil, is a huge asset. Some hunting areas have multiple-deer daily bag limits and the opportunity may arise to take more than one at once. Or, a hunter may miss or wound an animal and need a fast follow-up shot. Wild pigs, which have become the second most popular big game animal in the country behind deer in many parts of the U.S., appear in herds so they require fast shooting rifles. Hound hunters who must take big game such as deer, boar and bear on the run will also find a semi-automatic rifle is a better choice than a bolt action.
Browning is another highly regarded manufacturer offering top-of-the-line bolt actions and semiautomatics. While Remington's 750 Woodsmaster is chambered for light-to-medium big-game calibers, the standard BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) models are chambered for all of those calibers, plus many other lighter varmint and heavier medium-game rounds. The BAR Safari model is chambered for some heavy-hitting, long-range calibers, including the .270 WSM, 7mm Rem. 7mm WSM, .300 Win. Mag,. .338 Win. Mag. The BAR comes in more than a dozen configurations, including short and long actions, left- and right-hand actions, with different stock styles, finishes and rifle weights. All BAR models have detachable box magazines and the heavy-caliber models even have muzzle brakes to attenuate recoil, making the BAR a rifle that blends traditional feel with many modern features.
Browning's bolt-action rifles are legendary for having exceptional accuracy and are chambered for the same cartridges as the BAR, but only up to a point. Only the company's bolt-actions are chambered for calibers above .338 for hunting dangerous game.
Scott Grange is Browning's director of shooting promotions. He said the X-Bolt is a new rifle that has only been offered for two years.
"In creating the X-Bolt, we played off the success of the A-Bolt, slimming the magazine and putting in a new trigger system," he said. "It has the same barrels as the A-Bolt, but the X-Bolt is a little slimmer and sleeker. Another advantage is a new bolt release that allows it to be put in the safe position while operating the bolt when unloading."
Grange said Browning's bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles have the same accuracy standards. With either style, a hunter will be able to find a factory load that shoots groups of 1 inch or less at 100 yards.
"In the consumer's mind, the bolt action is historically more accurate," Grange said. "But he should ask himself, 'Do I need half-minute of angle accuracy?' If I'm shooting a deer from a stand, I probably don't. What I really need is a faster follow-up shot and less recoil, which favors the BAR. Less recoil really comes into play with the magnum calibers."
But for the utmost in reliability, Grange said a hunter might go for a bolt action. But it's more of a mindset than a real-world situation.
"Some folks think a bolt action is more reliable than a semi-auto," Grange said. "To take that element out of the equation, you should go for the bolt action. But the BAR is time-tested. It would have disappeared long ago if it wasn't a reliable system."
Ruger's Mini-14 and Mini-30 are popular semi-autos. But their caliber selection of .223 Rem. and 7.62x39mm may not be suitable for deer-sized game in certain situations. Ruger, Marlin, Mossberg, Savage and Winchester manufacture excellent bolt-action hunting rifles.
Savage has created one of the coolest new bolt-action hunting rifle designs, with its new AccuStock 3-D bedding system that tightly bonds the barrel to the action for greater accuracy and the AccuTrigger system that allows lighter, crisper, user-adjustable trigger pulls.
Hunters who want lighter recoil and faster sight-picture acquisition during follow-up shots might lean toward a semi-automatic modern sporting rifle. Those who need the utmost in long-range precision, hunt dangerous game or hunt under incredibly harsh environmental conditions, might want to pick a bolt-action rifle. For something in between the two, a traditional semi-automatic hunting rifle's sleek lines and feel might get the nod.
For most hunters, though, it really comes down to intangibles -- how a rifle looks and how it feels when the moment of truth arrives as st
ock is shouldered and the crosshairs come to bear. Bolt-action and semi-automatics will continue to undergo improvements and refinements, keeping the debate alive as long as the leaves turn color in the fall, announcing that hunting season has arrived.