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Bolt Action Or Semi-Auto: Which Is Best For Hunting?

Bolt Action Or Semi-Auto: Which Is Best For Hunting?

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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.

signs to watch for when hunting big gameA 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.

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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.

Which one do you prefer? Share your thoughts in the section below:   

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  1. If you are hunting food a bolt action is all you need, because if you miss your food it will run away and a quick second shot is usually not an option.

    If you are hunting predators and miss, a quick second shot is usually a necessity, especially if the predator is the two-legged variety.

  2. The title is a trick question because the answer is “lever action” as in 30-30 Marlin.


    • i perfer the 30-06 bolt action i have a remington 700 bolt action shot a lot of big game with it killed a lot of deer,bear,moose and boar i used a 300 gr hornity 30-06 on a moose he was down for the count my cousin hunts with a semi auto and it jamed on him more than once so he sold it and bought a remington 700 bolt action and no more jams im a ranger sniper trained 1 shot 1kill and as a sniper we use a bolt action. as a big time hunter i use my fav 30-06 bolt action and i have a rem.458 win mag bolt action ive dropped many bear and moose with it bolt action all the way semi auto NOT. but i would say it is up to the hunter what he or she wants try them both out and make your choise

  3. Hunting laws in each political jurisdiction specify the kinds of weapon allowed to take game. Semi-auto rifles are not allowed for hunting in many places, like Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In some jurisdictions only shotguns may be legally used, even for deer. Usually some sort of Hunter Education Course is offered/required before a hunting license is issued. You will learn what is allowed in that course. There is some reciprocity between States where Hunter Education Courses are concerned. Best to check with the Game Commission in the state where you will be hunting to see what is allowed. Criminal penalties can be severe for violating hunting ordinances.

    About guns,…. Generally speaking, pretty much any gun will kill just about anything. Guns are tools. Just as you can drive in a screw with a hammer, the screw driver is a vastly better choice. What you will be hunting, and where you will be hunting it, will dictate the best firearm to use. Key considerations are the size of the game, the general lay of the land, and the likely distances you will be shooting at it. In the Eastern Woods, anything from .25 caliber up will do. .30-30 caliber rifles have taken the most deer and bear. It’ unlikely in the Eastern U.S. to be shooting big game at distances greater than 250 yards. In the Mid-West, where shooting distances can range to 500 yards and more, many hunters favor the magnum rifle calibers, like 7MM Magnum. .270 Winchester, or the perennial .30-06 will usually also serve. Big Game can be bigger in the Mid-West, Mule Deer, and Elk, and in Canada, Moose, and Brown Bear. Most big game in Canada has over the years been take with .303 British caliber. Just because that’s what they had most of. Now bigger calibers are being used, like .444 Marlin.

    As to the best possible choice for both Tactical, and Hunting? Well, sorry, there just ain’t no such thing. While any caliber that will kill a man, will kill a deer, .223 is not a great choice, unless you like following blood trails through the woods for up to a mile. A well placed shot with something in the .30 caliber range will generally cause a deer to expire within a hundred yards or so. I’ve only ever seen two shot deer just drop in their tracks. One was shot with a 12 gauge slug, and the other was shot with the old .45-70 cartridge which first appeared just after the American Civil War. Rifles are also still made in that caliber. FYI, the 7.62×39 cartridge is very comparable to .30-30 in power. And, .308 is not much less powerful that .30-06. 7.63×54, is a bear for a cartridge, pun intended.

    I hope this helps.

  4. I would go for semi auto, quick second shot is really important..

    • Why, are you one of these guys who can put rounds 25 to 50 on a coin but there’s a missing 24 rounds out there somewhere?

      Good score, I put my first one there and that was after your clip was empty.

      I was last to shoot.

  5. its only called an “AR-15” if it is already fully Automatic From the Start

    There is only semi auto rifles at the most, that is as fast they fire for Civilian use.

    semi auto do not fire full auto like real Ar-15s.
    an ar15 or assault rifle is any rifle regardless of model or make that fires fully automatic.
    an ar15 is only available to military personell not civilians.
    an ar15 is not a civilian m4 or m16.
    a civilian m4 or m16 only fire semi automatic.
    im sick and tired of people calling m4 and m16 and all other semi auto rifles Ar15s or Assault rifles.
    an m4 or m16 is just a rifle that can be customized alot with scopes red dot sights and thats it.
    an m4 is just a fancy rifle just like a m16 nothing more than that.
    the news and media stereotype the word ar15 and assault rifle towards m4 and m16 rifles.
    remember an m4 is not a ar 15 and is not classified as is a rifle
    same with an m16 just a rifle nothing more.

    • Actually you have your numbers and letters mixed up there.
      The AR-15 style rifle is a civilian model of the M-4 and M-16 select fire military grade weapon.
      There are actually several differences between the M-16, M4 and AR-15. The most notable internal differences are the lower receiver, trigger group and bolt configuration.
      Civilian ownership of both M-4 and M-16 select fire weapons is legal in many states with the proper paperwork and fees. Lack of supply has driven prices through the roof though and you might want to invest the $$$ into your kid’s college fund.
      The term assault weapon is a derogatory term created by liberal politicians and their supporters to justify their hatred of our 2nd amendment rights and their desire to disarm the people.

      • Actually, the “assault rifle” nomenclature has a basis in fact and design. The firearm of this type was originally conceived as a weapon used to kill human beings. In war, that is considered by some/many to be an acceptable activity. Having read the brochure from one manufacturer of the AR 15 it is obvious that there are many design features being touted (beyond the fully automatic feature in the military weapon) that contribute to the gun’s effectiveness in killing humans. Or so the manufacturer would have the reader (and potential customer) believe. Do I believe them, or do I believe you? The answer is not necessarily a done deal because Chevy is better than Ford and Ford is better than Chevy depending on whose brochure you look at. But we do have to go back to the design of the firearm. It was not designed to hunt deer or bear or moose. Is it suited to that purpose? I sure don’t know. Would you rather use a 30-30 lever action Winchester to hunt deer? A 30-06 for black bear? Now there’s obviously the notion of individual preference which can take us back to a Chevy -Ford type debate. The issue I would raise is that high capacity magazines have more inherent deadliness when it comes to killing humans (as well as animals, but most people are not killing multiple large mammals at one sitting). Please don’t tell me “I can change magazines in .05 seconds, etc..” Every break in the action is an opportunity for victims to escape or fight back. So that’s sorta BS. Another point, and I suspect this from my reading, but can’t confirm, is that I think the military style semi-autos fire single rounds more rapidly, i.e. the trigger recovery time (my term) is faster. So obviously I’m saying that I think an AR 15 semi-auto is designed to fire more rounds in 10 seconds than, say a Ruger carbine. But I’m not sure of that. I’m not a current gun owner, so you may pick holes in my terminology. Why waste time on that? I helped make sure the magazine capacity was limited in my state (Connecticut); I was pushing for 5 rounds, the law now says 10, but before that there was no limit I believe (30 was ok). To sum up, I think the “assault rifle” nomenclature has some definite (based on design features) merit and accuracy.

    • I don’t recall my m16 or m4 firing in full auto… Must a been the pretend Army…. AR does not stand for assault rifle or automatic rifle either… I’m guessing you are likely under that assumption. It stands for ArmaLite Rifle…. Named after the original company who developed it sometime around the 50s… The term assault rifle has indeed been coined by liberals, as mentioned previously, in an attempt to vilify a weapons platform as opposed to the individual using it….

      • Actually when I went through Basic Training in 1990 my M-16A1 was full auto. Just because you never held it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just saying.

  6. It seems to me that using a bolt action rifle makes for a more challenging hunt than using a semiautomatic rifle, something like the difference between fishing with a rod and reel or a stick of dynamite and a net. Because bolt action rifles are perfectly suited to hunting, does it make sense to leave semiautomatic rifles on the market since they are used in virtually all mass murders committed by fanatics and mental defectives? Fully automatic weapons are never used in these mass murders because we have practically banned them and the nuts can’t get their hands on them. Should we consider the same route for semiautomatics? The key here is that if a nut tries to murder big groups of people, a bolt action rifle will put him at a “natural disadvantage” since it will be impossible to get his shots off very fast.

  7. This is a great comprehensive look at the differences between the bolt action rifle and the semiautomatic rifle, it really helped me get some perspective on what would be best to use when hunting. I do see the importance of having that quick second shot, especially when hunting bigger game or predators, so that is definitely something to consider. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I live and have hunted in northern on all my life, I moose hunt with a 7mm mag. 180 grain. I have shot at least a dozen moose anywhere from fifty to three hundred and fifty yards.Most of them dropped right in their tracks or ran no more then twenty feet.My personal experience is the 7mm mag. is one of the best calibers to use in hunting moose. But that’s just my opinion.

  9. I’ve owned and used semi-autos and bolt action rifles. For many years, I was a shooting instructor at a local shooting range. The biggest difference between semi-autos and bolt action rifles is the care you have to give them. Semi autos require more care to keep them in optimal shooting condition. You have to like cleaning and lubricating a rifle to own a semi auto. Recoil is a tad lighter with a semi-auto but the force of impact is also slightly lower.

  10. It seems to me that the reliability of the bolt action trumps everything in a SHTF scenario. You won’t be able to depend on finding gunsmithing services in all situations.

  11. I’ll chime in on my experience. Both rifles will work fine. However, one thing that tends to happen to the less experienced shooter with the semi’s is they will spend rounds unnecessarily. Even when I was a boy with a semi auto shotgun I’d blow through the rounds pheasant hunting sometimes. I’d miss then empty out the shotgun desperately trying to hit the pheasant aiming less. I was a young boy learning and so I wasn’t the best shot yet. Even later hunting coyotes sometimes we’d blow through rounds just because we could. Now, of course, there are many ar guys who know how to shoot and this scenario wouldn’t happen, but there are more inexperienced guys who when it comes to real life shooting wouldn’t hesitate to inadvertently waste ammo. Bolts can force good fundamentals, and force you to take time really aim. These days with such better made guns accuracy wise and scopes and factory ammo if you don’t reload, 300-500 yard shots on a deer size target should not be difficult for anyone if they know their rifle. I know most city dwellers don’t have the time or facilities to practice those shots so they’re at a disadvantage and initially those kind of shots look like they’re a mile long, but they’re really not. That said, the vast majority of shots for food will be under 300 and the majority of those will be under 200 and yet again, the majority of those will be under 100 if a guy puts out a little effort. A simple bolt gun in my opinion is a far better choice for reliability, better stock triggers, ammo usage and it forces marksmanship. There was an interesting stat on the tube last night. In Vietnam, 50,000 rounds were spent by U.S. Infantry per 1 kill using semi autos. Snipers however averaged 1.3 rounds per kill. Taking the time to know how to shoot and knowing you can’t be spending tons of rounds makes a big difference. Of course, the snipers were given more accurate rifles, but still it proves my experiences. One other tool that can be priceless is a decent rangefinder, but then again, if a guy really makes some effort in his hunt, most of the time he won’t need the rangefinder. Lastly, someone wrote a 223 is too small, this is incorrect. Are there better all around cartridges? Onviously, yes there are many. But…if you know your rifle well, a 223 will kill anything you need to kill. I would question anyone who claims a 223 can’t kill a deer or elk effectively, those kind of comments show a great lack of knowledge and experience and confidence. I have a good light 308 ruger scout for all around, a custom 6mm that’ll shoot a 4 inch group at 800 yards with big fancy expensive scopes and the like. That said, if all my guns were taken and I was left with just some cheap 223 bolt rifle, well, it wouldn’t bother me at all, it’ll get everything done a guy needs. Get a decent bolt and learn how to shoot, they will serve you well.

    • I should’ve added one thing to qualify the stat on Vietnam, some of those rounds spent in Vietnam and in warfare in general is for suppression and cover fire which is completely necessary. But, that doesn’t account for all the rounds spent and the numbers still illustrate to some degree blowing threw ammo rather than being forced to concentrate on shooting.

      Ok, I’ll shut up now. Great website btw.

  12. I run the AR platform primarily for hunting now. For instance, big game calibers like the 450 Bushmaster give 45/70 power in a tight package with a 5 round capacity; don’t you want a quick follow up option? . Hog hunters NEED a semi auto just to keep up with the demand, and rarely do any of them use 223/5.56. Hog removal services use 300 Blackout, 6.8, 458, 6.5 Grendel or the all time favorite 308 Winchester. On the cheap you can run 7.62×39 from the AR platform and save tons of money on ammo for hog control. I’ve met quite a few of these guys and all of them use a semi auto platform.

    On the varmemt side of the fence you have the 204 Ruger punching up to 4000 FPS and the promising 22 Nosler and 224 Valkyrie making their debut. Long distance shooters are adopting the 6.5 Creedmore quite rapidly.
    Many of these rifle configurations such as a coyote build that I just finished can come in just under 6 lbs. Many of these configurations are capable of equal or better accuracy than an off the shelf sub 1k bolt gun.

    It’s handy to have the capability to swap upper receivers in seconds to accommodate whatever type of shooting you want, even it’s its just a 22 LR. None of which mentioned NEED a high capacity magazine. It’s seems the dividing factor in calling these Assult Weapoms might in deed come with the notion or imagination that they all have 30 round mags or 60 round drums coming out of them. Sure, it’s nice to know you can have the AR as a defence rifle, or have a rig with fast follow up capability. Why not.

    My hobby for years has been handloading for accuracy and the AR platform has filled that nitch quite well. I hardly think of them as assult rifles. Just highly configurable platforms that can take a large capacity magazine if need be.

    Typical AR hunting rifle. Fixed stock, no flash hider, no bayonet lug, no barrel shroud and a 5 round magazine.
    I don’t think I much mentioned the NATO 5.56 in that rant. It’s becase the AR platform has grown to so much more, and its versatility will continue the option to own a super light, reliable, ultra configurable hunting rifle that can double serve as a defence weapon if need be. Because God knows, everyone else and their grandma has one already.

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