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AR-15 vs. Bolt-Action Rifles: Pros and Cons for Hunting

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There was a time when a hunting rifle invariably came with a wood stock, a bolt or lever action, and a set of iron sights. Gradually, as optics technology improved, iron sights began to go the way of the dinosaurs as scopes took their place. Now, hunting rifles with iron sights are something of a rarity. 

Today, hunting technology is going through a similar shift; The ubiquitous bolt-action rifle of yesteryear is slowly giving way to modern semi-automatics, most commonly the AR-15 and similar rifles. As with all such paradigm shifts, though, many remain skeptical—is this a permanent evolution of norms or just a passing fad? 

Below, we’ll take a look at the relative merits of both rifles. However, we are obliged to mention that many jurisdictions have restrictions on what rifles can be used for hunting. Before taking a modern sporting rifle like an AR-15, or even a bolt-action rifle, out for hunting season, check your local laws and ensure you comply with all regulations. 

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AR-15s for Hunting 

The new kid on the block when it comes to hunting, AR-15s are the subject of a fair amount of scrutiny, and not without good cause. AR-15s are a significant deviation from the norm, but one that offers a lot of potential. 

Pros of Using an AR-15 for Hunting 

The most significant benefit of an AR-15 (or other similar semi-automatic platform, such as the FN SCAR 16s, Sig MCX, or CZ Bren) is the massive increase in fire rate compared to a bolt-action. Semi-automatics of all types are significantly faster than even the quickest bolt guns, allowing for faster follow-up shots or the engagement of multiple targets in a short time frame. 

The benefit of this rate of fire increase will depend largely on the type of hunting being done. Deer hunting, for example, typically involves only a single, well-placed shot; in that scenario, rate of fire is a moot point. Predator or pest hunting, on the other hand, may require hunters to engage multiple targets quickly. 

In the same scenarios, an AR-15’s significantly larger magazine capacity over standard bolt-actions comes into play. An average bolt action holds a mere 3-5 rounds—even those compatible with removable magazines rarely offer capacities over 10 rounds. 

10 rounds is more than enough for a doe but may be dangerously insufficient for a heard of angry wild boar. AR-15s offer a standard capacity of 30 rounds, with higher capacities being available for some cartridges. 

Another salient benefit is the sheer customizability of AR-15 rifles. Barrel length, caliber, and capacity can all be changed by the end-user with only a handful of tools and a modicum of training, to say nothing of the dizzying array of options for triggers, safeties, optics, and accessories. 

This extreme customizability allows users to fine-tune their rifles for their specific type of hunting, whether that’s a short, handy rifle for taking care of pigs or a 24″ varminter for culling prairie dogs. Some users even go so far as to keep multiple uppers for different types of hunting, allowing them to use a single lower for predators, varmints, medium game, and more. 

Cons of Using an AR-15 for Hunting 

The primary criticism of AR-15s is a lack of power and range, but it’s not an entirely fair critique. It’s true that the most common AR-15 chambering, the 5.56x45mm NATO cartridge, is somewhat lacking for anything larger than a coyote. Many jurisdictions legally prohibit it from being used for certain game. 

However, AR-15s are not limited to 5.56mm rounds. Cartridges like 6.8 SPC and 6.5 Grendel have been around for decades and deliver significantly increased power and range, respectively, over 5.56x45mm. Certain modern calibers such as .350 Legend were even designed specifically for hunting, and, owing to their straight-walled design, are permitted in some jurisdictions where other AR-15 calibers are not. 

A full breakdown of suitable cartridges can be found in our guide to AR-15 calibers for hunting deer

For most game in the lower 48 states, AR-15s are available in at least one sufficient caliber, with only a few exceptions. Hunters who plan to take very large game, though, such as grizzly bear or moose, may find themselves limited to larger rifles. 

A secondary critique of AR-15s for hunting is cost. While not all hunters will find this to be a drawback, bolt-action rifles can often be had significantly cheaper than an AR-15, particularly if you require a non-standard caliber such as .350 Legend. However, if you’re already planning on buying a premium bolt-action, you’ll typically be able to find a suitable AR-15 at a similar price point, so this drawback is most applicable to those looking to build a hunting setup on a budget. For a more in-depth look at the price of an AR-15, check out our guide on how much an AR-15 costs

Of course, the legal restrictions on using an AR-15 could be considered a con in and of themselves. After all, the best rifle is always the one you can actually use. If an AR-15 sounds like it might be your cup of tea, check out our guide to the best AR-15 rifles before picking one up. 

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Bolt-Action Rifles for Hunting 

When you picture a hunting rifle, it’s probably a bolt-action, and there’s a reason for that. Bolt-action rifles are a mainstay of hunting culture, a piece of the history and tradition of hunting that can’t be ignored, and for many hunting applications, they are more than enough. 

Pros of Using a Bolt-Action Rifle for Hunting 

Power. When it comes to pure muzzle velocity and terminal effect, there is no substitute for bolt-action rifles. These old-school powerhouses are available in every cartridge from .22LR up to belted magnums like .300 Remington Ultra Magnum. 

While AR-15s offer several suitable calibers for medium-game hunting, nothing that will fit through an AR-15’s magwell and ejection point will ever come close to the sheer energy of a .300 RUM. As such, bolt-action rifles remain the only option for the largest of game, and a popular option for many hunters even on medium size game. 

Additionally, some users find bolt-action rifles easier to shoot accurately, which has obvious benefits for hunting. While this is partially due to a decreased lock time compared to AR-15s, it’s largely a matter of training and familiarity. With training, most hunters can use either rifle platform with sufficient accuracy for normal hunting scenarios. 

For hunters who spend a lot of time on their feet, bolt-actions rifles have another potential benefit: weight. While an AR-15 can be pared down to below 6 pounds with careful selection of components, sub-5lb bolt-action rifles are available off the shelf, even in moderate price ranges. For backwoods hunters or those who spend a great deal of time hiking to their blind, the weight savings of a bolt-action can be well worth the loss of rate of fire.  

If you prefer your rifles wood-stocked and hard-hitting, be sure to read our guide to the best bolt-action rifles for hunting before selecting your next gun. 

Cons of Using a Bolt-Action Rifle for Hunting 

The drawbacks of a bolt-action rifle are essentially the inverse of the advantages of an AR-15: rate of fire and magazine capacity. As previously discussed, the value of these attributes depends heavily on the type of hunting you plan to do. 

Bolt-action rifles also offer less potential for personal customization than the average AR-15. While certain common styles of rifles, such as the Remington 700 pattern, have aftermarkets that nearly rival that of the AR-15, bolt-action rifles tend to be more complicated to work on than AR-15s. Certain modifications may also require the assistance of a gunsmith. 

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AR-10s for Hunting 

In a discussion about AR-15s versus bolt-action rifles, we would be remiss not to mention the AR-10, or rather, the large-frame AR. While “AR-10” is often used as a generic term for any AR-style rifle with a larger receiver set, technically only those made by Armalite are true AR-10s—all others are simply large-frame ARs, sometimes referred to as AR-308s. 

Large-frame ARs offer essentially the same benefits as AR-15s but are also available in many of the most popular calibers of bolt-action rifles are chambered in. They can be had in .308 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor, or even beefy cartridges like .300 Win Mag. 

While this may seem like the perfect mix of benefits from AR-15s and bolt-actions (and in some cases, it is), large-frame ARs are not without drawbacks. While both AR-15s and bolt-action rifles can be very lightweight, large-frame ARs are almost invariably heavier rifles. 

Additionally, large-frame ARs are not cheap—on average, a large-frame AR of comparable quality will cost more than an AR-15 or bolt-action rifle. Because their design is not standardized, they also cannot share many parts with AR-15s, although some small parts are common between the designs. A complete list of parts compatibility can be found in our guide to AR-15 and AR-10 parts interchangeability

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Choosing the Right Hunting Rifle 

The primary determinant in which rifle will be best for you (assuming all options are legal in your jurisdiction) is the type of game you will be pursuing. 

Predator hunters should seriously consider an AR-15 or other semi-automatic rifle. The increased rate of fire is a massive advantage when engaging packs of predators, and may even come in handy should you find yourself as prey rather than hunter. We certainly wouldn’t want to face down a pack of stampeding boar with a bolt rifle. 

Those hunting deer and similar game, on the other hand, can essentially pick their preferred platform. AR-15s are sufficiently powerful and accurate, but bolt-action rifles are more than capable of this type of hunting as well. 

Long-range or big game hunters, though, may find the more powerful chamberings available only in bolt-action rifles to be essential for their pursuit. 

COM Model Hunting gear


While the modern trend does seem to be moving towards AR-15s and other similar semi-automatic rifles, bolt-actions aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. For many types of hunting, they remain a perfectly suitable option, and often the more cost-effective one. 

In the end, though, the type of rifle you choose to hunt with is going to be considerably less impactful than your level of proficiency with it. As with all gear choices, getting out and practicing with whatever you buy will always be the biggest element of your success.