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Bolt-Action vs. Semi-Auto Rifles

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When it comes to long range shooting, few rifles capture enthusiast’s attention quite like bolt-action rifles. Known for their reliability and pinpoint accuracy, they’re some of the most popular platforms for all long-range disciplines.  

However, with the progression of firearm technology, we now have a plethora of highly precise semi-automatic rifle models are available on the market. These rifles have become notable for their use in duty and competitive use, sparking debates amongst enthusiasts as to the role that bolt-actions fill.  

To put it bluntly, neither is ‘better’ than the other. Both platforms offer their own distinct benefits that lend themselves to different applications and styles of shooting, but there are many things bolt actions do way better than semi-autos. Follow along to find out.  

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Bolt-Action vs. Semi-Auto: Long-Range Shooting 

Long-range shooting is an area where both bolt-action and semi-auto rifle platforms excel. By design, bolt-action rifles are incredibly precise. They have fewer moving parts and can be chambered in a wide range of calibers, both small and large, making them a common choice for long-range and precision shooting applications.  

However, modern semi-auto rifle platforms like the AR-15, AR-10, SCAR, and other semiautomatic rifles can be built in precision/long-range configurations. Rifles like these are fine-tuned for long-range precision, featuring longer barrel lengths, tuned gas systems, as well as other upgraded components and controls for optimal performance. 

Because of this, it’s often a challenge to decide which platform to use for long-range shooting. While both can be excellent options, choosing one over the other often depends on the caliber and style of shooting you prefer.  

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Caliber Selection 

Bolt-actions have the widest caliber selection by far. There are two main types of bolt-action types: short action and long action. Short action models can be chambered in calibers as small as .17HMR, to larger calibers like .308 and 6.5CM. Long action models can handle larger calibers like .30-06 and .270 Winchester. Long action rifles can even chamber larger magnum cartridges, such as .300 Winchester Magnum.  

Larger cartridges like these are often used for hunting and long-distance shooting, as they offer superior ballistic energy. For example, .300 Win-Mag has an effective range of around 1200 yards, while .338 LM can reach up to 1900 yards, with accurate shots recorded beyond 2500 yards. 

In contrast, most modern semi-auto is typically chambered in calibers no larger than .308 and 6.5CM. These cartridges are still capable of accuracy up to 1,000+ yards away, depending on your optic and shooting skills. Specialized rifles like the LaRue Tactical PredatOBR, SCAR 20S, Seekins Precision SP-10, and other DMR type rifles, are designed with long-range precision in mind and when paired with the right optic, they can be tremendously accurate across vast distances.  

Accuracy Comparison 

Both platforms can be bought, built, and upgraded for precision, but it’s important to note how moving parts can affect accuracy. Moving parts, such as a bolt carrier group or piston, can cause your rifle’s receiver to shift or have more of an effect on barrel harmonics, which significantly impacts accuracy.  

On bolt-action rifles, this isn’t really an issue. They only have the one moving part, the bolt, and it’s only operated to eject and load cartridges. This simplicity results in incredible precision, though this comes at the cost of a slower rate of fire, making bolt-actions better for stationary or other types of shooting where speed isn’t an absolute necessity.  

Semi-auto rifles have comparatively more moving components, requiring the use of reciprocating bolts and (depending on the rifle) gas pistons to work. As such, they also need gas blocks to operate these components, which mount to the barrel and affect its harmonics when firing. For instance, AR-10s differ from the SCAR, which has even more reciprocating mass that stems from the piston, affecting barrel harmonics even further. This isn’t to say that these rifles are inaccurate. Comparatively, though, they don’t offer the same degree of precision as bolt guns.  

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Bolt-Action vs. Semi-Auto: Reliability  

Reliability is crucial for any rifle. Bolt-action rifles are some of the most reliable rifles on the market. As we’ve mentioned before, they have very few moving parts. This simplicity significantly reduces the likelihood of experiencing failures and other malfunctions, though this doesn’t make bolt-actions immune from failures,  

Semi-auto rifles, while reliable, have comparatively more complex designs. As a result, if improperly maintained, they can be subject to many malfunctions. Common issues include failure to eject, failure to feed, double feeds, and stovepipes, especially when dirt or debris build up in the chamber. Remember, this is much more likely when you don’t maintain and clean your rifle.  

At the end of the day, both rifle options can be superbly reliable. Although malfunctions are more prevalent on semi-auto rifles, so long as you take care of your rifle, the likelihood of experiencing one is significantly reduced.  

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Bolt-Action vs. Semi-Auto: Hunting 

When you hear the phrase “hunting rifle”, a bolt-action rifle is usually what comes to mind. For a long time, bolt-action rifles have been one of the most popular rifle platforms to hunt with. Today, though, it’s just as common today for enthusiasts to opt for semi-auto hunting rifles instead. As with any comparison between platforms, though, bolt-actions and semi-autos have pros and cons for hunting.  

Types of Game 

For most big game animals in North America, you’ll be fine with either a bolt-action or semi-auto rifle like an AR-10. Deer, Elk, and other big game animals are commonly hunted with calibers like .308 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor which are common chamberings for both platforms. For predator hunting, like coyotes, wolves, and foxes, it’s common to use smaller calibers like 5.56/.223, and .300 Blackout. Each is available on either platform, but there’s a wider range of calibers available for bolt-actions, with calibers like, .204 Ruger, .22/250, and .243 Winchester being some popular predator rifle calibers.  

If you want access to a wider range of calibers, bolt actions are the better option as they have come chambered in many calibers unavailable on semi-auto platforms. On the other hand, though, many popular hunting cartridges are available on rifles like the AR-10, and they can also be some of the best hunting rifles around when configured for that purpose.  

Fire Rate 

At some point or another, you’ll likely miss your target when hunting. As we mentioned before, it is understood that semi-auto rifles provide you with the fastest fire rate. So, if you miss your target, using a semi-auto rifle will grant you the best ability to fire a quick follow-up shot. Bolt-actions take longer to cycle a new round, making follow-up shots slower. While it can still be done quickly with some practice, your chances are better with something like an AR-15/AR-10.  

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Cold Weather Performance 

A lot of hunting seasons take place during the colder months of the year and many big game animals, like elk and axis deer, are commonly found in areas where the climate is often colder. Their hunting seasons also take place during fall and winter months, so your rifle will probably be subject to colder, potentially freezing temperatures. At low temperatures, condensation can build up on your rifle, which can potentially freeze, leading to malfunctions.  

Modern firearms are designed to be reliable across a wide expanse of temperature ranges, but bolt-actions tend to be more reliable in colder temperatures due to their lack of moving components. Since semi-autos have more moving parts, they have more potential points of failure/seizing when exposed to cold or freezing temperatures.  

Because of this, bolt-actions are usually the preferred platform for cold weather hunting in harsher climates, though semi-autos can still be effective when properly prepped. Regardless of which one you use, it’s crucial to ensure that your rifle is clean and free of condensation before heading out. If you want to boost your rifle’s performance, cold-weather lubricants can prevent your rifle from freezing or seizing up when shooting. 

Legality 

Depending on where you live, there’s a chance that you may not be legally allowed to use a semi-automatic rifle to hunt. Rules and regulations on them vary from state to state, and if you’re in one that prohibits their use, you don’t really have a choice but to use a bolt-action. For the most part, though, semi-automatic rifles are allowed as hunting rifles. Still, you are responsible for knowing and following the laws put in place at your state and local level, so be sure to double check your laws and reach out to local game wardens if you have any questions.  

Conclusion 

There is a lot to consider when making the deciding whether to go with a bolt-action or a semi-auto rifle. Each platform offers distinct advantages, making them suitable for long range shooting or hunting deer(https://blog.primaryarms.com/guide/rifles-for-hunting-white-tail-deer-in-texas/).  

To recap, bolt-actions offer superior precision and are offered in an expansive arrangement of calibers, ranging from smaller rimfire calibers to large magnum rounds like .338 Lapua and .338 Norma Magnum. As such, they’re particularly well suited for applications requiring extreme precision across long ranges, and when paired with their historic reliability, they’re tough to beat. 

On the flip side, semi-auto rifles offer greater modularity and can fire multiple rounds in rapid succession. Modern semi-auto platforms are engineered to be as durable as possible and can be incredibly accurate for long distance shooting. While they don’t have the same caliber compatibility and accuracy as bolt guns, they certainly make up for it with their agility and adaptability for different scenarios.  

At the end of the day, the best choice is the one that fits your needs best. So long as you’ve taken your needs in preferences into consideration, you’ll be set with the right rifle. Regardless of which one you end up going with, it’s crucial to understand that a nice rifle won’t automatically make you a sharpshooter. Check out our guide on mechanical vs. practical accuracy. It goes over everything you need to know when it comes to being accurate with your rifle.