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Bolt Action VS Semi Auto: Best Deer Hunting Rifle?

bolt action vs semi auto

Those of us who hunt deer are once again greeting sunrise from blinds and stands or perched behind spotting scopes—or looking forward to opening day. It’s an annual event, a chance for camaraderie with friends, and renewed hope of taking that once-in-a-lifetime buck. What’s the best deer hunting rifle to take with you, bolt action vs semi auto? A trusted and familiar bolt action is the most common companion for sportsmen, but there are good reasons to consider carrying an AR-15 or AR-10 as well.

There is a lot to weigh when contemplating the purchase of a new rifle. If that .308-Win chambered bolt-action given to you by your father—after he inherited it from your grandfather—still shoots true and fills tags, replacing it can be a heart-wrenching decision. Here are a few facts, starting with the benefits. They’ll help you decide whether it’s time to move to a modern sporting rifle. Take a moment to consider the following chart:

Best Deer Hunting Rifle Performance Strength Location Strength Target Strength Operational Strength Accessory Strength
Bolt Action Accuracy Open Fields & Mountains Stationary Targets Environmental Dependability Optics
AR Rifle Flexibility Brush Country Moving Targets Follow Up Shot Speed Magazines & Attachments

Making The Shot: AR VS Bolt Action

a photo of a man shooting a bolt action hunting rifle

Bolt action rifles are known for their accuracy but are slower to operate when making a follow-up shot.

Comparing Recoil

A significant amount of the energy you feel on your shoulder with a bolt-action rifle never gets there with a semi-automatic gun. The system of operation captures a portion of that recoil to move the bolt carrier group as it cycles. It ejects, picks up a fresh cartridge, and returns to full lock up ready for a second shot.

The fact the gun does the re-loading also makes it easier to stay on the scope and determine if a follow-up shot is required. It takes a lot of practice with a bolt action to do the same. You have back-to-front stabilization to contend with when charging the bolt. There may also be rifle tilt to readjust from unless your gun is secure on a bipod. 

Too Much Recoil? 

If you’re considering making a change due to recoil, but not quite ready to abandon bolt-actions, simply find a model you like with a softer-shooting chambering. The .223 Rem runs fine in bolt guns and so does the .243 Win, .300 Blackout, and others.

When weight isn’t a consideration, pick a rifle with a little more heft. Add an aftermarket recoil pad or find loads with reduced recoil. A wide selection of new and more traditional-looking semi-automatics with wood stocks is also available. They may not offer AR versatility, but your shoulder will feel the difference.

Built For Accuracy

There’s a reason military snipers run bolt guns. They are more accurate at the extreme distances they work. However, the yardage they connect at is staggering compared to most hunting situations. Accuracy matters, you don’t want to be tracking blood trails after midnight wondering if coyotes got your deer. 

Advances in design and manufacturing have spawned all-new semi-auto AR-10s that produce frighteningly tiny groups at 500 yards and beyond. U.S. Army designated marksmen to carry them, and when the 5.56 NATO-chambered M4s fail to connect, they’ve proven to be extremely effective. 

With the AR platform, you can swap to a shorter rifle barrel if you want faster target acquisition in a thick brush. Or select a longer one with a different rate of rifling for improved performance. You can even get a new upper receiver to change the cartridge the firearm digests. Both of these changes require an added layer of caution and knowledge, but they are common practice for many veteran owners.

Building The Best Deer Hunting Rifle:

a photo of a man deer hunting in the woods with a rifle

Build your own? The possibilities and configurations for building an AR rifle are almost limitless.

Best Modular Platform?

Classic bolt-action rifles do not offer the modularity of modern sporting rifles. The possibilities and configurations with an AR are almost limitless. The ability to effortlessly mount or remove a weapon light may not seem like a key consideration in a hunting rifle, but it allows the firearm to readily do double-duty as a home-defense gun.

It’s also an advantage if you occasionally pursue hogs. Bipods mounted on a Picatinny rail underneath modern sporting rifles are usually more stable than those anchored to a sling-mounting stud. Other advantages include installing fore-end grips, lasers, backup sights in case your scope goes down, and more.

Making Changes In The Field 

No tool is required to adjust length-of-pull on most AR-15s and AR-10s. That advantage is not exclusive to those mentoring a young hunter, either. Fall weather is fickle, often cold in the morning and short-sleeve hot by noon.

You might acquire a good sight picture fast at dawn, but peel that coat off and the odds are good you’re moving your head around on the stock to get a proper view. Modern sporting rifles address the problem with fast stock-length changes that don’t require a tool or gunsmith.

If you don’t like the current stock, you can replace it fast. Simply buy the aftermarket version you prefer and slip it on. It’s a DIY affair and you can find versions with cheekpiece height adjustment, quick-detach attachment points, and more.

Trigger Options

Is that “go switch” grittier than sandblast media? Dropping in a finely tuned or adjustable AR trigger control unit is effortless and fast with practice. Options exist for several popular bolt action models too, including the Remington model 700. Many kits claim to be “drop-in” ready. However, it may benefit you to consult a gunsmith to ensure your installation is correct. 

Fire Controls and More

Most modern sporting rifles either come with or readily accept ambidextrous safeties and magazine releases. Aftermarket pistol grips are available in different shapes, sizes, and textures. A few even store batteries or cleaning gear.

Reloads are faster with a modern sporting rifle when compared to hunting rifles that don’t have a removable magazine. Some states (California in particular) have strict regulations on cartridge capacity and even removability of magazines, though. Check before buying.


Deciding between a bolt action vs semi auto rifle may come down to deciding which option is the easiest to maintain. Field stripping, cleaning, and maintaining an AR is easy. Performing the same task on a bolt action is, however, slightly faster.

The latter also has fewer parts and during operation, those that move are shooter operated. Self-loading modern sporting rifles aren’t complicated, and the reliability is combat proven, but there’s no denying simple is better when afield. 

Seeing The Shot: Optics & Accessories

a photo of bolt action vs semi auto hunting rifle in a blind

Consider the type of optics you need for your custom loadout when considering bolt action vs semi-auto.

Optics mount fast on modern sporting rifle’s receiver-mounted Picatinny rails. Removal is every bit as effortless. Many companies now offer a variety of optic mounts compatible with popular optics to further customize your loadout. 

High-end optics can be easily removed from one AR and easily mounted on another without fiddling with bases, rings, or other proprietary fittings. Yes, you’ll still need to sight in after installation, but if your gun safe has a light-collecting magnet you love—backed by the company for generations—there’s no reason it should spend its lifetime anchored to the same rifle.

For many hunters that doesn’t sound like a big advantage until you consider the quality of today’s riflescopes. They are better than ever, but a good one costs more than many premium hunting rifles. Experts wisely advise purchasing the best you can afford, or even using a credit card to buy better and stretch payments. With lifetime warranties common today, it’s a solid investment, and dividends are improved by the AR’s receiver rail. 

A variety of bolt-action rifles now have modular attachment points and accessory rails that are similar or nearly identical to the railed versions that ride modern sporting rifles. If you want that kind of versatility, yet are uncomfortable with a semi-automatic, there’s a bolt-action out there for you.

Hunting Regulations

Is an AR rifle legal to hunt deer within your state? Consult hunting regulations in your region to ascertain if the modern sporting, in the configuration you’re considering, is legal for deer hunting. Your local sporting goods dealer is a great resource.

When in doubt do research online or contact your fish and wildlife office. The platform is currently legal in every state, including New York, but things change, and cartridge capacity limits vary. Don’t be surprised if taking your AR afield requires a smaller magazine than the stock version.  

Regulations in some areas require a minimum bullet diameter for big-game hunting. The 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. are not legal in all states for the pursuit of deer. That’s OK, though because many modern sporting rifles chamber and run other small-bore cartridges, including .243 Win. You can also find them in .300 Blackout, which is softer shooting.

AR VS Bolt Action: Ammo

a photo of centerfire ammunition on a target

When selecting a hunting rifle, be sure it’s chambered in a caliber that’s affordable and available.

Centerfire Cartridges

Most AR-15s are chambered in .223 Rem. or 5.56 NATO, but be careful about load selection if that’s what you can and are going to use. Bullets need to expand after impact to maximize the chances of an ethical harvest. Those inexpensive loads used for competition and target practice with FMJs are not up to the task. Yes, they can and will work, but it’s not worth the risk when hunting season comes only once a year.

Federal Premium offers a variety of high-performing options in .223 Rem. that includes a bonded tip, copper, a partition, and others. Hornady has several solid choices, and so do most other companies. Take a look around and you’ll even find specialty loads for hunting deer. 

That’s not the only chambering available in AR-15s. The .300 Blackout is extremely popular and cartridge diversity has never been better. Add the relatively new .350 Legend and a long list of other options and the modern sporting rifle’s versatility is obvious.

The big brother in the family tree is traditionally thought of as featuring a .308 Win. or 7.62 NATO chambering. There’s no shortage of loads ideal for deer hunting for this cartridge, although the key, as always, is the bullet’s terminal performance. The .243 Win. is another choice in AR-10s. It’s been a popular, soft-recoiling option for deer hunters for years and there’s a wide selection of big-game-specific loads.

Modern VS Heritage

So what is the best deer hunting rifle? If that family heirloom still shoots straight and fills tags, are you comfortable moving it to utility-player status? A place where it’s only used when that once-in-a-lifetime buck isn’t likely? The decision between bolt action vs semi auto is a personal one and your opinion trumps all others.

There’s something to be said about how well you shoot a gun. If every buck you’ve ever harvested was with Grandpappy’s bolt action, it may take you time to adjust to a new platform. For those who find a semi auto makes them less patient on a hunt, a bolt action may give you the balance you need. The right tool, for the right job, makes a difference.

As noted, ARs usually weigh less than bolt guns in the same chambering. The availability of custom AR parts gives owners the option to build a rifle to the weight spec they desire. If you’re tired of carrying a bolt-action boat anchor across hill and dale, pare some of the heft by shopping wisely.

So Many Options

With so many different chamberings available and modularity, the toughest part of making a change may be trying to figure out which AR platform rifle to get. There are dozens of great options that could keep you company on your next deer hunt. Whatever your choice, though, you’re bound to discover precisely why so many are now calling the platform “America’s rifle.” 

However, not everyone is comfortable carrying an AR and some members of the non-shooting public have misconceptions about the platform. It shouldn’t be a concern, since hunts are typically remote or at least semi-private, but it is worth noting.

Looking for deer hunting articles? We’ve got you covered at the Widener’s blog! Be sure to check out our quick start deer hunting guide. Or, find the best time of day to go deer hunting in your region.

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