What are the merits of these two major types of rifle actions?
There are many choices when it comes to selecting a long gun for multiple uses. Many of the questions and inquiries are from preppers, and survivalists that are gun users attempting to buy a firearm(s) that can yield effective results for many applications, including home defense, ranch, farm or homestead protection, as well as hunting for food and predator control. That is a pretty tall order for sure.
After much thought, counseling, and work in the gun related industry these past 40 plus years, the basic conclusion I have come to is that the rifle preference really boils down to personal choice. I mean, in terms of overall quality, reliability, functionality, and accuracy, there is not a significant difference between major makes of long guns now, whether a bolt action or a semi-auto.
While the caliber choice may be the first priority, that is no longer a huge issue either because the most popular choices in the .223/5.56 range (up to, say, the ever popular .308/7.62) are readily available in either platforms with numerous brand and feature choices to select.
It would be easy to recommend if all you could afford was one choice, then for sure, I would say the .308 would get the nod. It is fully capable with available factory ammo choices to perform work in protection and certainly for hunting and dispatching vermin regardless of the foot count.
Though the fight breaks out when you mention the bolt rifle is inherently more accurate than the semi-auto, there are plenty of examples to defy that argument these days. I have been hunting with bolt guns since I was ten years old, but I have also taken big game with semi-auto rifles including an AR in .300 Blackout and a Rock River LAR in .308, both one shot kills.
In my own mind’s eye, owning and using both types of rifles, I do find the simple bolt action rifle easier to use, much more simple to clean and maintain, and easy enough in most cases to mount a scope. I love the quick and easy way to remove the bolt so the barrel can be easily cleaned from the breech end and not the muzzle. Shooting a bolt action is fairly straight forward and easy to train others by controlling the ammo use at the range. Safety mechanisms are usually simple to operate.
Even with bolt guns using detachable magazines, I have had no issues with them loading or unloading or feeding reliably. I use both a Browning A-Bolt and a fine Remington 700-DM without issue. I did buy factory magazines for these to have an extra in the shirt or coat pocket, and they have always worked just fine.
The Learning Curve
Learning to use most semi-auto rifles takes somewhat more training and range initiation. Loading, cycling the action, and engaging the safety can be easy, but it takes some practice to perform. Using magazines takes little effort, but sometimes they can be finicky.
I would be first to admit I am not crazy about taking down an AR-type platform rifle, removing the bolt carrier group from the action in order to clean the barrel. I am not fond of all the nooks and crannies that come with most semi-auto rifles either. I will be honest though that this is most likely for me a function of frequency than it is performance of the tasks.
I can envision the GI soldier taking down, cleaning, and re-assembling an AR-15 in the dark just by feel. It isn’t that it is so difficult, it is just that I don’t like doing it. AmSJ note: Most soldiers are trained this way so they can become highly proficient with the weapon out in any adverse field condition.
Of course some other semi-auto rifles (like the Browning BAR or the Remington 742 series and others) may be more intricate or detailed in terms of disassembly for cleaning and maintenance. For this, just follow the general guidelines in the owner’s manual and don’t take them apart any more than is recommended as necessary for regular maintenance.
Optics and Reliability
In terms of scope mounting, most bolt guns simply need the application of an appropriate one or two-piece mounts to be installed on top of the action. Then separate rings are attached to the mounts. AR types mostly use the Picatinny rail to mount scope rings directly to the rail slots or via a one-piece unit incorporating the mount and rings in one piece a la Nikon, or GG&G.
There are many variations to these themes, but neither is a big issue. Both bolt guns and semi-autos can be easily and securely fitted with an appropriate scope. Some adjustment in ring height might be in order, depending on the size of the scope’s front objective rings to clear the barrel. This is more of an issue for bolt action rifles but can be with some ARs.
It is a toss-up when it comes to rifle reliability. Just by the sheer action type moving in a relatively violent fashion, the semi-autos are sometimes blamed for more breakages than are typical bolt action rifles. Many times stoppages are due to powder and grime fowling in the gas system than a part actually breaking. Semi-auto actions do get pretty dirty pretty fast and therefore often demand more regular cleaning and maintenance.
Having said that, it would probably surprise most rifle shooters to learn that most guns these days are so well made that breakdowns are far and few between. That is, all else being equal. I mean most of us are not on the battle field firing thousands of rounds in a short time. Don’t be fearful of buying either a modern bolt gun or a semi-auto when it comes to reliability issues.
So, when you are ready to buy a long gun, rifle, then shop around. Seek advice, but be careful of the big box gun counter person that worked in underwear yesterday. Read, study, and compare. Visit a local range and ask questions. Again, it is a personal thing whether you want to cycle a bolt action or pull back a charging handle. Whichever, be sure to practice with it.