The Great Debate Semi-Auto vs Bolt Action Rifle
May 16, 2018 By Dave Young (YoungBuckDave)
In previous newsletters I discussed some of the most controversial topics within the firearms industry. These articles involved the AR-15 vs AK-47, Glock vs M&P, and 9MM vs 45ACP. This month we are going to do a "Great Debate" topic involving the "Bolt Action Rifle vs Semi Auto Rifle". While discussing this topic, we are going to be placing ourselves in the shoes of a sniper to figure out which of these rifles will come out on top by discussing both the pros and cons of each style of rifle. Then I will give my opinion and tell you which one I feel is the champion in this "Great Debate".
First, we are going to discuss the pros and cons of the bolt action rifle. When you think of the bolt action rifle, most people automatically think of snipers. The bolt action rifle has been around since the early 1800s and by 1841 was adopted by the Prussian Army. Even though it was adopted by the Prussian Army in 1841, it did not see combat until 1864. World War I marked the height of the bolt action rifles being used by all nations involved in the War. As the years progressed, and even with the invention of the semi auto rifle, the bolt action was still being issued in concert with the semi auto rifle. While most troops ended up switching over to the more advanced semi auto rifle, the bolt action rifle remained the rifle of choice to snipers because of its design and the potential for superior accuracy and reliability.
- One of the biggest pros of the bolt action rifle has to due with the pin point precision this rifle is capable of performing. Although accuracy has a lot to do with the person using the firearm, bolt action rifles are known for their supreme accuracy. Numerous records have been set in combat and recreational shooting where a person has fired a round from a bolt action rifle and hit their intended target to well over a mile and, in more recent cases, over 2 miles.
- Reliability is another big pro for bolt action rifles. The way the bolt action rifle is designed makes it extremely rugged and durable and less prone to malfunctions. While semi auto rifles, on the other hand, can be prone to numerous different types of malfunctions; both user error and system failure malfunctions.
- Modern day bolt action rifles are also extremely versatile. They can be found in almost every caliber known to man all the way from a 22LR to a 50BMG and even big bore hunting cartridges like the 375 H&H cartridge which can be used to take down plenty of big game animals.
- Another pro with bolt action rifles has to do with the ease someone can successfully operate this platform of rifle. The only moving part of the bolt action rifle is really the bolt itself, which is operated by the user.
- The biggest con associated with bolt action rifles is the rate of fire. Simply put, the rate of fire of a bolt action rifle is determined by the person using the rifle. There are some extremely skilled shooters that can successfully and accurately operate the bolt very fast which, in turn, increases the amount of rounds they put down range. The rate of fire is completely determined by the person shooting it.
- Recoil is the next con when it comes to bolt action rifles. I was hesitant to put this down since recoil can be handled differently by different people. But the more I thought of my experiences shooting bolt action rifles (specifically 308), I did realize the difference. After a round is fired by a bolt action rifle, the recoil is felt in one stage. Some call the recoil a "Mule Kick" because it is one forceful push right into the shooter's shoulder pocket. This "Mule Kick" may be too much to bear over long periods of time and when shooting a lot of larger caliber rounds down range.
Now that we have talked about the pros and cons of the bolt action rifle, let's talk about the semi auto rifle. When we talk about the semi auto rifle, I will be referring to semi auto sniper rifles or more commonly called the SASS (Semi Auto Sniper System). One of the most iconic semi auto sniper rifles is the M14, which was made famous during the Vietnam War. The M14 would sometimes be used by the sniper himself but was more commonly found in the hands of his spotter while the actual sniper usually had a bolt action rifle. Just because the sniper usually chose a bolt action rifle does not mean that a semi auto sniper rifle cannot do the same job. A lot just has to do with personal preference. As time went on and the SASS became more developed, it was an effective option more snipers chose to use as they went out on missions.
- The biggest pro of semi auto sniper rifles is the rate of fire. Since this type of rifle cycles uses some of the energy used to propel the bullet down the barrel to cycle the action, it naturally has a higher rate of fire. This can be extremely beneficial in a number of situations from urban combat to aerial shooting where the shooter has to fire upon a target while inside a moving helicopter.
- The recoil in a semi auto rifle is less than in a bolt action rifle because the recoil is broken up into three parts. The first part being when the bullet exits the barrel, then as the bolt pushes back into the buffer, and the last stage as the bolt slams forward picking up the next round.
- Another pro of the semi auto rifle is its ability to carry more ammunition in the gun. Even though now some bolt action rifles have a detachable box magazine that can hold more rounds than in the past, few will exceed the capacity of 10 rounds in their detachable box magazine. Some semi auto rifles (depending on the caliber) can carry 20 or even 30 rounds when talking about the MK12, a semi auto sniper rifle that is chambered in the 5.56 caliber used in the standard M4 but has a longer barrel.
- The first major con with these rifles is the number of malfunctions that can happen. Even though the list of malfunctions can be greatly minimized if the rifle is maintained well and placed in the hands of a skilled shooter, the list is still much greater than a bolt action rifle. Some of these malfunctions include a stovepipe, failure to extract, failure to eject, double feed, and failure to feed, chamber or lock.
- Since the semi auto rifle uses part of the spent round's gases to operate the bolt and chamber a new round, it takes away from the bullet's speed and, in the end, the distance it can be effectively and accurately fired. Once again though, if this rifle is placed in the hands of a capable shooter it can push that distance out to the max. There have been numerous snipers who have shot the Barrett M82A1 and successfully engaged a target at over a mile.
Now that we have talked about both sides of this battle I want to give my opinion on this matter. My honest opinion is both the semi auto rifle and bolt action rifle in a sniper over watch roll are evenly matched. The reason I feel that both types of rifles are evenly matched has to do with what situation you are finding yourself in and where you are located. For example, if I was providing over watch in an urban setting, like in Iraq, I would prefer to have a semi auto sniper rifle by my side. In an urban environment the likelihood that you will be engaging targets out past 1000 yards isn't as common as the targets you will more than likely engage at areas ranging from 100 yds to 500 yds. I would rather have the capabilities of having quicker follow up shots with a rifle that cycles itself. Now if I were in the mountains of Afghanistan providing over watch for a convoy down in a valley or on a mountain side village, I would prefer a bolt action rifle by my side. There is a greater chance in that situation that I will be engaging targets out past 1000 yards. Have you ever heard the saying "There is always the right tool for the job"? Well this "Great Debate" battle relates to that saying perfectly and that's why, for this battle, I am calling it a draw and both rifles are winners in my eyes.