June 03, 2014
By Joseph von Benedikt
Every AR-15 owner also needs a bolt-action rifle. Why? Because in many ways bolt guns are just better than ARs.
Now, I'm an AR guy too, so I can empathize with your initial repudiation, metaphorically pat you on the shoulder and tell you to swallow your pride and listen.
No matter how versatile, capable and downright cool AR-15 rifles are, they do have some shortcomings. And for whatever reason, where they fall short, bolt-actions stand tall. Here's a look at some of those cracks in the AR universe, along with reasons why bolt-actions sometimes dominate.
All this glowing enthusiasm for bolt-action rifles isn't to try and convince you to retire the AR. Rather it's a suggestion (or six) that if you don't already own a bolt-action rifle, it's time to get your beloved black gun a friend that's strong where your AR is weak. You know, a sidekick.
You know and I know that AR-15 type firearms are anything but military-like machine guns, and that they are incapable of forcing their human owners to commit heinous mass murders. Instead, they're one of the most useful, versatile tools available to the modern gun owner, and our right to own and use them is fully protected by the 2nd Amendment. Don't be shy about that.
However, with all items of power, whether a fine bottle of Scotch, an engagement ring or your AR-15 firearm, discretion is often advantageous. In some circles, an AR-15 causes considerable pucker factor. Unfortunate, yes: unnecessary, true.
Where discretion is concerned, a classic bolt-action rifle rains all over the ARs parade. This is especially true if it is decked out in fine walnut. Most non gun-owners view a bolt-action-toting individual as a country gentleman at best, or a tobacco-drooling bumpkin at worst.
Inviting novice shooters to fire a classic, sleek bolt-action can be a great way to introduce them to rifles. Once they've shot it, you can break out the AR and let them experience what real shooting fun is.
A 20-round box of ammo goes a long way in a bolt action. It doesn't even fill a common AR-15 magazine.
Most AR-shooters (me included) enjoy putting a lot of rounds downrange. Running drills, shooting rapid-fire and so on is the very definition of fun. There's nothing wrong with that, other than the expense.
Shooting a bolt-action is usually more about precision and technique, thus a box of ammo goes a lot farther. It's a more sophisticated kind of shooting fun, and, during lean times, it keeps your budget happier to boot.
On a related note, reloading for bolt-action rifles is easier and less expensive than for ARs. First, you don't have to reload the ghastly quantities of ammo because you don't burn through so many rounds.
Second, bolt-action rifles treat empty cases more politely. ARs tend to eject empties violently into the dirt, dinging them and requiring a careful cleaning before running them into resizing dies. Plus, dutiful AR handloaders trim their cases every single time they reload them to avoid the heartburn of a too-long case getting jammed in the chamber.
Bolt actions, on the other hand, eject empty cases cleanly and controllably, allowing you to direct them onto the shooting bench or catch them and place them in a box. Plus, they don't stretch cases nearly as much as semi-autos do, and they don't jam if a case is slightly too long, so you don't have to trim them nearly as often.
Have you ever attempted to switch an AR from 'Safe ' to 'Fire ' without making a sound? With real diligence it can be done, but you've got to focus, brother. It's not really a motor-memory-while-hunting kind of operation. Years ago, the first time I hunted with an AR (a lively little Rock River
in .458 SOCOM), I was stationed in a high box stand in Texas. As the sun changed from afternoon glare to evening glow, a fat, dry doe came skittishly up the path and paused 40 yards out. She didn't see me ease the carbine into position, but the snick of the safety as I flicked it off made her jump out of her skin, leaving nothing but dust floating on the evening.
AR-type guns are just plain noisy. Collapsible stocks rattle. A2 stocks resonate with hollowness when bumped. Bolts CLANG-G-G into battery when a round is properly chambered. Aluminum handguards rasp and clunk against clothing and anything else they come in contact with.
On the flip side, bolt-action rifles are the epitome of silence. Cartridges may be chambered almost without sound and bolts closed stealthily into battery. Most safeties (not all) can be switched to the fire position quietly. Wood and quality synthetic stocks absorb sound rather than reverberate it. Sorry to break it to you, but ARs are top dog only in urban environments. Where wilderness-country stealth is concerned, bolt-action rifles rule.
Even with the best of loads, an AR-15 will never match the long-range capability of even common bolt-action hunting rifles. Some, such as the 6.5 Grendel
, come close but still can't close the gap. And don't start the argument that an AR-10-size rifle does, either. I'll grant you that a few specialty ARs — such as NEMO's .300 Win. Mag.
— achieve true distance capability, but they cost. A lot.
Consider an AR super-load such as Black Hill's
5.56 NATO round topped with Sierra's
77-grain MatchKing. About the most aerodynamic bullet that will still feed reliably from a standard STANAG magazine, it exits at about 2,800 fps — and that's from the 20-inch barrel of a match-grade service rifle. At 600 yards — the farthest distance that competitive shooters use it — it's traveling about 1,560 fps, carries 416 foot-pounds of energy and drifts 38.6 inches in a 10-mph crosswind. Sighted in at 200 yards, it drops 86 inches at 600.
Contrast that to the common, relatively pedestrian .30-06 cartridge in a bolt action: Loaded with a good — but by no means the most aerodynamic possible, as we showcased in the AR example — bullet such as Nosler's
180-grain Accubond, which exits the muzzle of a typical hunting rifle at around 2,700 fps, it offers far more impressive ballistics. At 600 yards it's still got 1,799 fps of velocity, carries almost 1,300 foot-pounds of energy and drifts only 26.6 inches in the same wind. Sighted at 200 yards, it drops 79 inches at 600.
Don't make me bring up highly capable bolt-action cartridges such as the 6.5-284 loaded with super-aerodynamic match bullets. I don't want to humiliate you. Typical AR-15 rifles are great to about 300 yards or a bit farther in the hands of a good rifleman, but for practical use beyond there, you're far better off with a good bolt-action in a caliber capable of going the distance.
AR-15s are somewhat like a beautiful, sophisticated woman: head turning, respected and admired, and very comfortable in your arms. They're also exacting, privileged and thirsty for exactly the right treatment from you. Granted that treatment, they'll function beautifully and reliably. Neglect yours too far, and it's likely to become temperamental.
Every good gun deserves quality care, so neglecting a bolt-action isn't condoned, but a disregarded bolt gun won't hold it against you. A quality bolt-action is like a good dog: forgiving, faithful and trustworthy.
Analogies aside, the reasons bolt-actions are almost unstoppable are these: They function through brute human force rather than by gasses bled off of a miniscule hole in the barrel. Factors vital to semi-automatic reliability, such as a bullet's dwell time in the barrel after passing the gas port; gas port diameter, action timing, mainspring strength and so forth just don't affect bolt actions. Apply as much muscle as is needed to get the job done, and keep shooting.
Furthermore, bolt actions have an incredible amount of camming power. Within reason, in a pinch you can force the bolt closed on a tight cartridge, whether caused by an out-of-spec handload, a foreign object in the chamber or whatnot. A similar cartridge, slammed into the chamber by an AR-15's speedy bolt, will stick stubbornly and refuse to allow the bolt to either rotate into battery or extract the stuck round.
That same camming power serves well when a fired case sticks in the chamber of a bolt action: Put what muscle is required into it, and you can usually crank that thing loose. Not so with an AR: A stuck cartridge is usually very stuck. I've seen frustrated shooters at the range literally pounding on the charging handle of their previously loved AR with a 2x4 in an attempt to get a stuck case — or worse, loaded cartridge — out of the chamber.
Back in my days as a big game guide in Montana, I saw multiple hunters put out of commission during the late season because their semi-autos (of various design) fell prey to icy conditions. Suffice it to say this: Cartridges with a thin layer of ice can't be forced to chamber in a semi-auto (they usually can in a bolt action); semi-autos with bolts invaded by ice often can't be forced to open (bolt actions can); and finally, a semi-auto rifle with a live round chambered, the bolt frozen shut and the safety frozen fast in the 'Fire ' position makes for a delicate hike back to camp. Yes, I've been there. Such conditions usually result in unprecedented abuse to the semi-auto in question — in an attempt to make it safe — before risking a long, dark trek back to camp through knee-deep snow.
While you can pick up a bare-bones AR-15 without bells and whistles — cobbled together of low-end parts — for less than a grand, most good rifles and carbines start in the neighborhood of [imo-slideshow gallery= 97],000 and go up — way up — from there. And for the most part, they're worth it.
Bolt-action rifles, even very nice ones, cost less to manufacture. You can get a good working bolt gun used for under $500 bucks — even one built on a legendary action such as Remington's Model 700
. New, $700 bucks will get you a darn nice Ruger
or whatnot. Bump up into the quality-AR price range, and you can swing a Sako
, Winchester Model 70 Super Grade
or highbrow Remington.
Money speaks. And when a little gains you a lot, such as in the case of bolt-action rifles, it speaks loudly.