After a long battle, Pennsylvania recently passed new legislation allowing hunters to hunt with semi-automatic guns. The bill, drafted by state senator Matt Gabler (R), was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The bill shows that Americans are looking to make hunting more accessible to shooters of all types, but also says a lot about the state of semi-automatic rifles today.
“Legislation I authored that would allow the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) to examine expanding firearm options for Pennsylvania hunters has been signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf,” said Gabler in a statement.
“One of my constituents from Elk County was the inspiration for this legislation. He brought to my attention how technology associated with air- and gas-powered rifles has improved to where they are viable, humane options for sportsmen.”
For decades various hunters and hunting organizations took a dim view of many semi-automatic rifles. Military-pattern guns, in particular, were considered unsportsmanlike. Today, however, the AR and other similar-class guns are the most popular selling rifles today. But it takes more than just popularity to change hunting culture.
Some arguments against hunting with semi-auto rifles include accuracy and ethics concerns. It was held that bolt-action guns could be made to shoot more accurately than semi-autos. This makes placing precise shots more predictable, which is critical to hunting game.
Another argument against semi-autos has been that faster fire encourages hunters to place unethical shots to take game. Saying a hunter would be willing to use multiple shots to cull an animal, not a single, ethical kill shot.
Whether these arguments were right or wrong even ten years ago, now they don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Sure, a completely blueprinted, custom bolt gun will outshoot an off-the-shelf AR. And if you’re working on a very tight budget, today’s next-generation bolt guns offer incredible accuracy for less than a good semi-auto.
But if you’re looking at current, modern sporting rifles, these guns offer the same performance as yesterday’s classic hunting rig but with a lot more flexibility. All without breaking the bank. That’s why hunters today want to get their black rifles out in the field.
As far as encouraging unethical shots — that’s not the gun, that’s the hunter. And the idea that a hunter can guarantee a single-shot kill is fantasy. Ideally, that’s what happens, but when it doesn’t, a semi-automatic rifle is overwhelmingly better than any manually-operated action.
The key to the success of the AR is how incredibly flexible the design is. Even though it’s several decades old at this point the design is inherently modifiable. One change that really made the AR stick with hunters is the flattop rail.
Hunting rifles are largely paired with scopes. Until the flattop rail became standard on military-pattern guns, putting a scope on a black rifle could be tricky, or just plain weird. Mounts tended to be heavy, unsteady, and often high above or to the side of the bore. They were good enough for government work but not the more demanding needs of hunting.
Today, with the flattop rail all that’s gone. Scope mounts for flattops can be tailored to individual shooters without the need for cheek risers, stock inserts, and other custom tuning. Just different sets of rings.
Improvements in riflescope technology have lessened the need for the tapered barrel of a bolt-action rifle. A good, clear and bright scope can fit on top of an AR no problem. Altogether hunters today can assemble a scoped semi-automatic rifle kit that’s as light or lighter than a traditional setup without having to spend more.
The biggest argument against the use of these guns for hunting comes down to caliber. Traditionally, .30-caliber cartridges were predominantly used for hunting game in the U.S., which meant 40-grain .22-caliber cartridges didn’t have a chance but for small game and varmints.
Bullet design has also evolved, though, effectively improving the semi-auto. There are plenty of heavy .223 Remington/5.56 NATO projectiles designed for hunting and self-defense that perform very well now. If you know your game, they can be right for the job.
But the real strength of the AR isn’t improved 5.56 ammo, it’s other cartridges altogether. Hunters have their pick when it comes to ARs, from .22 Long Rifle for plinking and small game up to .458 SOCOM and .50 Beowulf. For hunting .300 AAC Blackout and 6.5 Grendel have especially stood out in terms of performance, and there is no shortage of parts for those builds.
If that’s not enough the AR-10-style rifle has really taken off. Originally built for .308 Winchester/7.62 NATO, there are now as many .308-family cartridge options for the AR-10 as there are for any commercial bolt gun. If you’re set up for .243 or .270 Winchester or 6.5 Creedmoor the AR family of guns is ready to serve. It’s just the matter of dropping in the right barrel.
That, of course, is where the Stoner rifle and its derivatives do best. The barrel and barrel nut system allow the use of not only a wide variety of barrels and cartridges, but also free-floating handguards.
Free-floating handguards and barrels are almost drop-in parts for the AR design. Many companies offer ARs with free-floating parts from the factory, requiring no gunsmithing or custom work whatsoever. These guns are so commonly accurate that people barely get excited to hear about 1 MOA accuracy guarantees anymore. Just buy premium ammo and shoot yourself a ragged hole.
For magnum hunters, the AR design has been adapted to the real big-bore cartridges, too. Companies like Falkor Defense and Nemo Arms make AR-style rifles chambered for .300 and .338 Winchester Magnum.
The best part about these rifles is that they can do many things very well with the right upper receiver. One AR lower can be fit with any compatible AR upper. A single rifle can just as easily shoot an upper dedicated to hunting in the field and also serve as a rifle for self-defense at home.
One argument for bolt, pump or lever guns over semi-autos that persists to this day is that manually operated guns are more reliable. This is subjective. Semi-auto guns made to the correct specifications, maintained well enough, are exceedingly reliable. The types of problems they run into are no more or less common than comparable manual guns, and let’s not forget that manual guns are still subject to user-induced malfunctions.
This argument isn’t going away any time soon, but it’s getting harder and harder to find a bad brand of AR. Even the really cheap, shoestring budget builders are churning out at least functionally reliable automatics.
If anything, the accuracy and reliability of current-production mainstream rifles are bringing to light an old controversy: long-range hunting. This applies to bolt guns, too, naturally. Improvements in mechanical accuracy, inexpensive target triggers and great optics let hunters take shots at distances that even just a few years ago were ethically risky.
There is always the chance that a single shot will not kill an animal. At longer ranges this means increases the likelihood that the hunter loses the ability to track wounded game, causing unnecessary suffering. Other hunters argue that this type of long-distance hunting is a violation of fair chase traditions, swapping technology for stalking skills.
Still, any expansion of the types of hunting will add to the number of people interested in hunting, which is generally good for the community and conservation groups. This is an example of hunting inclusivity. Next up it’s going to be the use of suppressors in the field — something already on its way nationwide.
In the long term, the adoption of semi-auto rifles for hunting also represents a greater shift across all gun cultures. Shooters have, historically, divided themselves into different camps based on their political, personal and sporting needs. But as rifle technology continues to adapt modern semiautomatic rifles to fit just about every possible shooter need, gun owners from all camps are embracing them across the country.
The AR and guns like it are pulling these different shooters together. These guns do more than just excel at hunting, shooting for sport and self-defense. They are slowing uniting shooters everywhere as simply gun owners.