Semi-Auto Hunting in Pennsylvania: How the Black Rifle Went Mainstream


The future of hunting is here and it’s gas-operated. (Photo: Falkor Defense/Facebook)

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.

The Windham Weaponry R20FFTM-308 is an AR-10 type design with a fixed, rifle -length stock.

The Windham Weaponry R20FFTM-308 is a 7.62 AR-type rifle with a fixed, rifle-length stock. It delivers amazing power at an affordable price. (Photo: Tom McHale)

See Also: Windham Weaponry’s Big Boy .308 AR—Full Review

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.

See Also: What Happens When Suppressors Are No Longer NFA Items?

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.

About the author: Max Slowik is a writer with over a dozen years of experience and is a lifelong shooter. He has unwavering support for the Second Amendment and the human right to self-defense. Like Thomas Paine, he’s a journalist by profession and a propagandist by inclination.

{ 17 comments… add one }
  • Grant F Cauffman May 7, 2019, 11:16 am

    Unless this a newer law, the decision rests with the game commission and they only allow 22
    cal rifles. So much for hunting with semi-autos.

  • AK May 7, 2019, 8:57 am

    When I was a kid many years ago in eastern Pennsy, all the dairy farmers and other locals hunted and mostly with Remington model 742 Gamemaster pump actions. The Model 99 Savage was popular as well. Centerfire high-powered levers and pumps…because they were, y’know, fast with the follow up shots…..Some anal-retentive prig heard about semi autos back ca. 1920 and thought, “scary..” and that’s how that stupid law held sway almost the entire 20th century. I really wanted a Browning .22 way back then but could not use it for my main purpose – hunting small game. Glad that idiocy is past.

  • Art March 22, 2019, 11:01 am

    I am eighty years old. And have hunted since age of fourteen and have hunted big game in quite a few states. I have hunted in local states with semi auto laws have repeated shots fired near me and over me and I must say unsuccessfully also. It has come to the thinking that fire power overrules hunting ethics’s and knowledge of the game being hunted and that is sad..

  • William J Zuggi June 30, 2017, 3:22 pm

    It has been over thirty years since I went deer hunting. The reason being is too many weekend warriors in the woods. I and my best friend and his father we used to look forward for deer season because it is a pleasure to hunt on private land but you still have to beware of the wander’s who excuse is I did not know this is private land I can say I will never hunt on state game land because you would have to wear flashing orange clothes and even then these yahoos still shoot at any sound or movement. Sadly I miss my two 30-30’s which I sold to a good young man who lives by the laws of safety. I am now tempeted to go out with my SKS because I miss the solitude of being in the woods.

  • Dan June 30, 2017, 10:47 am

    The last time I heard semi-autos are not permitted for deer hunting but semi-autos of 22 caliber are permitted for varmint and small game in Pennsylvania. Anyone have an update ?

    • J. R. May 7, 2019, 12:00 pm

      You are correct Dan. Unfortunately, the writer put the cart before the horse… It has been a long fight here in Pennsylvania, and although they have finally approved the use of some semi-autos, they did not go all out – to start with they’re only allowing semi auto rifles to be used for small game and varmints. Hopefully, after a period of time, they will realize that there is virtually no difference between a semi-auto rifle and a manually-operated rifle for the purposes of hunting. If anyone is concerned about people blasting away, that’s what magazine limits are for. They do it with shotguns for game birds, and I can certainly see allowing a maximum of five or six rounds to be permitted in semi auto rifles to alleviate all the unreasonable fear that some of these folks have. Also, it will hopefully keep Hunters honest too, so we don’t wind up with incidents of nutcases blasting away without taking careful aim to ethically harvest the animal they are pursuing. Sadly, those guys do still exist…

  • Navyvet December 16, 2016, 5:13 pm

    Rather have the poor mans deer rifle SKS 7.63 x39 or the Saiga 7,63.39 both proven battle field reliable and never jams even when fitly or using very cheap ammo

    The Marlin Lever 336 30 -30 also a great deer rife

  • rt66paul December 16, 2016, 3:31 pm

    Couldn’t the same arguement be used against Law Enforcement using “high capacity” magazines(whatever your state might say is “high capacity”). Or maybe that we should arm criminals with the same weapons and capacities as police and do the same for bears vs hunters.
    The only thing “high capacity” might do is give the hunters(LEOs) a heightened sense of optimism about about the outcome of his hunt. While I do agree that the hunter should wait for the right time to make an instantly fatal shot, the first time, sometime this does not happen and being able to take a second shot(hopefully the killing shot) is much more humane than having him run maybe mortally wounded for hours before you can get him, or worse, having him get away to suffer for maybe days until he starves to death in extreme pain, or just bleeding out after over and over opening up the wound.

    A black rifle makes more sense for Joe average hunter, plastic stocks are cheaper than fine hardwood, especially if hand carved and engraved actions, which does nothing toward the rifle being more accurate.

    • Dr Motown May 7, 2019, 8:31 am

      Even if a semi-auto rifle is used, most states will still have magazine capacity restrictions. For eg, in Michigan, I can\’t have more than 5 rounds in my 450BM AR. This isn\’t significantly different from the 3+1 rounds I carry in my bolt-action 308. The only time I haven\’t seen that restriction is for feral pig hunting in some Southern states

  • Jeff Knox December 16, 2016, 1:07 pm

    Could we please try to be more careful about word choices?
    The word “allow,” when applied to government regulators, is detrimental to our objectives.
    Government does not “allow” anything. They only restrict, prohibit, or limit – when we allow them to do so.
    Using the word “allow” implies that they are giving us something. They are not. They are returning something to us which we allowed them to take away once upon a time. While this is a much bigger issue when talking about loosening restrictions on carry or lifting prohibitions on particular types of firearms for general possession, it also applies to hunting regulations.
    Let’s not give them more implied authority than they actually have. Let’s instead talk in terms of “ending prohibitions,” “loosening restrictions,” and “restoring rights” that have been suppressed.
    Perhaps it is picking a nit, but I think it is a nit worth picking.
    Jeff Knox, The Firearms Coalition.

    • Eric Holder May 7, 2019, 8:29 am

      Sincere thanks for the post. Language is so important and I find the post not to be “nit picking”. The government uses phrases and terms that are manipulated to bring upon the death of individuals. Godspeed.

  • Torger TheTerribleTruthTeller December 16, 2016, 12:14 pm

    Grandpa had a pump-action in .22LR and .35REM. The Old Man had a .22LR in Semi-Auto, .243 Bolt, .30-30 Lever. One Cousin had a .30-06 in Semi-Auto, etc., etc., The Family Collective owns almost every Bolt and Lever-Action caliber there is, plus several Semi-Autos. All this before 1980, and as far back as 1880. Any Semi-Auto is nothing new for hunting … in Michigan and Wisconsin anyways. Biggest buck I ever shot was with .410 single-shot slug … about 20 yards. Biggest buck I ever missed was with .308 Bolt set on 9x – running broadside about 10 yards away I never found him in the scope … whish I had the .30-30 Lever open sights, the .410 with the slug, but no doubt, that sweet .308 Semi-Auto in AR-10 shown above would have been best … now use your imagination on the other targets you may encounter.

  • pete December 16, 2016, 12:12 pm

    The AR went mainstream as result of fear that it would it be banned. So a careful and concerted effort was made by many folks to make normalize mass ownership of what is essentially a war weopon: police agencies started buying it, interested parties started to lobby the government about it. Manufactures, sellers, gun writers began to call it by a different name (modern American sporting rifle or some such terms). And many of us gun nuts put in a lot of effort too. Often we have to pretend that its our 1st choice for deer in the woods or a late night prowler (it rarely is the 1st best choice, but whatever). And we also pretend the we have no interest whatsoever in having massive firepower/mass killing capability, saying things like ‘oh this is my zombie gun’ and other similar crap. It’s been a fun process to watch (and I’m the pot calling the kettle black, by the way).

    • Dr Motown May 7, 2019, 8:35 am

      A \”war weapon?\” Other than higher magazine capacity, it\’s no different from any other semi-auto rifles that have been used by civilians for over a hundred years now. And nobody really \”lobbied\” for the AR to become \”available\” to the public; instead, it was released in civilian versions back in 1964 and marketed as a hunting rifle. Do some research and know the history

  • John Urbanski December 16, 2016, 11:50 am

    Having hunted in PA for decades, I believe what this bill does is put hunters at increased risk for personal safety. On the first day of deer season, there are a lot of armed buttholes out in the woods, in the sense that they don’t understand careful use of a firearm. Add “buck fever” to that & you have the makings of disaster. I remember being in the woods when a hunter was shot while driving for deer. A buck jumped up & ran down the drive line. One guy, armed with a lever rifle kept cracking off shots as fast as he could. As he swung down with the buck, he wound up putting a .35 Remington soft point into the upper leg of his fellow hunter, fairly serious, eh? if he would have had an AR-style rifle, he probably would have bagged a few more of his buddies. Another time, I met a guy out in the woods. We exchanged stories of the day. He told me that earlier in the day he had a shot at “…something in the bushes.” Luckily, no one was hurt, but if it had been another hunter, and this guy emptied a semi-auto magazine into “something in the bushes”, it would have been pretty ugly. Face it folks, if you can’t get that deer with the first one or two shots, you don’t belong in the woods. Bolt guns work just fine and many of us have taken plenty of white tail with a bolt rifle. It’s called “fair chase”.

    • buck March 22, 2019, 1:15 pm

      never hunt with a hunter that hunts and believe’s that “sound hunting is his way of bagging a deer” ! sound hunting with an ar {black rifle} could be very dangerous !

  • J. R. December 16, 2016, 11:05 am

    The passing of the law was a great first step, however, all it has done is give the PA Game Commission the ability to make their own laws regarding the types of firearms they will allow to be used for hunting. Unfortunately, a few of the Commissioners have made public statements that they “don’t see it ever happening for big game hunting”, but will probably allow semi-autos for small game and varmints. This is the same backwards thinking that fuels the argument about traditional bows/compound bows/crossbows and flintlock vs inline muzzleloaders. These are the guys that make up and approve the game laws, and it seems that at least some of them are too close-minded on the subject, and instead of looking to the 40+ other states that have allowed semi-autos for all hunting for decades or longer to educate themselves, they will instead fall into the all too familiar curmudgeonly pattern of exclusionary thinking – “We never had them before, so I don’t see why we should have them now – it will only lead to waste and will be too unsafe with all of them bullets flying around.”

    Hopefully someone will be able to get through to these guys, but I think our fight will continue at least until we get a few more foreward thinking people to replace these guys on the Commission.

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