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AR vs. Bolt-Action: What's the Best Deer Rifle?

AR vs. Bolt-Action: What's the Best Deer Rifle?

Even though the AR platform is over 50 years old, you don't have to be a market analyst to realize there's been a major uptick in sales and manufacturing for these rifles in the civilian market over the last decade.

To say that ARs have risen in popularity would be a serious understatement. That popularity has prompted manufacturers to build an AR to suit the needs of just about every shooter, including law enforcement professionals, long-range shooters, 3 gun competitors and hunters.

Today, ARs and the various accessories that can be clipped, hung, snapped or screwed to them make up a major chunk of the shooting market. But the AR platform also owns a sizable — and growing — portion of the hunting market.


Until the rise in popularity of sporting ARs, the undisputed champion of American hunting rifles was the bolt-action — a simple, reliable and highly accurate platform which dominated hunting gun sales. Bolt guns are relatively cheap, easy to use and widely available, so their popularity makes a lot of sense.


Bolt-actions are still the most common hunting rifle platform today, though it remains to be seen if the rise in popularity of ARs will also dominate more of the hunting market. Each platform has tremendous upside, so it's not always easy to determine which one best suits your needs.

If you're in the market for a new deer rifle, it's worth looking at both types of rifles before you make your next purchase. Here's a quick rundown of how bolt guns and ARs compare in a side-by-side matchup.

Brush Country Hunting

Advantage: AR

On a cull hunt in Texas last year, I hunted whitetails in the thorn scrub of south Texas with both an AR and a bolt gun. The ARs were equipped with Trijicon ACOGs, an extremely fast and durable optic, and the bolt guns had large-power scopes. In brush country there was no comparison between the two, because the AR offered a shorter package (I shortened the telescoping stock and carried the rifle against my shoulder because the shots were fast and close), faster follow-up shots, and it was much better for running shots.

Carrying a long-barreled bolt gun like my .300 Win Mag with a 25-inch pipe would have been about as practical as carrying a telephone pole through the brush, but the AR was perfect. That was also hog country, and at any time we could find ourselves in a sounder of pigs. We did that once or twice, and the AR was perfect.

Mountain Hunting

Advantage: Bolt-Action

If you deer hunt in steep terrain, bolt guns are the answer. Why? They're lighter. At the last SHOT Show I picked up Kimber's sub-5-pound Adirondack, which has an 18-inch barrel and is chambered for the 7mm-08 Remington, one of the best deer rounds on the market. There are a number of very light deer rifles, and a lighter gun means you can get farther off the beaten path.

I'm not just talking about the Mountain West here, either. Kentucky, for example, has some public land in and around the Daniel Boone National Forest that is superb whitetail country, but all the dumb deer are dead and the big ones are found deep in the most remote forests far from roads. If you're serious about taking one of the big bucks that roam that country, you're going to have to get away from the crowds. On a hunt like that you likely won't need the magazine capacity that an AR offers, so bolt guns aren't at a disadvantage.

Price

Advantage: Bolt-Action

While AR manufacturers wowed the shooting public with new add-ons and platform variants, the bolt-action market has been going in a different direction. Today's bolt-actions are lighter, cheaper, and more accurate than before. Once upon a time there was no guarantee when you bought a rifle that it would shoot well, and even some expensive guns produced mediocre results.

That's not the case anymore. Today there are several bolt guns like the Remington 783, The Savage Axis, the Ruger American and the Thompson/Center Venture that are considered 'budget guns," yet are more accurate than many premium production rifles in years past.

Weatherby even guarantees sub-MOA accuracy from their cheapest rifle, the Vanguard 2, and any of these rifles will have triggers that are very light and crisp. Both Ruger and Weatherby offer rifle packages that include a quality scope mounted and bore sighted for under a grand, and after a half-day of sighting in at the range you'll be able to make accurate shots on big game out to 200, 300, or even 400 yards. Even the most basic AR with a scope will likely cost you more than that, and that's before you begin adding accessories.

Versatility

Advantage: AR

For those who are unfamiliar with the AR platform, the rifle is comprised of an upper and lower receiver. With AR rifles you have the option of switching uppers to change the caliber and layout of your rifle. If you want to change from a predator rifle to a deer rifle, then back to a competition rifle, you can do so. This offers a lot of versatility in one gun.

In addition, it's also easy to change calibers with an AR platform, so you can swap uppers to change from a brush-country deer and hog .308 with a reflex sight to a coyote-thumping .243 with a big, powerful scope. That kind of versatility is extremely valuable, even if you plan to hunt deer — and only deer — with your rifle.

Accessories

Advantage: ARs

There's no question as to which of these guns is easier to accessorize. Sure, you can put a new scope on your bolt gun or slap on a new stock, but that pales in comparison to the many ways you can trick out an AR. Depending on how many rails you have, ARs can be outfitted with a wide assortment of add-ons, like flashlights, lasers, vertical grips, sling mounts, and a host of other items.

If you want you can make your AR look like you've emptied the contents of your tool box and slapped all the pieces onto your deer hunting rifle. But these accessories aren't all for looks; a well-designed AR will have everything you need on hand, and ready to use at the touch of a button. On a night hog hunt in Texas with Crimson Trace and Smith and Wesson my M&P10 rifle carried everything I needed.

I had a Leupold scope for daytime hunting, and when darkness fell the Crimson Trace vertical foregrip produced an infrared beam that worked with our night vision goggles. In addition, the rifle had a set of auxiliary flip-up sights and a flashlight that I could turn on with the touch of a button. You won't need all of that for deer hunting, but it's nice to know you have options.

Dual Purpose Rifle

Advantage: AR

A lot of hunters tell me that they're looking for a cheap deer gun. I steer them toward a bolt gun because they're cheap to own and simple to operate. But for hunters that tell me they are looking for a deer rifle that doubles as a varmint gun, I steer toward an AR. Why? Well, I think the AR offers several advantages for the varmint hunter and yet works extremely well for deer. For one, ARs offer a fast follow-up shot and it's easy to stay on-target while firing.

On a recent hunt we had the opportunity to shoot Remington's R-25 in .243, and there were plenty of deer and coyotes on that ranch. It was light, accurate, and easy to carry all day while deer hunting, but when you switched to a coyote setup the R-25 allowed for super-fast follow-up shots, and if two dogs came into a call you had a chance to drop them both.

There were also hogs on that hunt as well, and there was usually more than one. That's a lot of different game, but the R-25 worked perfectly. In addition, ARs offer plenty of accessories for different types of hunts, so your deer gun can double as a predator rifle and vice versa.

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