I see the question asked all the time. Why not use a semi automatic rifle for long range shooting? It would make a great competition gun, right? Yes and No. Maybe you’ve heard the other side of the argument? You know, the one that says semi automatic rifles can never be as accurate as bolt action rifles. Like all myths, there are elements of those surrounding the use of semi automatic rifles for long range shooting that are factually correct. There are also elements of the same notions that are just ridiculous and not true. We’re going to examine both sides and let you, the reader, make the call for yourself.
Semi Automatic Rifles in Long Range Shooting
We like to start articles like this by defining exactly what we’re talking about. For the purposes of this article we’re going to refer to a Semi Automatic Rifle (SAR) as a large DPMS or Armalite pattern rifle often referred to as an AR10. Basically, its a scaled up AR15 firing larger 308 family cartridges. While 308 SARs are popular, we’re seeing a lot of them these days put together with ballistically superior calibers like 260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, and 6mm Creedmoor. This helps get the better ballistics out of the same package.
Myths of SARs for Long Range Shooting
I’ve heard it many times, I’m sure we all have. “A semi automatic rifle will never be as accurate as a bolt action rifle.” Well, in the old days maybe that was true. In modern times of computer controlled CNC machines that produce receiver sets to very precise tolerances and gunsmiths that know how to put the packages together, that just isn’t true. The rifle I built in 6.5 Creedmoor pictured at the top of the article shot half minute or better at 100 yards with factory produced Copper Creek Ammunition while the barrel was still brand new and picking up speed. We reviewed that ammunition and you can read that review here.
The barrel picked up a good 200fps since the review of the Copper Creek Ammo. Having burned up the ammo from the guys at Copper Creek I developed a hand load using 123gr Lapua Scenars which has proven equally accurate and capable in a number of matches. Frankly, the gun shoots better than I do and that leads me to discussion of the whole ‘gas guns can’t be as accurate as bolt guns’ argument. That really isn’t true. SARs can absolutely be as accurate as a well put together bolt action rifle. However, it is not as easy to achieve that high level of accuracy with the SAR.
Long Range Shooting with an SAR, issues?
What makes an SAR harder to shoot to the same level as a bolt gun? Mainly it has to do with the moving parts of the rifle. With a bolt action rifle when you fire the rifle you have a single recoil impulse to deal with. You feel the first and only push against your shoulder as you execute proper follow through. With a SAR when you fire the rifle, you are dealing with a minimum of three different recoil phases.
You feel the initial push as the bullet races down the barrel just like a bolt action rifle. You will receive an additional push as the buffer compresses the buffer spring either bottoming out in the buffer tube or reaching the point where the spring halts the rearward movement of the buffer and bolt carrier. You then will actually have some forward movement of the rifle as the the buffer spring extends and snaps the buffer and bolt carrier group back forward and into battery. To put it mildly, there’s a lot going on because the gun is doing the work the shooter has to do with a bolt action rifle. It’s extracting and ejecting spent cartridges and loading the next round up.
It is mainly the follow through fundamental that is so critical to achieving the accuracy potential of an SAR. If you are lax on your follow through as it moves through the different phases of the complicated recoil impulse the gun will start exploiting any weaknesses of the shooter. You see it with the gun moving off target. That makes it difficult to keep the gun’s point of aim the same on subsequent shots. There is another issue that seems to be cropping up with large frame SARs in higher pressure calibers like 260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6mm Creedmoor, etc.
The issue is the larger SARs can really start beating up on brass. The extra pressure translates to a harshly cycling gun. There are products that can be used to tame the pressure and alter the timing of the cycle. When I first put my 6.5 Creedmoor together it was ejecting brass with such force that I was getting brass rubbed off on the case deflector. Then the spent cases were landing 6-8 feet to the 2 O’Clock of the ejection port. Additionally, the gun was cycling too quickly. The bolt would start to unlock while the case was still under pressure. As the bolt unlocked the ejector would take half moon shaped chips out of the case head. Since the bolt had unlocked and started to open the case head was no longer supported. This leads to prematurely loosening of the primer pockets.
Since somebody is bound to ask about the load itself, I’ll explain briefly. The only signs of pressure are related to the fast cycling of the rifle. I’m not getting the ejector gouges in the typical round stamp, its more of a half moon gouge from the bolt unlocking while the case is under pressure. Additionally the primers themselves are round as normal without any flattening. The gouges didn’t get any better or worse during load development and I ran it up to and even a little past maximum in small increments. The gouges were present at even the lowest beginning charges. It is a timing issue, not a pressure issue. My final load wound up being most accurate almost a full grain below maximum.
Frankly, the SARs seem to be much more pressure and timing sensitive with the better ballistic calibers. Most of the top gunsmiths recommend you not even run a 140gr projectile in the 260s and 6.5 Creedmoor rifles. The 130gr and under projectiles do almost as well ballistically and with much less in the way of pressure and timing problems. Its pretty well documented and if you aren’t familiar with it just do some Google work and I’m sure you can find it.
Upsides to SARs for Long Range Shooting
What about the upsides? It can’t all be bad, right? There are some definite upsides to using an SAR for long range shooting. For starters, there’s magazine capacity. Finding 10rd, 20rd, or even 25rd magazines now is easy and reliable with Magpul’s offerings. There’s something to be said for not having to reload the gun on a complicated stage at a long range shooting match even if you are having a bad day and wind up running the maximum round count.
The modular nature of the SAR platform is a definite advantage. There are countless options from stocks, to grips, to handguards and other accessories. The sky is the limit and you can customize the unholy hell out of an SAR based on the AR10 platform. It also makes bigger jobs like a barrel change easier. Instead of having to mail the gun off if you have the right tools you can swap a barrel out yourself. Or, if you have the extra money, you can build another upper receiver in a different caliber and swap uppers just like with an AR15. Whatever your heart desires, there’s a part for that.
Some shooters will say you can shoot faster with a SAR than when using a bolt action rifle. I’m not sure that’s true. Certainly you can get rounds fired faster but whether you can fire accurately faster is a bit debatable. In my experience, the speed for accurate fire is roughly the same with a possible slight edge in favor of the SAR. However, we already discussed the issues with follow through and recoil effects as they relate to accurate fire using an SAR. The advantage in speed comes from the fact that you don’t have to break your grip to run a bolt. There’s no time penalty while you get your hand back on the grip and your trigger finger re-indexed on the trigger. However, since you have to break your grip to dial adjustments even this can be argued as not much of an advantage.
Mounting points for accessories are plentiful on SARs. So if you need a spot to mount a sling attachment, or a light for a night stage, optics, barricade pads, whatever you might need to mount on the gun, the SAR has a way to mount it. Some stocks and chassis options for bolt action rifles offer similar amenities but the bolt action rifle definitely lacks the modular nature of the SAR.
So we talked about a number of disadvantages, and a short list of potential advantages of a semi automatic rifle when compared to a bolt action rifle for the purpose of long range shooting. At the end of the day we have two different rifle configurations with a lot of similarities and not that many significant differences. What this really boils down to is personal preference. Which option are you comfortable with and which option do you enjoy shooting? If you are a serious competitor looking for every edge you can get the semi automatic rifle may not make sense for the kind of long range shooting you do. On the other hand higher capacity and rate of fire can be advantageous on a battlefield.
You really just have to evaluate the long range shooting task you plan to undertake and then decide which rifle configuration makes sense for what you want to accomplish. If you need every edge in precision, maybe the bolt gun is the way to go. If you plan to be engaging multiple targets under time from awkward positions the semi automatic rifle may make sense. Evaluate the task and assess any weaknesses you have when trying to determine what you hope to gain from either platform. Semi automatic rifles are a lot of fun and when given a realistic set of expectations can perform at a very high level.