A recent discussion on Jesse’s Hunting and Outdoors forums got me thinking about this topic, and I remembered I’d started writing this quite some time ago. With little else going on (even the Lead Ban stuff is slow right now), I figured why not dust it off and finish it up?
- John Browning’s BAR design really set the standard for semi-automatic hunting rifles.
I’ll preface this with the acknowledgement that I’m not a big fan of semi-autos for hunting (I have enjoyed plinking with both semi and full-auto firearms, they’re a kick in the britches to shoot). I own a couple, and use them from time to time, but I much prefer my bolt and lever-action rifles. That said, I don’t have issues with someone else using them, as long as they’re used safely.
Semi-automatic rifles offer one really obvious benefit to the hog hunter, so I’ll start with that… rapid follow-up shots.
Hogs are tough critters, and they can absorb a marginal hit from even a large-bore rifle with nominal obvious or immediate effects. In the thick habitat where they are often found, getting an anchoring shot into a wounded pig can mean the difference between a lost animal and bringing home the bacon. You’ve got to knock them down before they get into the brush, drop into a deep canyon, or disappear into a swamp.
- The gas-operated semi-autos, like the Benelli R1, gentle the recoil of centerfire rounds and allow the hunter to get back on target quickly for follow-up shots.
With a bolt action, single-shot, or even a levergun, loading that second round almost always requires the hunter to lose the sight picture, and then reacquire the target before shooting. A semi-auto shortens that process, and while a big-game caliber will usually require some recovery time, the skilled hunter can be back on target and firing quickly.
The quick recovery time and rapid follow-up shot is also useful when hunting driven game. This is one reason you’ll find semi-autos so popular in the South, where running deer with hounds is still a widespread practice. It’s much easier to follow-up and adjust your shots on a running animal with the semi-auto than with any manually operated action. (I know that with practice and skill, there are marksmen who claim to be just as fast and accurate with bolt guns and lever-actions… but in reality, most hunters don’t have that level of ability.)
From this, it would seem that the autoloaders have the upper hand. Why isn’t everybody shooting them?
There are two key issues that come up whenever someone mentions hunting with semi-automatic rifles… accuracy and reliability. While both of these are primarily problems of perception as much as they are real issues, they bear some discussion.
The standard argument about the accuracy, or lack thereof, in autoloaders stems from the fact that the bolt doesn’t truly “lock”, as it does with a quality bolt action. Theoretically, this allows some play and inconsistency when the round is seated in the action, which translates to less consistent accuracy from the rifle. I say, “theoretically” because this is an area where I have to rely on the gunsmiths and engineers for technical expertise. My practical experience hasn’t been so conclusive.
I own two semi-autos, a Remington 742 in 30-06, and a Browning BAR in .308win. When it comes to accuracy, I have to admit I have issues with the Remington. With the ammo it likes the best, I’m generally happy to see a two-inch group at the bench. Certainly, that’s good enough for big game hunting at reasonable ranges (out to around 200 yards or so), but that doesn’t instill much confidence in the gun when I have bolt actions that will shoot groups a quarter that size.
On the other hand, my BAR will give me groups I can cover with a half-dollar with cheap, milsurp ammo. With quality ammo, like the ETips, it prints even tighter. That’s on par with most bolt-actions. I’ve shot other semi-autos from various manufacturers that run the gamut on accuracy, from laser-like to shotgun spreads.
Reliability is a very real concern. When you’re hunting with a firearm, one thing you absolutely count on is for the gun to go “bang” when you pull the trigger. This can be a big deal when you’re after something that might turn around and come after you, like wild boar. While hogs hardly qualify as “dangerous game” on the scale of Cape Buffalo or lion, you don’t want one to get a hold of you either. A working rifle can help you avoid that eventuality.
- Most semi-auto hunting rifles, like Remington’s new 750 (a redesign of the 740) are gas operated. The gas vents must be clean for the rifle to operate properly.
The semi-auto action is driven by the gases generated at the shot. In order to push the bolt, the gas has to flow through narrow valves. If these valves are occluded by powder residue, oil, or other foreign materials, the gases will not generate enough pressure to work the bolt, and the rifle will jam. Some semi-automatic rifles are notoriously sensitive to this problem, while others may function flawlessly for a lifetime. Again, referring to my personal experiences, my Remington is very finicky and requires regular maintenance to avoid jams, while the Browning seems to be nearly military-grade in the abuse it will tolerate.
Of course, different hunters have reported different experiences, and I don’t presume to speak for every autoloader in the field. A lot of folks swear by their semi-automatics, and I’m certainly not in a position to cast aspersion.
With that in mind, what are some good semi-auto options for hog hunters?
- Browning BAR – I list this one first because of the semi-autos I’ve personally hunted with and shot at the range, this is my favorite. The BAR comes in a wide variety of chamberings from the diminutive .242 to the elk hunters’ favorite, .338 Win Mag. They’re consistently accurate and reliable, with a long-standing reputation. While I like my .308, if I were shopping for a hog rifle, I’d suggest something in .30-06 or .300 Win Mag.
- Remington 74 (740, 742, 7400, and new 750)– I’ve listed this one second due to its popularity, particularly with east-coast hunters. It’s available in all major big-game chamberings. In addition to the .30-06, you can get this rifle chambered for .35 Whelen, which is a fun load for moderate-range hogs. The new Model 750 addresses some of the reliability and accuracy complaints with a redesigned gas system and bolt assembly.
- Benelli R1 – A relative newcomer, the Benelli looks to be a real contender in the semi-auto market. I’ve only used this one at the range, but it is fast and reasonably accurate. The gas-operation really softens the recoil. I could see where an R1, chambered in .300 Win Mag would be a great addition to the hog hunter’s arsenal.
- Bushmaster 450 – A few years ago, there was this huge uproar in the shooting and hunting communities regarding the so-called “Black Rifles”, which pretty much includes anything based on the military rifle platforms like the AK-47 or AR-15. The controversy, which should have amounted to a tempest in a teacup, swirled as many hunters declared that the “black rifles” had no place in the field, but it didn’t erupt into full flame until hunting writer, Jim Zumbo, put that opinion in writing on his blog. I won’t catalog the whole, sordid tale here now, but out of the furor came whole slew of hunting rifles based on the AR-15 platform. Most of these were varmint and predator guns, chambered in their native, military caliber, 5.56 (.223), and as such, were regarded by many hunters, including myself, as too light for serious big game hunting. The manufacturers addressed this concern in short order, developing AR actions chambered in calibers from .308 Win to .50 Beowulf. Bushmaster found an even better approach, working with Hornady to create the Bushmaster .450. This is a serious thumper, throwing a 250 grain bullet at 2200 fps. For moderate range (200 yards or less), this ought to be ideal hog medicine.
- Remington R-25 – Remington’s attempt to capitalize on the recent AR craze, this is actually a pretty nice rifle. It handles well, and in my limited range experience, it was fairly accurate. I’m not real comfortable with the pistol-grip configuration, so it was slow to shoulder, but once I had it on my shoulder, target acquisition was quick and solid. For the hog hunter, good caliber options are limited to .308 Win and 7mm-08. This rifle is also available in .243 Win, but I don’t generally recommend that round for most hog hunters. It works, I’ve used it, but bigger is better when you’ve got the choice and may find yourself shooting at the big boys.
- Several new hunting rifles have taken advantage of the “Black Rifle” craze, chambering AR-styled rifles in solid hunting calibers, such as Remington’s R-25 in .308 Win and Bushmaster’s proprietary .450.
I’ll toss in a mention of a couple of others that come up regularly, the Ruger Mini 30 and the Deerfield Carbine. These rifles are variations on the Ruger Mini-14, a very reliable and well-made semi-auto. However, there are limitations that should be considered. First of all, the Mini 30 is chambered in the relatively puny, 7.62×39. While this bullet generates the energy equivalent of the 30-30 Win, there’s little viable hunting ammunition for this chambering. It will kill a hog if it’s well-placed and close enough (100-150 yards, max), but it’s an unnecessary handicap when there are so many better calibers available.
The Deerfield Carbine is chambered in .44 Rem Mag. While the .44 magnum is an authoritative round in a handgun, it’s not much of a rifle round. Used under the same constraints of a handgun, close range and careful shot placement, it will work just fine. The question is, do you want a rifle that is only useful under handgun conditions? I can see it being handy for the houndsman, or possibly for the treestand hunter, though. The Deerfield is no longer in production, but they can be found on used racks around the country.
Accuracy has generally been reported as an issue with the Ruger semi-autos, and the three I’ve shot (two Mini-30s and a Deerfield Carbine) definitely wouldn’t be winning any marksmanship awards. With iron sights, it was all I could do to keep the .44 in the kill zone at 100 yards (which is a long shot for the .44 anyway). At 50 yards (more reasonable), I was able to hold about a three to four inch cluster. The Mini-30s were a little better at 100 yards, using the back of a truck as a rest, but still spread the bullets a bit randomly.
So the options are out there. Shop carefully, and think hard about what you need versus what you want. I will continue to recommend bolt actions to new, western hunters, but it is good to know that there are some great options out there for the semi-auto hunter as well.