So, what’s the difference between these guns? It’s quite simple and, depending on your intended use, you may find one option better suited to your uses than the other. Here are the most important differences between the two most popular rifle styles: AR and bolt action.
All About the AR
An AR rifle, or “modern sporting rifle,” is not just for the military or law enforcement. In fact, over the past decade, ARs have become a very popular firearm choice for hunting and target shooting. A lot of false information has created confusion on just what an AR rifle actually is and does, so it’s important to understand the platform.
“AR” does not stand for “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” In fact, the “AR”, as in AR-15, stands for “ArmaLite rifle,” with the name being adopted from the company that first developed this style of rifle in the 1950s. In reality, “assault rifles” are fully automatic (imagine a machine gun), and automatic firearms have been heavily restricted to civilians since 1934.
ARs use what is called a “semiauto action,” meaning that every time the trigger is pulled, a bullet is launched from the barrel, the case is automatically ejected, and another cartridge is immediately fed from the magazine into the firing chamber. Before another bullet can be fired, however, the trigger must be pulled again, and so the process is repeated.
The AR is versatile and exceptionally accurate. ARs consist of two main components commonly referred to as “upper” and “lower” receivers. The upper receiver of an AR is comprised of the barrel, chamber and handguard. This can easily be swapped for other uppers to chamber your rifle to different calibers by simply popping two pins. Chamberings for the AR platform include .22, .223 (5.56x45mm), 6.8 SPC, .308, .450 Bushmaster, and more.
The upper receiver is where the operating system of the gun is located. ARs can consist of two different operating systems: gas impingement and gas piston. With a gas impingement system, gas is diverted from the barrel through a tube and back into the upper receiver to operate the action. With a gas-piston operating system, gas is funneled from the barrel to drive a piston that works like the action.
The lower receiver consists of the buttstock and grip. These also can be changed to fit your needs. Not happy with your short stock? Looking for a grip with more traction? No problem. Swap them for a Blackhawk Knoxx Replacement Adjustable Carbine Rifle Buttstock, a Blackhawk AR-15 Ergonomic Grip, or a host of other accessories.
Along with those easy changes you can make, the AR can easily be tailored to individual shooters. Almost all of the components of an AR can be swapped out. Replace the stock trigger, buy a different gas block, add a Blackhawk offset flashlight rail mount or a Picatinny rail to mount a Blackhawk SPR Optics Mount for a scope, or simply change the handguard to fit your liking. The options are endless.
Bolt Gun Basics
Unlike the AR, which uses gases and a lot of moving parts to operate, a bolt gun has a much simpler design.
The traditional bolt gun uses a bolt-action system to fire. Unlike semiauto actions, where the cartridge automatically ejects when fired and then a new round is fed into the chamber, bolt guns require you to manually open the bolt, which ejects the cartridge. You then push the bolt forward, which drives the new round from the magazine into the firing chamber. This process must be repeated each time before firing a new round. Because bolt guns have fewer moving mechanical parts and don’t require the use of gases to make the gun work, bolt guns are commonly believed to be more reliable than ARs.
Unlike ARs, not as many components of a bolt gun can be swapped or added to the rifle. Commonly made with wood, laminate, and composite stocks, bolt-action rifles do allow some customization, including replaceable stocks, triggers, and scope mounts.
Additionally, bolt-action rifles can be chambered in dozens of different calibers. The 16/116 Savage Lightweight Hunter bolt-action rifle, for example, is available in .223 Rem., .243 Win., .270 Win., .308 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor, and 7mm-08 Rem. Numerous other calibers are available for bolt-action rifles for use on big game that range in size from deer to elk including .30-06, .300 Win. Mag., and .338 Win. Mag., all the way down to small game such as squirrels or coyotes with rounds including .22 or .17 Hornet.
Which One is For You?
Between the modularity of the AR, which allows you to customize it to your preferences, and the reliability of a bolt-action rifle, you really can’t go wrong with either. I’ve hunted bears in the backcountry while carrying the Lightweight Hunter chambered in .270 and walked away with a beautiful black bear shot at 230 yards. My friend and fellow bear hunter, David Faubion, carried an AR on the same hunt, and he walked away with an old sow. Both guns performed as promised, and I came to one conclusion: You can’t go wrong by buying one of each.