AR vs. Bolt Rifle: What's the Difference?
If you're new to the sports of shooting and hunting, you've probably found yourself staring dumbfounded at the vast array of guns lining the walls of your local gun shop — wood-stocked long guns, carbon-fiber ARs and lever-action rifles that look straight out of a Western movie. The options are endless.
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 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.
Over the past decade, it has become common to see AR platform rifles in hunting camps. "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 semiautomatic action, meaning that every time the trigger is pulled, a bullet is launched from the barrel, automatically ejecting the case and feeding another cartridge 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. The most common chambering for the AR platform is the .223 Remington or 5.56 NATO cartridge, but ARs can be found in many calibers ranging from .22LR and .17 HMR to .308 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor.
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. The AR is arguably the most modular firearm found today, and everything on the rifle can be swapped for a part the best fits your needs.
Replace the stock trigger, add an adjustable gas block, upgrade to ambidextrous controls 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. Numerous 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 the .22LR 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 can't go wrong with either. I've hunted bears in the backcountry with bolt-action rifles 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.