Shootout: Bolt Vs. Semi

Semi-auto always win, right?
; .

Most of us have come of age with the AR and with modern carbine doctrine teaching the use of the rifle in place of a pistol since it provides a higher hit probability and increased power. This usually includes focus on multiple shots, reloads and other handgun-like manipulations. While this has its place, it’s a dramatic departure from the historical use of the rifle as a powerful weapon capable of delivering a single, dispositive shot. I’ve generally been in the black rifle camp, but a recent trip to Gunsite Academy made me rethink what we really need in a rifle. Hedging my bets, I took two guns, a black gun and a traditional bolt action.


The two .308 rifles Jeremy used at Gunsite could not be further apart:
the PTR91, a semiauto clone of the G3A3 battle rifle (left) and a bolt-action Ruger Scout rifle.

Take Your Pick

The PTR91 and the Ruger Scout Rifle could not be more different. A semiauto clone of the classic G3 battle rifle, the PTR has Trijicon fixed tritium sights, collapsible buttstock and KeyMod mounted flashlight, slung on a Magpul two-point sling. Compare this to the bolt-action Ruger with its wood stock, leather sling and 4x Leupold scope. Only the .308 chambering and 16″ barrels were the same.

Over parts of three days, I shot both guns at paper and on steel, including two rifle courses — the Scrambler, an eight-station timed course with targets ranging from 60 to 100+ yards, and Military Crest, a similar course with steel placed from 200–280 yards. Here’s what I learned.
First rounds hit matter, no matter what you’re doing. If you miss while hunting, don’t expect the animal to stand in the open so you can take a second shot. The same thing applies in self-defense, except the time you spend missing is more time for the other guy to shoot at you. Spoiler alert: he may not miss.

Action type may not be as important as you think. My first run on the Scrambler was with the PTR, the next with the Scout. I did not miss a single shot on either run. Any time under 100 seconds is considered good: I clocked 75 seconds with the semi-auto PTR — and 62 with the bolt-action Scout, nearly two seconds faster per target!


The 16" PTR91 has been modified with a collapsible A3 buttstock, KeyMod
fore end, 900-lumen Crimson Trace light, PWS muzzle device and Trijicon
tritium sights, Magpul sling and an extended cocking handle.

One Shot, One Stop

Unlike the lighter cartridges fired by modern sporting rifles, a single solid hit from a .308 is likely to do what is needed. Transitioning from one target to another —either by pivoting or running to the next station — requires a certain amount of time during which there is often ample time to manually cycle an action. Hit it right and fast and the added speed of a semiauto never comes into play. It is exceedingly rare for a self-defense situation to involve the number of shots or multiple targets competition and training may lead you to believe is normative.


Just like the extended cocking handle on the PTR, the Hornady rubber bolt-ball
on the Scout rifle makes for a much more secure surface to grasp.

Speed Racer

So why was the bolt gun faster? Scopes don’t let you shoot better, they let you see better and make it easier to verify you’re on target. Reducing the aiming process to two focal planes (crosshair and target) instead of three (front sight, rear, target) reduces the time required for the eye to go from target to sight, to sight and back until you know you can break the shot. The scope was just faster.

This doesn’t mean iron sights are inaccurate. With the HK-style diopter and post sight on the PTR, I was shooting around 4″ at 100 yards and was able to make first round hits on several targets on Military Crest, including the first one at 280 yards. I did not, however, get all first round hits as I did with the Scout. Up close and in low light, the tritium Trijicons would definitely have an advantage over the scope. But at any significant distance, glass wins.


An extended cocking handle on the HK91 is a lot easier to run in a hurry.


Beyond the time required for target acquisition, however, was the time required to get into position and get stable. Breath control certainly matters and having a reasonable degree of physical fitness also helps. But the biggest thing I learned about stability involves slings.

Apparently they’re not just for transitions. Either using a hasty sling or a sling loop to essentially strap the upper arm to the forend of the rifle, some well-placed tension makes a tremendous difference in turning a big wobble into a manageable wobble.

Shooting either standing or seated, or even alongside an irregularly shaped rest, the steadying tension of the sling made it possible for me to make hits at ranges I did not previously believe I was capable.

This was true no matter which sling I used. I had added a leather Rhodesian sling to the Scout rifle and carefully adjusted the length of the front loop, and it performed as it was designed to do. The quick adjustable Magpul Dynamics sling on the PTR, while designed more for transitions and CQB, could also quickly create a front loop, which could be used in the same way. However, it often took me a couple tries to get the loop the correct size for the position from which I was shooting.

I also learned the PTR’s collapsible stock in no way affected my accuracy. While a better cheek weld would have been nice, as you lean into the rifle you take up the play inherent in a collapsible or folding stock. There goes another myth.

The black gun has its place, and I still think there are circumstances under which its rate of fire is preferable. But on this summer’s test run, the bolt gun won convincingly.

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