Today’s Ask Josh comes to us from Mike W. who’s a new hunter . . .
Why are the majority of semi-auto hunting rifles chambered for weak rounds or small calibers? I want to go hunting with a magnum rifle, but there are only one or two companies that make a semiautomatic rifle in magnum calibers. Why is this and will that ever change?
Mike is one of many guys out there who bought into the ‘bigger is better’ mantra early on. Mike fell victim to the common trap of the .338 Lapua and his first long range rifle was a factory gun in that caliber. He doesn’t like bolt actions, it turns out, and is less than impressed with anything that doesn’t retain enough energy to kill an elephant from five miles away.
Mike was asking more or less about why there are so few large-caliber modern semiautos in the vein of a 338 Lapua AR. These giants do in fact exist, but are very expensive and are usually a small-run product. Guns like this are marketed to a very specific niche of shooter that really wants these features, and guys like Mike believe that they need a semiauto for fast follow up shots. This isn’t really a reality and I’ll get to that later. There just isn’t much of a difference in speed. It is best to not become a ballistic lost cause in this sense, as there are plenty of classic magnum semiautos that are applicable for hunting, just not at very long distances as their consistency drops off rapidly.
The Magnum Semiauto Today
Today’s magnum semiauto is for the elite few who have both the cash and the time to tune such a monster. NEMO makes a semiauto 300 WM and Alexander Arms has the Ulfberht in 338 Lapua. These guns are priced around $6,000 each and I’ve had the pleasure of firing both of these rifles at various times. They are neither light guns or ideal for hunting.
Mike is unfortunate here in that he is dead set on a 338 Lapua, meaning that his cost will be fairly high to get into the game. He is a bit of a lost cause in that sense as his money is not going to go as far for hunting as he imagines. He explained that in his reasoning it was made for snipers and therefore must be superior. It is and it isn’t, but I’ll get to that.
The thing you get with a .338 Lapua is massive energy at distance. It’s a powder and consumes about 100 grains per round. I like the .338 and will probably end up building one out at some point to take advantage of the bullet selection in the caliber, but I’m an experienced hunter and long range shooter. I wouldn’t really use the .338 set-up in this way as a hunting rifle.
It’s essentially overkill to the extreme when options like 300 PRC offer performance equal to it, but with substantial reductions in cost and recoil. High cost and high recoil make for a longer path to mastery. Despite what people say, a .338 Lapua or any big magnum round is hard to master and can be extremely picky in your ammunition choice.
A .338 Lapua rifle is no more accurate than any other gun. It’s just a popular choice having been developed for snipers.
Again, here is a problem with myth and reality. Hunting is not sniping, and the vast majority of you reading this aren’t snipers. I’m an experienced long range shooter, get paid to do it, and have better equipment than many military snipers do, but I am not a sniper. Not even close.
The function of a sniper in the military isn’t really target shooting and in many cases doesn’t even involve shooting at all. I know a large number of actual snipers and they spend more time spotting and observing than in direct combat.
The idea — the one that Mike W. has latched onto — is that because something is developed for snipers it must be the best. While true in many cases, it doesn’t mean that what makes it better is even close to applicable for a hunter.
You’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re better off with a .338 Lapua rifle over a lever action .44 Magnum for 99% of the hunting you’ll do in North America.
The problem with many people out there in terms of hunting is that they take one extreme to another. Mike isn’t satisfied with his bolt action .338. He wants a semi-auto 338 because apparently that will make his game all that much better.
That is not the case and I seriously doubt that the expense will generate more game in his freezer. I do have to say that guys like Mike probably should not even be hunting in the first place. Guys like Mike worry me and some of them are a danger in the woods to themselves and others. Firing more times with a more powerful gun is not what hunting is about. Match shooting? Sure. The steel isn’t alive.
Magnum Problems Require (non) Magnum Solutions
Moving to a semi-auto magnum rifle for hunting isn’t my recommendation. I have, of course, hunted with semi-autos, but the same problems exist in a magnum semi as the do a magnum bolt gun.
The reason there are so few of these types of rifles out there is that the point of a magnum class cartridge is energy delivery, not necessarily the ability to rapidly fire. The 338 and 300 WM are not the best rounds for semiautos as they are usually made for precision. The cartridges in this case are more accurate than the gun is. In my experience with the NEMO and AA rifles, I was not impressed with the on-target accuracy as compared directly to a bolt action of similar cost.
The weight factor also comes into play here as well. The magnum cartridge, especially the 338 Lapua, is not fun on the shoulder. Most hunting class rifles are light and this makes it worse. The semiautos are heavier and any added weight in the field is a detriment.
These negatives add up to the point where you can pretty plainly see why there are not many products in this category that enjoy as much success as the 700-class short action or rounds like the 6.5 CM. The utility they have is limited to a few or people who just want them for the fun of it.
Follow-Up Shots and Magnum Performance On Game
The thing that I find to be a problem with the magnum guys is that they think fast follow-up shots aren’t possible with a bolt action. This is simply false. Put in some practice time and you’ll soon find that you will only have as many opportunities to shoot a semi-auto as you would with a bolt gun. Aimed fire is usually slow, and the extra recoil and blast will only serve to slow you down, even with a magnum semi-auto.
What do I recommend if you simply must have a semi-auto? I’d probably say get an AR-10 type rifle in .308 or 6.5 Creedmoor. There isn’t much you can’t do with that class of rifle or those calibers and they deliver exceedingly good and reliable performance on game.
Mike claims that his .338 ‘knocks deer over’ but I’ve never seen this to be the case. I’ve seen hundreds of deer shot over the years with everything from handguns and muskets to magnum rifles and there isn’t one single caliber that delivers consistency from kill to kill.
I’ve shot deer that have dropped on the spot with a .45 ACP and deer that ran a half mile on a double-lung shot with 450 Bushmaster nearly point-blank. I’ve shot pigs directly in the head and they got back up missing half a skull.
No matter what anyone tells you, there is no one-and-done way to predict what will happen to any game animal when shot. Going bigger will not alleviate this and will only serve to make it harder to become proficient.
The very narrow band of individuals who can benefit from the energy generated by .338 Lapua aren’t going to use a semi-auto as they will simply not be as accurate and will weigh enough to be a problem, either for recoil or carry weight. I recommend against using such a rifle and stick to something realistic and easy to master.
Most hunting in this country takes place inside 300 yards and in fairly dense cover. There is no game that can’t be taken with a .30-06, .45-70/450 Bushmaster, or 6.5 CM with the right bullets.
In closing, I think that Mike will learn that he will probably want a ‘normal’ caliber rifle after trying to master his current 338. There are plenty of great semiauto magnum rifles out there, but they are too ‘old man’ for some. Mike will probably end up with an AR-10, which I think he will be more happy with in the long run.
This post was incorrectly published with an incomplete draft. Above reflects the correct version with a complete answer.