February 22, 2023
In the cult-like world of serious predator hunting, there are certain truths. Yet some are contrary: Small holes in fur are better than big holes; but a big hole in a dead coyote is better than a small hole in a wounded—and escaped—coyote. Verbal wars about the best cartridge and bullet have raged for a century.
Less controversial, but perhaps more important, is your choice of rifle. Are you better served with a bolt action, or a semiauto? Each type has strengths, and each has weaknesses. Which will work best depends largely on the type of hunting you do. Let’s unpack the pros and cons of each, along with some subjective characteristics that can be the deciding factor.
Bolt-Action Predator Rifles
Turn-bolts are the traditional choice. Historically, bolt actions are more accurate than semiautos. When dumping coyotes from 400 yards is required, precision is crucial.
Although there’s a lot of bleedover from varmint rifles, with enormously heavy barrels and bulky stocks, a proper predator rifle will provide stellar accuracy without being so heavy it’s a pain to pack. Get a sleek Browning X-Bolt or Tikka T3x or Ruger American, top it with a not-too-big scope, and you’ll be able to carry it all day and shoot into tomorrow.
Reliability in frigid weather is another strength of the bolt action. Ice in the action? No problem; muscle through it, crushing the ice. Chamber that round and kill that coyote, fox or bobcat. Bolt actions have one other advantage: They’re compatible with just about any and all cartridges. Whether you want a tried-and-true fur-flopper such as the .22-250 or a cutting-edge wildcat like the .20 VarTarg, you can have it.
In the modern world, though, there’s one area where bolt-action predator rifles just can’t keep up with semiautos, and that’s firepower. If you need a fast follow-up shot (or thirty), a semiauto beats the bolt action every time.
It’s not that you can’t achieve quick follow-up shots with a bolt gun, but it’s a process. You’ve got to release your firing-hand grasp; acquire a grip on the bolt handle; function the bolt handle up, rearward, forward and down; reacquire your grip, find the trigger and squeeze.
With a semiauto there’s just one step to getting off another shot: Squeeze.
My personal go-to bolt action for furbearers is a lightweight custom rifle chambered in 6mm Creedmoor. It’s built using a Defiance Anti-X action, a Proof Research barrel and stock and a Timney trigger. I shoot 105-grain Berger factory ammo or handloaded 110-grain Hornady A-Tip bullets in it, and it’s absolutely outstanding for predators at extreme range. It’s hard on fur, but when putting a coyote down with authority is paramount, it’s a sledgehammer.
At the risk of offending all you “other” semiauto rifle owners out there, I’ll stick my neck out and state that only AR-15s qualify as serious predator rifles. Unless, that is, you live in and only hunt big-thicket country where shots past 60 or 70 yards don’t occur. Then, a Ruger Mini-14 or the like can serve.
Why only AR-15s? Because they are the only semiauto rifles that regularly approach bolt-action levels of accuracy. Only ARs have a design that allows the barrel to be effectively free-floated—and that fact makes all the difference. If you’re going to perforate the tobacco-can-sized vitals of a distant fox, you need a rifle that shoots tobacco-can-sized groups at 400 yards. With all due respect to everything else, ARs rule the semiauto accuracy realm.
Sufficient AR snobbery established, let’s consider the real advantage of a semiauto for predator hunting: fast follow-up shots. Absolutely nothing short of napalm (or, if you have an NFA tax stamp, a full-auto firearm) can pour on the fire like an AR. Now, that can be good or bad. I’ve seen hunters blaze away with reckless abandon, no regards to careful shooting, and waste half a 20-round magazine educating a streaking coyote. On the other hand, I’ve seen a deliberate second or third shot dump an old song-dog skulking away—deliberate, but still much faster than even the best bolt-action shooter could achieve.
How about disadvantages? Often overlooked is weight. ARs are made mostly of metal and, as a result, can be surprisingly heavy. They don’t have to be, though. A premium AR-15 with skeletonized and titanium parts can weigh shy of seven pounds. But most are closer to eight. Stack a robust scope in tactical-grade mounts atop it, bolt on a bipod and stick a full 30-round magazine in, and you’ll have a predator rifle that can serve double duty as an admirable boat anchor.
If you want to hunt with an AR, get one that’s intentionally built light. Put a moderate-size scope on it. Low-light performance and fast target acquisition are more important than magnification anyway. Cut back on rounds and use a 10-round polymer magazine. The result will be a sub-eight-pound rifle that you can pack all day, shoot accurately and shoot fast.
Reliability with ARs can be an issue. Most of the modern makers have the historic glitches associated with AR-type rifles worked out. However, snow and ice can still cause them to hiccup. Just be protective of your AR. Keep the moisture and mud out, and it’ll keep running for you.
My last peg against AR-type rifles—and indeed all semiautos—is limited cartridge compatibility. Now, this is largely a thing of the past, since a double handful of very capable AR-perfect coyote cartridges has been introduced in the past decade. You still can’t have a .220 Swift, but you’ve got great cartridges such as the 22 Nosler, .224 Valkyrie and 6mm ARC to pick from.
Plus, of course, there are no knocks against the traditional 5.56/.223 Rem. cartridge for use on predators. And for those serious about collecting fur, the speedy little .204 Ruger works well in AR-15 rifles.
My personal go-to AR for predators is a wonderfully light custom version that I built at home, using components mostly sourced from 2A Armament and Proof Research. Clad in Kuiu Verde camo, it blends well into predator habitat. It’s chambered in 22 Nosler and shoots 50-grain Ballistic Tip bullets into bug-hole groups.
This or That
Which is better—bolt action or semiauto—boils down to how you’re going to use it, and the type of encounters you anticipate. No rifle can cover every potential situation, but both are pretty versatile and the good news is this: Both bolt-action and semiauto rifles have been walloping coyotes effectively for longer than most of us have been alive. Pick whatever appeals to you most.