Semiautos in PA’s woods: A decision explained

Posted on: February 1, 2017 | Bob Frye | Comments

 IMG_0749Semiautomatic rifles, including but not limited to those built on the AR platform, and air rifles could be legal in Pennsylvania’s hunting woods by summer 2017.


You’ve probably heard the news by now: Pennsylvania Game Commissioners on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to allowing hunters to use semiautomatic rifles and air rifles in the woods starting this fall.

In the case of semis, the guns would be legal for all seasons, including those for big game, i.e. deer, bear, elk and fall turkeys.

But have you heard why?

Commissioners explained their decision at their board meeting.

Several said that the safety record of hunters using semiautomatics was a big part of it.

Commissioner Bob Schlemmer of Westmoreland County, for one, admitted he was initially skeptical about allowing semiautomatics in the woods, especially during busy times like deer season.

Hunters commonly use the guns elsewhere, though. Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that, to this day, has not permitted their use on some level.

So commission staff looked at their impact in all of the states surrounding Pennsylvania, said Tom Grohol, director of the bureau of wildlife protection. They also examined their use in states – like Michigan, Wisconsin and others – that pack hunters on the landscape in densities similar to Pennsylvania.

The use of semiautomatics proved to be of no concern anywhere, Grohol said.

“We found no correlation between the way a weapon is loaded and hunting accidents,” added commissioner Tim Layton of Somerset County.

“That really pushed it forward to make my final decision,” Schlemmer said.

Commissioners also considered the word of hunters who suggested “we don’t need it so let’s not do it,” said board member Jim Daley of Butler County.

“But because you don’t absolutely need it – we’ve hunted with repeating firearms forever – is not a reason to prohibit it,” Daley said.

Many hunters – even those using lever-action 30-30s – carry guns now that hold six or more rounds. They can choose to be safe or not, he said.

Allowing them to carry a semiautomatic with the same number of rounds should make no difference in their behavior, Daley noted.

“It’s not the way we load the gun. That’s not what causes accidents,” said commission president Brian Hoover of Delaware County.

Commissioner Charlie Fox of Bradford County said the hang up with some hunters – and non-hunting members of the public — appears to be the the image of AR-style rifles being used. But semiautomatics have been around in various forms for 100 years.

This is a chance for sportsmen to educate those people about how hunters can use any and all firearms safely, he said.

“I think public perception is the greatest hurdle to get over. They have a lot of fears,” Fox said.

“We have to look at this as an educational opportunity.”

Of course, it’s the idea of allowing semiautos in the big game woods that most worried some.

Commissioners had initially suggested months ago that they might allow them only for small game and varmints, namely predators and groundhogs.

Most of the public bought into that.

Daley said that support for allowing the guns to be used for those species was near unanimous. Support for allowing them for big game was what he termed “more diverse.”

Opposition seemed to be demarcated by age, though, said Hoover. The older a hunter was, he said, the more likely they were to oppose the change.

In the end, commissioners decided the safety record of hunters supported just allowing semiautos overall.

“Pennsylvania, our hunters are slow to change, our agency is slow to change. And I think most of us thought, we’ll be slow on this one, too, we’ll do it incrementally,” said commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County.

But realizing that the state was the last to prohibit semiautomatics, for no good reason in terms of safety, changed that thinking, he added.

“I think it became easier as we became educated. It became easier to see that, let’s just do it and be done,” Putnam said.

They did put a “sunset” provision into the regulation change. If they give things final approval later this spring, semiautomatics will be legal from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2020. At that time, the board would have to re-evaluate the rule and decide whether to make use of the guns legal permanently, Layton said.

In the meantime, they’ll continue to promote the idea of an ethical, humane hunt being one that involves “one shot, one kill,” as they always have, Fox said.

“That first shot is the one you’ve got to make count,” said Daley.


The specifics of the rules

Here’s a look at all the details of the proposed rules regarding semiautomatic and air rifles.

And that’s what they are, proposed. Commissioners have to give all this final approval at their next meeting on March 27-28 before it’s official.

They’ll take public comment between now and then, so hunters can still weigh in by writing letters, making phone calls or sending emails to

  • When it comes to semiautomatic rifles – and shotguns – hunters would be permitted to use them for hunting big game, small game and furbearers. They could carry six rounds, one in the chamber and five in a magazine.
  • Legal magazines will be those capable of holding five rounds, too. It wouldn’t be permissible to just put five rounds in a 30-round magazine.
  • Semis for small game hunting must be .22 caliber or smaller rifles firing single-projectile ammunition and shotguns 10 gauge or smaller propelling ammunition not larger than No. 4 lead, No. 2 steel or No. 4 composition or alloy.
  • There is no caliber restriction for semis used for woodchucks or furbearers.
  • In all cases, full metal jacket ammunition will remain illegal for use on big game, said Rich Palmer, deputy executive director of the commission.
  • As for air guns, they would be legal for small game in calibers from .177 to .22 that propel single-projectile pellets or bullets.
  • For woodchucks and furbearers, air-guns must be at least .22 caliber and propel a single-projectile pellet or bullet.
  • In no seasons can BB ammunition be used.
  • In a change from what was originally suggested, nowhere do the rules make any mention of minimum muzzle velocities or foot pounds of energy for air rifles. That’s because those things are too variable to control, said Tom Grohol, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife protection.


Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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