Semiautomatic rifles now OK to use for hunting small game, furbearers
HARRISBURG — Hunters heading afield in the 2017-18 seasons will be able to carry semiautomatic rifles for hunting small game and furbearers — but not for big game — based on regulatory changes approved Tuesday by the state Board of Game Commissioners.
The commissioners in January preliminarily approved a proposal that would have allowed semiautomatic rifles to be used in any season where manually operated centerfire rifles now can be used.
The board has amended that measure, giving final approval to hunting small game and furbearers with semiautomatic rifles beginning in the 2017-18 seasons. It made no changes to the list of lawful sporting arms for hunting big game.
Commissioners said a clear majority of Pennsylvania hunters voiced opposition to hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles at this time, and the board’s vote reflects that opinion.
Between the board’s preliminary vote and the vote last week, Game Commission staff conducted a scientific survey from a random sample of 4,000 of the state’s hunters, more than 2,000 of whom responded. The findings of that survey were presented to the commissioners at the board’s meeting last Monday.
The findings of the survey show clear support for hunting furbearers (55 percent support or strongly support), woodchucks (51 percent support or strongly support) and small game (42 percent support or strongly support, and 12 percent neither support nor oppose) with semiautomatic rifles.
For big game, while 28 percent of survey respondents expressed support or strong support for semiautomatic rifles, 64 percent of respondents said they opposed or strongly opposed semiautomatic rifles for big-game hunting, with 52 percent saying they were strongly opposed.
The results bolstered the expressed opposition to hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles that appeared to a lesser extent in the written comments the Game Commission received in recent months.
“We listened to our hunters,” President Commissioner Brian H. Hoover said.
With the changes, semiautomatic rifles in .22 caliber or less that propel single-projectile ammunition and semiautomatic shotguns 10 gauge or smaller propelling ammunition not larger than No. 4 lead — also No. 2 steel or No. 4 composition or alloy — will be legal firearms for small-game seasons in the 2017-18 license year, which begins July 1.
Semiautomatic firearms that propel single-projectile ammunition also will be legal sporting arms for woodchucks and furbearers, and there is no caliber restriction for woodchucks or furbearers.
The measure also approves the use of air guns for hunting small game and furbearers.
Air-guns will 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. BB ammunition is not authorized for small game, furbearers or woodchucks.
Pennsylvania historically prohibited the use of semiautomatic rifles for hunting, but a law that took effect in November enables the Game Commission to regulate semiautomatic rifles and air guns for hunting.
With last week’s vote, Pennsylvania becomes the last state in the nation to approve semiautomatic rifles for hunting uses.
Following their vote, the commissioners said if growing support for hunting big game with semiautomatic rifles emerges at some point in the future, they will give consideration to further regulatory changes.
Fact-finding by state Game Commission staff revealed no higher incidence of hunting accidents in any state where semiautomatics are permitted, and many firearms experts have said they believe semiautomatics are safer in that they allow for continuous focus on the target and often require the shooter to absorb less recoil.
The survey on hunting with semiautomatic rifles also showed greater support among younger age groups for semiautomatic rifle hunting, including the use of semiautomatic rifles to hunt big game.
But no such provision will be adopted for the 2017-18 license year.