My understanding (possibly wrong) is that the use of semiautomatic hunting rifles is fairly recent. I recently encountered someone online who claimed that in the United States even in the 1970s it was fairly common for semiautomatics to be used in hunting. Is this true?
It will depend on the State. See this article about recent decision in Pennsyllvania against using semiautomatic rifles on big game.– ab2Feb 19, 2018 at 3:09
The first mention I can find of a semi-auto rifle produced in the United States for hunting was the Remington Model 8.
The Remington Model 8 rifle was the first commercially successful semiautomatic rifle offered for civilian sale in the United States
The primary market for the Model 8 was sport hunting.
The first successful semi-auto shotgun was the Browning Auto-5
It was the first successful semi-automatic shotgun design, and remained in production until 1998.
Most A-5s have removable plugs in the magazine which prevent more than three shells from being loaded (two in the magazine, plus one in the chamber) to comply with US federal migratory waterfowl laws, as well as some state hunting regulations.
So as you can see, hunting with semiautomatics has been going on for quite a long time.
Further along in history, after World War 2 there were surplus M1 Garands and M1 Carbines which were semiautomatic and used for hunting.
Then in 1964 Colt started selling AR-15 as sporting rifles (Source) and in 1977 the patent on the gas system expired, allowing more manufacturers to build them.(Source).
In the 1990s companies started taking the carry handle off and instead putting a flat rail on top instead which in turn made it easier to use scopes. (Source)
Today semiautomatics are very popular due to a number of factors.
- Cheap ammunition relatively speaking.
- Lower felt recoil which makes them more pleasant to shoot.
- Lots of customization options.
- The ability to quickly fire a second shot.
All of this to say that while semiautomatics have been used for hunting for quite a while, today's popularity is more a recent thing.