A Bolt-Action Solution to Semi-Auto Problems

by Tommy Grant

Pennsylvania is one the largest hunting states in the country, but it also has some of the most conservative game laws. While it’s been gradually improving over recent years, one prohibition that still stands is that you can’t use semi-automatic rifles to hunt big game with. Until recently you couldn’t use semis to hunt with at all, but in 2017 the Pennsylvania State Game Commission finally authorized semi-automatic rimfires for small-game hunting and centerfires for furbearer (coyote, fox, and raccoon) hunting. That was big news for PA residents, but it still meant that we couldn’t use our AR-platform rifles for deer or bear hunts. Well, that’s changed with the recent approval of the Kali Key conversion for big-game hunting. 

What is the Kali Key Conversion?

So does this mean we can dust off any AR we own and head to the woods now? Not exactly. Pennsylvania hasn’t lifted their semi-auto restriction, but the Kali Key allows you to use your rifle by turning it into a bolt action. Yep, you read that right. The Kali Key is a straight-pull, bolt-action conversion for the AR-15 and AR-10 platform rifle. 

The Kali Key consists of a new charging handle that works with a modified AR bolt carrier that prevents semi-automatic fire. It does this by replacing the gas key with a new key that diverts the gas out the ejection port. So rather than cycling the bolt when you fire, the gas harmlessly exits the ejection port, and the bolt does not cycle. 

To fire again you have to pull back on the charging handle, which will eject the spent round. When you release the charging handle, the buffer spring will pull the bold carrier forward, stripping the next round from the magazine and chambering it. It turns your semi-automatic rifle into a manually-operated, straight-pull rifle with a quick swap of the Bolt Carrier Group (BCG) and charging handle. 

Drop-In Solution

The Kali Key is literally a drop-in kit that only takes seconds to swap out. When you buy a Kali Key, it comes with a charging handle in one of two sizes (more on that shortly) and a replacement gas key and screws. You can either modify your existing bolt carrier by swapping out the gas key with the Kali Key gas diverter, or you can buy a spare bolt carrier group without a key installed, either from Kali Key or form your favorite parts supplier, and convert a second bolt.

In the case of PA residents, I’d suggest a second bolt carrier since that allows you to quickly convert your gun for hunting, and then swap right back to a semi-auto BCG for sport of defense shooting when you get home. Game laws being what they are, I would suggest leaving your semi-auto carrier at home so there’s no question that you’re hunting with a straight-pull conversion.

Speaking of that, how will a game warden know your AR is converted if he sees you hunting in the field? Aside from the large, extended charging handle wings, the Kali Key is marked on the rear of the charging handle, and when you pull the bolt back the top of the charging handle is clearly marked with “Kali Key Bolt Action.” The Game Commission has assured Kali Key that they’re educating their game wardens about the system so that they’ll know what to look for.

Running the charging handle with the Kali Key conversion.

Another Type of Compliance

While that’s good news for folk in PA that want to hunt with their AR’s, that isn’t why the Kali Key came about. As the name implies, the Kali Key started out in California, and that’s where they’re still made today. They were made to allow you to comply with onerous and unconstitutional gun bans with as little alteration to your property as possible. 

Sure, you can do a funky, featureless build, or fixed magazine, that greatly affects the ergonomics and function of your rifle to comply, or you could just swap out the bolt. By swapping the bolt you’ve turned your gun into a bolt-action rifle, which is no longer affected by most bans. I’m not a lawyer, and neither are the folks at Kali Key, but they have gotten legal opinions on their conversion system regarding the legality of the system in the various ban-afflicted areas. In most cases the ban wording starts with something to the effect of “a semi-automatic weapon with the following features.” By turning your rifle into a bolt action, you don’t need to keep reading any further. 

Kali Key on an AR-15.

Intricacies of Gun Laws

For compliance in most states you need to use red Loctite or a similar thread locker to permanently convert your bolt carrier to the Kali Key configuration. This prevents readily converting it back to a semi-auto carrier. So what if you have a spare carrier? That depends. I’m sure in some jurisdictions, the possession of a semi-auto carrier, even uninstalled in a rifle, could construe constructive possession. Anyone looking to use a Kali Key as a work around a semi-auto ban should look at the exact wording of local laws. Make sure you understand laws regarding your old semi-auto BCG.

Aside from the fact that the Kali Key is an extremely easy conversion to do, it also is just as easy to swap back. If you move out from behind enemy lines to a free state, a new BCG and charging handle and you can switch right back to semi auto. Or, if you travel out of state to attend a school or class where you can legally use a semi auto, you could travel through your ban area with the Kali Key installed and swap out back to semi once you get there. Going home, just reverse the process. 

Oversized charging handle with the Kali Key.

Installation and Operation

For testing I got an oversized Ergo charging handle as well as a Lo-Pro low profile one, and a BCG from Kali Key. Installing the Kali Key onto the bolt carrier only takes a few minutes. I used red Loctite and a torque driver to tighten the key bolts down to the recommended torque. Then I allowed the Loctite to dry overnight before hitting the range the following day.

I brought two rifles along for testing, a .350 Legend AR that I built last fall and a factory Springfield Armory Saint in 5.56. Swapping bolts was as easy as field stripping your AR for cleaning. Just slide the charging handle onto your Kali Key-equipped bolt and slide the whole thing into your upper as one unit. Being that I have an optic mounted on the .350, I installed the larger Ergo charging handle to clear the scope. 

Operation is simple and intuitive. Insert a magazine and pull back on the charging handle and let it go to chamber a round, just like you’d do with a semi-auto AR. At this point you can apply the safety as normal if you aren’t ready to fire. Once on target, move your selector one click from safe to semi and engage your target. Pull back on the charging handle, ejecting the round, to fire again. Then release the charging handle, allowing pickup of the next round from the magazine, chambering the round. Repeat until the magazine is empty or you target is down. 

The Kali Key converts your AR to a bolt-action system.

On the Gun

I found the system easy to use and had no issue cycling the rifle from the shoulder. It’s not semi auto, but you can still fire pretty quickly, especially since the buffer spring kicks the bolt forward between shots. The .350 was actually kind of fun to shoot as a straight pull. I’d be quite comfortable using it for hunting now that we can actually do so in PA.

Next, I swapped out the Kali BCG to the Springfield and switched to the Lo-Pro charging handle. The low-profile charging handle is still a bit more extended than a GI charging handle, but is much smaller than the Ergo. It doesn’t look out of place on an AR, and it’s a good choice if you want to keep your AR looking fairly normal. The one thing I did notice though is that the Ergo definitely gives you more leverage for cycling the rifle. If I lived in an area where I had to permanently convert my rifles for compliance purposes, I might consider the Lo-Pro for leaving in the gun for looks and casual shooting, but if I was going to do any extended shooting I’d opt for the larger Ergo charging handle.

Is it Worth it?

Obviously, only you can say what’s worth doing to your rifle. For me though, I found the Kali Key to be a great solution to the hunting issue in my state, and it’s most likely the way I’ll go if my legislature does ram through a semi-auto ban at some point. The Kali Key comprises an easy conversion, one easy to swap back if I move or should legislators strike down the ban. The Key’s cost $102.95 for either the Ergo or Lo-Pro with the replacement gas key, or you can get a kit with charging handle, Kali Key, and BCG for $212.95. A BCG without key is $120.95. AR-10 models are slightly more.

With the ease of conversion, and simplicity of use, I think that’s a pretty reasonable price to be able to keep your personal property and continue to use it, even in the face of abhorrent laws or, in my case, restrictive hunting regulations. 

For more info, visit kalikey.com.

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