Versatile and readily available in multiple action types, the classic .308 combines reasonable bullet diameter, weight, and velocity with a manageable recoil. Lower right, a popular .30-06 round (l) adjacent to a .308 (green tip). Photos courtesy of Ron Spomer
New love for the neglected .308 Winchester rifle
By Ron Spomer
When Ye Olde Managing Editor assigned me this topic and title, I flashed to a video I did called “The Rise and Fall of the .308 Winchester.” Boy, did I get a lifetime supply of static for that one. According to .308 Winchester fans, this short-action 30-caliber has not fallen and is certainly not forgotten. Except … sorta kinda.
The “Fallen” part of my video referred to the popular .308 cartridge having fallen in sales behind the 6.5 Creedmoor a few years ago. The “Forgotten” part of this column refers to all the new hunters forgetting about the stodgy, old .308 Winchester while drooling over not just the 6.5 Creedmoor, but also the 6.5 PRC, 6.5-300 Wby., 280 AI, 28 Nosler, 35 Legend, and a host of additional hot new options.
To that, this old hunter offers this: Don’t be fooled!
Forgetting the .308 Winchester is like forgetting the .270 Winchester, the .30-06, the .243 Winchester, the 7mm Remington Magnum, the .30-30 Winchester, and several other antiquated yet proved-deadly centerfire hunting cartridges.
Like us old geezers who look weak and wobbly yet drag home some coyotes every winter – and other big game on out-of-state hunts – those old cartridges still produce. And the .308 may be the most versatile of the bunch.
Also known as the 7.62 NATO, the .308 Winchester sprang from the mid-20th century search for a new military cartridge to replace the bigger .30-06. We wanted less bulk, less recoil, more efficiency. Engineers started with the .300 Savage, then tweaked that idea by shortening the .30-06 case. While they tinkered and dithered, Winchester, seeing the marketability of the “.30-06 Short,” christened the experimental cartridge .308 Winchester and released it to a largely disinterested public in 1952. Everyone had a .30-06 or .30-30 or something suitable for deer. Why bother with a short .30-06? But then NATO adopted the round in 1954 and, as military rifles and service began exposing more and more soldiers to the .308, it caught on. Especially at target ranges. After its service in Korea, it really picked up steam. By the 1960s, it was setting all kinds or accuracy records. In the deer woods, it was killing bucks and bears as well as anything, better than some.
That difference isn’t much.
Depending on your rifle and the ammo you get, you might see 100 to at most 200 fps more velocity out of a .30-06 pushing the same bullet, but often the .308 Winchester will match that. Part of the reason is the SAAMI spec max average chamber pressure of 62,000 psi for the .308 versus 60,000 psi for the .30-06.
So call it a tie unless you’re a handloader. But beyond ballistics, the .308 Winchester wins the size competition. Just as the military wanted a smaller cartridge to build, store, ship, and carry afield, so do many hunters. A true short-action rifle should lop about a half-inch off the .30-06 length. That doesn’t sound like much until you run the bolt. Quick and snappy with the .308.
Adding to the .308’s versatility are the bullets available for it. While factory loads are generally confined to 125-grain to 180-grain bullets, handloaders can work with everything from 100-grain plinkers to 200-grain moose thumpers. Some factory ammo features 190- and 200-grain subsonic loads, popular when used with a suppressor to sweep a field of feral hogs.
What kind of horsepower can the .308 cough up? When pushing a 150-grain deer bullet 2,820 fps (common in factory ammo,) muzzle energy is 2,648 f-p. If that bullet is a sleek boat tail, it could be hanging onto 1,900 f-p clear out at 1,000 yards. Zero that for 200 yards and it’ll drop just 7.8 inches at 300 yards, 22.6 at 400 yards.
Zero it at 240 yards and midrange peak trajectory will be just 3 inches high at 125 yards, 4.8 inches low at 300, and just 18.5 inches low at 400 yards. That’s not .220 Swift flat, but flat enough for most hunting. There are two other reasons for remembering the .308 Winchester at rifle-buying time: guns and ammo options. Virtually everyone makes rifles chambers for the .308. You can find it in break-action single-shots, pump, levers, falling blocks, autos, and bolts. New and used. You can find ammo everywhere in every size with every kind of bullet you might need.