Though it originally broke cover in the 1950s, 2015 was a great year for the .308. There were a host of new rifles launched in this caliber at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, everything from new AR-10s to long-range, heavy-barreled target rifles to a myriad of new Scout carbine designs. It seems that around every corner and under every shining light at that show some company was debuting a brand-new rifle chambered for this cartridge.
And for a cartridge that’s over 60 years old, that’s not bad.
But why the .308? Why, when there are so many cartridges that offer better ballistics, a flatter trajectory, and more energy, is the .308 still so popular? The .300 Magnums from Winchester, Weatherby, Remington, and others offer a lot more punch. And, of course, there’s the .30-06, the preeminent American hunting cartridge for over a hundred years, which has ruled the .30-caliber roost for generations. How, in this crowded field, can a cartridge like the .308 stand out?
“2015 was a great year for the .308.”
A Little History
In the 1940s, there were experiments on a military .30 caliber round that was shorter than the .30-06 and was based upon the .300 Savage. That experimentation spawned the 7.62 NATO, and 1952 Winchester released the .308 Winchester as a civilian cartridge based on initial tests with that cartridge design.
The new .308 had a shorter overall length than the .30-06 (2.8 inches versus 3.34) and while it had less capacity it only lost about 100 feet per second of muzzle velocity to the .30-06 using 150-grain bullets. In addition, the .308 could be loaded into a variety of different action types. Today, that’s one of the .308’s greatest qualities as a hunting cartridge.
Fans of the lever action design could opt for the Winchester 88 or the Browning BLR, which is still in production and remains popular. These lever guns utilized box magazines that allowed for the use of pointed Spitzer bullets, and the .308 lever gun far exceeded the capabilities (in terms of velocity and trajectory) of .30-30s and the .35 Remington. Semiauto fans also have a wide selection of available firearms, from the Browning BAR to the new crop of AR-10s.
Prefer bolt guns? Virtually every maker offers a turnbolt rifle in .308. There are also a wide variety of bolt-actions chambered for the cartridge, from light, short carbines like Remington 7 to serious long-range guns with heavy barrels. There were even a few slide actions chambered for this ultra-versatile cartridge. No matter which action type you prefer there’s a .308 for you.
Accuracy & Availability
The .308 is commonly used as a military and law enforcement sniper rifle, and it has proven to be a very accurate cartridge. It’s still seen at long-range competitions like the annual Camp Perry shoot in Ohio, and many custom long-range rifles are built around this cartridge. The kind of accuracy potential required by events like this translates well to a hunting cartridge, and it’s just one of the reasons the .308 remains such a popular hunting cartridge in the face of such stiff competition.
Low recoil is another reason the .308 has remained such a popular hunting cartridge. In rifles of equal weight, the .308 has a recoil force that’s about four pounds lighter than a .30-06, and when compared to the .300 Winchester Magnum it kicks ten pounds—about forty percent—less. The difference is even more pronounced with hotter .30 caliber magnums like the .300 Weatherby and .300 Remington Ultra Magnum.
Though we’d all like to think that we are immune to recoil, hard-kicking guns can cause a flinch, and the .308 is quite comfortable. In fact, while few shooters truly learn to master the hardest-thumping .30 caliber magnums, virtually anyone can learn to tolerate the .308’s kick. This lack of recoil lends itself well to lighter, shorter carbines that would be abusive with hotter loads.
Thanks to their unrivaled popularity, there is a wide selection of suitable .30 caliber hunting bullets, and the .308 is not particularly picky about loads. Whereas the hot .30 calibers demand premium bullets, the .308’s more modest velocity means it performs well with a wide range of projectiles on game without the fear of bullet blow-up. Today’s technologically advanced bullets have helped remedy this problem with faster rounds, but you’ll also be paying more for bullets.
The .308 also uses less powder, and reloading components are widely available. The load works well with common powders like RL 15, Varget and IMR 4895, and there’s a treasure trove of load data available for handloaders.
Likewise, the .308 does well with a side selection of bullet weights. With 110- and 125-grain projectiles, it works fine on varmints, predators, and deer, though the most common big game bullets fall in the 150-, 165- and 180-grain ranges. Primarily, the .308 shines with the first two; with 150-grain projectiles it can top 2,900 feet per second, offering flat trajectory for deer-sized game. The larger 165-grain bullets work equally well, and they’re the better choice for large deer like elk.
If ranges are moderate, the 180-grain bullets work well and penetrate deep without that heavy price in recoil, but the “sweet spot” for the .308 remains in the 150-165 grain range for most applications. Still, these two loads will cover the vast majority of North American hunting, from whitetail and pronghorns on up to elk. If you don’t reload, there’s also plenty of factory ammo available that works quite well.
I’ve personally used the cartridge on whitetail, mule deer, hogs, and elk, and it hasn’t let me down. While hunting hogs at night in Texas, I carried a Smith & Wesson M&P-10 topped with a Leupold scope backed with a Crimson Trace infrared foregrip. With either optic, day or night, the .308 performed well on the largest, heaviest hogs out to ranges that exceeded 200 yards.
It’s a deer cartridge par excellence, and I’ve had great success using it on Texas whitetails and Montana mulies, and for those who prefer even larger game I’ve been impressed with what it can do on elk. The bull I shot was hit in the heart with a 165-grain Partition, and the bullet then broke the front leg and exited. On that elk hunt everyone carried a.308, and the results were uniformly excellent.
The cartridge is even an excellent choice for a great deal of African game, and Mossberg’s Linda Powell has relied on the cartridge to take everything from impala to the largest, toughest plains game like wildebeest and kudu without any problems. That’s fantastic versatility for a cartridge that is widely available, affordable to shoot and doesn’t recoil much.
Does the .308 have its limitations? Sure. It can’t retain high energy levels at really long ranges like the faster .30s can, so if you’re going to consistently be targeting large game like elk and kudu at 400 yards and beyond then the .300 Winchester, .300 Weatherby and their ilk do have some advantages.
But for most hunters, shots of 300 yards or less are far more common, and at that range the .308 is just as deadly as the bigger rounds for medium to large game. And once the shots start getting longer your ability (or inability) to handle recoil becomes a limiting factor. If you can’t handle the setback of the big .30s or simply don’t want to, the .308 is a great option. Plus, .308 rifles will be lighter, reducing fatigue when you’re climbing after elk or sheep.
The .308/7.62 has become even more appealing with the rise of ARs. Over the past decade, there are more and more hunters who are taking advantage of this platform in the field, and there are a number of great .308 options. It’s the perfect cartridge for hunters who want one caliber for a variety of different tasks, and guns like the DPMS Long Range Hunter are perfectly mated to the .308.
And, as new powders hit the market, the gap between the .308 and the hotter .30s continues to decrease. Hornady’s .308 GMX Superformance load has a muzzle velocity of 2,940 feet per second, putting it on the level of standard .30-06 rounds. In addition, companies like Mossberg now offer their MVP line, which utilizes .308 box magazines for the AR platform, making this cartridge even more versatile.
The .30 caliber cartridge class is crowded, but even against faster competition the .308 is a standout. For the average hunter it just might be the ultimate in its field, a cartridge that combines mild recoil and affordability with superb accuracy and a level of versatility few other rounds can match. If you don’t have a .308 in your gun cabinet (or two, or three) you may want to ask yourself why not. It’s been around for six decades, and its popularity is still growing.
Popular .30 Caliber Rounds Compared
|Cartridge||Velocity (fps, muzzle)||Energy (foot-pounds, muzzle)||Drop at 300 yards with 200 yard zero (165-grain bullet)||Recoil (foot-pounds, 8-pound rifle)|
|.300 Winchester Magnum||3,100||3,520||6.3||26|