The Cartridge of the Century.
By Carl Hermansen
In my last article, I gave cartridge recommendations for various classes of North American game animals. I also stated that the .30-06 was a do-all cartridge that does nothing very well. As anticipated, the Sound Off (letters to the editor) letters and e-mails started rolling in from sensitive .30-06 fans. One guy thinks I’m a punk and another doesn’t like how I sign my name. Relative information? I expected a much different response when I read the letters and e-mails. I expected reasons, experiences, and supporting evidence as to why the .30-06 is so wonderful. What I got were simply arguments about my recommendations along with paralleling cartridge choices of their own taste. Not much was mentioned of the .30-06, thus supporting my opinion. If the .30-06 is such a great do-all round; then why the need for all of these other cartridges? With that said, I do appreciate all the comments you readers send in. I like to hear your views, thoughts, and criticisms. Ideas for topics stem from reading your feedback. In fact, that is just how I came up with the topic for this article, the .308 Winchester.
The development of the .308 Win started shortly after the First World War as a military endeavor to replace the .30-06. Finally, by the end of the World War II, the development started coming together. With some tweaking of the .300 Savage case, engineers came up with the T-65 cartridge. The T-65 gave performance close to the .30-06 in a smaller package, thus usable in short action weapons. Eventually, after even more modifications, the T-65 was standardized as the 7.62 NATO in the early 1950’s. In conjunction with this new cartridge were the military introductions of the M60 machine gun and the M14 assault rifle chambered in 7.62 NATO. Winchester jumped on the bandwagon and introduced the new round to the civilian market in their Model 70 rifle and renamed it the .308 Winchester.
Are the 7.62 NATO and the .308 Winchester exactly the same? No. There are very slight differences in case specs. Opinions vary on whether or not .308 ammo should be fired in guns chambered for 7.62 and vice versa. Make it easy; just shoot ammo your rifle is chambered for.
My passion for target shooting and advanced reloading techniques began with the .308 Win. My first real paper gun was a Remington 700 Police rifle chambered in .308 Win. This dog would hunt. Some of my tightest groups to date were fired using this rifle. Once you’re hooked and start firing tiny groups, the quest becomes to shrink them even more. Tweak this and adjust that. What generally follows is a newer, better, and most likely more expensive rifle. I have rotated through several .308s, some more costly than others, but all of them have been shooters. My trips to the range always include two or more rifles. The first gun I grab is my .308. The other inhabitants of the gun safe, such as the magnums and “gun of the week,” take turns as second and third grabs. This explains why I have fired more .308 rounds than any other case; a lot more.
So I ask the question; why the .308? Growing up, this case was not the popular choice among any of the friends and family members I hunted with. We all shot .270 Wins. And, still today, the only hunting I have done with the .308 is that of varmints and rabbits. As I have stated before, I prefer long action cases for big game hunting. I didn’t gain appreciation for the .308 until I shot one for the first time. I then knew why this cartridge has been touted by many experts to be the cartridge of the century.
The sky is the limit when it comes to choosing a rifle. I would dare say that there are more models of rifles available in .308 than any other cartridge. I researched every rifle manufacturer I know of and all of them chamber for the .308. Most have several models to choose from. Of course, the “police” and “sniper” variety are available in .308 with most only in .308. Its popularity is worldwide. In the short action class, it is by far the most widely used cartridge among hunters around the world.
The .308 is an extremely easy case to reload for. It performs well with a wide assortment of powders and is not finicky to charge weight. I have tried hundreds of different combinations of powders, charge weights and bullets and, without question, my powder of choice is Reloder 15. I have also had great results with N140 and IMR4064. Many load manuals will give Varget as a top pick. Conversely, I have had some substantial changes in pressure when using differing lots of Varget. IMR4064 has been a long time favorite but, with its long grains, goes through a powder measure about as well as pea gravel.
Much like propellants, the .308 will shoot well with darn near any bullet you stuff in its case. Most of my experience has been using match grade pills. Sierra 168-grain HPBT Matchkings are the most widely used pill with its brothers the 155 Palma and 175-grain Matchkings as runners up. Although not widely known in the competition arena, my most accurate and consistent bullet has been the Nosler Custom Competition 155-grain HPBT. Most match grade, and all hunting bullets, are designed to be tolerant of jump (when the bullet is seated off the lands of the barrel, not jammed into the lands). When the throat of the barrel allows it, my best accuracy has come with .010-inch to .025-inch of jump. But, once again, the .308 shoots well when slugs are seated anywhere from touching the lands to factory overall length. A complete listing of my favorite loads can be found in the table.
At the range, no matter when, where, or with what, the .308 is a dream to shoot. Recoil is felt but quite manageable, unlike the beating you take when shooting a magnum. This makes it a great choice for the young, the elderly, and everyone in between. It has remarkable repeatability. I can sit down at the bench in any condition (with the exception of heavy winds), dial the scope up 3 ½ MOA from zero and put my first shot in a two-inch target spot at 300 yards. I can’t do that with any of my other guns. Considering its capacity, it has an incredible effective range. In addition, barrel heat seldom becomes a problem. It is fun to shoot prone, from the bench, off a bipod, at prairie dogs, even at a rock over the hood of the truck. They shoot well when they’re clean, filthy dirty, copper fouled, powder fouled, with a cold barrel, with a hot barrel, with brass on the verge of self-destructing, and all this regardless of the outside temperature you’re shelling in. No wonder it’s in a class of its own.
Above all, the characteristic of the .308 that impresses me the most is the inherent accuracy it demonstrates. Most will agree that of all commercial cases larger than 6mm, the .308 is the most accurate cartridge ever produced. I know it is.