An Ode to the .308 Winchester
I had just gotten to the stand and closed the screen door in an effort to combat the hordes of black flies, though I was assuredly losing the war. I swatted at the first pair of kamikaze flies trying to get in my eyes when I caught the glimpse of movement at the bait; I can only imagine how my jaw fell open involuntarily when I realized it was a black bear feeding on fish heads and caribou bones buried deep in the barrel. Snapping out of my momentary stupor, I brought the Ruger rifle to shoulder, and let the air out of the boar. Hearing the death bellow was an experience I’ll never forget.
The rifle I had brought to Quebec was a battered, scratched and scarred bolt-action chambered in .308 Winchester; that rifle and I had already made many memories, mostly in my native New York. I had chosen the cartridge for one reason and one reason only: my Dad—Ol’ Grumpy Pants—had shot .308 Winchester for as long as I could remember, in fact, before I was born. Having joined the Army National Guard in 1968 just out of high school, and at the height of the Vietnam War, Dad quickly came to appreciate the accuracy potential of the .308 Winchester in its military guise: the 7.62x51mm NATO. “I was barely 18 years old, and was knocking down human silhouettes at 350 meters with iron sights on my M14,” as GP tells the tale, “so there wasn’t a deer or bear around the Northeast I couldn’t take with that round.”
As an impressionable youth, I clearly remember staring at Dad’s rifle in the corner as he cleaned it before each deer season; the Mossberg Model 800A still has the pressed checkering with the small scene of the buck inside the diamond-pattern, though the majority of finish is long gone. That rifle, in spite of the fact that GP doesn’t take care of it at all, still grabs my eye. My own .308 was a Christmas gift from GP, and I shot an awful lot of deer with it, in addition to bear, coyotes, woodchucks, and more than I can remember. The .308 Winchester was a family affair; I had learned how to reload ammunition by loading .308 Winchester, and GP and I shared the same load: a Hornady 165-grain InterLock over a suitable charge of IMR 4064.
Perhaps it could have been a .30-06 Springfield, or .270 Winchester, or 7x57mm Mauser—all are equally capable of handling what we asked the .308 Winchester to do—but Dad believed and still believes that .30-caliber and the .308 Winchester is superior to all. The great debate about the .308 Winchester versus the .30-06 Springfield still rages, and I’ve said before that though the .30-06 may be a bit more flexible, there are no flies on the .308 Winchester at all. It lacks the look of a long range cartridge, but I’ve personally taken the short-action cartridge out to the 1,000-yard mark. In the hunting fields, it is fully capable of fulfilling the role of an all-around cartridge, offering a rather flat trajectory and enough striking energy to handle anything shy of the great coastal brown bears and the huge bison, all in a package which is easy on the shoulder and can be cycled quickly.
The .308 Winchester was the solution to a problem the U.S. Army identified during the Second World War: the soldier would be better served by a smaller cartridge which was capable of mimicking the performance of the .30-06 Springfield. Trials began, starting with the .300 Savage, and the final result was what the Army designated the T65. Winchester beat the Army to the punch, actually releasing the commercial version of what would be known as the 7.62x51mm NATO two years before the Army officially adopted it: 1952 saw the release of the .308 Winchester. It is a rimless cartridge, sharing the same 0.473-inch rim as the .30-06 Springfield, which in turn took that dimension from the 7x57mm Mauser. Headspacing off the 20-degree shoulder, the cartridge is suitable for just about any rifle action imaginable, making it a very popular choice for just about any hunting scenario.
Being .30-caliber, there is a wonderful selection of bullets for game animals from varmints to moose. Yes, the 150-, 165- and 180-grain bullets are the most popular choices in the hunting fields (same can be said for the .30-06) but I’ve had great success with 125-, 130- and 200-grain handloaded bullets. A good number of deer have filled the freezer when I was using the light 125-grain bullets, and at nearly 3,000 fps they will turn a coyote inside out. Moose, bear and the biggest wild boar will fall easily to a good 200-grain bullet like the Nosler Partition, and there is nothing wrong with choosing a premium 165- or 180-grain bullet for an all-around load. This is one of the beauties of the .308 Winchester: you have a ton of ammunition choices. My rifles have printed excellent groups using the Federal 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip load, and my wife’s Savage Lady Hunter prints nearly ¼-MOA 100-yard groups with the 150-grain Norma EcoStrike load.
Handloading the .308 Winchester only makes a great cartridge better. If the .308 has earned the title ‘inherently accurate’ with factory loads, handloads can make it split hairs. Look to medium burning powders like IMR4064, Hodgdon’s VARGET, Alliant’s Reloader 15, H380, IMR4166 and the like, sparking it with a good large rifle primer and top it with a good bullet. It isn’t hard to get sub-MOA groups, and it’s a cartridge I recommend for new handloaders to experiment with. I have used Nosler’s Ballistic Tips and Partitions, Swift Scirocco IIs, Sierra GameKing hollow-points, Speer Grand Slams and many more over the years, and at .308 velocities, all have performed very well.
Mention the .308 Winchester around the campfire and you can count the seconds until you head the word Springfield; the comparisons are inevitable. Looking at the Federal Trophy Bonded Tip load in .30-06 Springfield launches a 180-grain bullet at 2700 fps, the .308 Winchester sends it at 2620 fps; it’s not a huge difference, and few game animals will ever be able to tell. While so many folks will jump up and down about that 80 fps and how the Springfield is a world apart, .308 lovers quietly go about their business efficiently and effectively. Yes, the Springfield handles the 200- and 220-grain bullets better, but they are certainly not the most popular choices, and premium construction absolutely changes the game. If you like the Springfield, and there’s nothing not to like, so be it, but please don’t think that the smaller .308 Winchester can be a viable 1,000-yard target rifle yet not be effective at hunting velocities.
There is a ton of overlap in the lineup of cartridges in this power range, with many great choices, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a cartridge with a better blend of powder efficiency, low recoil, quick cycling and striking power. Whether you like a lever gun, a pump rifle, an autoloader, single shot or good old bolt gun, you can have it in a .308 Winchester. It may not look new and sexy, but like the .30-06 Springfield, it is reliably boring. And because it is a former military cartridge, it will be readily available—or at least as available as any ammunition is right now.
I use and enjoy many different cartridges, from the offspring of the .308 in the form of the .243 Winchester and 7mm-08 Remington, up to the .300 Winchester Magnum and .280 Ackley Improved, to the obscure .318 Westley Richards. Being completely honest, the vast majority of my hunting for non-dangerous game animals occurs inside of 300 yards, and the .308 Winchester is perfectly suited for that job. That old Ruger of mine still gets the nod from time to time, and though I still detest the factory trigger it has, shooting it makes me smile and brings back all sorts of good memories.
Nearly 70 years after its introduction, the .308 Winchester still lives in the shadow of its older brother, has been outclassed as a long range target round by that Creedmoor cartridge, and lacks the magnum moniker. But, if you have a rifle chambered for the .308 Winchester, and can get within a sane hunting range where you can reliably place the bullet where it needs to be, you’ll have blood on your knife in a matter of moments. Long live the .308 Winchester!
Want to read more from Philip Massaro? Check out the following articles:
• Tips for Traveling to Hunt in the COVID-19 Era
• What Hunters Need to Know About Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases
• Belted vs. Beltless Magnum Cartridges
• Review: Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14x40mm
• The Effects of Barrel Length on Your Rifle
• The Effects of Bullet Shape at Hunting Ranges
• Best Shooting Rests for Hunters
• 5 Reasons to Learn How to Reload Ammunition
• Why Every Hunter Should Own a Rifle in a Common Caliber
• An Ode to the .375 H&H Magnum
• An Ode to the Winchester Model 1886
• An Ode to the Winchester Model 70
• 6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Hunting Rifle
• Review: Heym Model 26B Double Rifle .45-70
• 5 Reasons the .300 Win. Mag. Rules the Roost
• Bolt-Action Rifles: Push-Feed vs. Controlled-Round-Feed
• Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?
• A Hunter’s Guide to Staying Sane During the Coronavirus Outbreak
• Is Walnut Dead? Synthetic vs. Wood Stocks
• Rifles for the Traveling Hunter
• Top 5 Lever-Action Rifle Cartridges
• African Game Meat: What Happens After the Shot?
• Top 5 Underrated Deer Cartridges
• Top 5 Double Rifle Cartridges
• Deer Hunting: Were the Good Old Days Really That Good?
• Essential Gear for the Traveling Hunter
• 4 Reasons to Hate the 6.5 Creedmoor
• 4 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Rifle During the Off Season
• Review: Savage Model 110 AccuFit System
• Top 8 Bullets for African Plains Game
• Review: Tikka T3X Lite
• Top Bear Rifles and Loads
• 3 Rifle Cartridges to Hunt the World
• Why My Cartridge is Better Than Yours
• Top 5 Handgun Hunting Cartridges
• An Ode to the Ruger Model 77
• Top 5 Hunting Cartridges of the 21st Century
• Top 5 Deer Bullets for 2018
• An Ode to the .30-30 Winchester
• 5 Reasons to Book a Spring Bear Hunt
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini Thirty
• Boattail vs. Flat-Base Bullets
• How to Build a Custom Rifle
• Choosing a Cartridge for North America’s Big Game
• Top 5 American-Made Hunting Rifles
• How to Choose a Buffalo Rifle
• An Ode to the .223 Remington
• Top 5 Coyote Cartridges
• The Ultimate Long-Range Hunting Cartridge
• The Greatest Whitetail Cartridge Ever Designed
• An Ode to the Browning BAR
• Top 5 Bear Bullets
• Do You Really Need a Magnum Cartridge?
• Why the Ruger No. 1 is Not No. 2
• Top 10 Mythical Game Species
• Top 5 Monometal Soft-Point Bullets
• Top 5 Subsonic .22 Long Rifle Loads
• The Most American Rifle Cartridge
• Tips for the Traveling Hunter
• How to Choose a Gun Safe
• Best Gun Cases for the Traveling Hunter
• An Ode to the .30-06 Springfield
• Top 5 Boutique Bullet Companies
• Top 5 .22 Long Rifle Loads
• 5 Reasons Round-Nose Bullets Are Still Cool
• Top 5 Dangerous Game Loads
• Top 5 Turkey Loads
• 5 Rifle Cartridges That Need to Make a Comeback
• Top 5 Safari Calibers
• 5 New Year’s Resolutions for Hunters
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You
• America’s Most Wanted Cartridges
• America’s Strangest Game Laws
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You, Part II
• Top 5 Overrated Rifle Cartridges
• Top 5 Underrated Rifle Cartridges
• 5 Reasons to Handload Your Ammunition
• 5 Cartridges You Might Not Know About
• Top 5 Wildcat Cartridges
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini-14
• Top 5 Hog Loads
• Why .30-30 Winchester Will Never Die
Article by Philip Massaro