Top 10 Reloaded Rifle Cartridges #2: .308 Winchester
Date: Oct 20 2021
I arrived late to the .308 Winchester party, having started hunting as a boy with a .30-06 and staying with it for decades. However, over the last 15 years I have shot stacks of factory-loaded and handloaded .308 Winchester cartridges from numerous autoloading and bolt-action rifles to shoot targets, deer, hogs, antelope, black bears and elk, plus a few coyotes that appeared in the wrong place at the right time. All that shooting has shown that the .308 delivers grand performance.
However, the .308 suffers an image problem with many shooters and hunters. It has always stood in the tall shadow of the .30-06. Plus, the .308 cartridge looks slow just sitting there. Its squat case seems to hold an inadequate amount of powder for its bore size, its sloping shoulder appears antiquated, and its bullets seem obese.
Appearances are deceiving, however. The 6.5 Creedmoor is everyone’s current darling for shooting out past the curve of the earth. If realistic velocities of the Creedmoor shooting Sierra 140-grain MatchKing bullets with a muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps are compared to the .308 Winchester shooting 150-grain MatchKings at 2,900 fps, it becomes apparent that the trajectories of both bullets are within a few inches of each other – every step of the way – out to 800 yards.
Over the years, my youngest son has concluded that only the flattest-shooting cartridges are suitable for hunting antelope. Thomas’ two favorites are the .25-06 Remington and the .22-250 Remington. One October I took the .25-06 from him, seeing as the rifle was mine, and handed him a Winchester Model 70 .308. He turned his nose up at the rifle’s short 21-inch barrel. He took a few cartridges out of the shell pouch for his belt and squinted suspiciously at the stubby rounds as he loaded the rifle’s magazine. The cartridges were loaded with 150-grain bullets at a muzzle velocity a touch under 2,900 fps. I told Thomas to aim right on a buck at distances out to 300 yards, and place the crosshairs with a sliver of light above a buck’s back at 350 yards.
Off he hiked across the prairie, with me bringing up the rear. Thomas stopped short of every ridgetop to glass ahead. He peeked over the top of a fourth ridge and immediately ducked down and started in a loop that took him out of sight down a draw. After some time, a shot rang out. I walked to the ridgetop and saw him out on a flat, kneeling next to a buck.
Thomas said he crawled to within 275 yards of the pronghorn, according to his rangefinder. He aimed right behind the buck’s shoulder, and that was that. He conceded to having shot antelope only a few times at much farther distances, and the .308 Winchester certainly shot flat enough for about any shot he might take at antelope.
But not a hunting season passes during which someone declares the .308 Winchester as barely adequate for elk at any distance, and in the same breath informs us common folk how the .300 magnum deals a deadly dose of medicine to elk several ridges away in the distance. Hunting season is supposed to be a fun time of year, so I hold my tongue.
Early one fall, I hunted elk in the Colorado high country. The camp was 9,100 feet above sea level, and I was happy carrying a compact Mossberg MVP bolt-action .308 Winchester with an 18.5-inch barrel. Hornady’s Superformance cartridges fired 165-grain Gliding Metal eXpanding (GMX) bullets at 2,641 fps from the Mossberg’s short barrel.
Unrelenting rain poured down for several days. Midmorning of the third day, the clouds spread and the sun shone. Down the ridge a 6x6 bull stepped out of the quaking aspens and bugled. The bull stood quartering away at 237 yards when I fired. The GMX bullet plowed through the rear ribs, up through the lungs and came to rest under the hide in front of the far shoulder. The bull stumbled and slid 60 yards downhill and died. The recovered bullet had peeled back to an expanded diameter of about .5 inch and retained 95 percent of its weight. Nobody was around way up on top of that mountain to refute the .308’s effectiveness on elk.
There are many bullet options for the .308 Winchester, from 180-grain bullets on the heavy end to 100-grain bullets on the light side. I have met a few hunters who carry .308s while sneaking through river-bottom brush after whitetails and through lodgepole pine thickets when chasing elk. They shoot otherwise ordinary 180-grain bullets like Sierra 180-grain Pro-Hunters. At a moderate muzzle velocity of about 2,600 fps, the bullets hang together to penetrate through a foot or more of deer or elk to reach the lungs on less-than-ideal shots. These hunters do not worry about a flat trajectory, because 75 yards is a long shot when attempting to weave a bullet through brush and branches.
My interest in shooting lightweight bullets in the .308 Winchester started when the girl next door, Kendal Boe, started shooting one of my .308s. Kendal liked shooting the rifle, but her grin soon degenerated to a grimace due to the recoil generated by firing 150- and 165-grain bullets. The milder recoil generated from lightweight 100- to 125-grain bullets put the smile back on Kendal’s face, and ever since I’ve started handloading these lightweight bullets for general shooting at the range and some varmint hunting.
Sierra 125-grain Pro-Hunter bullets leaving the barrel of a .308 Winchester at 2,900 fps and hitting 1.5 inches above aim at 100 yards drop 4 inches below point of aim at 250 yards. That is about as far as a ground squirrel can be clearly seen through a 3-9x scope, the common magnification used on many .308 Winchester hunting rifles.
Lightweight bullets tend to produce a relatively high extreme velocity spread. Looking at the numbers from my reloading records, the average extreme velocity spread was 23 fps for a variety of powders loaded with 150- and 168-grain bullets shot from .308s. The average extreme velocity spread was 53 fps for 110- to 135-grain bullets loaded with an assortment of powders. Hodgdon 335, IMR-4895, LT-32 and TAC powders delivered relatively low velocity spreads with light bullets in the .308.
Bullets weighing 150 and 165 grains are the bread-and-butter projectiles for the .308 Winchester when hunting big game. I’ve had good luck shooting cup-and-core bullets of those weights from .308s to take antelope, deer and hogs from 100 to 250 yards. Bullet effect on those animals, and the trajectory between the two bullet weights, was indiscernible.
The only reason to load controlled-expansion bullets in the .308 Winchester is to shoot a lighter bullet for its higher velocity and flatter trajectory, yet keep bullets intact to penetrate deeply when they hit large game like elk. From a Shaw ERS-10 .308 with a 20-inch barrel, I’ve been able to shoot 150-grain Swift Scirocco II bullets somewhat over 2,900 fps. In contrast, Sierra 165-grain GameKings were slower than 2,600 fps. The lighter bullet, at its faster muzzle velocity, reduces drop about 3 inches at 300 yards, and 6 inches at 400 yards, compared to the 165s.
A flat trajectory was unnecessary while hunting one October morning. I was sitting with my .308 waiting for a whitetail buck to show up. Instead, six cow elk walked out of the quaking aspens. A cow stopped to graze about 50 yards away, and I shot it behind the shoulder with a Swift 150-grain Scirocco II. The elk bunched up at the noise and turned to run, but the cow lagged behind and fell. The bullet had penetrated both lungs and stopped under the hide on the far side.
Every rifle shoots its best with certain powder and bullet combi-nations. Good recipes are easy to find for the .308 Winchester because it’s such a balanced cartridge. It performs best with medium-burn rate powders such as IMR-3031 on the fast end and Reloder 17 on the slow side. That span includes about 25 powders. TAC and Varget are excellent for accuracy while CFE 223 and Power Pro 2000-MR deliver highest velocities.
The 7.62x51mm, the military version of the .308 Winchester, served the U.S. military from 1954 to 1964. That gives it the distinction of being the shortest-lived American military cartridge. (The .30-03, the original version of the .30-06, really doesn’t count.)
A military round is bound to be a good commercial cartridge, too. Winchester was all over that when it introduced the .308 in 1952 in its Model 70 and 88 rifles. About 30 years ago, I saw some hunters carrying .308s, and quite a few .308 target rifles, at the shooting range. Back then a lot of .308 target rifles started showing up at the local turkey shoot. People who used to show up with their regular hunting rifles for some friendly competition quit shooting because they had no chance of winning. Instead, they pitched horseshoes for a better chance at winning a frozen turkey.
About 15 years ago these big .308 Winchester rifles started to disappear from the benches at the turkey shoot. They were replaced by rifles chambered in .22 BR, 6mm PPC and even the .223 Remington. In the last couple of years, the .308 Winchester has nearly vanished from long-range shooting games – replaced by the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The same thing has gradually happened in the hunting fields. At the opening of deer and elk season every year, I hunt with a bunch of young and old hunters. To keep a pulse on cartridge popularity, I always ask the hunters what cartridge they are shooting. The old-timers continue season after season with their .270s, .30-06s, 7mm Remington Magnums and the occasional .308. None of the younger hunters carry .308s. They much prefer 7mm magnums, .300 Winchester Short Magnums and .300 Remington Ultra Mags.
I still like the .308 Winchester and currently own three rifles, and I shoot them all year long. To tell the truth, though, I’m obsessed with all big-game hunting cartridges. So I say, “Let the party continue to celebrate the .308 Winchester.”