As most regular readers know, these past few years I’ve been experimenting with all manner of 6.5 mm cartridges. While they’re all remarkably efficient and useful, my all-time favorite sporting rifle caliber remains, as it started out over a half century ago, as the venerable and nearly ancient .30-06. Maybe that’s because, like me, it’s taken a beating over the years, but it’s still around.
While I’ve taken too much game of all sizes with the “06” to dismiss it to has-been status, I still enjoy messing about a bit with other cartridges. However, if put in a corner and forced to choose only one cartridge to spend the rest of my life with, I’d have to go with the .30-06’s little brother, the WCF .308, also known as the 7.62x47 NATO.
Virtually anything that can be said for the .30-06 can be also said of the .308. That’s with the exception, and this is an important one, of the use of heavier-for-caliber bullets – those weighing over 200 grains. Granted, this is applicable only to the older style of cup and core bullets, as monometal bullets have fairly well eliminated the need for heavy-for-caliber bullets in most cases. However, occasionally heavy-for-caliber bullets are the only solution to a particular problem.
Originally developed by our military as a replacement for the “06,” the .308 WCF’s case is a half-inch shorter, which lends itself to shorter, lighter actions in most applicable firearms. One facet of prevailing thought for the development of the .308 was to lighten the infantryman’s load. That never happens! Instead the military master-minds just add more bullets to the already overloaded grunt’s payload.
A more valid reason for its development is that, in automatic weapons, the shorter case reduces bolt travel distance, theoretically increasing the rate of fire in semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms, especially applicable in machine guns. The World War II wonder rifle, the Garand, in full battle dress, was a semi-automatic rifle. It’s .30-06 cartridge was loaded from clips inserted into the magazine through the top of the action and was, at the time, to paraphrase a famous WWII general, “The best battle rifle ever devised.”
It was high praise indeed, but time and weapons development marches on. Not to mention the human species can be extremely creative about devising newer and more efficient ways to kill each other.
Hence the .308 was born, most likely designed off the older .300 Savage round or, as some pundits insist, a more obscure French round of earlier design. Regardless, designers basically shortened the .30-06 case and were still able to produce terminal ballistics similar to the .30-06. The question remains as to how we could get .30-06 ballistics from the smaller case?
Newer powders is the answer. And this was way back in late 1940s when the concept took shape. From what I understand, at that time powders were manufactured in long strands like skinny spaghetti and then chopped to length, ending up with a shape resembling tiny logs or tiny cylindrical sticks. The newer ball powders, (spherical shaped kernels of powder) took up less space and allowed a case to hold more of the new powder. Plus, ball powders are double-based, meaning they utilize a nitroglycerine coating and have, weight-for-weight, more energy than the earlier single base powders.
Also the shorter .308 cartridge case was manufactured with a sharper shoulder and less body taper than the “06” case, enlarging interior capacity as opposed to simply shortening the case. Plus, it was loaded to much higher pressure levels than the older “06”.
One impetus for developing the .308 was to reduce the level of recoil down to a more manageable level. Even in a 9-10 pound rifle, a .30-06 has about all the butt stock punishment most military recruits or civilian shooters can handle comfortably. But, because the shorter action could be made into shorter and therefore, lighter rifles, that’s what rifle manufacturers did, effectively canceling any diminished recoil advantage of the .308 had.
America, it has been said repeatedly, is fixated on the .30 caliber cartridges for it’s sporting use. Yet the .308, just like its big brother the .30-06, has been necked both up and down to create a family of popular sporting cartridges such as the .243 Winchester, the .260 Remington, the 7 mm-08, the .338 Federal and my favorite little-big thumper, the .358 Winchester, which is simply the .308 case necked up, (neck enlarged to hold a larger bullet) to take the larger .358 caliber bullet.
Despite the .223 caliber being our current military standard, the .308 Winchester, like the .30-06, still serves to defend our shores and still enables the average sportsperson to ply their trade with equanimity. As a role model of mine, cartridge designer, trailblazer, outdoorsman and writer extraordinaire, Col. Townsend Whelen was once quoted as saying when questioned on the subject, “The .30-06 is never the wrong choice.”
The same could be said for the .308 Winchester.