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The Very Capable .308 Winchester

This is one of those inexplicable cartridges - reportedly it has the highest selling ammunition of all -even better than the .270W and the 30-06, as well as reloading equipment in the USA.  However, a true dichotomy exists around it amongst US hunters. Virtually  everyone owns a .308W but I have yet to see one being brought to Colorado by an out of state hunter. It evidently is a clear embarrassment to be seen with it by peers wearing the latest Real Tree designer hunters' uniform and talking about "my Three-hundred Mag" all the time. The size of the cases must look shamefully small in relation to the necked down .458 Win boiler tank.


My client and friend Bill Law from Virginia asked me about what rifle he needs to bring to Africa because his 14 lb M700 Sendero in 7mm Rem Mag is too heavy to be carried around for our type of hunting.  Of course I said a 30-06 with 180gr Feferal Fusion ammunition.      "Nobody in my family owns such an old thang", Bill said.

".308W"?, I asked. Bill chain-lights another cigarette and says: "We make fun of those. The other day my son in law shoots at a gopher at 200 yrds with his three-oh-eight and the critter disappears into his hole. I am glassing for him.  'Did I hit him' he asks as he recovers from the recoil. I look through my binos. 'Bullet ain't there yet', I says".  Now do you think this here Hillbilly can go ask him to borrow his slow mover I made fun of to hunt in AFRICA?  And what do I say to my mates?"


There you have it: NO US hunter will even remotely consider to bring his .308W to Africa as that will be an insult to all the other US hunters who bring their flat shootin' .300 Winchester Magnums and hard hittin' .338 Winchester Magnums. Yet in Africa the .308W is by far the most popular one-shot medium and big game killer.


Why that popularity? Take a look outside the chamber and see the Hornady Interbond / PMP ProAmm  bullet behaviour of this cartridge and you will understand the logic the South African hunter applies when deciding on what he sees as a good, one-shot killer on kudu - or whatever of the ten moose and elk size big game in South Africa - as well as the 14 deer size medium game:


Its trajectory equals the .270W with same weight bullets for plains hunting and at the same time it equals the 30-06 with heavier bullets for bush hunting of big game. With 180gr bullets It is .3 MOA lower than the famous flat shooting .300 Win Mag at 250 yards and just .75 MOA lower at 300 yards - although in Africa your guide will get you to much closer than 250 yards of even the wiliest big game, so there is no reason to fret about that debilitating 2" difference at 300 yards. If you can put a bullet within 2" at 300 yds under hunting conditions  then just aim that 2" higher...


In South Africa there still exists the ethic that if you are unable to stalk your game to within 200 yards you need to brush up on your hunting skills, and if any animal is not approachable to 300 yards game is not sufficiently common in your are to be hunted.  In Colorado I still need to find the animal I can not stalk to closer than 200 yards.

(One Published American Opinion)

Religion aside: Looking at the trajectory facts below - what is the actual bullet behaviour?
100 yds Hi
200 yds
250 yds Lo
300 yds Lo

.308W 150gr:               2,900 ft/sec             +1.7"                      0                       -2.9"                     -7.4"


.270W 150gr:               2,900 ft/sec               +1.6                        0                       -2.8                       -7.0

.30-06 150gr:               3,000 ft/sec               +1.5"                       0                       -2.7"                     -6.8" 

.30-06 180gr:               2,700 ft/sec               +2.0"                       0                       -3.3"                     -8.4"

.308W 180gr:              2,600 ft/sec              +2.2"                       0                        -3.6"                    -9.1"

.300 Win Mag 180gr   2,950 ft/sec               +1.6"                        0                       -2.7¨                    -6.8"

My, my, for deer we all are exactly the same out to 250 yards and within .13 MOA out at 300 yds!

For elk and kudu the .308W is only .36 MOA lower than the .300 Win Mag 250 yds. 

How the .308W established itself as a "quite capable enough"  big game cartridge in Africa

Prior to about 1960 the three ubiquitous big game cartridges in South Africa were the .303, 30-06 and 8x57 Mauser, all three with similar performance. These were also used on deer size medium game if it could not be stalked close enough for a brain shot with a .22LR.  As adolescent kids on the ranches we regularly shot guineafowl at 150 yards with an open sight .22LR, so range estimation was a natural ability.

Then at about 1960 the .270 Winchester and the .264 Winhester Magnum made their appearance and were spinned as the ideal big game cartridges with 130gr bullets. Kinetic Energy was spinned by gun writers in Guns & Ammo as the real "knock down power", and these two lightweights were touted as having "a ton and a half" of that. This killing kinetic energy was presented not in joules but in the energy-unrelated unit of  ft.lbs.                                          Both these immediately proved themselves to be serious wounders of big game due to bullet break up and causing too much meat damage on small and medium game.  The .264 Win Mag was a straight out failure and the .270W barely hung in there because it could be had with 150gr and maybe 160gr bullets as well, which slowed velocity down to where the bullet's kinetic energy would not consume its own small mass right at impact.  Even so, it could not do what heavier bullets in its parent case already did with aplomb.  There was no need for the .270 Winchester.


Also, at this time the .458 Win Mag appeared and was touted by Winchester as way better than the .375 H&H for hunting Cape buffalo and elephant.  Apart from many hunters putting their .375 H&H rifles away and acquiring the new big bore heavy weight, Winchester achieved the amazing feat to convince the Rhodesian Game Department to switch from the .375 H&H and 9.3x62 to the .458 Win Mag and it became the standard rifle issued to dangerous-game control officers.  That turned out to be a very reckless decision.


Soon the stories emerged of non penetration of the 510 gr bullet and almost on a monthly basis hunters got maimed and killed by elephant and Cape buffalo because the muzzle velocity of the .458 Win Mag turned out to be barely over 1,600 ft/sec and bullet penetration was dangerously insufficient.  Lots of complaints went to Winchester to increase velocity.  They fixed that in the most dishonourable way imaginable:  almost impossible to believe today - Winchester decreased the bullet diameter of factory ammunition from .458" to .450" - which did not even engage the rifling.


The lower barrel friction now allowed 1,900 ft/sec to be achieved but bullets tumbled out of the bore onto and not into the shoulders of elephant and buffalo and often did not even penetrate the skin. The .458 Winchester Magnum became known as  a "widow maker" and Winchester became known as THE ALL TIME BIG TIME BULLSH****RS when it came to the ability of their cartridges. The poor performance of the .270W and the .264 Win Mag strongly supported this opinion.  Jack O'Connor was seen as an insincere gun writer who wrote insincere stories about the .270W to receive paid hunts to Africa.  Everybody knew that he far preferred his 7x57 out here over the Two-Seventy but never mentioned that in his writings.

When the little .308W appeared South African hunters simply ignored it with sneers of "another BS story by Winchester" and stuck to their .303s and 30-06 and .222 Rem rifles. 

Then Cuba started building large infantry and mechanised forces in Angola and prepared for an all-out mechanised assault on South West Africa (now Namibia).  South Africa carried the UN mandate to administer the national affairs of South West Africa, which demanded that we should ensure the safety of its peoples.  Five years before we started pre-emptive attacks on Cuban forces South Africa set up manufacturing facilities for the R1 rifle in 7.62x51 NATO - based on the Belgian FN FAL - to replace the Lee Enfield .303 in the war to come because the Cubans were equipped with AK47 and AKM rifles. During that protracted war our just-out-of-school-kids showed Cuban soldiers what could be done when real marksmen were equipped with a superior rifle and cartridge.  I remember as a detached base Air Force Mobile Air Operations commander reading the sitreps and comments from Command Headquarters about too many head shots on enemy soldiers.  Have bush savvy, a good rifle and cartridge and young eyes you go for the brain to end the discussion.


The 7.62x51 R1 became to our young men in that bush war what the 7x57 Mauser was to the Boers against invading England sixty years earlier. It was and still is revered here as the best battle rifle ever, and the 7.62x51 cartridge proved itself to be capable of killing anything that walks in Africa.  Oh, and it has culled more elephant than all calibres before it combined.


Those soldiers returning from the battlefield with unfailing trust in the 7.62x51, starting their adult lives and wanting to buy a big game hunting rifle asked about the .308 Winchester.  Musgrave responded and I was one of the first hundred or so to buy my Musgrave Free State model in .308W (pictured below with my elder son's  BRNO ZKK 601). Soon the .308W surpassed the 30-06 in popularity by having proved itself in the hunting field as its equal.

The .308W also duplicated the .270W ballistics with lighter bullets, and this, combined with my peoples' culture of not leaning towards over-stating stuff - particularly when it comes to firearms and hunting - made the .308W fill that niche as a cartridge imminently capable of both tasks.  The 30-06 looks like a distinct overstatement when hunting blesbok and springbok but the .308W cartridge does not. When hunting big game the .308W is a pleasing understatement (like the 7x57), but even so it kills everything just as surely and cleanly as the 30-06 and doing so in a no fuss, one shot way without any magnum bang or ugly entrance and exit holes.  It simply is a very, very pleasing hunting cartridge for both elk and deer size game.

Like the 7x57 - which many writers proclaim to exceed its "paper ballistics" (whatever that means) - the .308W has the ideal impact velocity with 180gr bullets on the low shoulder of big game for very impressive penetration.  In fact below 150 yards where most of the big game in Africa are shot its penetration is repeatedly and measurably better than the 30-06 with same weight bullets.  There is a simple explanation for this:  


Unless the S.A. made Peregrine bullets are used where expansion is the perfect 1.5x  calibre no matter the impact velocity, normal good quality cup and core bullets display best penetration at 2,200-2,400 ft/sec impact velocity which is exactly that of the .308W and 7x57 with  heavy  bullets.  The 30-06 impacting at 100 ft/sec faster causes larger frontal area expansion, creating measurably higher drag force on the bullet and lower impulse retention. For the very same reason the 30-06 penetrates better than the .300 Win Mag with same bullets under similar conditions.

Having said all the above, nothing distracts from the ability of the 30-06.  It still is the standard against which every big game cartridge will be measured in Africa.  Where the .308W is used with 180gr bullets the 30-06 should be used with 200gr bullets because it then exceeds the .308W aerodynamic and terminal ballistics.  With  220gr bullets  the 30-06 is a most impressive performer on the heaviest game and outperforms the .35 Whelen with 250gr similar designed bullets on big game like eland.                                      


The .308W is not better than the 30-06 - it is just below it but still does the same job, killing with the same flair and efficiency on big game - except possibly the eland.  It exactly duplicates the .270W on the open plains game - the application where Jack O'Connor sang his praises for the latter. Important for the local hunter who hates overstatement: it just looks more appropriate than the 30-06 in this field of deer sized game. This begs the question of whatever the requirement was that existed for the birth of the .270W? It is a  real iffy chambering for Africa - weaker with light weight bullets than its parent and not nearly up to the heavier weights needed for big game and which even the .308W applies with aplomb.


In South Africa the expression is that the .270W is neither fish nor flesh. More about that statement in another thread.

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