Against my better judgment, I’m sticking my neck out to address whether the .308 Winchester — aka 7.62x51mm NATO — is a capable long-range hunting cartridge. It has such a cult following— especially in the Eastern, Southern and Midwestern states — that challenging its effectiveness is sure to cause gnashing teeth on a mass scale. Before I jump in with both cold feet, allow me to ask you to throw me a bone here and key in on the phrase “long range.”
Many misconceptions surround the .308 cartridge. To the uninformed, its history with military and law enforcement snipers seems to form the ultimate testament to its effectiveness in any and all situations. Well known as an exceptionally accurate cartridge in many corners of the world, the .308 is allegedly the modern equal of the veteran .30-’06 Springfield, which is easily the most popular big-game cartridge in the world. This school of thought is debunked with physics and hunting experience, as we analyze the capabilities and limitations of the .308’s terminal ballistics.
Capabilities & Limitations
Like most successful cartridges, the .308 is absolutely effective within its intended parameters. I’ve hunted extensively with the .308. In fact, I’ve taken 10 different game animals with it so far this year. Inside 250 yards, it is fantastic on deer, hogs, black bear and antelope and adequate for elk. It recoils politely, shoots accurately from most guns and is forgiving to reload. Within the ethical limits of most hunters, it’s all the cartridge they’ll ever need.
Outside 250 yards, however, performance becomes questionable, then downright poor as distances stretch. Why? It has poor wind-bucking ability, low velocity, rainbow trajectory and low energy.
Trouble is, many .308 owners refuse to recognize the cartridge’s limitations. Half the time I mention those limitations in mixed company, some previously nice fellow bristles up and gets crotchety with me. I get downright tired of hearing “If it’s good enough for our snipers to shoot terrorists at 800 yards, it’s good enough for me to shoot deer at long range.”
The problem with that logic is, an 800-yard hit on a terrorist’s kneecap counts. Wounding is often considered even more effective in war than killing, and more humane. Shooting at game is different. Wounding is anything but humane. Fast, relatively painless kills are not just ethical, they are also critical to both our peace of mind as hunters and the future of hunting as a sport. If you’re going to shoot long on God’s living, breathing animals, you owe it to them to use the best tool for the job.
Personally, I have serious ethical reservations about sniping big game at extended ranges. However, it does exist as a trend in the western hunting community, and the investigative journalist in me is interested in the technical aspects of its terminal results on larger species.
For the sake of argument, let’s consider “long range” to be anything past 400 yards. There are other cartridges that have about half the wind drift at long range than the .308 does. Their projectiles drop significantly less, minimizing errors in range estimation. Even laser rangefinders can’t compensate for human error.
Let’s take a look at some hard data and compare. Today’s most popular long-range hunting cartridges are the .300 Winchester Magnum, 7mm Remington Magnum and 6.5-284 Norma, among others. Americans love their .30-caliber cartridges, so we’ll use the .300 Win. Mag. for comparison.
These cartridges shoot heavy, long-for-caliber projectiles that are far more aerodynamic than any bullet the short-necked .308 can handle efficiently, which better maintains downrange expansion-inducing and energy-carrying velocity. The .308 is built for efficiency, not hot-rodding, and powder capacity just isn’t adequate to push heavy .30-caliber bullets fast enough.
For most shooters, the excellent barrel life offered by the .308, along with the low recoil and economic powder consumption, is of more value than the ability to shoot extremely aerodynamic bullets.
To keep our comparison fair, we’ll look at an aerodynamic bullet the .308 handles well and an aerodynamic bullet the .300 Win. Mag. handles well.
First, it’s important to understand that although you can certainly shoot 180-grain bullets out of the .308, performance suffers. With the base of long-for-caliber, highly aerodynamic bullets intruding into powder capacity, velocity potential lowers exponentially. Sniper types and target shooters push the envelope with 175-grain bullets, but really efficient hunting projectiles for the .308 max out at about 165 to 168 grains.
One of the best is Swift’s 165-grain Scirocco II, with a G1-model ballistic coefficient (BC) of .470, which is about as high as 165- to 168-grain proper hunting bullets get. Most factory .308 loads allegedly push 165- to 168-grain bullets at 2,700 fps, but that number is derived in a standard 24-inch test barrel. Almost all .308 hunting rifles have 22-inch barrels, but real-world velocity averages are closer to 2,650 fps.
Ballistic calculations at 500 feet of elevation, 50 percent humidity and 59-degree temperatures show that when sighted in at 200 yards — with a sight height 1 1/2 inches — the 165-grain, .30-caliber Swift Scirocco II drops 51.2 inches at 500 yards, and it drifts 21.9 inches in a 10-mph crosswind. Retained velocity is 1,786 feet per second (fps), which is too low to reliably expand many hunting bullets. Retained energy is 1,169 foot-pounds, well below the commonly accepted bottom threshold of 1,500 foot-pounds for elk.
For me, 500 yards is a very long shot when big game is the target, but for argument’s sake — and because the long-range guys promote shooting way out there — let’s look at 800-yard numbers, too. At that distance, the 165-grain, .30-caliber Swift Scirocco II drops 202.9 inches and drifts 63.6 inches in the wind. Retained velocity and energy are 1,375 fps and 693 foot-pounds, respectively. Those numbers illustrate why the .308 simply doesn’t have the sufficient terminal performance to shoot big game.
Now let’s compare that to the .300 Win. Mag. Nosler’s new 190-grain AccuBond Long Range (BC of .640) can be pushed to well over 2,900 fps with judicious, high-performance handloads — more out of the 26-inch barrels on many commonly available hunting rifles. Let’s show cringing .308 lovers a little mercy and just go with 2,900 fps.
Fired at that velocity in the same environmental conditions and sighted in at 200 yards — the 190-grain, .30-caliber Nosler AccuBond LR impacts 37.4 inches low at 500 yards and drifts 13.1 inches. Note that wind drift is more than half that of the .308’s. Retained velocity is 2,221 fps — plenty to expand most big-game hunting bullets — and retained energy is 2,081 foot-pounds, which is still more than 25 percent more than the 1,500 foot-pound minimum for elk.
Taking it to 800 yards, drop is 139 inches, and wind drift is 36 1/2 inches — again, just more than half that of the .308. Retained velocity is 1,860 fps, which is barely enough to still reliably expand most big-game hunting bullets, and retained energy is 1,460 foot-pounds — close enough to the 1,500-foot-pound lower limit we’ve selected for elk.
Now, just for kicks, let’s take a look at a veteran cartridge that has historically been the most popular long-range hunting cartridge among very experienced, world-traveling hunting legends. The .300 Weatherby Magnum was making 500-yard shots long before laser rangefinders existed. With good handloads, it will push the 190-grain Nosler AccuBond LR at an astonishing 3,200 fps. Drop at 500 yards is only 30 inches, and wind drift is 11.4 inches. Retained velocity and energy are 2,476 fps and 2,587 foot-pounds, respectively.
At 800 yards, drop is 111.6 inches, drift is 31.6 inches — once again less than half that of the .308 — and retained velocity and energy are 2,092 fps and 1,846 foot-pounds, respectively.
These cartridges outperform the .308 at considerable expense in recoil, ammunition cost and barrel life, but outperform it they do, and significantly enough to make them a far better choice for hunting where distances stretch.
I get a lot of flack from .308 loyalists when I say that the .30-’06 and .270 Winchester are better suited for distance shooting than the .308. Truth be told, none of them is actually good for long-range hunting. The .30-’06 and .270 are more capable from 300 to 450 yards than the .308, but none of them is great beyond that point.
Parade out your arguments why the .308 can do anything the .30-’06 can, but it just isn’t so. Lighter bullet weights close the gap pretty well, but no knowledgeable hunter uses light, 150-grain, .30-caliber bullets at long range or on heavy-bodied western game. The .30-’06 and .270 both have long necks that are ideal for use with heavy-for-caliber, aerodynamic bullets and considerably greater powder capacity to push those bullets. Additionally, many rifles chambered for them have 24-inch barrels, enabling more complete powder burn and greater velocities, while almost all .308 hunting rifles have 22-inch barrels.
All three cartridges are very good out to 300 yards, but simple science proves that the two long-action cartridges have an advantage at distances beyond that.
To blow a final hole in the .308 myth, many knowledgeable sniper teams, whether military or law enforcement, will tell you that they wish that the powers-that-be would allow them to transition to the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5-284 or just about anything else with legitimate long-range credentials. The .308 is well over a half-century old, and it wasn’t a good long-range performer when it was new. It’s outdated. Cartridge development has made leaps and bounds in the recent decades, and there are any number of better options available today, but old habits are hard to break, especially when the government is involved.
Go ahead; love your .308s. Use them hard. Within 300 yards or so, they’ll make you proud every time. Just don’t ask them to do something they’re unsuitable for.
- Because of their traditionally long, heavy-for-caliber bullets, the 6.5mm carries extremely well. Accurate, mild-recoiling 6.5s like the 6.5/.284 and 6.5mm Creedmoor work wonders in 1,000-yard competition, but for my tastes they just don’t carry enough energy for big game at longer ranges. The much faster .264 Winchester Magnum does. Introduced in 1958, it caught on quickly—and then was nearly blown off the market by the more powerful and versatile 7mm Remington Magnum.
It is unlikely that it will ever again be popular, but it offers surprisingly light recoil and good velocity with the inherent staying power of the aerodynamic 6.5mm bullet. It is overbore capacity and needs a 26-inch barrel to strut its stuff. It is also admittedly not as inherently accurate as milder 6.5s like the Creedmoor and 6.5/.284, but with good loads it can shoot very well. Standard factory loads are very limited today, but with handloads or specialty loads, it is an unsung hero for small to medium big game in open country.