The .308 Winchester cartridge recently celebrated its 65th anniversary. First introduced in 1952 and intended for big game hunting, the .308 is used today for various purposes, which include:
- Target shooting
- Competitive shooting matches
- Military sniping
- Police sharpshooting
- Metallic silhouette shooting
Today, the .308 is one of the world's most popular cartridges for hunting, but does it deserve this reputation?
The birth of the .308 Winchester
The .308 Winchester is a rimless cartridge that can trace its origins to the end of the 19th century. American troops struggled against enemy forces during the Spanish American War, who were using the brand new technologies of smokeless gun powder. In response to these new innovations, the historic .30-03 and .30-06 cartridges were developed.
It worked well with a variety of settings and firearms, and was heavily used in both world wars. The .308 is a direct descendant of the fabled .30-06, and first popped up in 1952 during the height of the Korean War. Since the .308's arrival outpaced the military guns that were supposed to be using it, the cartridge was released for commercial sale that same year.
Marketed to the public as useful for bringing down large game, the cartridge's impressive velocity and ability to penetrate tangled undergrowth quickly won outdoor fans.
It's hard to argue with success, but the .308 hasn't been without its rivals. Its primary rival is its "parent", the .30-06. Both cartridges can handle bullet weight of up to 150 grains well. Both cartridges can fire accurately up to three hundred yards with various bullet weights. The .30-06 can handle slightly heavier bullet weights than the .308 can. The .308 is a considerably cheaper cartridge to use, especially if the shooter doesn't do his or her own reloading.
It's a widely held belief among shooters that the .308 is a more accurate cartridge than the .30-06. Believers attribute this to the .308's short neck and "fat" case. However, there has never been an official controlled study comparing the firing accuracy of these particular cartridges. Many experts believe that there's very little real difference between these two cartridge types. If the .308 seems to have an advantage over the .30-06 here, it may be because there are simply more short action rifles out there chambered to use the .308.
Leaving the .308/.30-06 "family feud" (it seems to be a matter of personal taste anyway) alone for a while, the .308's next big rival is the .270 cartridge. Most shooters report little difference here in terms of accuracy and firepower. The .308 does have greater recoil than the .270 cartridge. But it can also handle a greater load. The bottom line here again appears to be personal preferences as opposed to distinct cartridge advantages.
Pros and Cons of the .308 Winchester
Before we go out and choose a gun based on using the .308, let’s look at the pros as well as the cons of this cartridge.
- It's a great big game hunting gun.
- Ammunition is easy to obtain, and in surplus numbers. It's also less expensive than comparable cartridges, such as the .300 and the .30-06.
- It has a tolerable recoil.
- Gun manufacturers love the .308. This cartridge will fit a number of rifle types.
- The cartridge's shorter shell means that it's less prone to jamming
- The .308 has a more limited range with heavier bullet weights than similar cartridges. The .308 is accurate to about 300 yards out. It should be noted that this distance reflects muzzle velocity. In terms of target finding accuracy, the .308 is effective to about 500 yards out.
- This is not an effective longer action cartridge.
- Some shooters complain that this cartridge has a less flat shot than similar cartridges. However, this can be affected by grain weight. For flatter shooting with a .308, try to keep grain weight at 150 or below.
- The .308 is considered "military grade" in some countries, such as Mexico. This makes it illegal for hunting. Homework before international hunting trips with this cartridge is advised.
- While the .308 is perfectly effective in bringing down various types of deer, it doesn't appear to be a favourite (that would be the .270) of many deer hunters. This appears to be more of a gun issue than the cartridge itself, however.
Versatility of the .308
The .308 has been called "the closest thing to optimum of the .30 cartridge series", by firearm experts. If many shooters feel that cartridges in this series are so similar, why does the .308 stand out to these experts?
They praise it as a hunting weapon for the power and control that it offers. The .308 can bring down larger game and not splatter smaller prey in overkill style. They also feel that it's a reliable cartridge in a variety of terrain and weather conditions. And given the popularity of short action rifles these days, the .308 works well in a variety of firearms.
The .308 is also the preferred cartridge for police and military snipers. This reliability and effectiveness comes in handy for civilian target shooters as well.
The .308 is a great target shooting cartridge because for a few reasons:
- It's already designed for targeting.
- It's very forgiving of damage and temperature extremes.
- It can accurately hit targets up to 1000 yards away (depending on bullet weight).
So is the .308 Winchester cartridge still a worthwhile option? While it has some limitations as ammunition for some kinds of game hunting, this is an inexpensive, reliable, accurate cartridge that fits the bill for a variety of short action rifles and situations.
Joe Bradley is the editor for smokingbarrelusa.com, which is aimed at promoting responsible gun ownership as well as debunking myths about guns and gun owners.