The .308 is a superb whitetail round, but don’t believe it’s too puny for elk, pronghorns, black bears or plains game.
Whenever hunters gather around a campfire to discuss big-game cartridges, you’ll hear talk about the .270 Winchester versus the .30-06, some chatter about the 7mm Rem Mag, .300 Win Mag, .300 Weatherby Mag and .300 WSM, but almost nothing about the .308 Winchester.
When you do, it’s mentioned as a decent deer round, but never for serious stuff.
A friend took a .308 to Alaska for caribou and Dall’s sheep. His guide took one look at his ammo and strongly suggested using the guide’s .300 Win Mag instead. When my friend just smiled, the guide held a .308 next to a .300 cartridge and said, “See my point?”
My friend got a sheep and a caribou at fairly long ranges. The guide almost refused to believe what he saw. Why, the rifle hardly kicked!
One basic rule of ballistics is that the smaller the case for the bullet involved, the more energy is transferred to the bullet and less to the shooter’s shoulder. The .308 has just about 50 grains of powder space. The .300 Remington Ultra Magnum has about 100 grains. Does the .300 send 180-grain bullets out the muzzle at twice the speed of the .308? No, it only achieves about 25 percent more velocity. Much of the extra powder is released at the muzzle in the form of fast, loud gas, adding a lot to recoil.
Many he-man hunters equate kick with killing power. If the rifle half-kills the shooter, think what it must be doing to the game! In reality, much of the kick from any .300 magnum is hot air.
The .308’s “industry standard” muzzle velocity with a 180-grain bullet is 2,620 fps, though some modern factory loads and handloads boost that to 2,700. The industry standard muzzle velocity of both the .300 WSM and .300 Win Mag cartridges with a 180-grain bullet is 2,960 fps. Call it 3,000 fps.
Many hunters are convinced the .300 Win Mag will knock down an elk at 500 yards, and the .308 is inadequate for elk at any range. But the extra velocity of the magnum only lasts about 100 yards. By the time a factory-loaded 180-grain spitzer travels 100 yards, it’s down to around 2,700 fps. Yet thousands of “experts” will tell you that the .308 Win simply isn’t an elk cartridge.
Some of their logic is downright mystifying. One .300 Winchester fan told me he used to use puny cartridges like the .308, but since he switched to the .300 Winchester, all of his elk have gone down at least 100 yards quicker than those shot with non-magnum .30s. I pressed him a little for details, including his elk experience. He claimed to have shot “almost 10” elk.
What is almost 10? Nine? Eight? I suppose even six would be closer to 10 than no elk at all. It also turned out that all of the elk he’d taken with the .300 Winchester Magnum had been hit in the spine, while all of his .308 elk were shot in the lungs.
Even this seemed odd. I have taken elk with the lesser .30s, and none has managed to travel 50 yards after a solid chest shot. In fact, my biggest bull went just 20 feet after being hit by a factory-loaded, 180-grain .30-06 bullet at about 250 yards.
This load is basically the same as a factory 180-grain .308.
I’ve hunted big game with a pile of .30-caliber cartridges, including the .30-30 Win, .30-40 Krag, .300 Savage, .308 Win, .30-06, .300 WSM, .300 H&H, .300 Win Mag, .300 Wby Mag and .300 Rem Ultra Mag. The .308 and .30-06 will cleanly drop game out to 300 yards or more as long as the shooter knows how to aim. I know this because I have done it.
Those loads are also adequate for big trophy elk and the larger African plains game. Again, I know this because I’ve seen .308 and .30-06 bullets put down those animals over and over again, often as fast as the .300 magnums topple them.
Despite what’s written and shown on TV these days, 300 yards is a long shot for most hunters. What helps us more than anything is a rifle we can shoot accurately, not a few less inches of bullet drop. The .308 Winchester helps hunters more than most other big game cartridges not just because it recoils less than larger .30s, but because it is inherently accurate.
Some shooters say there is no such thing, that accuracy comes from how well a rifle is built and the quality of its ammunition, especially the bullet. If that is so, why do the people who test bullets on indoor ranges for major bullet companies say the .308 is more accurate than just about any other big game round? When asked if there is such a thing as an inherently accurate cartridge, they all say yes — and the .308 gets mentioned right away without prompting. My handloading notes for the last several decades indicate that more .308s have shot tiny groups than any other big game cartridge, including the various 6mm rounds.
If the .308 is so accurate, why isn’t it used for 1,000-yard target shooting? The reason is simple. Beyond 500 yards, other factors become more important, especially wind drift. But at under 500 yards, the .308 is as accurate as any big game cartridge and more accurate than most.
In fact, one of the few factory hunting rifles I’ve used that would average three shots in a half-inch at 100 yards with factory ammo was a .308, a Sako Model 75. It performed that trick with Federal Premium ammunition loaded with 150-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips.
That rifle was used to take a pronghorn at 250 yards and a mule deer at 330 yards on a hunt in Wyoming. The shooting was actually pretty simple, since there wasn’t much wind, and I shot prone with the rifle resting on my daypack.
The scope was a Burris 3-9x with a Ballistic Plex reticle. I simply put the right dot on the right spot, and the bullets landed there. End of hunt.
In fact, the modern multi-point reticle has made cartridges of modest velocity more viable at ranges past 200 yards.
Also, modern hunting bullets have made bullet weight less critical when hunting big game larger than deer. It could be argued that some 150-grain bullets work even better from a .308 than a standard 180 works from a .30-06.
My wife, Eileen, took a 6 1/2-pound .308 from Serengeti Rifles to South Africa in 2008. Using the 150-grain Nosler E-Tip handloaded to around 2,800 fps, she took a big Burchell’s zebra stallion. Penetration and expansion in every instance was more than sufficient.
She even shot through the leaf of a big prickly pear to drop a trophy bushbuck on the other side of the cactus-studded barricade.
My own favorite .308 is a Merkel K-1 single shot, a traditional-style kipplauf (break action) rifle that only weighs 6 3/4 pounds with a 6x42 Leupold scope. A traditionalist would have chosen some European metric round, but I already own several rifles chambered in 6.5x55, 7x57 and 9.3x62. I chose a .308 because ammunition can be found almost anywhere in the world.
In fact, when I hunted in Norway in 1996, joining local hunters for drives on red deer, by far the most popular round there was not the 6.5x55 (which despite being known as the Swedish Mauser was codesigned for the Norwegian Krag rifle), but the .308 Winchester. And a sporting goods store in Bergen had a lineup of a plainer Norwegian version of the Remington 700, all chambered in .308.
Travel to Africa, and you will find .308 ammunition just about anywhere you’ll find .30-06 or .375 ammo. It is a worldwide hunting caliber.
The Merkel has the virtue of quickly breaking down into its major parts so it will fit in a takedown rifle case or even in a big daypack. When put together again, it shoots right to the same place it did before.
Its first hunt was a caribou trip to the Northwest Territories. When my group went through the obligatory (and intelligent) ritual of shooting all our rifles at a 100-yard target to make sure they had survived the series of airplane flights to camp, the little Merkel put a shot exactly 2 inches high at 100 yards.
The camp manager was observing the target through a spotting scope. I started to stand up, but then he said, rather curtly, “That isn’t enough shooting to tell anything.”
I have run into this kind of self-important expert all over the world, so I sat down again and fired another round. The second shot landed about a half-inch from the first hole. Without getting up, I looked at him and asked, quite politely, if that was enough.
On that trip, the little .308 took a very nice bull caribou, plus the only wolverine I’ve ever been within rifle range of in more than a dozen trips to the North Country.
I am a big fan of the .30-06 and right now own half a dozen. I also like the .300 magnums enough to own four in chamberings from .300 WSM to .300 Weatherby. I have used .300 magnums to take many big game animals both in North America and Africa ranging from 75-pound springbok to 800-pound elk. But the longer I see the .308 in action, the more it impresses me.
One of the .308’s virtues is shared by other moderate-velocity cartridges such as the 7x57 Mauser: good performance even from relatively lightly constructed bullets.
An example is the Wyoming pronghorn I took with the little Sako 75. The buck was facing me at just about 250 yards, as nearly as we could later decide with a laser rangefinder. The 150-grain Ballistic Tip entered just inside one shoulder and exited the opposite ham. Now, Nosler has toughened up the Ballistic Tip over the years, but that’s great performance.
A premium bullet from the .308 will work on just about all non-dangerous game. Over the past decade, I’ve spent a lot of time on various cull hunts, observing how a wide variety of bullets worked on game. As a consequence, I’ve become less convinced that expanding bullets need to penetrate endwise through a freight car.
All a big game bullet has to do is get to the other side of the vitals. Sometimes this involves breaking shoulder bones, but many of today’s 150- to 165-grain bullets (including the most ancient premium bullet of them all, the Nosler Partition) will break a shoulder and get to the far ribs on a 700-pound animal.
Too, recoil has lost some of its charm as I’ve grown older. This is partly because middle-aged bodies aren’t as flexible as they were, but it’s also because heavy recoil can detach retinas and even cause minor concussions. I have friends who’ve suffered from both, and neither is fun.
In recent years, I’ve become quite fond of cartridges that do the job out to the ranges most game is killed, without bouncing my glasses off my nose or bruising my shoulder. The 7x57 might have more romance, and the .30-06 may have another 100 fps. When neither seems that important, the .308 works great.
Read More Articles by John Barsness:
• Troubles with Choke Tubes: All sorts of things prevent shotgun chokes from doing what we expect of them.
• The .30-06 Just Plain Works: Many of us know intellectually that the .30-06 is a good all-around big game cartridge, but explanations are not experience.
This article was published in the December 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.