This inherently accurate number packs a big punch in a small package.
By Greg Rodriguez
It was the last day of a two-week safari in Zimbabwe’s lowveld. I’d just showered and dressed for a farewell celebration when my friend, professional hunter Norman Crooks, suggested we pile in the Land Cruiser for one last look. He said it was just to kill time before the party, but I suspect he wanted one more chance to put me on the wildebeest I so desperately wanted.
We hadn’t driven far when Norman locked the brakes and grabbed his binoculars. Without bothering to look or ask why he stopped, I hopped out of the vehicle and Dumas, Norman’s tracker, handed me a rifle.
Norman checked out a herd of wildebeest for a second and then whispered, “There’s a good bull. Let’s go.”
“Are you really going to shoot it with that little gun? You know how tough those things are,” my client said as I started to walk away.
I thought about it for a second, and I almost switched rifles. After all, wildebeests are tough as nails, and it was getting too late to be tracking a wounded animal. But I’d used my .308 on several safaris and was confident that it was up to the task. I was also a bit tired of my clients’ incessant comments about my “mouse gun.” So rather than exchanging it for my .375 H&H, I tightened my grip on the little .308 and followed Norman, determined to prove my point.
We stalked to within 165 yards of the herd before we ran out of cover. I found a good rest on a tree and got comfortable. I waited for the bull to step clear of the herd, then stuck the reticle right on the point of his shoulder and took up the slack. At the shot, the wildebeest bucked and ran. I’d already chambered another round and was about to take a follow-up shot on the running bull when he fell over, deader than dollar gas. I looked back at my client and smiled. “Yeah, I guess this little gun will do,” I said.
The .308 Win is, unequivocally, my favorite deer cartridge. It is an accurate, efficient, mild-mannered and versatile cartridge that performs far better than the magnum-maniacs would have you believe. And that is not conjecture on my part. I have taken literally hundreds of big game animals with it, from Texas whitetails to African eland. Over the years, I have come to appreciate its virtues so much that seven .308 rifles now reside in my safes.
Winchester introduced the .308 Win in 1952, two years before it was adopted by the United States military as the 7.62x51mm NATO. It was, as most military cartridges are, immediately embraced by the shooting public. Hunters appreciated its moderate recoil and great performance on game, and competition shooters liked its now-legendary accuracy. In fact, over the years, the .308 has become the cartridge of choice in most competitive rifle disciplines, and it is used by military snipers to engage targets as far away as 1,000 yards. You probably don’t shoot many steel plates with your deer rifle, and hopefully, you won’t ever have to engage enemy combatants at 1,000 yards. But you can rest assured that those who do choose the .308 do so for some very good reasons.
Writers often describe the .308 as a cartridge that is “inherently accurate.” Many assorted experts would argue that there is no such thing, but I would have to disagree. I can count on one hand the number of .308 rifles I’ve tested that weren’t accurate. It usually doesn’t take long to find a load they like. The .308 tends to be a consistent cartridge, too, as most rifles thus chambered and with the proper twist shoot a wide variety of factory loads well.
The .308 is also extremely efficient. Despite having a half-inch-shorter case than the .30-06, it offers very similar performance. While .30-06 fans will argue that the ol’ ought-six will push the same bullet up to 200 feet per second faster, the fact is that the differences between the two are insignificant to all but the most stubborn armchair ballisticians.
If we look at Federal’s 165-grain Sierra Game King loading, which is available in both calibers, we can see just how subtle that difference is. Federal claims a muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps for the .30-06, versus 2,700 fps for the .308. With a 200-yard zero, the .30-06’s extra velocity means it drops a miniscule .7 inch less than the .308.
Wind drift at 300 yards is exactly the same for both loads, and the .308 only gives up 139 foot-pounds of energy at that range. As you can see, any advantage the .30-06 may claim is more theoretical than practical.
And before you .30-06 fans fire up your word processors to let me know that Federal’s High Energy and Hornady’s Light Magnum lines boost the .30-06’s performance to .300 Win Mag levels, please note that both companies make turbocharged versions of the .308, too.
The .308’s shorter case means it can be chambered in a shorter, lighter action. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you couple it with a shorter barrel, which seems to handicap the .308 less than the .30-06, the weight savings can be substantial. This makes rifles so chambered ideal for mountain hunting and for small-framed shooters.
The .308 is also an excellent cartridge for recoil-shy shooters. Its recoil can present a challenge in an ultralight rifle, but it is tolerable for most shooters in a standard-weight rifle, and even the most recoil-sensitive shooters can handle a heavy-barreled .308. I have used just such a rifle to train women and kids for the last three years, many of whom have used it to take their first deer. In fact, one of my good friend’s sons took his first buck with a .308 this past season.
Young Clanton Wood was having a bit of trouble handling his dad’s gun, but he wanted to try my .308 sniper rifle because he thought it looked cool. He flinched a bit at the first shot, but said it didn’t kick at all. He practiced with it for a while and was shooting some pretty nice groups by the end of the day, so I offered to let him hunt with it. The next morning, he made the most of our only opportunity with a perfect shot on a nice Hill Country 9-pointer that stepped out at 115 yards.
For those who just can’t take the recoil or have to make do with a light rifle, the .308 performs well when loaded down, too. You can handload or choose between reduced-velocity loads by Federal and Remington. Both low-recoil loads are perfectly capable of taking deer out to 200 yards.
Versatility is yet another of the .308’s many virtues. In Texas, I’ve used a .308 to take countless hogs, whitetails and exotics, but I have also used it to drop predators out to almost 500 yards. While it performs well on deer-sized game, the .308 is capable of taking anything the .30-06 can. In fact, I’ve collected an ark or two of African plains game armed with “only” a .308. Of the tougher species, I’ve dropped the above-mentioned wildebeest, over 40 kudus (trophies and culls), a 1,600-pound eland, several zebras and two gemsboks with various .308s. Gemsboks are notoriously hardy animals, but I only needed one shot to drop each of them, one from 180 yards and the other from 346 yards. While the .30-06 or any of the .30-caliber magnums could certainly have done the job just as well, the .308 does it with less muzzle blast and recoil.
To take advantage of the .308’s versatility, you must make use of the wide variety of available bullet weights and styles. For thin-skinned game like whitetails and pronghorns, conventional soft points like Remington’s Core-Lokt, Winchester’s Power Point, Federal’s new Fusion and Hornady’s boat tail soft point all work well. For larger animals such as black bears and African plains game, I prefer a tougher bullet like the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Barnes-X, Fail-Safe or Swift A-Frame.
In most cases, I prefer 165-grain bullets, as I feel they offer the best balance of bullet weight and performance. Lighter bullets are fine for kids and smaller game such as whitetails, but I do not like them for pronghorns, as they drift more and carry less energy at the long ranges frequently encountered in pronghorn country.
Where shots are close and the brush is thick, 180-grain bullets are a great choice. However, I can’t think of any case in which I would use a bullet heavier than 180 grains in my .308; its small case just can’t hold enough powder to push big bullets fast enough for peak performance. Besides, if you need a 200-grain bullet, you should be shooting a magnum.
The .308 Win has so much going for it that I hate to shortchange it by just saying it is my favorite whitetail cartridge. While it is arguably the finest cartridge to ever be carried into the deer woods, it is capable of so much more. From whitetails to mule deer to African plains game, the .308 can cleanly take just about anything that walks the woods, save the big bears and Africa’s Big 5. The .308 Win may not raise eyebrows with fire-breathing performance, but it packs a big punch in a small package with moderate recoil. These qualities may not be too popular with the magnum-maniacs, but they elevate the .308 Win to “favorite” status in my book.
Reprinted from the November 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.