August 06, 2020
By Craig Boddington
A perfect morning, frosty and clear, slight breeze out of the south. I put myself on a tree stand overlooking a winding creek, timbered ridge to my back. Two nice eight-pointers walked past, briefly sparred in front of me, and then walked on north toward a food plot. Twenty minutes later I heard more crunching in frozen grass over my left shoulder, and another buck walked cautiously into view. I just about lost it. He was the buck I was looking for: an ancient, huge-bodied unicorn spike that my neighbors and I have been trying to cull for three seasons.
While he was hidden by a cedar, I shifted around, raised the rifle and eared back the hammer. When he stepped clear I had to raise up a bit to get over some low branches, and then the Aimpoint red dot was steady on his shoulder. At the shot he ran hard to the right, but I was sure I heard him crash. I waited a bit, climbed down, crossed the creek and immediately found blood on the frosted grass, both sides. A couple dozen yards on I saw back legs stretched out, and there he was.
In these days of big scopes and super-accurate rifles, the gun I used was simple: a tubular-magazine .30-30, taking deer cleanly as it has for 125 years. There were two tips of the hat to modernity. I had put a reflex sight on the Mossberg 464, and I was shooting Hornady’s 140-grain MonoFlex bullet. The Aimpoint was in deference to my aging eyes; the fast, sharp-pointed bullet because it grouped well in the rifle.
It is often said the .30-30 has accounted for more deer than any other cartridge. This is possible because, after all, more than 7 million Winchester 1894s alone have been manufactured.
The shift to smokeless propellant began in about 1888, greatly enabled by the parallel development of jacketed projectiles. It is also often said that the .30-30 was the first smokeless cartridge developed for civilian use. This is almost true, but not quite.
Fully aware of the higher pressures of smokeless powder, John Moses Browning beefed-up the design of the ’94 Winchester specifically for the new propellant. However, in 1894 the rifle was ready but smokeless cartridges sized to the action were not.
The 1894 was initially introduced in .32-40 and .38-55, both still loaded only with blackpowder. A year later, in 1895, Winchester unveiled the .30-30 and, on the same case, the .25-35.
Also in 1895, Arthur Savage launched his Model 1895 lever action in .303 Savage. The .303 Savage was in development in 1894, and it’s probably fair to say the Winchester and Savage cartridges were parallel developments with similar case dimensions, but today it’s not clear which hit the market first.
The .30-30 Win. first appeared Winchester’s catalog No. 55 in August 1895. In blackpowder cartridges the charge weight in grains of blackpowder was often appended to the nominal bullet diameter. So .45-70 meant “.45 caliber, 70 grains of blackpowder.”
This convention continued only briefly in the smokeless era. The .30-40 Krag meant “.30 caliber, 40 grains of smokeless powder,” similarly “.30-30” and “.25-35.” As with most cartridge names, numbers are often approximate. The .25-35 didn’t actually have a heavier powder charge than the .30-30.
More interesting, “.30-30” was not a Winchester designation. Its first Winchester name—in that catalog—was .30 Win. Smokeless. John Marlin quickly adapted his Model 1893 lever action to the new Winchester cartridge, calling it “.30-30” for the first time. For some years, the prevalent Winchester rollmark was .30 WCF, meaning .30 Win. Center Fire.
It is uncertain exactly when Winchester gave up trying to maintain the WCF trademark. Rollmarks vary. I have a 1906 Model 94 .25-35 stamped “.25-35 WCF.” For sure the 20th century was still fairly new when the cartridge became commonly known, as it is today, as .30-30 Win.
The new smokeless powder cartridges offered higher velocities and flatter trajectories than was possible with blackpowder. Hunters quickly realized the increased energy and, coupled with new jacketed bullets, good penetration and the benefits of bullet expansion.
Faster cartridges came along quickly, but improvements in expanding bullets lagged. Cartridges with modest velocities in the low 2,000 fps range—like the .30-30 Win. and .303 Savage—quickly became known as highly effective hunting cartridges. From the starting gate, early expanding bullets were well-suited to .30-30 velocities and performed extremely well. After 125 years, they still do.
The .30-30 probably has been used to take all varieties of North American big game, including bison and the largest bears. Without question, it still accounts for some elk and black bear annually. Deer hunting remains its strongest suit, though—especially whitetail deer, where ranges are often fairly short, and the cartridge has plenty of power for even the largest-bodied bucks.
Through the 1950s, the .30-30 was America’s favorite deer cartridge. With millions of rifles still in use, the .30-30 to this day remains popular enough to hold a place on most manufacturers’ lists of top sellers in both cartridge and reloading die sales.
The Model 1894 Winchester is by far the best-selling rifle commonly chambered to .30-30 (and also the best-selling sporting rifle ever manufactured). However, Marlin quickly adopted the cartridge, and it has remained the most popular chambering in its long-running Model 336. It was also chambered in the Savage 1895 and is currently chambered in the Mossberg Model 464 and several Henry rifles.
The .30-30’s greatest fame, and most natural habitat, is probably the lever action. However, as a rimmed cartridge it was often chambered to single-shots, and it remains a popular barrel for Thompson/Center’s break-open action. Not so widely remembered is that, despite its exposed rim, the .30-30 has been chambered to quite a few bolt actions. It was a chambering for Winchester’s Model 54, which was the forerunner to the Model 70. More recently, it was chambered to the Savage Model 340 and Remington Model 788.
Historically, the tubular-magazine lever actions for which the .30-30 was designed required blunt roundnose or flatpoint bullets to avoid the very real possibility of detonation in the magazine during recoil. Until Hornady’s LeverEvolution, no .30-30 factory loads were ever offered with sharp-pointed bullets.
Thus, poor bullet aerodynamics always limited the .30-30’s downrange performance, and since riflescopes didn’t come into common use until after World War II, iron sights were another limitation to the .30-30’s performance. Together, these are why the .30-30 has long been considered a “100-yard” deer rifle.
Side-eject Marlins have always been “scopable,” but until 1982’s “angle-eject” feature, all Winchester ’94s were top-eject, preventing conventional low, over-the-receiver scope mounting. Millions of iron-sighted lever-action .30-30s are still in use, and there are still a lot of deer, hog, black bear and other hunting applications where range limitations don’t matter.
However, the .30-30 case and chamber accept all standard .308-inch bullets. You still can’t use conventional spitzers in tubular magazines, but aerodynamic bullets can be handloaded for use in single-shots and bolt actions. When I was much younger, magazine articles often appeared about jazzing up .30-30 performance in bolt guns and single-shots. I haven’t seen such a story for ages, but in stronger, non-tubular-magazine actions, careful handloading can up the velocity of the .30-30 and increase its downrange performance.
I’ve never owned a bolt-action .30-30 and probably never will, but in those magazine articles, the .30-30 generally proved surprisingly accurate. A .30-30 barrel I had for my T/C Contender was a tack-driver with standard loads. Considering the iron sight limitation, most of us probably don’t know how accurate our .30-30s are or aren’t.
Tubular-magazine lever actions have two inherent design restraints that often limit extreme accuracy: two-piece stocks and the tubular magazine secured to the barrel, most commonly at both fore-end tip and muzzle. These combine to affect barrel vibration, so accuracy varies widely. I suppose two to three m.o.a. would be average, and if we consider the .30-30 a 100 yard deer rifle, that’s plenty good enough.
However, I have seen Marlin, Mossberg and Winchester tubular-magazine rifles that were much more accurate. Against all odds, my Winchester M94 Trapper .30-30 is an amazingly accurate rifle. I bought it in about 1981, so it’s one of the last top-eject guns. I put a Lyman receiver sight on it, and when I could see iron sights far better than I can today, it produced sub-m.o.a. groups.
The .30-30’s inaugural factory load was a 160-grain bullet at about 1,900 fps. That sounds slow, but remember, smokeless powder was in its infancy. Such velocity is attainable with blackpowder and lead bullets but mostly with light-for-caliber projectiles. Winchester’s original 160-grain jacketed bullet had decent sectional density (.241); offered good penetration and performance; and, even at this mild velocity, shot a lot flatter than the blackpowder cartridges folks were accustomed to. The 160-grain bullet started the .30-30 on its road to greatness, but it soon gave way to blunt-tipped 150- and 170-grain bullets as standard.
For about a century most factory .30-30 loads have propelled a 150-grain bullet at a bit less than 2,400 fps and a 170-grain bullet at 2,200 fps. Typically, most hunters consider the 150-grain load the better choice for deer, while the 170-grain load has long been the choice for larger and tougher game such as black bear.
My Model 94 Trapper always grouped considerably better with 170-grain bullets, so that’s what I usually used, although the 16-inch-barrel gave up some velocity. This never caused me any problem on wild hogs, which is the game I’ve hunted the most with a .30-30. On deer I always got through-and-through penetration, but exit wounds were caliber size, so with the slower, heavier bullet I didn’t get much expansion.
Roundnose or flatpoint 150- and 170-grain bullets remain the most common .30-30 loads, offered by just about everyone. Hornady changed the game with its FTX (Flex Tip Expanding) bullet, essentially a sharp but “compressible” polymer tip that, for the first time, allowed safe use of an aerodynamic spitzer bullet in a tubular magazine. The LeverEvolution line incorporated the FTX bullet and also used blended proprietary propellants that allowed higher velocity. The initial LeverEvolution .30-30 load went back to the cartridge’s roots, using a 160-grain FTX bullet at 2,400 fps.
I’ve used this bullet on Texas hogs with awesome results, and it has exhibited great penetration and obvious expansion. Our hog hunting on California’s Central Coast has long required lead-free bullets, and Hornady solved this problem as well with its MonoFlex bullet, a homogeneous-alloy bullet incorporating the flexible polymer tip.
The MonoFlex .30-30 bullet is 140 grains. The weight reduction is necessary to meet cartridge overall length specifications because homogeneous-alloy bullets are longer than lead-core bullets of the same weight. In the LeverEvolution factory load, the 140-grain MonoFlex is rated at 2,465 fps. It’s no speed demon but fast for a .30-30.
Trajectories of Hornady’s 140- and 160-grain loads are within a tenth of an inch of each other to 300 yards. Sight either about three inches high at 100 yards for 200-yard zero and you’re down a foot at 300 yards. I would never suggest that a .30-30 is a suitable 300-yard cartridge, but with such modern loads, rifles with optical sights can easily be stretched to a couple hundred yards and change.
Although the capability is there, I’ve never used a .30-30 much beyond 125 yards. If I need more range, I choose something else. At close range, though, the capability keeps up with the legend.
I used the 140-grain MonoFlex to take the spike I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The bullet penetrated both shoulders and left a nickel-size exit on the far side. I haven’t yet used that bullet to take a big wild hog, but performance has been exactly the same on medium-size pigs.
There’s another factor to .30-30 performance that shouldn’t be overlooked. Blunt-nose bullets tend to initiate expansion more rapidly than sharp-pointed bullets, transferring energy more quickly and seemingly delivering a heavier blow upon impact. My theory is this rapid energy transfer has much to do with the .30-30’s reputation as a deer-thumping cartridge.
This is not necessarily lost with the new tipped bullets because upon impact the tip is driven down into the bullet, initiating expansion. I’m impressed by terminal performance of both the 160-grain FTX and 140-grain MonoFlex bullets. However, for short-range use, one shouldn’t forget the roundnose and flatpoint bullets that gave the .30-30 its legend.
My old Trapper has been a good friend for a long time. I still enjoy shooting it, and I need to hunt with it again. My Mossberg 464 is a new friend. The Mossberg is essentially John Browning’s great design, except it has a round bolt. Like current Winchester Model 94s, the Mossberg has a tang safety that to me is more intuitive than the crossbolt safeties on current Marlins and Model 94s between 1982 and 1992.
Also like recent Model 94s, the Mossberg is angle-eject and drilled and tapped for scope mounts. I don’t know exactly how accurate it is, and maybe someday I should put a scope on it and find out. However, since I think of the .30-30 as a short-range cartridge, it works great with the Aimpoint. So far it’s done everything I’ve asked of it. In due time it will probably have a story. Right now it has more hunting to do.