October 09, 2023
American shooters’ long and passionate affair with .30 caliber cartridges probably started with our adoption of the .30-40 Krag in 1892, our first smokeless-powder military cartridge and rifle. Things got steamy when the .30 Winchester Center Fire, aka .30-30 Win., was introduced in 1895. This was a time when the lever action was America’s dominant repeater. The .30-30 was the first smokeless centerfire sporting cartridge, initially chambered in the slick, handy Winchester Model 1894—designed for Winchester by John Browning.
The .30-40 and .30-30 alone probably would have been enough to ensure lasting affection for the .308-inch bullet. Love everlasting was secured in 1903 with a new Mauser-clone service rifle and faster rimless .30 caliber cartridge. The first version, the .30-03, was short-lived. The 1906 version, with slightly shorter neck and spitzer bullet, would serve in our military for 50 years, and become America’s most popular sporting cartridge: the .30-06.
Not everybody needs .30-06 or greater power and recoil, and there are numerous lower-power options—some old, some new, often sized to specific platforms. Lighter .30 caliber power and performance can be useful, without as much recoil and blast, but it depends on what you’re doing. So, let’s explore the smaller universe of “.30 Lites.”
As far as I can determine, the first cartridge to use a .308-inch projectile was the 7.5x55 Schmidt-Rubin, adopted by Switzerland in 1889. Our .30-40 Krag was next. Ever since, a .308-inch bullet has defined what we call “.30 caliber.” Other similar diameters were used with success: 7.65x42 Czech with a .309-inch bullet; .303 Savage (.311); 7.62x53R, 7.7x58 Arisaka and .303 British (.312, although the latter also uses .311); and 7.65x53 Argentine (.313).
These similar but not identical diameters create massive headaches for guys like me who shoot and load for various older rifles. Therefore I’m happy that, over time, most of the world decided that .30 caliber cartridges will use .308 bullets.
This unofficial standardization enables numerous cartridges in various velocity ranges, using like bullets of various weights and construction. I’m a hunter, so I judge .30 caliber cartridges primarily by their capabilities and limitations as hunting cartridges. I’ll start with the .30-30 Win.
The .30-30 is neither fast nor flashy, and it’s limited in effective range. Many of the rifles it has been chambered to are mediocre in accuracy, but they’re accurate enough for the cartridge’s sensible range. One thing that cannot be questioned: its reputation as a great deer cartridge.
It may not be true that the .30-30 has taken more whitetails than any other cartridge, but with millions of rifles in the field for generations, the .30-30 has taken a lot of deer—and still does. Its standard 150-grain load at 2,390 fps, producing 1,900 ft.-lbs. of energy, must serve as the baseline for effectively thumping deer. It is not the minimum, but if you decide to drop much below .30-30 performance on deer-size game—which today includes hogs—you must ask yourself why.
For most of its life, the .30-30’s typical tubular-magazine lever actions were relegated to blunt-nose bullets, which shed velocity like thrown rocks. So traditionally, the .30-30 was pretty much a 150-yard cartridge, which is fine because there are lots of places where that’s plenty. It was chambered to some bolt actions, allowing handloaders to load spitzer bullets. Today, Hornady’s compressible polymer tip bullets—FTX and MonoFlex—enhance aerodynamics, adding some effective range, but it is still not a long-range cartridge.
Some of its deer-dropping legend is based on the standard roundnose bullets, which transfer more energy on impact and initiate expansion more quickly than spitzers. In my opinion, the .30-30’s traditional roundnose and flatpoint bullets are among the reasons it performs so well on game. Anyway, there are plenty of old .30-30s still out there, and also new rifles from Marlin (now made by Ruger), Winchester and Henry.
With mild recoil, yet the ability to propel heavy bullets up to 170 grains at meaningful velocity, the .30-30 is almost in a class by itself, especially if we consider current availability. The similar .303 Savage, differing primarily in heavier bullets—to 190 grains—at lower velocity, is no longer chambered nor loaded. Neither is the once-popular .30 Rem., Big Green’s rimless 1906 answer to the .30-30, with identical ballistics.
The older rimmed military cartridges in and around .30 caliber—.303 British, .30-40 Krag, 7.62x54R Russian—are faster and more powerful than the .30-30. Although still loaded, they have not been chambered to standard production rifles for many years.
I’ve told the story before, but it’s such a great story that I’ll tell it again. In 1915 Arthur Savage engaged Charles Newton to design his .250-3000 Savage, the first factory cartridge to break 3,000 fps. With the Savage 99’s ability to use spitzer bullets, it competed well against Marlin and Winchester. In 1920, designers necked up the .250 Savage case to create the .300 Savage. The neck is dramatically short, the idea being to get as much powder as possible into the stubby 1.871-inch case. In 1920, .300 Savage ballistics approached then-current .30-06 performance.
You could say the .300 Savage was, by 30 years, the forerunner to the .308 Win. Or you could say the 1950s engineers might have looked at the .300 Savage before they developed the .308. In 1920, less thought was given to short actions or cartridge efficiency.
Even so, the Savage Model 20 bolt action, introduced in 1920, was America’s first commercial bolt action, and the first short bolt action—and it was only chambered in .250 and .300 Savage.
However, the .300 Savage was primarily a cartridge for the Savage 99 lever action. Except for the .308 Win., it is the fastest of the .30 Lites, and it’s also the second-flattest shooting, since it was always loaded with sharp-pointed bullets. With a 150-grain bullet at 2,630 fps for 2,303 ft.-lbs. of energy and a 180-grain bullet at 2,350 fps for 2,207 ft.-lbs., it was considered adequate for all North American big game. Recoil is more than the .30-30, but less than the .308. My Savage 99 in .300 Savage now lives at my kids’ place in Texas, where it’s a favorite whitetail and hog rifle.
In the late ’50s, the Savage 99 was readily adapted to the .308 Win. family, and the .300 Savage faded away. Today, it would be foolish to build a .300 Savage. Get a .308. However, there are plenty of good .300 Savage rifles out there. Prices are reasonable, and all the majors still load ammo. For a mild-kicking .30 Lite that will do almost everything, don’t sell it short.
Without question, the .308 Win. is king of the .30 Lites, although I’m not so sure how light it really is. At about 93 percent of the .30-06 in velocity and energy, it is the most powerful cartridge we could possibly consider .30 Lite. Of course, it kicks less than the ’06, but that’s a matter of degree.
The .308 Win. is powerful enough that it might not be the most ideal choice for new shooters, especially youngsters and women of smaller stature. But, man, it’s a wonderfully versatile choice. And accurate.
Historically, I have not been a .308 guy. Since it was introduced in the year of my birth, 1952, I should feel a special affinity for the .308, but I do not. My dad shot almost all his big game with his .308, a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight I still have. I’ve punched reams of paper with test .308s and shot a lot of game with .308 camp guns, but I’ve owned few.
I recently acquired a .308 I’ve been after for a long time. It’s a Model 88, Winchester’s only “modern” lever gun, with box magazine and forward-locking rotating bolt.
This one was built by a gunsmith I knew, with good wood, trigger job and a great barrel. Accuracy lives up to the .308 legend and, with plenty of gun weight, recoil is nothing. I’ve hunted hogs with it, and it’s been to Africa, but it missed last deer season.
More recently, there have been attempts to wring .308 Win.-like performance from tubular-magazine lever-actions. The .307 Win. is essentially a semi-rimmed version of the .308, introduced in 1982 in a beefed-up version of the Winchester Model 94. It doesn’t quite match the .308, but it is much faster and more powerful than the .30-30—of course with more recoil. It didn’t sell well, so there are few rifles out there—and no new ones. Ammo exists, but it’s not easy to find.
The .308 Marlin Express has a similar story. It was actually based on the .307 Win. case, and it was designed for the Marlin 336 and mated with Hornady’s first FlexTip spitzer bullets. It was introduced in 2007, but Marlin never really got .308 Marlin Express production off the ground. There’s some ammo out there, but rifles are rare.
Maybe Ruger will give it another chance with its new Marlins, but for now in a tubular-magazine lever-action, .30-30 is the .30 Lite to choose—and still a good choice. I still love the .30-30, I’m not about to abandon my .300 Savage, but that slick Model 88 in .308 is fast becoming my favorite .30 Lite.
Gene Stoner could never have envisioned how popular his AR-15 would become among sport shooters and hunters. Because of that popularity, an array of cartridges has been developed to wring more, better and different performance from the platform. This effort has challenges because the AR-15 action is sharply limited in the cartridge dimensions it can digest. Case length limits powder capacity, and max cartridge overall length limits bullet length and thus weight.
Of the .30 caliber choices for the AR-15, by far the most popular is the little .300 AAC Blackout, developed in 2009 by Advanced Armament Co. It is based on a shortened .223 case and works with a standard AR-15 bolt face. The .300 BLK was designed for supersonic ammo with light bullets up to 125 grains, and subsonic ammo with heavy bullets around 220 grains.
Despite the great bullet weight, subsonic loads don’t have the energy for hunting use because they’re under 500 ft.-lbs. of energy.
With supersonic loads, the .300 BLK achieves credible velocity: 2,375 fps with a 110-grain bullet and 2,215 fps with a 125-grain bullet. Muzzle energies aren’t bad: 1,377 ft.-lbs. for the 110-grain and 1,360 ft.-lbs. for the 125-grain bullet. However, these light-for-caliber bullets lose velocity quickly, and the .300 BLK does not approach .30-30 performance on deer-size game. For me, the combination of bullet weight and energy just isn’t enough.
On the plus side, the .300 BLK is accurate and great fun to shoot. Not long ago, I had a ball with a Wilson .300 BLK in a prairie dog town. It can work on deer and hogs if you’re very careful, but most folks with significant experience observing its use on game find it a bad crippler.
To my thinking, as a sporting cartridge, the old 7.62x39 Russian is far superior. It is sort of AR-compatible, as in a different bolt face and magazine are required. While it’s nominally a .30 caliber, it uses a .310-inch bullet, and the standard load propels a 123-grain bullet faster than 2,400 fps for 1,600 ft.-lbs. of energy.
This is still not .30-30 performance, but it’s coming closer. And, after all, the thousands of African game rangers (and poachers) who use AK-47s can’t all be wrong. Ruger produces the excellent M14-based Mini Thirty, which is chambered in 7.62x39. And while they’re not semiautos, both Ruger and CZ-USA chamber it in bolt guns—the American Ranch and 600 series rifles, respectively.
In 2008, Remington introduced its .30 Rem. AR. It isn’t based on the old .30 Rem at all. Rather, it uses the fat .450 Bushmaster case with a rebated rim. The .30 Rem AR is by far the fastest .30 caliber AR cartridge. Action and magazine constraints reduce bullet weight to 125 grains, but it is 34 percent faster than the .30-30, with 19 percent more energy. It needs a bolt face that’s larger than the .223, but power is unquestionable. Regrettably, Remington has been the only manufacturer, and the .30 Rem AR has not been popular.
In my opinion, Wilson Combat’s .300 Ham’r is a better AR-platform cartridge. Bill Wilson is a hunter, and he developed his Ham’r largely because of the .300 BLK’s insufficient energy on game. It was developed for sporting use, with no thought to subsonic loads. The Ham’r has a longer case and thus more powder capacity than the BLK, and it works with a .223 bolt face. There is some magazine compatibility.
Wilson’s goal was to reach .30-30 performance in an AR. The Ham’r doesn’t quite get there, but it comes close. The 125-grain bullet does 2,563 fps for 1,823 ft.-lbs., and the 150-grain bullet hits 2,240 fps for 1,671 ft.-lbs. Extensive testing on Texas hogs suggests they’ve got a pretty good Ham’r. Although developed as a Wilson Combat proprietary, the .300 Ham’r has recently been SAAMI-approved, so if you’re looking for a .30 Lite hunting cartridge for an AR, I believe this will be the horse to ride.