.308 Marlin Express
January 04, 2011
In pining for the nearly extinct .307 Winchester, the author finds a new true love.
Longer ago than I will admit to, I wrote an article on new things I wanted to see introduced, and I included a cartridge that received a lot of interest. Back then, new cartridges were not introduced every month. Also, lever-action hammer guns--the Marlin 336 and Winchester 94 in particular--were still extremely popular, especially among hunters who lived east of the Mississippi.
The new cartridge I asked for would be compatible with those two rifles and capable of duplicating the .300 Savage in performance. We lovers of the old lever guns finally got our wish in 1982 when Winchester introduced the .307 Winchester.
Nothing more than a rimmed version of the .308 Winchester case with a thicker wall, the new cartridge was loaded to a maximum average chamber pressure of 55,200 c.u.p., which was really something since the Winchester Model 94 for which it was created was originally designed for cartridges that operated at much lower pressure levels.
But U.S. Repeating Arms had in 1978 introduced a beefed-up version of the Model 94 capable of handling the 52,000 c.u.p. pressure of the .375 Winchester, and it was a perfect home for .307 Winchester as well as its equally new littermate, the .356 Winchester.
Despite the fact that I, on more than one occasion, described the .307 Winchester in print as the greatest deer cartridge ever designed for the Model 94 and Model 336 rifles, it eventually faded away. As to why deer hunters did not line up in great numbers with money in hand to buy it I can only speculate.
Loaded with a 150-grain bullet at 2,760 fps, the .307 was only 40 fps behind the .308 Winchester in speed and actually exceeded the muzzle energy of the .300 Savage by more than 10 percent. Problem was, muzzle energy bags very few deer. The .307 hung with the .300 out to 100 yards (which is saying plenty since most deer in the East are killed at shorter distances), but its tube-magazine-compatible blunt nosed bullet shed velocity fast, making it no contest beyond 100 long paces.
I will now fast-forward to the recent introduction of LeverEvolution ammunition by Hornady. Still a fan of the .307 Winchester, one of my first thoughts when seeing the new pointed Flex-Tip bullet was how terrific it would be in that cartridge. And I got my wish too, but only momentarily.
Hornady's first move was to load the .307 Winchester to 2,660 fps with the 160-grain FTX bullet, and I know this to be true because I have a box of the ammunition. But for reasons too lengthy to go into here, that project was abandoned before any of the ammo was shipped to dealers. Instead, those clever chaps out in Nebraska teamed up with Marlin and gave us an even better-performing cartridge called the .308 Marlin Express.
Like the .307 Winchester, the .308 Marlin Express is a rimmed version of the .308 Winchester except the case is, according to my caliper, .095 inch shorter in length. The shorter case has about 3.5 percent less capacity, but Hornady more than makes up for the difference by loading the same type of special propellant in the .308 Marlin Express as the company loads in its Light Magnum family of ammunition (which is slated to be discontinued; see Wayne van Zwoll's article on the new Superformance ammo in this issue--Ed.)
For this reason, it is loaded to 2,660 fps with a 160-grain bullet, same as Hornady had loaded the .307 Winchester for a short time. That, along with being loaded with a pointed bullet, enables the .308 Marlin Express to deliver a tad more energy at 300 yards than the .307 Winchester does at 200 yards.
It shoots flatter too; when both cartridges are zeroed three inches high at 100 yards, a flatnose bullet fired from .307 strikes about 12.5 inches below line of sight at 300 yards compared to half that for the .308 Marlin Express. It took a long time, but I finally got .300 Savage performance at all distances in a Marlin 336.
The .308 Marlin Express is better news for those who stick with factory ammo than those who prefer to handload. I say this because even though the 160-grain FTX bullet recently became available as a reloading component, it is doubtful that factory load performance will ever be reached unless the powder Hornady is loading in the cartridge becomes available to the canister trade.
The loads I have included in this report are from Hodgdon's Annual Manual, and as you can see, the 160-grain load is almost exactly 200 fps slower than the factory load in my Marlin rifle. Further load development might close the gap a tad, but I'd be surprised to see handloaders duplicate factory load speed with propellants now available, at acceptable chamber pressures.
Before leaving the subject, I tried more different powders in the .308 Marlin Express than shown in my load data, and if I had to pick just one to use with all bullet weights it would be H335. It is a perfect match for that cartridge.
Even though loading bullets of flatnose or roundnose form in the .308 Marlin Express is defeating its intended purpose a bit, those weighing 150 and 170 grains deliver about as much energy out to 100 yards as Hornady's 160-grain FTX, and a lot of deer, hogs and black bear are killed inside that distance. In fact, at woods ranges, the Nosler 170-grain Partition would not be a bad choice for use on elk and moose.
Still, the FTX bullet is what makes the .308 Marlin Express what it is--the best deer cartridge ever developed for a tube-fed lever-action rifle. One more thing about that fantastic bullet. In case you have not noticed, Hornady's 160-grain LeverEvolution load delivers only about 100 ft.-lbs. less energy at 200 yards than .307 Winchester factory ammo loaded with a 180-grain flat nose bullet. Like I said, the FTX bullet's the thing.