December 07, 2015
By Layne Simpson
Regardless of what products a company develops or invents, there are bound to be a few losers in the mix. Chevrolet had the Corvair, Remington had the EtronX, and Winchester's underachievers include the .225 Win. and the .25 WSSM. Conversely, companies come up with some real winners as well. Winchester has had its share of those, and the .308 Win. is one of the more successful examples.
The .308 story begins shortly after the final shots of World War I had been fired. The development of ball powders by Winchester prompted a search by the U.S. Ordnance Corps for a cartridge more compact than the .30-06 but similar in performance. For a while the .300 Savage was a strong contender, and several experimental rifles were chambered for it. But its case neck proved to be a bit short for preventing bullet slippage under battlefield conditions. So the neck was lengthened by increasing case length another 0.44 inch. And changing the shoulder angle from 30 degrees to 20 degrees made the case easier to form on high-production machinery. The result was a new case with a two-grain increase in water capacity over the .300 Savage.
After about 35 years of development at Frankford Arsenal, the 7.62x51 NATO was finally adopted by the U.S. Army in 1953. It made its first military appearance in 1960 in a modified version of the M1 Garand called the M14 and in the M50 machine gun.
Winchester had been involved in the development of the cartridge since day one, and that, along with blessings from the U.S. government, enabled the company to introduce it to the commercial market as the .308 Win. a couple of years prior to its official military adoption. The cartridge made its debut in the Model 70 rifle, and though it was almost ignored to death by hunters and shooters early on, the stubby cartridge eventually caught on big time. Regardless of whether a popularity chart is based on the annual sales of ammunition or loading dies, the .308 has long ranked among the top five big game cartridges.
While they were developing the 7.62/.308, the technicians at Winchester looked closely at cartridges of other calibers on the same case. The cartridge that became the .243 Win. is almost a spitting image of Warren Page's earlier 6mm Super Pooper, but the genesis of the commercial round came about when word of Remington's upcoming .244 cartridge leaked out. The guys at Winchester quickly necked down the .308 case for bullets of the same .243-inch diameter and introduced it as the .243 Win. in 1955, the same year the .244 was unveiled by Remington.
Loaded with a 100-grain bullet for deer, the .243 took off like scalded dog and has yet to slow down. The .244 leaped from the starting gate and fell flat on the nose of its lighter 90-grain bullet. Based on both reloading die and ammunition sales for rifle cartridges above .224 caliber, the .243 Win. has remained among the top five most popular for the past 54 years.
There are several .243s in our family, but two have accounted for the most game through the years. One, a pre-'64 Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, belongs to my wife, Phyllis. Among her accomplishments with that rifle is a pronghorn antelope so good it took me quite a few years to catch up. My favorite .243 is a Model 15 Ti built around a titanium action by Prairie Gun Works, the Canadian firm. It pegs the scale at 6.5 pounds with scope and is the only rifle of its weight I have owned that consistently shoots three bullets inside a half-minute of angle.
The second .308 offspring was made by necking its case up for .358-inch bullets. In a world of scope-sighted rifles, the grand old Model 71 lever action was growing more obsolete each year and the flat-nosed bullet of its cartridge, the .348 Win., had become old hat. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Winchester's engineers began designing the Model 71's replacement in 1952 and introduced it in 1955 as the Model 88. During the Model 88's first year of production, it was available only in .308, but the .358 Win. and .243 Win. were added in 1956. The Model 88 and the Model 70 were the only two Winchesters ever chambered for the .358.
Despite the fact that the .358 has always been the Rodney Dangerfield of the .308 family, I like it a lot — perhaps because I almost always pull for the underdog. More likely it's due to a lasting fondness for my Winchester 88 in this caliber. All things considered, the .338 Federal is probably a better cartridge, but the way I see it, if a move is to be made to a caliber larger than .308, stopping short of .358 makes little sense.
Even with that said, I have a high opinion of the .338 Federal. Back in 1972, Roy Smith experienced an unpleasant encounter with a grizzly while carrying his Winchester 88 in .308 Win., so he rebarreled his rifle for a wildcat made by necking up the .308 case for .338-inch bullets. Several decades later Federal took up the short-action .338 flag.
I first used the .338 Federal on a Colorado elk hunt a few months prior to its introduction in 2006. At the time no factory rifle was chambered for it, so the guys at Federal sent a couple of Sako rifles in .308 Win. to Hart Rifle Barrels for rebarreling. Two loads arrived from Federal, and because the one with the Barnes 185-grain TSX was more accurate, I chose it for the hunt. One shot dropped a bull farther away than I should have been shooting.
The .338 Federal is a great little cartridge, one with performance far exceeding what its appearance might indicate. Even so, its future appears no brighter than that of the .358.
Winchester hit two big home runs when it introduced the .243 and .308, but it dropped the ball by not necking the same case down to 7mm — which metallic silhouette competitors had done long before such a round became a factory cartridge. When it did finally reach factory status, the boxes were green and not red.
Remington introduced the 7mm-08 in the Model 788 rifle in 1980, and it went on to become the second most popular .308 offspring.
I still have one of the first 788s made during that year, and it is the most accurate factory rifle in 7mm-08 I have ever shot. The very first Model Seven FS carbine built by the Remington custom shop also resides in my gun room, and since it weighs only 6.25 pounds with scope, it is better for toting up steep mountains. Through the years I have taken quite a bit of game with the little rifle, but my favorite and most accurate 7mm-08 was built by Kenny Jarrett some years back around a Model Seven action.
Little guys sometimes get trampled in a new cartridge introduction stampede, and the .260 Rem. story begins with just that. Around 1996, Art Alphin of A-Square submitted paperwork on the 6.5-08 A-Square — a .308 necked down to 6.5, as the designation suggests — to SAAMI. A bit later, Remington submitted the .260 Rem., a cartridge on the 7mm-08 Rem. case, which is .020 inch longer than the .308 case. Today there is no 6.5-308 A-Square (nor a .260 Panther, which is what one version of the .260 was also called). Remington obviously won the match.
The .260 Rem. and I got off to a really bad start. The first rifle I shot it in, a Model 700 Titanium Ultimate Lightweight, still holds the record as being the most inaccurate Model 700 I have ever rested atop sandbags. Checking the rifling twist rate of its barrel did not dawn on me, but as I now understand, early rifles had the same 1:10 twist that had worked nicely with rifles in 6.5 Rem. Mag. But the .260 is slower, so the twist rate was increased to 1:8. I later shot the .260 in a couple of other rifles with the quicker twist and had no complaint with their accuracy.
I eventually had a heavy, match-grade barrel in .260 Rem. installed on my switch-barrel Model 700 target rifle. It is quite accurate, but average group size has never quite equaled those fired by the same rifle with barrels of the same make in 6.5-284 Norma and 6.5 Creedmoor. But that's likely nothing more than luck of the draw as a good rifle in .260 Rem. should be able to shoot along with the best of them. I have bumped off three deer, one black bear and several hogs with rifles chambered for this cartridge, and while that does not make me an expert on its capabilities, it seemed to kill all as dead as is possible with any other member of the .308 family.
All things considered from a big game hunter's point of view, the .308 Win. is probably the best all-around choice of the entire clan. When loaded to 3,000 fps or so with the Nosler 125-grain Ballistic Tip, it will hold its own with either of its offspring in pronghorn country. Load it to maximum speed with a good 150-grain bullet and it becomes a darned good deer cartridge. Move up in bullet weight to 165 or 180 grains and it is not a bad elk cartridge at reasonable distances. Owning one rifle in .308 would cover most of the hunting most of us do, but as I long discovered, having rifles chambered for the entire family is a lot more fun.