In the 40-odd years I’ve been doing this (and something north of 5000 articles), I don’t think I’ve ever written an article in praise of the .308 Winchester. This is embarrassing and downright shameful! After the .223 (5.56x45mm), the .308 Winchester is the most popular centerfire cartridge in the western world. In part, this is due to its adoption and widespread use by NATO nations (as the 7.62x51mm). However, its popularity is also based on pure merit: It is accurate, powerful, and versatile; and easily adaptable to the full range of rifle actions: Pump, lever, bolt, semiauto, single-shot.
We all have our favorites and, just like bigotry, favoritism often isn’t grounded in reality. I prefer the .30-06 to the .308. I prefer the 7mm-08 Remington to the 6.5mm Creedmoor, and I prefer the 7×57 Mauser to the 7mm-08. I prefer the .270 Winchester to the .280 Remington, and I prefer the .300 Weatherby Magnum to the .300 Winchester Magnum. I could go on with my irrational idiosyncrasies, but all these cartridges (and many more) are awesome. Others with similar—or different—experience could turn my preferences around and make compelling arguments. There are many great choices, and differences of opinion make horse races.
It’s impossible to love all cartridges equally. I have used all of the cartridges mentioned (and many more). However, it is virtually impossible to acquire equal experience with a wide range of cartridges and, ultimately, we are all victims of our own experience. I’ve used, shot, and hunted with the .308 in a wide selection of rifles, including several action types. However, I have more experience with the .30-06.
The .308 Winchester and I are of an age; we both came into this world in 1952. The .308 is based on the .30-06 case shortened (from 2.494 inches to 2.015 inches. I like to remind people that the .30-06 is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military. In shortening the case, the intent was not to create an emasculated cartridge. Rather, it was designed as a military cartridge that could be used in a shorter, lighter, and more efficient self-loading action than the long, heavy Garand. In initial testing it was called “T65” and adopted in 1954 as the 7.62×51.
Note: This was two years after its civilian introduction as the .308 Winchester. Apparently, the Winchester engineers thought they had something, and indeed they did. The .30-06 is very powerful…but so is the .308 Winchester! In 1952, I’m not sure the burning efficiency of a shorter and relatively fatter case was widely recognized, but the .308 Winchester is an early and shining example. Despite its shorter case with 20 percent less powder capacity (65.1 grains for the .30-06; 52 grains for the .308), the .308 runs only about seven percent slower than the .30-06.
Obviously, figures lie and liars figure. It depends on the load, and who is doing the loading, but it’s in the ballpark to say that the .308 Winchester is about 93 percent of the .30-06 in velocity, at least with bullets up to 180 grains. With extra-heavy bullets case capacity starts to tell, and the gap widens. But, realistically, with the great hunting bullets we have today, how many of us actually hunt with 200 and 220-grain .30-caliber bullets, especially in .308 and .30-06 rifles? I submit that few game animals will notice that seven percent difference! I suppose the only excuse I can offer for my long neglect of the .308 Winchester: The .308 and .30-06 are so similar in performance on game that, in my mind, I separate them little. With more velocity and more energy, I suppose the .30-06 is a slightly better elk cartridge. However, both cartridges are fully adequate for elk and moose, and the .308 is plenty of gun for any deer that walks!
For about 60 years (1920s into the 1980s), the .30-06 was America’s most popular hunting cartridge, which carried the huge advantage of widespread availability. We have a lot more choices today, and the .30-06 hasn’t been our standard-issue military cartridge for 65 years. The .30-06 is still popular, but the .308 is more popular, in part because of its better availability in semiautomatic platforms.
The .308 is often praised for its mild recoil, but I want to be careful about that because it is not a mild cartridge. In rifles of equal weight, it will kick noticeably less than the .30-06. However, because of its shorter and more efficient case, the .308 needs a bit less barrel to reach full velocity. So, with a shorter, lighter action and an inch or two less barrel, most .308s are lighter than .30-06 rifles. Reduce gun weight and recoil increases. The .308 may not be ideal for youngsters or shooters of smaller stature…especially in very light rifles!
The .30-06 and .308 are just two of dozens of great cartridges. It’s impossible to use them all and love them all equally, so it comes down to confidence in one’s choice. I’ve used the .308 quite a bit with perfect satisfaction…but I have more experience with and more confidence in the .30-06. I doubt this will change, but people I respect prefer the .308. My Dad was one of them; he did almost all of his hunting with an early M70 Featherweight .308, including moose and bear. My friend Kyle Lamb, retired special operations Sergeant Major, is a .308 guy, rarely abandoning his semiauto platform…and not minding the weight. Old industry friend Linda Powell, now with Mossberg, long with Remington, is a .308 lady. Pre-pandemic, in Sonora, she shot a fantastic Coues whitetail at some ridiculous range with her .308.
Another friend, Ron Silverman, is a die-hard .308 fan and has four rifles so chambered. Recently he told me why he uses the .308. “It is not the .308 per se that I like. I just got started on it over 20 years ago. I’ve learned the accuracy, drop, velocity, and energy with the .308. I know the recoil, I know what it does best, and what I dare not attempt. I have my pet loads; I’ve tested my data from fifty yards all the way out. With all the variables addressed, if something goes wrong, I can figure out the problem: Scope, bullet, powder, etc.
And: I practice all the time with all my .308 rifles! I could be using the .270, .30-06, or .300 Winchester Magnum…in the final analysis, the round doesn’t matter to me. That I know, understand, and can deal with the variables of the .308 makes my life of shooting very easy. In the field I am confident. I could do the same things with a different cartridge but, like my father told me, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Ron hunts with us in Kansas, and all his deer are well-shot, no tracking. He makes his .308s talk!