How the .308 Became so Great

.308 Winchester

Why is the .308 Winchester so darn popular? The answer lies in a convoluted maze of hard facts and half truths. The .308 Winchester is the civilian version of the military’s 7.62×51 NATO cartridge, which is not to be confused with the somewhat similar sounding 7.62×54R cartridge of old. The military developed the 7.62 NATO in the 1950s as an international standard for small arms. Following the success of the 30.06 round which the military fielded for decades, the brass wanted something that would be better suited to fully automatic fire. The 30.06 did a fine job with semiautomatic use, but was uncontrollable when fired from a fully automatic weapon platform due to the high amount of recoil.

.308 Winchester
.308 Winchester

After the Second World War, the military carried out experiments to improve the M1 Garand rifle, which used the full size 30.06 cartridge. Despite the rifle’s success, the limited capacity en-bloc clip was major problem for soldiers in the field—it also taxed the military’s logistics system. Developers realized that they needed something smaller. A round that was powerful enough to shoot great distances, accurate enough to suit the American military doctrine of well-placed firepower, but small enough to allow a lighter firing mechanism and much more ammunition.

The answer came in the 7.62×51 NATO cartridge. It exceeded the military’s needs by supplying a 150-grain projectile that flies at approximately 2,800 feet per second, all while being a half inch shorter than its big brother the 30.06. This round was accurate, light, and powerful. Tied to the success of the new NATO cartridge, was the venerable M14 rifle. Unfortunately, while the M14 could outperform most any military battle rifle on the range, its size, weight and uncontrollable recoil with fully automatic fire would be part of its undoing. Soldiers in Vietnam had several other issues with the M14 as well. The rifle’s overall length was not well suited for jungle warfare. In addition, the weight of 7.62×51mm cartridges limited the total amount of ammunition that soldier’s carried when compared with the common 7.62×39mm cartridge of the AK platform rifles, which the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers were equipped with. In addition, the originally issued wooden stocked versions of the M14 were susceptible to warping from moisture in tropical environments, producing wandering zeroes, and other accuracy problems. Fiberglass stocks did however fix this problem after later development.

The United States traded in their M14s for the M16 after a comparably short service life, and your average grunt was soon carrying twice the amount of ammunition of 5.56×45mm. Despite the military dropping 7.62 for its main battle cartridge, the firearms community recognized the superior performance of the .308. The cartridge quickly became a favorite among sportsman, target shooters, and specialized military units who required long-range precision rounds. Today, military snipers use M14 variants such as the Mk 14 Mod 0 Enhanced Battle Rifle and M21 as dedicated, high precision weapons. The cartridge’s popularity spread to other designs, such as the M40, which became the standard sniper weapon of the United States Marine Corps in 1966. The marines still use the M40 today with great success.

Whether it is at a shooting competition, the range, or the battlefield, the .308 Winchester isn’t going anywhere. It personifies the perfect balance of low recoil, power, and precision. If you are going to consider building an all-purpose combat rifle, consider the .308 carefully. It may offer all the things you are looking for—just don’t complain about finding a place for all those marksmanship trophies.

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Comments (8)

  1. Have you ever suffered from light primer strikes? Did you know that the hardness of primers varies just as much as the different types of primers that you can buy. People don’t talk about this topic very much because it affects some guns more than others. I have a Tanfoglio 9mm which has light primer strikes straight out of the box. Most Tanfoglion hand guns have the same problem. If you use a hard primer like CCI, you will get misfires every 4th or 5th round. Change to softer primers like Federal Match Grade and the problem goes away. I searched the Net and couldn’t find a fix for the problem, so I thought I’d tell a few people about the fix. Hope you find it interesting 🙂

  2. The 7.62X63 MM NATO cartage , or the 30~06 case , Is the Greatest Chambering ever devised in a battle rifle or a civilian hunting rifle . ESP: for the the civilian hunting rifle , and Esp: in the Bolt action rifle for Long” , range accuracy . The 7.62X51 MM NATO cartage , or .308 case was derived from the 7.62x63mm NATO case , or 30~06… (Same case necked down) , is the Most versatile round ever developed ….Re:…. It is a 30 Cal. .308 thousands diam. Round , or bullet . The 30~06 case can and has been loaded with 30 Cal. Bullets from , 110 Gr. Too over 220 Gr. Bullet`s . The .300 Winchester Magnum”…. A Magnum rifle that use`s ALL” , the Same size , and diam. bullets , as the 30~06 does , but pushes all of the 30 Cal. Bullet`s at or above Magnum (3000) ft. Per. Sec.~ velocity up Too” the 180 bullet`s. The . The 30~06 rifle will push bullet`s from 110 Gr. Too 150 Gr. @ Magnum velocity`s also” .308 rifle case uses the same 30 Cal. .308 diam. Bullet`s up Too” the 200 Gr. Bullet`s . The .308 rifle will also push bullets from 110 Gr. Too 130 Gr. Bullets @ Magnum velocity`s . The 30~06 although , has a lot of recoil , Will and has stopped or taken down every type animal in the world” . No other chambered Rifle that use`s 12 different size bullet`s can share that same fate ” other than the .300 Win. Mag . Rifle , but with Quite” a bit more recoil added . A hunter that has any one , or all three” , of those three Chambered rifles , with the right grain weight bullet`s , in those chambering`s , can hunt and take down” , Almost” Anything He Want`s In The World ! The 7.62 chambering`s will be around , when my Great” , Great Grand Children are dead and gone . Stat`s show , there have been More” 30~06 rifle die`s made and sold , in the world than Any” other Die Made , Still to this day . I belive those , Stat`s” , make`s the ole 30~06 rifle chambering , the most versatile rifle ever devised period . ESP. In a Bolt type rifle . Based on other simmler stat`s…. The Next best hunting rifle is the old model 94 Winchester 30~30 , which is Also , a 30 Cal. .308 diam. bullet Rifle . It has taken MORE Deer” than Any Other Rifle Made ,Still To This Day. I`m a Big Fan of the ole 30~30 , And the 30~06 , I belive they are the two best hunting rifle cartridges ever devised period , from my experience with the two cartridges .

    1. Yes it can; what should not be done is to put .308 in a military rifle. Military rifles can have (for reliability in dirty conditions) excessive headspace, which the weaker brass of the hotter .308 round may not be able to expand into without rupture.

  3. note also: i do NOT disagree with the writer about the excellence of the .308/7.62nato cartridge, my present rifle is an f.n. “fal” 7.62nato and i’m quite happy with it.

  4. on the writer’s remarks about “controllability” i’ve fired a full auto m-14, from standing offhand, and found it quite controllable firing 3 round bursts. of course if you’re shooting “spray and pray”, half a magazine at a time it’s going to climb, and most of your ammo will be wasted on thin air.
    “gunner” (m.o.s.0331)
    (note: the little lug at the lower left rear of the military m-14 receiver housing was for an optional “fire control” lever for full or semi-auto fire. it was removed from m-14s for civilian sale.)

  5. What I like in this report is the clear ID of the 30-06 as the parent of the 7.62. Stop. Point made.

    Let’s face it, anything based on the ’06 casehead, though the case be shortened, necked up or down or not at all, will probably have enough powder behind it to get the job done.

    May I digress for a moment? And I will make a clear point afterward.

    I find it amusing that so many sources will quote the 6.5 Creedmoor as a decendant of the .30 TC, a descendant of the .307 Winchester with rim removed. The .307 “rimless” happens to be the 7.62/.308. Hmmmmm. Tracing it forward: ’06 begat the 7.62, .270, .35 Whelen, .280 Rem Exp, .25-06, …..; 7.62 begat the .243, and others; 7.62 morphed into the .307 Winchester as a rimmed version for lever guns; and the .307 begat the .30 TC with rim removed which begat the 6.5 Creedmoor. Another ‘hmmmmmmmmm’. Seems like the .307 is a half-brother more than a parent cartridge.

    The concept of a proportionately short fat powder column was not in use at the time, though later explored and fully developed beginning with the PPC series of chamberings. The .308 on this point was ahead of its time and was accurate for reasons to be understood only later. It is still among the Great Ones. The Johnny-Come-Lately short magnums merely enlarge what Palmisano and Pindell worked on gaining .300H&H capacities (in some cases, unintentional pun)_in a short action length.

    Coming full circle here. A great cartridge begat another great one. Anything outside of the ’06 casehead family has to stand on its own merits and will always owe a tip of the hat to the .308 for its popularizing “short action” big game rifles and an entire genre of lightweights which were not possible with the ’98 Mauser/’03-A3/’17 Enfield length.

    No, I do not now nor have I ever owned a .308. I’m simply a student of cartridges and their relative place in history.

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