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.
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.