The .308 Winchester has been the go-to round for military and law enforcement precision shooting for the better part of a century. Is it really the best choice, though? We will take a look at some hard data and explore whether this standby cartridge is really the best choice for long-range precision shooting.
It’s impossible to explore the .308 without examining the role of its parent: the .30-06 Springfield. The .30-03 and later .30-06 were born out of the U.S. military’s experience in the Spanish-American War, where it found itself out-gunned by 7x57mm Mauser-wielding enemy troops. Warfare was in a state of massive transition in those days with smokeless powder replacing black, trucks replacing horses, and the emergence of combat aircraft on the near horizon.
At its introduction, the .30-06 was state-of-the-art technology. The cartridge served troops well in both the 1903 Springfield and the mighty M1 Garand and was used against enemies ranging from Moros in the Philippines to the People’s Liberation Army swarming across the Korean Peninsula. During the years that America rose from international irrelevance to its position as a superpower, it did so with a .30-06 strapped to its back.
Advancements in propellants allowed ordnance engineers to replicate the performance of the .30-06’s 150-gr. load in a shorter cartridge, and the .308 Winchester/7.62x51mm NATO was born. Lest you remind me that the NATO cartridge and the .308 are not identical, for the purposes of this discussion, they are one and the same.
By the late 1960s, the .308 was relegated to specialized duty as a sniper cartridge where it served (and continues to serve) admirably in the Marine Corps’ M40 series and the army’s M24, as well as in various autoloading sniper rifles. Though many units across the U.S. military have transitioned to the .300 Winchester and .338 Lapua Magnums for long-range use, the .308 remains a workhorse of the designated marksman and sniper roles.
The military has stuck by the .308 as a long-range cartridge for a variety of political, fiscal and logistical reasons, but the civilian market isn’t bound by appropriations legislation and supply officers. We can buy whatever we want.
When rifle makes began marketing sniper-style rifles to the civilian and law enforcement market, they chambered them in .308 because, well, that’s what the military used. A funny thing happened, though. A few years ago, more and more shooters across the nation began actually shooting their rifles at long range.
They realized that hitting steel at 500 yards was child’s play and the mystical 1,000-yard shot was within the reach of any shooter with decent equipment and the skill to use it. They also realized that the .308 wasn’t really up to the task for true long-range work. Sure, you can hit a long-range target with it, but there are far better tools for the job.
In our quest to find a better long-range cartridge, civilians rediscovered the virtues of the 6.5mm; the ability to use long, sleek bullets with high ballistic coefficients without crowding powder capacity. Cartridges such as Lapua’s 6.5×47, Hornady’s 6.5 Creedmoor, and Remington’s .260 allow for superior ballistics to the .308 with less recoil.
These modern rounds use sharper shoulder angles and longer necks and are therefore more efficient and potentially more accurate. A cartridge that kicks less and shoots flatter with less wind drift is a winner when it comes to long-range precision.
As great as the 6.5 cartridges are, wildcatters have arguably made them even better by adapting them to 6mm. Cartridges such as the .243 Winchester and 6mm Remington always had potential as long range cartridges, but slow twist rates in factory barrels deprived them of the heavy bullets that would have let them be great. Custom .243s with fast-twist barrels showed real promise, and cartridges such as the 6mm Creedmoor, 6x47mm Lapua and David Tubb’s 6XC evolved as some of the kings of long range.
So how do these cartridges compare the .308? Let’s run the numbers. We will compare the .308 with the well regarded 175-gr. BTHP at 2490 fps (M118LR load) with some of the newer cats on the block.
With a 100-yard zero, the .308 drops 389 inches at 1,000 yards and drifts 100 inches in a full-value 10 mph wind. By contrast, under the same conditions, the .260 Remington (loaded with a 139-gr. Lapua Scenar) drops 311 inches and drifts 75 inches. Hornady’s 143-gr. factory load for the 6.5 Creedmoor performs similarly with 328 inches of drop and 72 inches of wind drift. The 6XC with 115-gr. DTAC bullets at 3020 fps drop only 263 inches at 1,000 yards while drifting just 66 inches in the same wind. That’s more than 30 percent less drop and almost 35 percent less wind drift than the .308.
These cartridges also stay supersonic at greater ranges, making their trajectories easier to predict. Each of these cartridges produces roughly 15 percent less free recoil energy than the .308 and are therefore easier to shoot. All can be fired from the same action and magazine length as the 308. Out past 1,200 or so yards, the differences become even more dramatic.
Clearly, the numbers are better, but are there any downsides to these cartridges? If you want to find out if something really works, see if the pros are using it. People who perform at the highest levels of competition almost always drive the cutting edge when it comes to gear. Precision Rifle Blog tracks the equipment used by the top 100 competitors in major sniper-style matches across the nation.
In 2015, PRB polled top-level shooters on their cartridge choice and found that 98 percent of the shooters used 6mm or 6.5mm cartridges. The top four choices were the, 6.5×47 Lapua, 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 Creedmoor, and the 6×47 Lapua, in that order. Of the shooters who finished in the top 100 in these 300-1,200-yard matches, 80 percent used one of these four cartridges. Not one of the serious competitors in these matches uses a .308.
I know what you’re thinking. These guys are shooting matches. What about combat? One of my good friends is a SEAL Sniper with seven combat deployments. When I asked him his thoughts on the .308, he didn’t mince words.
“In sniper school, we trained on bolt-action .308s (for 5 of the 73 days), but then we graduated to the .300 and never again touched the .308 in a bolt gun in either training or real world engagements. The notable exception is in an auto-loading weapon system like the SR-25/Mk11 which adds versatility, particularly in an urban environment where the shots are typically closer and there is a need to move and clear as you go, where one rifle is an advantage. The .300 gives you range, accuracy and good terminal ballistics that are superior to the .308 in about the same weight package. I would say that there is no comparison.”
Shannon Kay is the owner of and lead instructor for K&M Precision Rifle Training, which provides a variety of firearm training courses, including long-range precision rifle classes.
Kay, still an active duty officer, served a sniper and sniper instructor in the U.S. Army, both in conventional and special operations units. He is also a top-ranked shooter in the Precision Rifle Series. Kay won the Accuracy International Long Range Classic in March 2016 and did it with a 6mm Creedmoor. He’s one of the few guys out there who can speak with authority from both sides of the fence.
“The civilian side is so much further ahead than the green suit [military] side in this regard. They are leading the market. DOD and SOCOM are coming to the civilian side trying to figure it out,” Kay said. “The 6s and 6.5s are ballistically superior, have less recoil, more efficient case designs, and use high-BC bullets. Anytime you’re shooting in a field or competition environment, if you can hold closer to the target either in windage or elevation, you have a statistically better chance of hitting the target. The 6s and 6.5s have far fewer variables than the .308s. They are a huge advantage. I go back and forth between the 6s and 6.5s. Right now, I’m shooting a 6.5x47mm. The barrel life is great, it has phenomenal ballistics and low recoil. In a match, I need to be able to see my hit or miss as best I can. The 308 is fine for a lot of shooting, but out past 600 yards, it has serious disadvantages.”
So what does the .308 have going for it? A lot, actually. The .308 is one of the most popular cartridges in the world, and a mountain of factory ammunition is available, including several excellent match loads. The .308 hits hard, cycles well in semi-automatic rifles, and is often capable of excellent accuracy. Barrels in .308 guns also last just about forever.
There’s nothing wrong with the .308 per se, it’s just that it represents what is essentially 110-year-old ballistic technology in a 64-year-old package. It may be better for shooting through brick walls or the engine blocks of Toyotas but those aren’t challenges that concern most of us and 100+ years of experience in hunting fields has taught us that the 6.5mms have few peers when it comes to terminal performance.
I’m not ready to declare the .308 dead as a long-range cartridge but that’s only because it’s too popular to die. Better options exist and, the longer the shot, the wider the performance gap between the 6.5/6mm cartridges and the .308.
Clearly, the .308 is dead among long-range competitive shooters, as they are not bound by nostalgia or logistics. They use what works best for the job. In today’s world, the job requires something more than what the .308 has to offer.