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Sniper Central Letter: The Workhorse

The Workhorse

This time around in the Sniper Central Letter I wanted to spend some time talking about the workhorse of the sniping community, the 308 Winchester. I wanted to discuss where it came from, what it does well, and if it should be considered for your next long range, or even short range, tactical rifle. But before we talk about the traits of the 308, I figure we should talk a bit about the origins and history of the cartridge in order to get a better understanding of what was behind the thinking of the cartridge.

The Origins
First, let us be clear right up front that the .308 Winchester is the commercial version of the 7.62x51mm NATO. It was introduced in 1952, two years before the military cartridge that it is based on was officially adopted by NATO in 1954. There are some slight differences in the 308 versus the 7.62x51mm NATO, mainly in the case wall thicknesses of the brass and the maximum allowed pressure. But otherwise, for all intents and purposes today, the two rounds are interchangeable.

Because the .308 is simply a commercial version of the military cartridge, we will turn to the military 7.62x51mm cartridge in order to get the history of the .308.

In the early 1950's NATO, itself only having been in existence for a few years, decided to standardize on a single small arms cartridge in order to ease logistics and allow for the sharing or resources during war time conditions. NATO requested proposals from all the participating countries, of which several very advance cartridge concepts were proposed and submitted for adoption. The entry from the USA was the T-65 and was, in reality, just a shortened 30-06 Springfield using the same bullets and very similar case head dimensions as the 30-06. The overall case length was cut down from 63mm to 51mm which would allow for smaller and lighter rifles as well as lighter cartridges themselves. The idea was to get similar, if not the same, velocity from this new cartridge as that of the .30-06. They were not able to get the quite the same velocities with the T-65 shooting the same bullets about 100 fps slower.

The UK, Canada, Belgium, and others all favored a more advanced .280 cartridge that had less recoil and was more manageable under full automatic fire than the T-65 was, but the USA carried too much influence and strongly encouraged (some say forced) NATO to adopt the T-65 as the standard cartridge for NATO, and that is what NATO officially did 1954. The standard NATO load was, and still is, the M80 with a 147gr (150gr) Full Metal Jacket - Boat Tail (FMJ-BT) bullet launched at 2750 fps at the muzzle.

Winchester saw the coming adoption of the 7.62x51mm NATO and jumped out ahead of the other manufacturers and submitted an official commercial version of the T-65 and called it the 308 Winchester. As I mentioned, they actually released it 2 years ahead of the official adoption of the T-65, but at that time it was clear that it would be the official NATO cartridge and Winchester took advantage of the coming commercial popularity of the 308.

This is by no means the complete developmental history of the .308, but it should provide enough information for our purposes here.

The Origins of Sniping with the .308
While the 7.62/308 was adopted in the mid 1950's as the standard NATO cartridge, it was not immediately adopted as a sniping round, but the reason was simply because there were no real sniper programs currently established during that time period within NATO. The Korean War had drawn down to its still current stalemate by that time and during the Korean War, the small amount of US snipers was still primarily using the WWII veteran rifles such as the M1D and 1903A1/Sniper. Both of those rifles were chambered in the 30-06 Springfield. Immediately following the adoption of the 7.62 NATO round, the US developed a new battle rifle, the M14, but as was common throughout the early and mid 20th century, the USA had no plans for snipers and as such, no plans were made to update the now unused military supply of sniper rifles.

Even for the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) and the other military competitive service shooting teams were using different calibers for their long range competitors. The legendary Carlos Hathcock used a pre-64 Winchester target rifle chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum to win his Wimbledon cup 1000 yard competition in the early 1960's. In short, the 308/7.62 had a slow start in terms of use as a sniping round. When that same Carlos Hathcock worked with Col. Land to start one of the USMC sniping programs in Vietnam, they were using Winchester model 70 competition target rifles chambered in 30-06, which they were still able to get Lake City match ammo for.

But then things changed in Vietnam. Both the USMC and the US Army decided they had to standardize their weapon selection for snipers, and as such, they had to formalize their rifles which meant going to the NATO standard 7.62x51mm NATO. The USMC stuck to their bolt action rifles and adopted the Remington 700 varmint rifle with Redfield Accurange scope, and designated it the M40. A few years later the US Army adopted a modified National Match M-14, also with a Redfield scope, and designated it the XM21, later to be standardized as the M21 SWS.

Lake City had also begun loading match grade ammo for the 7.62 for use with the National Match M-14's being used by the competitive shooting teams and designated it the M118. You can read about the history of the M118 ammo on our web pagehere. The adoption of the 7.62x51mm for use with military sniping proved to be effective and while they did give up some ultimate performance to the former .30-06, it was still an effective enough cartridge and kills were being recorded out to 900+ yards. At this point, the 7.62/308 started its long career as the cartridge of choice for US and NATO sniping.

During the early years of the Vietnam conflict, again at the urging of the US, the 5.56 NATO replaced the 7.62 NATO as the standard cartridge for battle rifles for all NATO countries, and that itself is another story to be told at some time. But the 5.56 was determined to be unsuitable for sniping and while it was considered, it was never adopted for sniping use.

Civilian and Law Enforcement use of the .308
As is the case with most things in the military, what is adopted within the military, becomes the popular item in the civilian world. The adoption of the 7.62x51mm NATO instantly made the 308 Winchester a success, and then when the US Military adopted the 7.62 as the standard sniping cartridge, it helped fuel the long range demand for the 308 as well.

At that time in the 1960s and 1970s, snipers were not the social celebrities that they are now, even in the shooting world. At that time, the Law Enforcement community had not really begun using snipers on a regular basis. That did not start until the later part of the 1970's with the adoption of specialized SWAT units within local law enforcement agencies, and when the need arose for snipers within law enforcement (LE) agencies, they turned to the military for their recommendations. Since the military was using the 7.62 with good success, the recommendation ended up being the 308 Winchester.

There was a period of time in the 1980's and early 1990's when the 223 Remington gained in popularity as a sniping cartridge for law enforcement sniping as it offered less penetration to worry about and less recoil to try and manage, not to mention it was also the official cartridge of NATO. But there were a few documented failures where the 223 did not provide enough lethal force with a correctly placed shot, and the popularity of the 223 as a sniping cartridge died away. The .308 has never suffered such a failure and continues to soldier on as the cartridge of choice for law enforcement work.

With the military using the 7.62x51mm NATO and most law enforcement agencies adopting the 308 Winchester, the demand for good long range rifles chambered in 308 dramatically increased. Rifles such as the Remington 700P lead the way for well designed and factory built heavy barrel rifles that performed well at long ranges. This availability helped fuel the civilian demand and popularity to where now just about every varmint rifle on the market today is available chambered in the .308 Winchester.


Long Range Capability
We here at Sniper Central deal with a lot of 308 rifles as well as answer a lot of questions. Often times we are asked about the long range capability of the 308 Winchester, and especially if it is capable of shooting up to 1000 yards. The short answer is yes, it will shoot to 1000 yards, but there are a lot of factors that go into this and like most things, there are compromises. So, to elaborate on the short answer, I will get into some details here.

We here have shot the 308 well beyond 1000 yards and there are others out there that have gone to 1200+ yards with it, so we know it "can" do it, the problem is, how reliable and consistent can it be at those ranges?

One thing to immediately realize is that the 308 is not a high power cartridge. It does okay, but it is actually pretty tame when it comes to power. To be able to shoot at those long ranges, a few things need to be done to give the 308 as much of a fighting chance as it can. Perhaps the single most important factor in reliable long range shooting with the 308 is bullet selection. The standard match grade ammo for the 308 uses the Sierra Match King (SMK) 168gr HPBT bullet, but the 168 SMK has an inherent design flaw. You see, way back in the day (1960's I believe?) sierra designed a 30 cal competition bullet for 300 meter UIT competition and this lead to Sierra designing and developing a whole new way of producing very precise and accurate bullets. But a part of that original 168gr bullet design was a fairly steep 11 degree taper on the boattail at the end of the bullet. This steep taper is not a problem for short ranges, remember: it was designed for 300 meter shooting. But when the bullet hits the transonic layer (about 1000-1400 fps) the airflow separates from the boattail because that taper is too steep, and that then creates a degrading of aerodynamic efficiency as well as potential instability. For the 308, this usually happens between 600-700 yards, depending on the climate and environmental conditions. This does not mean the 168gr SMK cannot be used for 1000 yard shooting; it just means you are not giving the ol' 308 the best fighting chance you can.

For long range shooting with the 308, the Sierra 175gr SMK is typically the bullet of choice. It is typically loaded with factory ammo at nearly the same velocity as the 168gr, 2600fps vs 2650fps, but the ballistic coeffecient is much higher and the 175gr only has a 9 degree boattail taper which cures the air flow separation problem and any instability that might create going through the transonic layer. Some shooters say that a 1:11" twist barrel is required to stabilize the 175gr bullets, but we have never had a problem shooting 175's out of a 1:12" barrel, even with a short 20" barrel at 1000 yards. We are at higher elevation here (3200’+) and in dry air, perhaps it is more of a problem in thicker air at lower elevations, but we have never seen problems using a 1:12”.

The heavier 175gr also bucks the wind considerably better than the 168, which is a constant problem with the 308 at long range. We have seen very good results even in high winds at 1000 yards with a 308 using the 175gr loads. Some other good options to consider include the Hornady 178gr and 168gr AMAX bullets which do not have the transonic layer issue either and we have seen very good results with these bullets as well. Some people even use the 190 gr SMK in 308, but that does need a 1:10" twist barrel and the velocities tend to be too low, at around 2500fps, and to really see good results with this bullet you need to get to 1200+ yards where its ballistic advantages come into play do to the high ballistic coefficient.

I do want to mention one other bullet that has been catching on and one we have been excited about as well. That is the lighter 155gr match bullets. It is funny because the 155gr bullet has been around probably longest of all as it has been used for Palma competitions for decades. The barrels only need to be 1:14" twist for stabilization, which all 308's are, and the 155 bullets launch faster, between 2800-2900 fps, and the long barrel rifles (28"+) will crank them out even faster than that. There are a few newer bullets out now that have very respectable BC's and when combined with the faster velocities, they perform excellent at long ranges. The new SMK 155gr (Sierra part number 2156) actually has a BC that is right up there with the 175gr SMK. Hornady also makes their 155gr AMAX that is not quite as high, but has been shooting very well in a lot of rifles, and it is still higher than the 168gr SMK BC. The one area where the 155's fall short is with wind. The wind still throws them around a bit more than the heavier 175 grain bullets, but the ballistics are much better and recoil a bit lower. We have used these 155's in several rifles here with excellent success.

Over the past five or so years, the shorter, stiffer barrels have been gaining popularity on tactical rifles and argument of less barrel whip (harmonics) has some merit to it and there may be some accuracy improvements with shorter barrels. But contrary to what some have reported, we have found that you do loose velocity with these short barrels. It is not as much as higher power cartridges, and it is less with the heavier bullets, but you do loose velocity when cutting down the barrel. If you plan to spend a lot of time shooting beyond 600 yards, we typically recommend sticking with a bit longer barrel, a 22-24" seems to make a nice compromise between portability, accuracy and velocity. If you really want to reach out there, or are playing with lighter 155gr bullets, then a 26"+ barrel is recommended to maximize velocity. Again, we are just trying to give the ol' workhorse as many advantages we can.

Match Ammo Availability
One important factor when considering what cartridge your next long range rifle will be chambered in, is the availability of factory match ammo. Now, if you are a handloader, this is not as much of a concern, but the availability of components might be. In either case, the .308 Winchester probably has the most available factory loaded match ammunition as well as the most reloading components available for it.

The Federal Gold Medal Match ammo is probably the standard match ammo that most shooters and law enforcement agencies will use and the standard 168gr SMK bullet is the most popular. It needs to be noted that Federal also loads the 175gr SMK at 2600 fps which is nearly identical in performance to the military M118LR ammo that is the current military sniping standard.

But Federal is not the only game in town and many would argue that some of the other ammo makers out there can load more interesting loads and some are known to load even more accurate ammo. HSM, Blackhills, Lapua, Hornady, Winchester, Remington, and many others all have match ammo available for the .308 and the 168gr SMK is not the only bullet. 155gr SMK, 155gr AMAX, 168gr AMAX, 168gr Scenar, 178gr AMAX, 190gr SMK, and even other HPBT bullets are available, just to name a few.

Cost also is a consideration and while the cost of 308 match ammo has gone up due to abnormal demand of the past year, it is still considerably cheaper than 260 rem, 300 Win Mag, and others. Though the 223 Rem is available for cheaper. Right now all .308 ammo is hard to find, so prices are inflated with $35 USD+ for a box of federal GMM not being uncommon. Once things get back to normal, those prices will come down.

The most important thing is that the options for match grade ammo are fantastic


Should I Use It?
This is an excellent question! While the .308 has many merits going for it, I will not attempt to argue that it should be the chosen cartridge for your next long range rifle as that decision will be based on your circumstances and requirements. There are many other cartridges that perform much better than the 308 at long ranges, such as the 300 Win Mag, 338 Lapua, 260 remington and others. So a lot of factors need to be taken into account.

I would consider the .260 an obvious direct competitor to the .308. It actually is just a necked down .308 to 6.5mm and it, along with its other 6.5 siblings the 6.5 Creedmore and the 6.5x47 Lapua, make excellent long range cartridges when used with the superb available high BC bullets for the 6.5mm. The recoil is actually less than the 308 and the long range ballistics much better, though the 308 bucks the wind better. Other cartridges such as the some of the hot .243 cartridges, the short magnums, and others can all be argued are better choices.

But when considering your next rifle build or purchase, there are typically more factors that come into play than just out right long range ballistics. When considering these other factors the .308 starts to look a bit more appealing. A few of these factors might include:

Excellent barrel life (well over 5000 rounds)
Excellent available rifle selections
Excellent match ammo availability
Good cost
Acceptable mid to long range performance
Fairly mild recoil

If you are seeking the best long range capability and the other factors are not of any concern, then the 308 is not for you. But for a solid all around performer that can be stretched to moderate ranges, it should be considered. I would also throw in, that if you are just getting into long range shooting, there is probably no better cartridge to learn long range shooting with than the 308, for all of the reasons stated above, and more.

The 308 has a long history with sniping and while it may not be the latest or greatest cartridge, it still seems to be just enough to get the job done consistently. A vast majority of sniper rifles are still chambered for the venerable .308 Winchester and based off of the existing infrastructure in place, in terms of available ammo, rifles, information, etc, it will be a long time before it is supplanted as the sniping standard. Yes, the new cartridges such as 338 Lapua, 300 Win Mag (modern loading), 260 rem, and others, have made inroads into the popularity of the 308, in reality, it is still just a minor percentage and as long as the 308 is still used by the military, it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

This entrenched establishment of the 308 does not mean it is the only cartridge that should be considered, but it does swing a lot of consideration points in its favor. When considering a new rifle project, we like to define the mission or role of the rifle first, what it is going to be used for, how it will be used in the field, costs, etc. and then we like to design the rifle to fill that role weighing all the options, including alternative cartridges. If approached in this way, the proper cartridge for that project should become obvious during that evaluation. This rifle design and selection process will be discussed in detail in a later newsletter.

Hopefully this information was useful and enjoyable, in the next newsletter we will talk all about unknown distance.

Sniper Central