The Ever-Popular .30 and .303 Caliber Rifle Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
Here in North America, where I live, there is no question what rifle caliber is the most popular for civilian use. For big game hunting, the .30-06 Springfield is currently the best selling centerfire rifle cartridge--or maybe it is the .30-30 Winchester, depending on whose sales list you look at. For sure the .30-30 is the all time sales leader. The .308 Winchester is in the top five, and the .300 Winchester Magnum is one of only three magnums in the top ten. Federal sales figures have the little .30 Carbine in eighth place, and others include the .303 British. Is a pattern emerging here? Five .30's in the top ten indicates what I would call market dominance.
Want more? The .300 is the best selling Weatherby Magnum caliber. The new calibers that are getting the most notice in the shooting press as I write this article are the .308 Marlin Express and .30 T/C. The only deer/woods cartridge to ever seriously challenge the .30-30 is the .300 Savage--another popular .30 caliber cartridge. And the .308 Marlin is off to such a good start that rifles in the caliber are scarce--Marlin can't keep up with the demand.
In Europe the .30-06 and the various .300 Magnums are also among the most popular cartridges. In Germany, for example, the .30-06 is either in first or second place in overall sales (again, depending on whose sales list you look at). All over Africa the .30-06, .303 British, and the various .300 Magnums are among the most used calibers; ditto for Australia. All across Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, where the writ of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union once ran, the 7.62x39 and 7.62x54R are the dominant rifle cartridges. Ditto, of course, for China and most of the landmass of Asia, where the 7.62x39 predominates.
Probably more successful military cartridges have been .30-.303 bore than any other caliber (although there have been some influential 6.5mm, 7mm, and 8mm military cartridges, too). Some of the best known military .30's include the 7.62mm NATO, .30-06 Springfield, .30 Carbine, 7.62x54R Russian, .30-40 Krag, .303 British, 7.62x39 Soviet, 7.5x55 Swiss, 7.7x58 Japanese, and 7.65x53 Mauser (used by Turkey and several South American countries).
How did the .30 caliber cartridges become so popular? It was the advent of smokeless powder that made it possible for new, high velocity, small bore rifles (those from .24/6mm to .32/8mm caliber) to out perform the old big bore black powder cartridges for both military and civil use. The revolutionary smokeless powder cartridges like the .30-30, .30-40, .303 British, 6.5x55, 7x57, and 8x57 shot flatter, kicked less, and killed medium to large size big game animals as well or better than the big bore black powder cartridges. The once dominant big bore cartridges were now necessary only for the largest and heaviest game animals, particularly the huge thick-skinned species like the American bison, the wild water buffalo of India, Asia, and Australia, and the Cape buffalo, rhino, and elephant of Africa. For nearly all other plains, mountain, and forest game the new high velocity cartridges were superior.
I think that ultimately what made the .30's so successful was that they were found to be powerful enough to reliably take the largest game for which any small bore cartridge was suitable, without incurring the penalty of unnecessary recoil. The early high intensity .30's like the .30-06, .303 British, and .300 Belted H&H were able to kill very large or dangerous animals like moose, kudu, alg, leopard, lion, tiger, and the great bears just as well as the high intensity 8mm cartridges, and a little better than the smaller 6.5mm, .270, and 7mm calibers.
The same is true for the modern magnum calibers. The post-War .300 Magnums kill just as well and shoot just as flat as the 8x68S or 8mm Remington Magnum with slightly lighter bullets for the same velocity, sectional density (SD) and ballistic coefficient (BC), and therefore a little less recoil. (Or superior sectional density and ballistic coefficient for the same weight bullets at equal velocity and recoil.) Not that any .300 Magnum is really pleasant to shoot.
For all serious .30-.303 caliber big game hunting cartridges, from the .30-30 to the .300 Magnums, some general guidelines about bullets seem to apply. For casual off-season varmint and small predator shooting, light bullets from 100-125 grains (SD .151-.188) seem to be the best choice. For use on medium size big game animals, including most deer, sheep, goat, and antelope species, the 150-165 grain bullets (SD .226-.248) are usually a good choice. For large game, the 165-180 (SD .248-.271) grain bullets are favored. And for the heaviest game the 180-220 grain bullets (SD .271-.331) can get the job done.
In powerful rifles like the .300 Weatherby Magnum the heavy 220 grain .308" bullet, because of its sensational SD of .331, has been used successfully on thick-skinned dangerous species like Cape buffalo, rhino, and elephant. However, I am convinced that powerful medium bore calibers like the .338 Winchester Magnum or .375 H&H Magnum are a better choice for all species of bison and buffalo, and the big bore calibers like the .458 Winchester Magnum and .470 Nitro Express remain the best choice for rhino and elephant. As great as the .30's are as all-around cartridges, prudence dictates that there are still a few situations when a powerful medium or large bore rifle is indicated.
As a class, the .30-.303 calibers are the most popular big game hunting cartridges in the world, and are likely to remain so for some time. It is hard to argue with their record of success. The .303 British, .30-06 and .308 Winchester, in particular, have served as all-around big game cartridges all over the world with great success.
The .30-30 seems very secure in its niche. No other deer cartridge even comes close in popularity and the latest potential challenger, the .308 Marlin, is also a .30 caliber cartridge. It is worth noting that the advent of Hornady Flex-Tip bullets, available in both .30-30 and .308 Marlin caliber, elevate these dedicated lever action rounds to all-around cartridge status.
The .308 Winchester's position as the top all-around cartridge for short action rifles is challenged by the 7mm-08 Remington, but the .308 continues to out sell its sibling by a wide margin. The .243 Winchester is actually the .308's closest competitor in popularity among cartridges for short action rifles, and a fine long range cartridge it is, but it can never equal the all-around capability of the .308.
While the .270 Winchester (particularly in North America) and 7x64 (particularly in Europe) are popular and excellent all-around cartridges for rifles with standard length actions, neither has ever equaled the .30-06 in total world sales. As much as I like the .270, I am not going to be holding my breath waiting for it to topple the venerable .30-06 from the top of the charts.
The .300 Magnums were the top sellers in their class just about everywhere until the introduction of the 7mm Remington Magnum. And while Remington's Big 7 is the most popular of all magnum cartridges in North America, as a group the .300 Magnums seem to have retained their world wide reputation as the ultimate small bore cartridges for big and tough game.
Which seems like a reasonable place to conclude this piece about the ever-popular .30-.303 caliber cartridges. Since the 1890's they have been the leading big game hunting cartridges across most of the world by almost any standard of measurement. You can read more about the individual .30 and .303 caliber cartridges on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2002, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.