Compared: The .243 Win. and .30-30 Win. Deer Cartridges
By Chuck Hawks
For the purposes of this article we are considering the .243 Winchester and .30-30 as medium size (CXP2 class) big game cartridges. Long range varmint shooting, for which the .243 is clearly superior, is not a consideration. Few varmint shooters would consider a .30-30, even with Remington Accelerator loads. (These drive a .224 caliber, 55 grain sabot bullet at a MV of 3400 fps.)
What makes this comparison intriguing is that both the .243 Win. and .30-30 Win. are often recommended for beginning deer hunters, but are also frequently used by experienced old pros.
The .30-30 Winchester
The .30-30 is one of our oldest, and greatest, smokeless powder cartridges. It was introduced in the Winchester Model 94 rifle in 1895, and has been a best seller ever since. The .30-30 (also called the .30 WCF) is based on the .38-55 Winchester case necked-down to accept standard .308" diameter (.30 caliber) bullets.
Over the years the .30-30 became the standard of comparison for deer cartridges. Typical factory loads drive a 150 grain flat point (FP) bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2390 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1902 ft. lbs., or a 170 grain FP bullet at a MV of 2200 fps and ME of 1827 ft. lbs. The Winchester Supreme premium .30-30 factory load drives a 150 grain Power-Pont Plus bullet at a MV of 2480 fps and ME of 2049 ft. lbs.
The .30-30 has been offered in a variety of rifles including bolt, lever, pump, autoloading, single shot, and combination rifle/shotgun actions over the years. But the most enduring and popular models have always been the Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin Model 336 lever actions, the two best selling sporting rifles in the world.
The .243 Winchester
Winchester developed the .243 in 1955 as a combination varmint and deer cartridge for their short action Model 88 lever, Model 100 autoloading, and Model 70 bolt action rifles. It too became an immediate success, and has been a best seller ever since. The .243 is based on the .308 Winchester case necked-down to accept standard .243" (6mm) diameter bullets.
Typical factory loads for hunting CXP2 class game drive a 100 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2960 fps and ME of 1945 ft. lbs. The Winchester Supreme .243 factory load drives a 95 grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet at a MV of 3100 fps and ME of 2021 ft. lbs.
The .243 is offered in a very wide variety of rifles including bolt, lever, pump, autoloading, and single shot types. Few, if any, cartridges are available in a greater number of rifles. But the most enduring and popular models have always been bolt actions, such as the Browning A-Bolt II, Remington Model 700, Savage Model 110, and Winchester Model 70.
Comparing two cartridges as different as the .243 and .30-30 is bound to result in some one-sided scores in certain categories. That is to be expected; we will find out if the results balance out in other categories. For the purposes of this article I am going to rely on Winchester factory loads and published Winchester ballistic figures. The other major brands of factory loaded ammunition are similar, as are full power handloads. Both cartridges are Winchester creations, so it seems fair to use their numbers where applicable.
Availability of rifles and ammunition
As alluded to above, the .30-30 and .243 are both among the top selling centerfire rifle cartridges in North America. Rifles and ammunition for both are very widely distributed, heavily discounted, and will often be found on sale. Reloading dies and components are also readily available for either cartridge.
That said, there is a more diverse selection of rifles in .243, probably due to its rimless case. Most bolt, single shot, and autoloading rifles are so chambered, as is the Remington 7600 pump gun and the Browning BLR lever action rifle. .30-30 repeaters are mostly traditional lever actions with tubular magazines, along with the occasional single shot. In Europe one occasionally sees a double rifle or drilling in .30-30. These are the actions that are best suited to the .30-30's rimmed case.
The subject of hunting rifle accuracy seems to be simultaneously misunderstood and very over emphasized on the Internet. In the case of the .243 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester, the choice depends far more on the conditions and range involved than on the inherent accuracy of the cartridges. Both cartridges can be very accurate, as has been demonstrated in heavy bench rest type rifles.
Bolt action rifles are generally considered to be the most accurate type of hunting rifle. This favors the .243, which is much more common in bolt action rifles than the .30-30. On the other hand, since it is a long range cartridge, the .243 requires a very accurate rifle to be fully effective in its primary role. As a woods cartridge, the .30-30 is at its best in a fast handling carbine capable of quick follow up shots. Absolute accuracy is of secondary importance.
Consider a .30-30 lever action carbine that can print 2 MOA groups from a cold barrel. That translates to 2" groups at 100 yards and 4" groups at 200 yards. Since the smallest North American deer species offer a kill zone in excess of 8", no hunter so equipped can blame his rifle if he misses or wounds a deer at 200 yards.
The .243, on the other hand, is a cartridge with a MPBR in the vicinity of 300 yards. To achieve a 4" group at that distance the rifle must be capable of shooting into 1.33 MOA, a far more difficult requirement to meet. So the rifle chambered for the .243 needs to deliver a higher standard of inherent accuracy to be equally effective for its intended purpose in the field.
All hunting rifles are individuals as regards accuracy. Two identical samples of the same model almost never shoot the same size groups, let alone two rifles of different model and action types. Any difference in accuracy is more likely to be due to the rifle than the cartridge.
Another factor in practical accuracy is the scope employed. The .30-30 is a medium range cartridge typically used to shoot deer size game a distances between 25 and 225 yards. Scopes appropriate for such conditions feature a wide field of view and, consequently, relatively low magnification. My Marlin .30-30, for example, wears a 1-3x scope. While ideal for deer hunting, such scopes are not ideal for shooting tiny groups from a bench rest at the rifle range.
The .243, on the other hand, is seen as a long range cartridge useful for shooting deer out to 300 yards, and scopes for such rifles are typically of medium to high magnification. My Browning .243, for example, wears a 3-9x scope. At the rifle range such scopes can be used at high power, and that is a substantial advantage when shooting groups from a bench rest.
Velocity matters because it is a prime component of energy as well as allowing a flatter trajectory. In velocity the .243 is clearly superior to the .30-30, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Here are the MV figures for selected Winchester factory loads. (Caliber, bullet weight and type, MV, 200 yard velocity.)
Energy is a very important component of any cartridge's killing power. Kinetic energy is a measure of the bullet's ability to do "work," which in this case means damage. Energy is what powers bullet penetration and expansion. Here are the catalog energy figures for our six selected loads. (Caliber, bullet weight and type, ME, 200 yard energy.)
As can be seen from these figures, the .243 has a slight 58 ft. lb. average energy advantage at the muzzle (comparing the 100 grain and 150 grain loads, respectively). But at 200 yards the superior ballistic coefficient of the .243's spitzer bullets has increased that advantage to an average 415 ft. lbs., a significant difference in favor of the .243.
Ballistic coefficient and sectional density
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is essentially a measure of a bullet's aerodynamic efficiency. A higher BC means a flatter trajectory and higher retained velocity downrange if other factors remain the same.
Sectional Density (SD) is essentially the ratio of a bullet's weight to its diameter. SD is an important factor in penetration, as a long slender bullet of a given weight penetrates better than a short fat bullet of the same weight, other factors being equal. The higher the SD, the better the potential penetration.
Here are the approximate BC and SD figures for the bullet weights we are comparing. (Taken in this case from Nosler and Speer bullets, since Winchester does not publish BC and SD figures for their bullets.)
As we saw above, the higher ballistic coefficient of the .243's pointed bullets allows them to retain a higher percentage of their starting velocity and energy. As we will see next, that (and the .243's much higher velocity) allow it to shoot flatter than the .30-30.
The sectional densities of the 95 grain .243 and 150 grain .30-30 bullets are quite similar. Either should give adequate penetration on deer size game. On the other hand, the 170 grain .30-30 bullet has a meaningful advantage in SD over the 100 grain .243 bullet, and would likely provide the deepest penetration on large animals, an advantage for the .30-30.
Flat trajectory is an advantage because it extends the maximum point blank range of the cartridge and makes hitting easier at long range. Comparing a long range cartridge like the .243 to a medium range cartridge like the .30-30, you would expect the .243 to shoot considerably flatter, and it does. Here are the Winchester trajectory figures for the flattest shooting deer load in each caliber.
Zero your hunting rifle to maximize each cartridge's point blank range (+/- 3") with these loads and the MPBR is as follows.
Note the .243's substantial 65 yard advantage in range.
Bullet frontal area
Frontal (cross-sectional) area plays a significant role in killing power. Clearly, the bigger the hole you punch in an animal, the greater the potential damage. The length and diameter of the wound channel are the most critical factors in killing power. (After bullet placement, of course.) Obviously, a .308" diameter bullet is fatter than a .243" diameter bullet, a clear advantage for the .30-30. The actual frontal area figures in square inches are as follows.
Edward A. Matunas developed, and published in the Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook, a system for quantifying the killing power of big game rifle cartridges in terms of the weight of the animals for which they are suitable. His "Optimum Game Weight Formula," as he calls it, takes into consideration the various factors we have been comparing. No such formula is perfect, but Optimum Game Weight (OGW) does, in my opinion, provide a useful tool for comparing the killing power of deer cartridges.
Matunas compared a variety of factory rifle cartridges using his formula, and the results show the optimum game weight at various ranges. These are the OGW figures for standard .243 and .30-30 loads at the muzzle, 100 yards, 200 yards, and 300 yards. The latter figure really applies only to the .243, as it is well beyond the MPBR of the .30-30.
These figures, not surprisingly, indicate that the .30-30 is more effective at short range, and the .243 is more effective at long range. At a medium range of 100 yards they are very similar in killing power.
Recoil is always an important consideration when comparing rifle cartridges. Less recoil is always an advantage, making a rifle more fun to shoot and easier to shoot accurately. In this case both cartridges offer moderate recoil. In a 7.5 pound rifle a 100 grain .243 bullet at a MV of 2960 fps generates about 8.8 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and 8.7 fps of recoil velocity. A 150 grain .30-30 bullet at a MV of 2400 fps in a 7.5 pound rifle generates 10.6 ft. lbs. of recoil energy and 9.5 fps of recoil velocity.
That is a slight advantage for the .243, but both are well below the 15 ft. lb. level that I feel allows most hunters to do their best shooting, and far below the 20 ft. lbs. that is the accepted maximum recoil limit for the average shooter. For the very young or inexperienced shooter or the very recoil sensitive, the .243 might have some advantage. For the rest of us, both will be pleasant to shoot and will seem roughly comparable.
With equal or superior SD and considerably greater bullet frontal area, the .30-30 may have the potential to inflict more serious wounds at fairly close range. Its heavier, flat point bullet at medium velocity should also get through brush or other obstructions considerably better than the .243's fast stepping spitzer bullet. The .243, however, can deliver greater energy downrange, and shoots flatter.
Seldom does a comparison involve two so dissimilar cartridges that, in the final analysis, are so nearly equal as deer slayers within their intended parameters of use. Briefly, I would conclude that the .243 is superior on deer and smaller size game beyond 100 yards and the .30-30 is superior for deer and larger game at less than 100 yards. The .243 is a better choice in open country, and the .30-30 is a better choice in wooded or brushy country. I own rifles for both cartridges, like both, shoot both quite often, and try to use them in appropriate circumstances.
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.