Compared: The .30-30 Win. and 7.62x39 Soviet
By Chuck Hawks
This is a comparison that I would have thought unnecessary, but repeated e-mail questions about deer hunting with these two cartridges have proven me wrong. Clearly, what is obvious to an old shellback like myself is not necessarily clear to some of those newer to the sport. So, let's meet the contenders.
The .30-30 Winchester was designed as a hunting cartridge. It is not a military cartridge that was later adapted to hunting purposes. It was introduced in 1895 in the then new Winchester Model 94 hunting rifle, which was designed by the legendary John Browning.
The .30-30 was the first North American smokeless powder hunting cartridge, and it revolutionized big game hunting. The .30-30 represented an enormous jump in velocity at the time of its introduction, from a muzzle velocity (MV) of about 1350 fps for black powder cartridges like the .44-40 and .45-70 to a MV of about 2000 fps. Trajectory was much flatter, hitting was much easier at long range, and recoil was reduced.
The sporting periodicals of the era crackled with controversy as the new smokeless powder cartridges, led by the .30-30, made inroads on the popularity of the established black powder deer and big game cartridges. It is difficult for modern shooters to understand what a revolutionary cartridge the .30-30 was when it was introduced. No rifle cartridge has had a bigger impact on the history of American hunting than the .30-30 Winchester.
The .30-30 went on to become the most popular hunting cartridge ever devised. More sporting rifles have been produced and more hunting cartridges sold in .30-30 than in any other caliber. The Model 94 rifle has achieved legendary status, and is the best selling sporting rifle in history. The popular Marlin Model 336 is not too far behind, and millions upon millions of H&R, Marlin, Remington, Savage, Winchester and assorted other brands of rifles have been sold in .30-30 caliber. It would be hard to find a store that sold hunting rifles that did not stock a .30-30, new or used.
.30-30 bullets have killed more head of North American big game than any other caliber. .30-30 ammunition is distributed world-wide, and is available in virtually every store in North America that sells any centerfire rifle ammunition at all. I have seen general stores out West that stocked only four calibers of rifle ammunition, and .30-30 was one of them. It is also worth noting that the .30-30 has proven to be a very accurate cartridge. It has delivered excellent results when used in heavy "bench rest" type target rifles.
Practically all ammunition companies offer .30-30 cartridges. In North America this includes (but is not limited to) Cor-Bon, Federal, Hornady, Norma, PMC, Remington, Speer, and Winchester. The most popular and useful bullet weights are 150, 160, and 170 grains, although 125 grains (at a MV of 2570 fps) and 55 grain saboted loads (at a MV of 3400 fps) are also offered. These latter loads are usually intended primarily for varmint and predator hunting.
The SAAMI maximum average pressure for the .30-30 is held to 38,000 cup in deference to the old .30-30 rifles out there. Modern .30-30's in good condition, like the Marlin 336 and Winchester 94 Angle Eject models, can safely use loads shown in the older reloading manuals, which typically had maximum average pressures of 40,000-41,500 cup.
Winchester .30-30 factory loads can be taken as representative of standard .30-30 fare, since they started it all. In their premium Supreme line Winchester offers a 150 grain Power Point Plus bullet at a MV of 2480 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2049 ft. lbs. In their standard Super-X line Winchester offers a choice of 150 grain Hollow Point, Power Point or Silvertip bullets at a MV of 2390 fps and ME of 1902 ft. lbs. Also in their Super-X line are 170 grain Power Point and Silvertip bullets at a MV of 2200 fps and ME of 1827 ft. lbs. All of these are CXP2 class game loads. Personally, I prefer the 150 grain bullet for deer and the 170 grain bullet for black bear or other relatively tough game.
The latest innovation for the .30-30 is the Hornady LeverEvolution ammo using a 160 grain spitzer boat-tail bullet at a MV of 2400 fps. This load uses a soft plastic tipped bullet that is safe in all rifles with tubular magazines and shoots flatter than other .30-30 loads. This load extends the sure kill range on animals the size of North American deer out to about 250 yards.
Marlin has introduced the Model 336XLR rifle with a 24" barrel specifically to take full advantage of the Hornady LeverEvolution load. We have reviewed that rifle (see the Product Review Page) and I can attest to its superb accuracy and performance.
On the other hand, the 7.62x39 cartridge was designed at the behest of the government of the Soviet Union specifically for use in military assault rifles. No consideration was given to its use for hunting or any other sporting purpose. It was the Soviet answer to the German World War II 8x33mm assault rifle cartridge, which had caused the Red Army a lot of casualties.
The 7.62x39 proved very successful in its military role, first in the SKS rifle and later in the infamous AK-47, which become the service standard of the USSR and all of its communist puppet states and allies, including Red China, Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam. It also became the standard shoulder arm for terrorists, in which role it is still widely seen today. In modern Russia, the 7.62x39 is obsolete; it has been replaced by a newer .22 caliber service cartridge much like the 5.56mm NATO (.223 Rem.).
While called a 7.62mm or .30 caliber cartridge, like all Soviet service calibers the 7.62x39 actually uses an odd bullet size, in this case .311". This is very close to the British .303 caliber, which uses a .312" diameter bullet, and .303 British rifles can fire .311" bullets with perfectly satisfactory results.
Many surplus SKS and AK-47 type rifles and clones have been imported into the U.S. In addition, Ruger offers their Mini-30 semi-automatic carbine in 7.62x39. This is the best known and most popular commercially manufactured rifle for the cartridge. The Mini-30 is also widely considered to be the best rifle made for the cartridge, and it is designed for use with a low mounted scope. (While the Mini-30 is not noted for its accuracy, most of the military rifles are much worse, and many are downright miserable.)
It is worth noting that the Ruger Mini-30 rifles chambered for the 7.62x39 cartridge come with a standard .300" bore diameter and .308" groove diameter for use with standard .308" bullets. This is to give reloaders a better selection of bullets. As far as I know, Ruger is the only company to have standardized the 7.62x39. All of the SKS and AK-47 style rifles with which I am familiar require .311" bullets.
In its standard guise the 7.62x39 uses a 123 grain FMJ spitzer bullet at a nominal MV of about 2350 fps. Most 7.62x39 ammunition from communist and former communist countries is loaded in non-reloadable steel cases with corrosive Berdan primers. Quality control and accuracy with most of this ammunition is poor, and it is unsuitable for any sporting purpose beyond plinking at tin cans.
As the 7.62x39 cartridge has grown in popularity in North America with the availability of cheap military surplus rifles, and the introduction of the aforementioned Ruger Mini-30 carbine, US companies have made available commercial ammunition loaded with soft point hunting type bullets. This commercial ammunition uses reloadable brass cases and standard, non-corrosive, Boxer primers. This is the only ammunition that should be used for any kind of sport hunting. Federal, PMC, Remington, and Winchester all offer such loads and all are similar. They drive a 123-125 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 2300-2365 fps. Note that commercial factory loads with FMJ bullets are also offered, and should never be used for hunting. This is practice ammo only.
The Winchester Super-X load can be taken as typical. It drives a 123 grain soft point bullet at a MV of 2365 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1527 ft. lbs. The Winchester usage guide rates this as a combination varmint and deer load.
Reloaders have more flexibility in creating hunting loads using heavier bullets. The Sierra manual lists loads up to a MV of 2100 fps with a .308" 150 grain bullet, and the Hornady manual lists loads up to 2200 fps with a .308" 150 grain bullet.
The 7.62x39 cartridge has been standardized by SAAMI at a maximum average pressure of 50,000 cup. This is a rather high pressure considering the rather questionable quality of many 7.62x39 rifles, so caution is warranted. SKS rifles, in particular have a reputation for inadvertent slam-fires (going off when the bolt closes)! Have a gunsmith check a surplus 7.62x39 rifle before use if there is any question about its function or safety.
Both the .30-30 Winchester and 7.62x39 Soviet are covered in more detail, including physical descriptions and measurements, in articles which can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page. Since most readers are presumably reasonably familiar with these two cartridges I will not take the time to describe them further here, but will forge ahead with the comparison.
I have chosen to use Winchester factory loads in this comparison to represent standard performance ammunition in both calibers, but the results would be very similar using Federal or Remington factory loads. I have also included a maximum reload for the 7.62x39 using a 150 grain bullet and the Hornady LeverEvolution factory load using a 160 grain bullet for the .30-30.
The Bullets: Spitzer and Flat Point
There are meaningful differences between the .30-30 and the 7.62x39. These differences center around the bullets used in the two calibers. Since its rifles typically use box magazines, the 7.62x39 is usually loaded with spitzer (pointed) bullets. These are more efficient aerodynamically, yielding a higher ballistic coefficient, usually in the range of .252 to .292 for 123-125 grain bullets. .30-30 rifles typically use tubular magazines that, until the development of the Hornady LeverEvolution bullet, required flat point bullets, which are less efficient aerodynamically and thus are credited with a lower ballistic coefficient, usually in the range of .186 to .268 for 150 grain bullets.
On the other hand, the flat point bullet is regarded as superior at penetrating brush or other obstructions on its way to the target. It is also easier to promote controlled expansion with a flat point bullet than with a spitzer bullet. The flat point bullet is advantageous for the short to medium range woods and brush country hunting for which both cartridges are best suited.
While their bullet diameters and therefore frontal areas are identical (in the case of Ruger 7.62x39 rifles) or so similar that the difference does not matter for hunting purposes, there is normally a substantial difference in available bullet weights. The various bullets' velocity, energy, trajectory, and sectional density (SD) should also be considered when evaluating the usefulness and killing power of these two cartridges for big game hunting.
Let's look at velocity first, from the muzzle to 200 yards. We will use Winchester Super-X factory loads in both calibers. In addition, a maximum 7.62x39 reload (taken from the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, Sixth Edition) using a 150 grain Hornady Spire Point bullet at a MV of 2200 fps in 7.62x39 and the Hornady LeverEvolution 160 grain factory load in .30-30 will be considered. Comparing our selected loads we see the following:
All of these bullets operate in a similar velocity range. At 100 yards, where most game is killed, the 123 grain 7.62x39 and 150 grain .30-30 bullets are traveling at essentially the same speed. At 200 yards, which is beyond the optimum effective range of the 7.62x39 on 200 pound game animals but within the optimum range of the .30-30, the 160 grain LeverEvolution bullet leads the pack. Advantage: .30-30.
Kinetic energy is important because it is what powers bullet expansion and penetration. Expansion and penetration are primary factors in damaging the target and disrupting the function of vital organs. Here is how our selected loads compare in kinetic energy.
Clearly the .30-30 has the advantage in energy over the 123 grain 7.62x39 load at all practical ranges. At the muzzle its advantage, averaging all three .30-30 loads, is nearly 400 ft. lbs. Out at 200 yards the 160 grin LeverEvolution .30-30 load shows 251 ft. lbs. more energy than the 7.62x39's 150 grain maximum reload.
Trajectory is important because a flatter trajectory makes it easier to hit the game at which a hunter shoots. Trajectory is best compared in terms of maximum point blank range (MPBR). The MPBR is the greatest distance at which the shooter does not have to change his or her point of aim to hit the target. MPBR is calculated for all big game hunting cartridges in the "Rifle Trajectory Table" to allow for a maximum deviation from the line of a low mounted telescopic sight of no more than plus or minus 3". So, at the MPBR the bullet will hit only 3" below the point of aim. This will allow a vital hit on even a small CXP2 class game animal with a dead center hold on the heart/lung area.
Here are the approximate MPBR figures for our selected loads. Winchester does not give the ballistic coefficient (BC) of their rifle bullets in the 2004 Ammunition Catalog, so I have used typical BC's from another source (Speer), which are shown in parenthesis. For the 7.62x39 reload and .30-30 LeverEvolution bullet I used Hornady's figures.
The "standard" 123 grain 7.62x39 bullet and 150 grain .30-30 bullet have identical MPBR's. The other three loads are similar with the .30-30 LeverEvolution load being slightly superior to all other loads. In terms of trajectory for big game hunting, I would conclude that the .30-30 has only a slight advantage.
Bullet Weight and Sectional Density
So far in our comparison we have not discovered any startling difference between the two cartridges. But a casual perusal of any ammunition catalog will reveal that there is a difference in bullet weight. And that is one area where the .30-30 is superior as a big game cartridge.
The primary advantage of a heavier bullet in any caliber is increased sectional density. Sectional density is an important factor in penetration and in evaluating killing power. SD is the ratio of a bullet's weight to the square of its diameter. The principle is simple: a heavy bullet of any given caliber applies more penetrating force per square inch of its frontal area than does a lighter bullet of the same diameter. Note that bullet shape does not influence sectional density. A spitzer bullet of a given caliber and weight has exactly the same sectional density as a flat point bullet. A rifle bullet absolutely must penetrate into the vitals of a big game animal if it is to produce a quick kill. For more on this subject see my article "The Sectional Density of Rifle Bullets." Here are the sectional densities for the bullets we have been comparing.
A reasonable guide to sectional density for CXP2 class game (deer and antelope) suggests a bullet with a minimum SD of about .205, and .225 is excellent. Note that the SD of the 123 grain 7.65x39 bullet falls well short of even the minimum, while the 150 grain bullet in both calibers is just about ideal.
This suggests that the 7.62x39/123 grain load is not a good choice for hunting deer, antelope, and other CXP2 class game. It should be used only sparingly on CXP2 class game and only by shooters who are capable of very accurate bullet placement, and then only on the smallest species. (The 7.62x39's reputation for poor accuracy mitigates against its use even by experts, who are very unlikely to choose a 7.62x39 caliber deer rifle in any case.) Everyone else, and particularly beginners, will be far better off using a .30-30, or at least a 150 grain reload in the 7.62x30.
The 170 grain .30-30 bullet is not necessary for hunting deer size game, but is appropriate for larger, heavier boned game such as black bear, caribou, and elk. It has the extra penetration to drive through heavier bones and muscles and still reach the vitals of larger animals. Adequate sectional density is the key to understanding why the .30-30 has been used successfully for over a hundred years to take tens of thousands of big animals like elk and moose, despite its modest "paper" ballistics. Read the article "The Importance of Bullet Placement" for examples of the .30-30 on Canadian elk and moose.
Killing Power and Optimum Game Weight
We now know that the .30-30 has an edge in sectional density. How does this affect killing power?
Edward A. Matunas put a lot of effort in to quantifying killing power, based on such factors as bullet frontal area, sectional density, energy, momentum, impact velocity, and so forth. He calls the result "Optimum Game Weight."
I used his formula to create the "Maximum Optimal Ranges for Big Game" table, which can be found on the Rifle Information Page. This table shows the approximate maximum range for which a great many rifle calibers can deliver optimum performance on animals weighing 100, 200, 400, 600, and 1000 pounds. This does not mean that they will not kill at greater distances, but it suggests that beyond the listed distances they are past their prime. Note that in all cases proper shot placement using a bullet suitable for the task are assumed.
No such formula is 100% accurate, but this one does go a long way toward indicating the relative effectiveness of the various hunting rifle cartridges on big game. In the case of the 7.65x39 and .30-30 loads we have been comparing, these are the maximum optimum ranges for shooting a 200 pound CXP2 class game animal, such as a North American deer. If you use either of these cartridges, try to limit your shots to within these distances.
As you can plainly see, there is really no comparison in big game killing power between these two cartridges. Using typical factory loads the .30-30 offers about twice the optimum killing range of the 7.62x39. Even when using a maximum pressure 150 grain reload, the 7.62x39 falls a full 100 yards short of the best .30-30 load for killing 200 pound animals.
Of course, killing power is not the only factor on which to base a decision about what caliber to use on the next hunt. The selection and availability of ammunition and rifles is also worth noting. In these areas the .30-30 is way ahead of the 7.62x39, as I mentioned in the beginning of this article.
Recoil is another factor to consider when choosing a cartridge for big game hunting, as long as the cartridge selected is adequate to the purpose. And here the 7.62x39 has a definite advantage. In rifles of equal weight, a less powerful cartridge will always kick less.
In 7 pound rifles the 7.62x39 with our selected loads generates about 6.9 to 7.5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. The .30-30 comes back at the shooter with recoil energy of about 11.3 ft. lbs. (shooting a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2400 fps). Both are modest recoil figures that should not cause even inexperienced shooters too much concern, but not all men (or women) are created equal in recoil tolerance. Extremely light recoil is the 7.62x39's sole advantage over the .30-30.
For reloaders, bullet selection and availability is important. Almost every bullet maker offers (.308") 100-110, 125-130, 150 and 170 grain bullets for .30-30 rifles, and some offer bullet weights up to about 190 grains. The standard 150 and 170 grain bullets can ordinarily be found wherever reloading supplies are sold.
A much smaller selection of .311"-312" bullets is available for the 7.62x39 Soviet cartridge, usually just 123-125 grains, and in a few cases 150 grains. The owner of a Ruger Mini-30 has the option of many .308" bullets, of course. .311"-.312" Bullets for the 7.62x39 are reasonably well, but by no means universally, distributed.
While on the subject of reloading, it might be worth mentioning that, depending on what manual you read (and other factors), 7.62x39 maximum reloads run from about 2300 fps to 2450 fps with 123-125 grain bullets. .30-30 reloads cover the same approximate velocity range with 150 grain bullets. However, the prudent reloader seldom loads to maximum pressure. Experience suggests that reliability in all climates and conditions and accuracy are more important than squeezing the last possible fps of bullet velocity from any cartridge. As a practical matter, the reloader who duplicates the factory loads we have been comparing has gotten about all that can reasonably be gotten from hunting loads for either cartridge. With only a few exceptions factory loads should be considered maximum loads.
Looking back over what we have learned, the .30-30 is somewhat to considerably superior in the areas of availability, velocity, energy, trajectory, bullet weight, sectional density (penetration), and killing power. The 7.62x39 kicks less.
The only possible conclusion is that the .30-30 Winchester is clearly the superior hunting cartridge. This is hardly surprising; the track record of the .30-30 on big game speaks for itself.
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.