Compared: .308 Marlin, .308 Win. and .30-30
By Chuck Hawks
The new .308 Marlin Express cartridge for lever action rifles is the latest attempt to improve on the performance of the .30-30 Winchester. Like the roughly comparable but now obsolescent .300 Savage and .307 Winchester, for which rifles are no longer made, the .308 Marlin is being compared to both the .308 Winchester and the .30-30. That being the case, an impartial Guns and Shooting Online comparison seems in order. Perhaps we can discover how the .308 Marlin really stacks up.
The .308 Marlin Express
The .308 Marlin builds on Hornady's success with the LEVERevolution ammunition introduced in 2006 for the .30-30 Winchester and other selected cartridges popular in lever action and single shot rifles.
At the heart of the LEVERevolution phenomenon is Hornady's soft-tipped, boat-tail spitzer bullet. This bullet incorporates a semi-soft plastic tip that makes it safe to load in tubular magazines.
The new .308 Marlin grew out of experiments by Hornady technicians with their 160 grain Evolution .30-30 bullet in the .307 Winchester cartridge. Ultimately, in partnership with Marlin, they ended up redesigning both the case and the 160 grain Evolution bullet. The result was a new cartridge optimized for modern, non-canister powders and the 24" barrel of the highly accurate Marlin Model 336XLR rifle. The latter was a response to Hornady's introduction of .30-30 LEVERevolution ammunition; what goes around, comes around.
The .308 Marlin emerged as a new cartridge based on a new rimmed case that closely resembles a .307 Winchester case with its shoulder set back .0998". (The .307 is itself a rimmed version of the .308 Winchester case.) The .308 Marlin has a maximum cartridge overall length of 2.60" and is loaded with the new .308" diameter, 160 grain Hornady Evolution bullet.
The new 160 grain Evolution bullet for the .308 Marlin has been re-optimized to give a flatter trajectory and greater retained velocity and energy down range. It has a longer ogive and a higher ballistic coefficient (BC .400) than last year's .30-30 Evolution bullet (BC .330). It is primarily this new bullet, combined with the use of an advanced propellant, which allows the .308 Marlin to out perform the .307 Winchester and match the performance of the .300 Savage. Hornady figures show that their .308 Marlin load gives the 160 grain bullet a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2660 fps from a 24" barrel.
The .308 Winchester
The .308 Winchester is one of the great success stories in the history of metallic centerfire ammunition. It is essentially a short action version of the .30-06, designed to replace that cartridge for military use. Winchester was primarily responsible for its design, and they introduced the civilian version of the new cartridge in 1952 as the .308 Winchester, two years before it was accepted by the military as the 7.62mm NATO.
From the beginning the civilian .308 Win. was a lever action cartridge. What many contemporary users may not remember is that Winchester introduced their new .308 in the Model 88 lever action rifle, and Savage quickly chambered their Model 99 lever action for the new cartridge. It was also made available in the Model 70 bolt action, and quickly spread to all types of rifles. The .308 Win. was one of the original cartridges chambered by the Browning BLR lever gun when it was introduced, and it remains one of the most popular cartridges in the Browning BLR today.
The .308 has gone on to become one of the top five best selling centerfire rifle cartridges in North America. It is on my short list of the best all-around rifle cartridges (the others are the .270 Win., .30-06, and 7mm Rem. Mag.) and is widely used for hunting CXP2 and CXP3 game all over the world.
Practically all ammunition manufacturers load .308 Winchester ammunition, and practically all rifle manufacturers with an action strong enough to handle it offer rifles in the caliber. As factory loaded, bullet weights range from 55 grains to 200 grains, but the most popular and useful bullet weights for big game hunting are 150, 165, and 180 grains. As loaded by most ammo companies, including Federal, Hornady, Norma and Remington, the 165 grain bullet in the standard .308 Win. load has a catalog MV of 2700 fps from a 24" test barrel. There are hotter loads, including a Hornady Light Magnum load using a 165 grain Boat-Tail Spire Point (BTSP) bullet at a blazing 2880 fps.
Perhaps the most famous and best selling centerfire rifle cartridge of all time, the .30-30 Winchester was introduced in 1895 as the first North American sporting cartridge to use smokeless powder. Over the years the .30-30 has appeared in many rifles of all types, but is most commonly seen today in lever actions such as the Marlin 336 and Winchester Model 94.
The .30-30 has remained an extremely popular cartridge, anywhere from first to fourth on most sales lists, for over 100 years. It has been used to take all North American big game, including the great bears and Alaskan moose, but it is at its best as a medium range cartridge for CXP2 game.
Like the .308 Win., practically everybody who loads centerfire rifle ammo loads the .30-30. Factory loaded bullet weights range from 55 grains to 170 grains, but the most useful bullets for big game hunting weigh 150, 160, and 170 grains.
In the Fall of 2005 Hornady introduced their ground breaking LEVERevolution load for the .30-30. This uses a boat-tail spitzer bullet with a flexible plastic tip at a MV of 2400 fps that flattens the old cartridge's trajectory and substantially increases its down range killing power.
The .308 Marlin, .308 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester are all true .30 caliber cartridges (barrel bore diameter .300") and shoot .308" bullets. There is therefore no difference in the cross sectional area of their bullets. All .308" bullets have a cross-sectional area of .0745 square inch.
To be as consistant as possible, the loads that we will compare are all Hornady factory loads. These will include the LEVERevolution (LE) loads in .308 Marlin and .30-30 Winchester, both of which use 160 grain Evolution boat-tail spitzer bullets, and two loads in .308 Winchester, the standard velocity Custom Rifle (CR) offering and the Light Magnum (LM) load, both of which use a 165 grain BTSP bullet.
We will compare these four loads in sectional density and ballistic coefficient, velocity, energy, trajectory, killing power, and recoil.
Sectional Density and Ballistic Coefficient
Sectional density is important because the greater the SD, the longer a bullet is for its weight and, other factors being equal, a long skinny bullet of any given weight penetrates better than a shorter, fatter bullet of the same weight. Penetration is an important factor in the length of the wound channel, and the amount of tissue disrupted. For this comparison we have chosen bullets as similar as possible in SD.
Ballistic coefficient is a measurement of how well a bullet flies through the air. The higher the BC, the lower the bullet's air drag. A higher BC helps a bullet retain more of its initial velocity and energy down range and also results in a flatter trajectory. Here are the sectional densities and published ballistic coefficients for the bullets used in the loads compared in this article.
It is obvious from those numbers that while all three bullets are similar in SD, the .308 Marlin and .308 Winchester bullets have a substantial advantage in BC.
Velocity is the most important component of energy and also decreases bullet flight time and hence flattens trajectory. Some hunters feel that high velocity per se contributes to killing power, but that has been difficult to prove scientifically. Here are the velocities from the muzzle (MV) to 300 yards in feet per second for our selected loads.
The .308 Marlin and standard .308 Winchester loads are pretty similar in velocity. The .30-30 is well behind that pair, and the .308 Light Magnum load is well out in front when the need is speed.
Kinetic energy is a way to measure a bullet's ability to do work. The "work" in this case would be expanding and penetrating deep into a game animal to destroy the maximum amount of tissue and effect a quick kill. Energy is an important factor in cartridge performance and killing power. Here are the energy figures in foot pounds for our selected loads from the muzzle (ME) to 300 yards.
Once again the .308 Marlin LEVERevolution and .308 Winchester Custom Rifle loads hold the middle ground with the .30-30 trailing and the .308 Win. Light Magnum leading the energy sweepstakes by a substantial margin.
The flatter a bullet shoots the less the shooter needs to compensate for bullet drop and the better his or her shot placement is liable to be. The following trajectories, shown in inches above or below the line of sight, are computed for the maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 3" of each load and assume an optical sight mounted 1.5" over bore.
And here are the maximum point blank ranges of the loads. This is the distance at which the bullet drops 3" below the line of sight, having been allowed to rise 3" above the line of sight at the peak of its arc.
Those are all pretty usable trajectories considering than most hunters simply zero their rifles at 200 yards. In fact, the .30-30 LEVERevolution load could easily be zeroed at 200 yards with only an inconsequential change in its MPBR.
Killing power is very hard to quantify due to the mass of variables, not the least of which are the game animal's state of mind when shot and the effect of bullet expansion on the wound channel. In my opinion, one of the best attempts to estimate killing power on game animals is the "Optimum Game Weight Formula" devised by Edward A. Matunas. It at least attempts to consider more than one factor and relates the result to the live weight of the animal and the distance at which it is shot. Most of all, OGW seems to have a positive correlation with actual results in the field. (There is an extensive OGW table on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page of Guns and Shooting Online.)
Here are the Optimum Game Weight results for our various loads at 100, 200, and 300 yards.
Judging by these OGW figures, the .30-30 LEVERevolution is a 300 yard deer load. (But remember that its MPBR is 232 yards!) The .308 Marlin LEVERevolution load is maybe a 150 yard elk cartridge and a 300 yard plus deer cartridge. The standard velocity .308 Win. load is a 200 yard elk cartridge and a 300 yard plus deer cartridge. The Light Magnum .308 Win. is about a 250 yard plus elk cartridge and a 300 yard plus deer cartridge.
In reality, as deer and general CXP2 class game cartridges, all of these loads are limited by their trajectory rather than by their killing power. We here at Guns and Shooting Online never recommend attempting a shot beyond the MPBR of the cartridge you are using.
Long range shooting dramatically increases the chances of wounding a fine game animal, and wounding an animal is the greatest sin a hunter can commit. Better to stalk closer or, if that it impossible, to pass on the shot and wait for a better opportunity. I know that the latter is hard to do, but self control is an important part of ethical hunting.
Payback time. The flatter a cartridge shoots and the harder it hits, the more it kicks. One of the reasons for the great popularity of the .30-30 over the last 100+ years is that it kills well and doesn't kick the shooter out from under his hat. Looking at all the numbers above we can predict that the .30-30 will kick the least, the .308 Marlin will be in the middle, and the .308 Winchester loads will kick the hardest.
To compute recoil you need to know the rifle weight, bullet weight, MV, and the weight of the powder charge. Such computations are approximate, but adequate for comparatve purposes. Since a scoped Marlin 336 XLR rifle, as well as most standard bolt action .308 rifles, weigh about 8 pounds with a scope and mount, that is the rifle weight we will use.
We have all the numbers needed to calculate recoil except the powder charges in our selected loads. Hornady, like other ammunition manufacturers, doesn't say how much of what powders they use in their factory loads. However, in the case of the .308 Winchester, there is plenty of reloading data that we can use to come up with a typical powder change for a given level of performance. One such source is the sixth edition of the Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading.
I know how much powder is in the .30-30 LEVERevolution load because I pulled a bullet and weighed the powder charge. It was 36.4 grains of some flattened ball powder according to my RCBS digital powder scale.
That leaves only the .308 Marlin load. I can't pull a bullet and weight the powder charge because as I write this I have no .308 Marlin ammunition on hand. But we can make an educated guess based on the size and performance of the cartridge compared to the similar .307 Winchester and .300 Savage. And I'm guessing about 39 grains of powder. (I'll update that to the correct amount when I find out what it is.) So here are the approximate recoil energy (in foot pounds) and recoil velocity (in feet per second) figures for our four loads.
The .308 Winchester is known as a fairly hard kicking caliber, and sure enough both loads exceed the 15 ft. lb. level that marks the comfort level limit of many shooters. They are, however, below the 20 ft. lb. level the marks the maximum recoil energy that most shooters can tolerate.
On the other hand, the .30-30 again proves to be the most comfortable cartridge to shoot. With recoil similar to that of a .243 Winchester in a lightweight rifle, it intimidates few hunters and that leads to good bullet placement, which in turn means quick kills. Unless you really need more power, a .30-30 is a darn good choice among deer rifles.
As expected, the .308 Marlin kicks harder than the .30-30, but it is safely below the 15 ft. lb. level. My guess is that most shooters will not find the recoil of the .308 Marlin objectionable.
Summary and Conclusion
In terms of the availability of arms and ammunition, the .30-30 and .308 Winchester have it all over the .308 Marlin. So if you live somewhere Hornady ammunition is hard to come by, you'd probably be better off buying your Marlin 336XLR in .30-30 caliber.
And if you're going to be using your rifle to shoot both deer and elk every year, the .308 Winchester is probably the best choice. It is noticeably more powerful than the .308 Marlin, particularly with premium loads, and it can handle heavier bullets. The popular 180 grain bullet is my elk load of choice for my .308 Winchester rifle.
If ammunition supply is not a problem and you hunt mostly deer and other CXP2 class game, but still want the capability to hunt elk or other large animals occasionally, and you don't want to have your brain addled by constant heavy recoil, the .308 Marlin may be the perfect cartridge. It seems to strike an excellent balance between killing power, trajectory, and recoil.
There are, of course, other cartridges that offer a favorable blend of high performance and mild manners. The 6.5x55 and 7x57 are examples of cartridges with similar virtues, and they are among my personal favorites. The .308 Marlin kicks about like a 6.5x55 or 7x57 shooting a 140 grain bullet, and it may be a little bit more reliable on large animals. I know that most American shooters will prefer its heavier .30 caliber bullet. (Europeans may feel differently.) But one thing is certain: the .308 Marlin Express is the only such cartridge available in the fine Marlin 336XLR lever action rifle!
Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.