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Big Game Rifle
Rifle Magazine
February - March 2005
Volume 40, Number 1
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 233
On the cover...
The Smith & Wesson Performance Center Model 629 Compensated Hunter is set up with a Burris 2-7x scope. The Model 629 Hunter features an 8.75-inch barrel and square butt stocks. Cover photo by Stan Trzoniec.
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Except when the .30-40 “Krag” was replaced by the .30-06, the history of American military cartridges has been one of successively smaller cartridges. The .30-06 was eventually replaced by another .30 with almost exactly the powder capacity of the .30-40 but featuring a shorter “rimless” case and lighter bullets. Known to civilians as the .308 Winchester, the case was an adaptation of the .300 Savage, a round that appeared in 1920 to approx¬≠imate the ballistics of (guess what?) the .30-06.

The .300 fit both the Savage 99 lever action and a light, short bolt action too futuristic to survive, the Savage Model 20. (Think Remington Model 7 with controlled-round feeding.) The 1.87-inch case holds one-third less powder than the .30-06, yet .300 Savage ballistics came reasonably close to the .30-06’s original muzzle velocities, in particular the 150-grain load at 2,700 fps. How could this be? The .30-06 was born early in the evolution of smokeless powder, but by 1920 new powders could create almost as much zip in a smaller case.

In the years just after World War II, the American military wanted a smaller case so it could build a lighter autoloader. It tried the .300 Savage, but the short neck and 30-degree shoulder weren’t ideal for autoloader use. Then it lengthened the neck and changed the shoulder angle to 20 degrees, and the result was the .308.

The .308 was loaded to higher pressures than the .300 Savage (and even the .30-06), so factory ballistics exceeded those of the original .30-06. Today the .308’s “standard” 150- and 180-grain factory loads are listed at 2,820 and 2,620 fps, respectively, about 100 fps faster than .30-06 ammunition achieved in 1910 (when Theodore Roosevelt used one successfully on a wide variety of African game). Federal’s High Energy 180-grain .308 load is listed at 2,740, and Hornady’s Light Magnum’s push 150-grain bullets to 3,000 fps and 180s to 2,880. Handloaders can generally safely reach velocities somewhere between the standard and “enhanced” factory loads. So in essence the .308 WCF is a short magnum, because it at least matches and sometimes beats the standard ballistics of the .30-06, the most powerful “non-magnum” .30.

The .300 Savage hasn’t gotten a technology boost. The Savage 99 is a strong action, easily adapted to the .308 in the 1950s – but 99s in .300 started appearing in 1920, so SAAMI pressures are kept to 46,000 CUP. Even so, in a good .300 (especially a bolt action such as the Remington 722 and 700), a careful handloader can easily and safely exceed the ballistics of T.R.’s .30-06.

Neither short .30 gets much respect from cutting-edge hunters who believe only “magnums” are useful on big game, but even the 180-grain factory load for the .300 Savage (2,350 fps) is only 200 yards behind the factory-loaded .300 Winchester Magnum, and the standard (not juiced) 180-grain .308 is only about 100 yards behind. You can look it up.

Yet a .300 magnum supposedly knocks big game on its butt at 400 yards, while a .300 Savage or .308 WCF isn’t “fully adequate” for elk and moose, even at woods ranges. Oh, well. The world is full of such notions, but anybody who has hunted with the .300 Savage or .308 Winchester knows they do fine on about any nondangerous big game out to 250 or 300 yards, which takes in 99 percent of the world’s big game hunting.

If there’s any such thing as an inherently accurate cartridge, both would qualify. Almost any bolt- action .308 will group three shots under an inch at 100 yards, and I’ve owned Savage 99 .300s made 50 to 60 years ago that shot just as well as the average .308.

The 150- and 180-grain weights have been traditional in .30 caliber ever since the .30-06 became popular, but in the .300 Savage and .308, the compromise 165 grainer will do the same jobs, especially with today’s bullets. Both cartridges are a snap to handload, despite what you might read about the .300 Savage’s short neck and sharp shoulder. Cases should be full-length sized when used in lever, pump or autoloading rifles, but that’s standard procedure for any centerfire cartridge. Just about any powder with a burning rate around IMR-4895 does the trick, though slightly slower powders such as Alliant Reloder 15 and Hodgdon Varget speed up heavier bullets noticeably.

My first real big game rifle was a Savage 99 in .308 Winchester, which taught me many lessons in sporting rifle reality. The .308, for instance, isn’t regarded as a very flat shooter – yet the only deer I managed to miss with the 99 were shot over. In the decades since, I also learned that a .30-caliber, 165-grain bullet at 2,650 to 2,800 fps will do for about any of the world’s nondangerous game.

You don’t really need a “super-premium” bullet in either the .300 or .308, but the use of a Nosler Partition or Barnes X-Bullet certainly kicks things up a notch – not in recoil, but penetration on larger game. Even at 300 yards, a 165 shoots plenty fast and flat enough in the .300 Savage, and in the .308 does just fine at 400 – as long as you keep your part of the bargain.

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