The .308 Winchester: A Brief History
Used in the woods and on the battlefield since the 1950s, the .308 continues to be one of the most versatile rifle rounds ever created—find out why.
The .308 Winchester was and continues to be one of the most versatile centerfire rifle rounds ever created. Developed for the battlefield and adapted for use in the deer woods, the .308 has proved to be one of the most capable rounds in either place. Its power, performance, and inherent accuracy makes the .308—also known as the 7.62x51mm NATO—equally at home in a belt-fed machine gun or a super-accurate bolt-action hunting rifle.
Since its introduction in 1952, the .308 Winchester has become the most popular short-action, big-game hunting cartridge in the world. It’s a do-it-all cartridge that doesn’t have the recoil of some larger, magnum rifle cartridges, yet serves well as a medium-to-long-range round capable of taking large game and proving very effective at shooting through obstacles, cover, and plant material on the battlefield.
Like every cartridge, the .308 has a tale behind it, and that starts with its predecessor and parent cartridge, the .30-06 Springfield.
The .30-03 and later the .30-06 were developed as a response to the U.S. military’s experience in the Spanish-American war in the late 1890s, going up against enemy troops armed with 7x57mm Mauser-chambered rifles.
It was a time of great flux at the dawn of the 20th century and militaries and gunmakers were taking large strides. When it was introduced, the .30-06 was the cutting edge of ammunition technology now that smokeless powder had almost completely replaced black powder.
It served well on the battlefield chambered in the 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle during the First World War and, of course, in the M1 Grand during the Second.
As is often the case, advancements in one area of technology often leads to changes in others. New propellants gave ordnance engineers over at Winchester Repeating Arms Company new options by the time the 1950s came around, including the ability to replicate the performance of the .30-06 150-grain load in a shorter cartridge, which required a shorter action. And that’s how the .308 Winchester / 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge came to be.
A shorter action meant shorter receivers on rifles and that the rounds would function more reliably in semi-automatic rifles, which, after the adoption of the M1 Grand in WWII and other arms like the BAR, was undoubtedly to be the new long-arm standard for the U.S. military.
Winchester introduced the .308 to the commercial market as a sporting round in 1952 after being developed for the military, though it wasn’t adopted as the 7.62x51mm NATO round for two more years, but more on the differences between the two rounds later. The .308 Winchester chambering was originally offered in the company’s Model 70 and Model 88 rifles.
Two years after it hit the hunting market as the .308 Win, the cartridge was adopted as the 7.62x51mm NATO T65 for military use worldwide. It served as the ammunition for the U.S. military’s new standard issue rifle and light machine gun, the M14 and the M60, which were put into service in the late 1950s.
The .308 round uses a rimless casing and a large rifle primer, topped with a 7.82mm bullet that is 51mm in length. The cartridge has an overall length of 2.8 inches and the case can hold up to 56 grains of propellant.
For comparison, the .30-06 Springfield uses a rimless casing and a large rifle primer, topped with a 7.8mm bullet. The cartridge, however, has an overall length of 3.4 inches and the case can hold 68 grains of propellant.
While the .308’s ballistics were meant to replicate that of the .30-06, it was actually developed from the .300 Savage cartridge. It has slightly more drop at long range than the .30-06, due to a slightly lower muzzle velocity with most bullet weights.
If you examine factory ballistics data for most .308 loads, you’ll see they shoot fairly flat out to 150-200 yards, depending on the load, but beyond the 200-yard mark, the .308 begins experiencing significant drop. At about 500 yards, a 165-grain .308 will have slowed by about 900 fps from its muzzle velocity of 2820 fps. That’s still enough speed and power to be lethal, but at that range the .308 can experience a drop of as much as 60 inches with a 200-yard zero.
As a consequence, long-range shooting with the .308 usually requires high-velocity loads combined with some significant holdover and sight adjustment for bullet drop.
The ceiling for the .308 is around 1,000 yards. The U.S. Army sets its maximum effective range at 800 meters (about 875 yards) while the U.S. Marine Corps has it at 915 meters (1,000 yards even).
That’s where the faster, magnum cartridges like the .300 Win Mag come in, which experience far less drop and energy loss at the 1,000-yard mark.
.308 Winchester and 7.62 x 51mm NATO – What’s the Real Difference?
Like the .223 Remington and the 5.56x45mm NATO rounds, the .308 and 7.62 are almost identical…almost.
The rounds are similar enough that they can be loaded into rifles chambered for the other round, but the big difference is pressure. Civilian market .308 cartridges are typically loaded to higher pressures and created to more exacting tolerances than the military ammo, which is mass produced with more room for error. This means that occasionally, some 7.62 military ammo might not quite fit a .308 chamber and might have to be run through a resizing die.
The difference is so negligible, in fact, that the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) does not consider it unsafe to fire the commercial round in firearms chambered for the NATO round.
U.S. Military Use
In the U.S. military, the switch from the M16, and its much smaller and speedier 5.56 round, led to the .308 being relegated to a sniper round in the Marine’s M40 rifle and the Army’s M24 and as food for the M60, which remained in service until the 1980s.
The first rifle fielded by the U.S. Army chambered in the .308 was the M14, a detachable-box-magazine semi-auto, full-auto rifle that evolved from the M1 Garand, which had an internal magazine loaded via en-bloc stripper clips.
The M14 was issued in the late 1950s and saw service in the field at the beginning of the Vietnam War, but it had its problems. The full-sized rifle was long and cumbersome in many situations and on the heavy side for humping through the jungle. Additionally, the wood stock had a tendency to swell and warp in the ultra-humid jungle climate, and create a wandering zero.
By 1964 the M14 had almost entirely replaced in combat roles by the new M16, which was made largely of polymers and aluminum to cut down on weight, and it fired the much smaller and faster 5.56x45mm round, which meant soldiers and Marines could carry more rounds for the weight than the .308 Win., as you can see from the table below.
|Rifle||Cartridge||Cartridge Weight||Weight of Loaded Magazine||Max 22 lbs. ammo load|
|M14 (1959)||7.62x51mm NATO||25.4 grams||20-round mag @ 1.65 lbs.||13 mags @ 21.38 lbs. for 280 rounds|
|M16 (1962)||5.56x45mm NATO||11.8 grams||20-round mag @ 0.70 lbs.||31 mags @ 21.89 lbs. for 620 rounds|
|AK-47 (1949)||7.62x39mm||16.3 grams||30-round mag @ 1.8 lbs.||12 mags @ 20.28 lbs. for 360 rounds|
But the M14 didn’t die, instead evolving to show the 7.62 NATO round’s usefulness as a special-purpose long-range rifle round. In the 1970s, the Army converted several thousand M14s to M21 sniper rifles, which remained the standard issue semi-auto long-range rifle until the adoption of the M24 SWS in 1988. In the mid-1990s, the USMC chose a version of the M14 to serve as its Designated Marksman Rifle, giving the .308 Win. a new life in the military. It was intended to be used by security teams and Marine Scout Snipers in cases where a semi-auto rifle would be more appropriate than a bolt gun. The M14 is still used by the USMC in shooting competitions and in specialty roles by several branches of the U.S. Military.
While most modern snipers have transitioned to magnum calibers like the .300 Win Mag, .338 Lapua Magnum, and .50 BMG for long-range use, the .308 remains the go-to choice for designated marksmen and moderate-range sniper roles.
Range of Use
While in service, the .308 has been loaded in a wide variety of configurations including various armor-piercing, tracer, and specialty long-range loads.
The 7.62 NATO was originally adopted by the U.S. military as the M59, which had a 150.5-grain bullet containing a semi-armor-piercing iron or mild steel core and a gilded steel jacket. It was replaced by the M80 Ball cartridge as the standard round, which has a 147-grain bullet.
The improved M80A1 was developed by the U.S. Army earlier in the decade incorporating changes found in the M855A1 5.56 round. The round is expected to have better hard-target penetration, more consistent performance against soft targets, and significantly increased distances of these effects over the M80. The bullet is redesigned with a copper jacket and exposed hardened steel penetrator, eliminating 114.5 grains of lead with production of each M80A1 projectile, which the Army began fielding in September 2014.
The M118LR 175-grain round is a sniper round that, while having a lower muzzle velocity than the M80, maintains supersonic speeds out to 1,040 yards due to it’s low-drag bullet, while the M80 drops to subsonic speeds at about 957 yards. The cartridge uses the Sierra Match King Hollow Point Boat Tail bullet produced at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. The round has a noticeable muzzle flash and a bit of a sensitivity to temperature variations, which lead to the development of the MK 316 MOD 0 round for special operations use.
One of the more interesting military loads was the Duplex M198 round that, as the name suggests, was loaded with two 84-grain bullets. The idea was to increase the M14’s volume of fire by essentially doubling the number of projectiles in each magazine.
A high pressure round was made specifically for the M60, but not for field use. Rather it was used to conduct proof firing tests of firearms during manufacture or repair. It is identified by its silver casing.
The cartridge was also made into a grenade launching blank round (providing pressure to launch rifle grenades using a grenade projectile adapter) which can be identified by a rose-petal crimp of the cartridge case mouth, which is then sealed with red lacquer.
But military use is one thing—a round or firearm can stay in service decades after they should have been retired, simply because the government might have a large stockpile and it works. But the .308 saw just as much success in the civilian market.
The cartridge remains one of the most popular hunting rounds in the U.S. and the world, and is used extensively for whitetail deer, pronghorn, and black bear in North America. Though it’s considered underpowered for larger game like elk or brown bears by some, other hunters advocate it’s effectiveness on such large game, and certainly many have been tagged with a .308 over the years.
Today some say the .308’s days are numbered in both the civilian and military worlds as new do-it-all rounds like the 6.5 Creedmoor, which have greater range and better ballistics, are taking its place. Perhaps that’s the way it will go, or perhaps the .308 will outlive its predecessors, and even some of its successors.