The .308 Winchester has become one of the standard mid to long-range rounds that many other rounds are compared to. While not the most powerful, nor the longest range round that has been developed, the .308 Winchester remains one of, if not the most popular round for hunters, military, and police alike who are looking for accuracy and stopping power.
Where it all started
The US Army wanted to improve upon the existing M1 Garand and found that it had a number of issues could be improved upon. While the .30-06 was a hard-hitting round, the limited number of rounds that could be loaded via en-bloc clips created problems for soldiers in the field. While the .30-06 was effective the Army wanted to move to a smaller, more compact round that could fulfill the same role. However they also wanted to have it be useable in machine guns as well. The high recoil of the .30-06 prevented it from being controllable in a machine gun and the Army wanted to address this issue with its new round. The plan was to develop a caliber that could be used in both machine guns and infantry rifles.
Much of the research for this new round was conducted along with the development of the M14 Rifle done by Earle Harvey and the .30 light rifle design group. With newly developed ball powder from Olin Industries the smaller caliber was still able to compete with the larger .30-06, sacrificing little velocity despite decreasing the case size.
So after extensive testing and development the new .308 Winchester round was born. The round was released to the public as the .308 Winchester in 1952, two years later the Army formally adopted the round under the 7.62×51 NATO name and the round became the standard NATO long-range round. The NATO adoption would cement the rounds staying power and keep it moving forward well into the foreseeable future.
The .308 Winchester was able to throw a 150 grain round at 2,800 fps yet it was still accurate and able to reach out to very long ranges. When combined with the newly developed M14, the US Army found what they were looking for in a battle rifle. While magazine capacity would eventually force the US Army to adopt the smaller 5.56, the .308 Winchester remained a highly effective round for machine gunners, snipers, and soldiers around the world.
.308 and 7.62×51 What’s in a name?
The .308 Winchester and the 7.62×51 NATO are essentially the same round. However there are a few key differences that should be noted. First the maximum pressure for the .308 Win is 62,000 PSI, however the 7.62×51 NATO maxes out at 50,000 PSI. Second we also have to note the headspacing of the cartridge. The .308 headspaces at 1.634″ while the 7.62×51 headspaces at 1.6405″. With this tiny difference it is almost always possible to shoot quality 7.62×51 ammo out of a quality .308 Win rifle. The reverse is also true most of the time as well, however it is more common to run into issues with chambering .308 ammo in a 7.62×51 rifle. Yet again we have to throw in another caveat, most 7.62×51 NATO ammo is made to the .308 Winchester headspace.
Essentially the difference between .308 Winchester and 7.62×51 NATO is the same as .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO. If you are ever in doubt, check both your rifle’s manufacture specifications and the ammunition manufactures specifications. Never assume that simply because your rifle can chamber a round that it is safe to shoot.
As a military cartridge the 7.62×51 NATO has seen a wide range of loadings, tracer, ball, frangible, match grade, barrier defeating, armor penetrating, and more have all been loaded for this cartridge. As a round that continues to be a favored round for civilians, military, and police we are sure to see the latest in bullet technology applied to this round. There are a few loadings of note however for the 7.62×51 NATO, first some American designs.
One was the 7.62mm, NATO, Ball, Silent, XM115. This was an attempt to “quite” the round and was probably some kind of subsonic loading, while never seeing formal adoption information on this particular loading is limited. Another notable loading was the 7.62mm, NATO, Grenade, M64. The M64 was a “blank” round designed to launch rifle grenades and could be easily identified by a crimp at the case mouth were the bullet would normally be sealed by red lacquer. The 7.62mm, NATO, Ball, Special, M118LR was produced by Lake City Army Ammunition Plant and was an attempt to create a special long-range round for special operations. Using 175 grain Sierra Match King hollow point boat tail rounds the round was effective, however shortcomings with the amount of muzzle flash and temperature sensitivity in the powder lead to the development of the MK 316 MOD 0 round soon after. The new MK 316 round would use the same bullets however it replaced the powder with IMR 4064. Federal Cartridge Company match cartridge cases and Gold Medal Match primers are also used in the MK 316 MOD 0 cartridge, so hand loaders should be able to replicate the MK 316 MOD 0 with a bit of patience, research, and experimentation.
For overhead fire use the 7.62mm, NATO, Ball, Overhead Fire, XM178 and the tracer versions XM179 and XM180 were all developed with the idea of making the round safer to fire overhead from supporting positions while other forces move forward under covering fire. The rounds utilized a single machined piece for the bullet so that small pieces of the bullet would be less likely to fall off and injure friendly forces. While the differences in the tracers rounds XM197 and XM180 was the mixture of the tracing compound used, these “Overhead Fire” rounds were never formally adopted probably due to them having limited practical performance over existing rounds.
7.62mm, NATO, Tracer, M276 is a variety of tracer round that is specifically intended for use with night vision optics. The mixture of the tracing compound is tweaked to burn with fewer lumens and thus has less impact on night vision while still being easy to pick out. The M276 is easily identified by its green tip and pink band around the head of the cartridge.
From Germany there are also a number of notable variants of the 7.62mm NATO as well. The Patrone (Cartridge) AB22, 7.62mm × 51, DM111, Weichkern, or “soft core” uses a thin cupro-nickel coated steel jacket causing it to have severe fragmentation in human tissue because of this thin jacket. The DM111 was further refined with the DM111A1, replacing the jacket with a gilding metal one while still retaining its frangible properties in soft tissue.
The Germans also developed DM28A2, Manöver (“Maneuver”) blank rounds and DM18A1B1, Übung (“Practice”) rounds. The DM18A1B1 are particularly interesting because they use plastic cases and bullets instead of metallic ones. The unique .308 variant was developed from the Norwegian NM8 and NM127 practice rounds, originally created by Bakelittfabrikken. The DM18A1B1 variant is reportedly very accurate with a high velocity, propelling a 10 grain, plastic, bullet with high accuracy up to about 300 meters. However I can’t find too much info on these rounds currently and what I can find is a few years old.
As perhaps the most ubiquitous hunting round the .308 Winchester has an absurd number of firearms chambered for it. The Winchester Model 70, the Ruger American, Remington 700, dozens of AR-10 pattern rifles, just about every major rifle manufacturer has something chambered in this round. From entry-level hunting rifles to match grade builds costing thousands of dollars the .308 Winchester has a rifle for any budget be it bolt-action or semi-automatic.
Below you can see the affordable but accurate Ruger American slinging lead down range.
Factory Ammo & Hand Loading
Being such a ubiquitous round the .308 has a plethora of choices for it, from basic FMJ to precision, match grade ammo, even military surplus. Anyone looking to feed their .308 rifle will find a wide selection of ammo for their needs.
Handloaders have a wide selection as well. From basic to match grade bullets, brass, and dies are all easy to find. Sierra, Hornady, Nosler, and many others make excellent bullets for the .308 Winchester. For specific data Nosler has some excellent reloading data that you can use here and Accurateshooter.com provides addtional loadings as well.
A Bright Future for the .308
The .308 Winchester has proven to be a popular and flexible round. Hunters love it for game, police appreciate its inherent accuracy, and military snipers use it to maximum effectiveness to engage long-range targets. The .308 Winchester shows no signs of being replaced any time soon in the roles that it fulfills for both governments and civilians alike.
Update: 12/19/16 – Included information on Earle Harvey and the .30 light rifle design group