Not everyone realizes it, but the old 30-30 Winchester is a joke.
Rarely Reported Truth About 30-30 Winchester
You rarely hear this. Instead everyone brags about how this old dog of a cartridge has taken more deer than any other. If it has (and who can prove it one way or another?) it’s only because every hunter and his dog has had one from 1895 through, oh, say roughly yesterday. Stick a few million rifles of any caliber in the hands of an equal number of hunters hitting the deer woods for 123 seasons and you’re bound to pile up a few deer carcasses.
But the cartridge itself? The venerated, nearly worshipped 30-30 Winchester is a joke.
Introducing A Ballistic Dog
Consider its ballistics: the 30-30 Winchester on a good day might push a 150-grain flat-nose bullet from the muzzle of a 24-inch barrel 2,400 fps. Most hunters carry 20-inch carbines, so they’re lucky to get 2,250 fps. They think they’re getting 2,300 fps or even 2,400 fps because that’s what the ammo manufacturers put on their boxes, but if you bother to run one of those bullets over a chronograph, you’ll see the bad news. The 170-grain bullets are, of course, even slower.
But if you think 2,250 fps is tortoise-slow in the age of 3,000 to 3,600 fps deer cartridges, you haven’t heard the half of it. Because those 30-30 bullets are flat, or at best round-nosed, (to prevent recoil primer ignition in tubular magazines) they have p-poor ballistic coefficients. That means they waste much of their energy bulldozing air out of their way. By the time they get a reasonable distance downstream, they’re gasping for breath and hitting the ground beneath your target!
To fully grasp this, you should check out this ballistic table I labored long and hard to put together. This represents a 150-grain round-nosed .308” bullet (B.C. .186) spit from a 20-inch 30-30 barrel at an optimistic 2,250 fps in a 10 mph right angle crosswind. The rifle was zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards in order to maximize it’s point-blank-range.
30-30 Winchester Ballistic Table
Range Drop Wind Energy
0 0 0 1,686 fp
50 +1.8 -.65 1,380 fp
100 +2.9 -2.6 1,121 fp
150 +1.5 -6 904 fp
200 -3.2 -11.3 727 fp
250 -12 -18.4 586 fp
300 -25.5 -27.6 480 fp
Check out that drop at 250 yards. Almost a foot! Aim for the middle of your buck’s chest and you’ll maybe kill an earthworm under him. And 300 yards? Don’t even go there. It’s beyond 30-30 territory. Shucks, if you subscribe to the old theory that you need at least 1,000 f-p energy to kill a deer, the 30-30 barely qualifies at 140 yards. In contrast, a 243 Winchester 100-grain spire point (you can read comparisons between it and the 30-30 in this previous RSO blog) zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards will fall just 1.5 inches below your point-of-aim at 300 yards!
And that’s not all. The puny little 100-grain .243 bullet will be packing 1,514 f-p energy at 200 yards. Look at that 30-30 Winchester energy at 200 yards. Just 727 f-p!
What’s all this nonsense about the 30-30’s smack down on deer?
Getting Wind of Another 30-30 Winchester Problem
The final nail in the coffin is wind deflection. Just a 10 mph zephyr deflects our beloved 150-grain round nose 30-30 slug almost a foot at 200 yards. The 243 bullets is nudged off course just 3 inches at the same range.
So why all this veneration for the silly 30-30 Winchester?
But, Somehow, It Works!
I’ll tell you why: because it flat out works. Let’s face it, unless you’re hunting the wild, wild West (which is, sadly, turning into the overcrowded tame, tame West just as fast as developers can make it happen) you probably aren’t going to see a deer at 200 yards let alone shoot at one. The vast majority of whitetail hunters probably sit overlooking a runway, field, or meadow across which 100 yards is the limit. So who needs hyper velocity at those ranges? A 2.5-inch wind deflection is nothing. On-target energy of 1,121 f-p is more than sufficient to drive a deadly mushrooming 30-30 bullet ripping right through a deer’s vitals. And… (here’s the part gourmands love) you can eat right up to the hole. Well, close enough anyway.
You see, the downside to hyper velocity is bloodshot meat. Slip a high velocity bullet through the ribs and it’s not much of a problem, but hit the shoulder or any other major muscle or bone, and the resultant pressure is going to radiate far and wide, forcing coagulating blood out of its plumbing and into the meat you were hoping to eat.
Recoiling From the 30-30 Winchester
Then there’s the inescapable Newtonian physics of the 30-30 Winchester, the inevitable opposite reaction that you feel on your shoulder. Despite launching a fairly heavy 150-grain bullet, the 30-30 in a 7.5-pound rifle kicks with only 11 f-p energy at a velocity of about 10 fps. You can compare that to 23 f-p and 14 fps from a 30-06 150-grain load.
Cool Lever-Action Rifles!
Finally, the 30-30 is really a great medium-range deer cartridge because of the lever-action rifles commonly chambered for it. In this era of overly built, overly long, overly bulky, overly heavy rifles, a good, old-fashioned “cowboy gun” is retro-fun! Whether Winchester M94, Marlin 336, Mossberg 464, or Henry Side Gate, lever-actions are nicely balanced, easy carrying, fast handling, cool looking, and just plain fun to hunt with. You rarely need the 5 to 7 rounds their tubular magazines hold, but they are a hoot to lever through.
30-30 Winchester Puts Hunt Back
Finally finally, the 30-30 Winchester puts the hunt back in hunting. Limited range and open sights (I strongly suggest a Skinner Peep) mean you have to hunt for your deer, not just snipe it.
Yes, on paper the 30-30 Winchester is a joke. But if you discount it the joke may be on you. No cartridge, no rifle lasts for 124 years if it doesn’t bring home the bacon. Regardless what the ballistic tables say, the 30-30 can still haul the mail — and bag the deer, hogs, bear, elk, moose…
Ron Spomer shot his first two whitetails with a 30-30 lever action rifle. Despite the dismal ballistics, he still likes the combination.