Smokey Merkley

A 300 Weatherby, top, and a Remington 721 .30-06, bottom.

On occasion, I am asked by someone if I think a .308 Winchester is a good caliber for hunting deer, pronghorn, elk, moose and bear.

Proponents of the .308 Winchester will usually tell stories of how well the caliber does as a sniper rifle out to 700 yards and sometimes beyond.

The problem with that logic is that if a sniper hits his target anywhere, it counts because even wounded soldiers cost the enemy. Shooting at game is different. Wounding is anything but humane. Fast, relatively painless kills are not just ethical but critical to our peace of mind as hunters and the future of hunting as an outdoor activity.

So, before I can answer the question of whether the .308 Winchester is a good all-around big game caliber, I have to ask at what range the questioner plans to shoot.

I think I would be pretty comfortable hunting any of those animals at 300 yards or less with the popular .308 Winchester caliber. But my reason for citing 300 yards as the distance I would not want to shoot beyond may not be what you would think. Beyond 300 or 400 yards, I’m concerned about three things: bullet drop, bullet drift and retained energy.

Here in the Rocky Mountain Northwest, we have a variety of hunting in areas that range from heavy timber and thick brush to high wind-swept mountains with sparse vegetation and a view of several miles of valleys and peaks.

Mature bucks and elk often prefer to hang out in the highest, steepest and rockiest areas, where they can see what is coming for miles while hidden among rocky cliffs and high patches of timber.

Pronghorn like large expanses of sagebrush or flat meadows, where they can see for miles and are hard to get very close to before they spot potential threats.

In my experience, moose just suddenly show up, coming out of marshy areas or heavy timber. Although I don’t hunt bear, they also can just show up around a corner or come walking up out of a stream bed while I was hunting.

The .308 Winchester certainly has enough energy to kill deer, pronghorn, elk, moose and bear out to 300 yards, but the bullet drops fast and it’s trajectory looks like a bell shaped curve by 500 yards. The .308 really isn’t up to the heavy-bodied game and extended, often unknown ranges in much of the sparsely covered high country.

Trying to hold over the target 30 to 50 or more inches at distances of 400 yards or more is a tough shot to make with any precision when flatter shooting calibers are available.

So the answer to the question is that the .308 Winchester is right at home at distances where its bullet won’t drop or rise more than 6 or 7 inches, or when the hunter is holding right on the center of the vital area of the animal. That would be a pretty doable shot out to 300 yards for the .308 Winchester. However, a 150-grain bullet will be dropping about 13 inches at 300 yards and a 180-grain bullet will drop 14 inches or more at the same distance. It really drops fast after that.

In my opinion, long range is anything past 400 yards. There are other calibers that have more retained energy, a flatter trajectory and half the wind drift as the .308 Winchester.

Americans love their .30 caliber cartridges, so let’s use the .300 Weatherby Magnum for comparison.

The .300 Weatherby cartridge shoots heavy and long for caliber projectiles that are far more aerodynamic than any bullet the short necked .308 Winchester can handle efficiently. This translates into better down-range expansion and energy-carrying velocity.

A commercial .300 Weatherby 180-grain Spire Point bullet retains 1,880 foot-pounds at 500 yards, and a hunter who reloads can safely get even better performance out of longer bullets with a higher ballistic coefficient.

The .308 Winchester, because of its short neck, doesn’t handle 180 grain bullets very well and the 150- and-165 grain bullets aren’t pushed fast enough to have more than the minimum amount of energy for elk at 500 yards, especially if a quartering shot must be taken.

The .308 Winchester is built for efficiency, not hot rodding, and powder capacity isn’t adequate to push heavy .30 caliber bullets fast enough for long-range shooting.

For most who hunt with a .308 Winchester, the excellent barrel life offered by the .308 Winchester, along with low recoil and economic powder consumption, is of more value than the ability to shoot extremely aerodynamic bullets.

So go head and use your .308 Winchester hard. Within 300 yards or so, it will make you proud and won’t knock your shoulder farther back than the other. Just don’t ask it to do something it isn’t suited for.