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The Practicality Of Reduced .308 Loads

by Lane Pearce   |  January 4th, 2011 1


The powders on the left may cause unintended consequences, while the powders
on the right are recommended for loading reduced power .308 Winchester handloads.

Last month I responded to a reader’s request for specific loading data for an old and nearly forgotten cartridge, the 7.65 Mauser. This column is in response to another reader’s inquiry about loading reduced-recoil ammo for the .308 Winchester.

Reader Ken Slusher e-mailed to ask if it was feasible and, more importantly, a safe practice to use Lyman’s load data for cast bullets and simply substitute the same weight jacketed bullet. His e-mail stated, “I realize that loading reduced charges of slow-burn-rate rifle powder is dangerous,” and continued by noting, “the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook lists shotgun and pistol propellants like Red Dot, IMR-4227, and Alliant 2400. Velocities range from 1,700 to 2,000 fps.”

Unfortunately, the answer to Mr. Slusher’s inquiry is not a simple “yes” or “no.” It’s actually “maybe, but with certain limitations.”

All of us who enjoy shooting are sensitive to recoil to some extent. For example, my limit is 10 rounds of full-bore .416 Rigby rounds fired in an 11-pound bolt rifle from the bench. Several years ago my limit was at least double the current threshold. My favorite big-bore rifle now is a Ruger Hawkeye chambered in .338 RCM.

I used to shoot 40 or so full-throttle .475 Linebaugh test loads in a custom Ruger Bisley single action before my mind lost total control of my trigger finger. Now I only shoot a cylinder full to remind myself just how much the Linebaugh can kick before I switch to much more pleasant .480 Ruger handloads.

Fortunately, I’ve had these options across the board. If a certain firearm/cartridge combination recoiled too much, I’d just go to the vault and select a less punishing rifle or handgun or, if practical, use an alternate, less powerful round in the offending gun. Although I’ve read about it, I’d never had to significantly down-load my handloads to reduce recoil.

But that’s just another opportunity hand-loaders can take advantage of—tailoring their handloads to accommodate a specific need.

I often call on Tom Griffin, Lyman’s technical services manager, to discuss reloading issues. I did again this time, and after relating the reader’s comments, I solicited his opinion. Griffin pointed out that while you could do what the reader stated, lubricated lead bullets exhibit less friction than gilding metal jacketed or all-copper bullets do. Because it takes more propellant behind a jacketed bullet to achieve equal velocities compared to the same weight cast bullet, there was a potential risk to stick a jacketed bullet in the barrel if the handloader didn’t use enough propellant.

I pointed out that the Lyman Cast Bullet Handbook data for loading 150-grain lead bullets in the .308 Win. listed the faster-burn-rate propellants (Red Dot, Unique, SR 4756, etc.) with charges ranging from 12 to 16 grains. There was a definite demarcation between those and the 20- to 25-grain charge weights for medium-burning pistol propellants like IMR’s SR 4759, 4227, and Alliant 2400.

I also suggested that Accurate’s 5744 was an excellent choice for safely loading reduced-power rifle ammunition. In addition, I mentioned that another industry source had assured me that loading less than the starting charge of IMR-4895 and typically rifle propellants exhibiting the same or faster burn rates was also a safe practice.

Griffin responded by saying the most recent Lyman Reloading Handbook (the 49th edition) had steered away from listing fast-burn-rate shotgun or pistol propellants as preferred choices for reloading lead bullets in rifle cartridges.

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Reduced-Recoil .308 Winchester Loads

Bullet Powder (Type/ Grs.) Velocity (fps) Muzzle Energy (ft-lbs) Recoil (ft-lbs)
Hornady 150-gr. JSP AA 5744 / 24.0 1835 1122 6.4
Hornady 150-gr. JSP IMR-4227 / 24.0 1997 1329 7.2
Hornady 150-gr. JSP SR 4759 / 22.0 1964 1285 6.7
Hornady 150-gr. JSP 2400 / 20.0 1784 1060 5.5
Hornady 150-gr. JSP IMR-4895 / 35.0 2020 1359 9.2
Notes: These handloads
were fired in a Ruger MKII M77 Frontier w/16-inch barrel. Weight of the rifle and scope is 7.5 pounds.


The .30-30 Winchester (left) is a viable reduced-recoil alternative to the .308 Winchester (right).

Taking Griffin’s advice, I proceeded to assemble some test loads targeted at achieving Mr. Slusher’s velocity specifications (1,700 to 2,000 fps). My only .308 Win. rifles are scout or target models, so I chose the short-barreled models to test my handloads. As the charts show, the results were almost right on the mark. While the “crack” when a round was fired was still quite loud, felt recoil was much less than that generated by a full-power .308 round.

Notwithstanding the fact that the reduced recoil loads’ accuracy was good, the reader also intends to hunt with these handloads. So I asked myself, “Are typical .308 Win. bullets launched at substantially less muzzle velocities still capable for humanely taking game?” I called a couple of my industry contacts to solicit their opinions. The consensus is summarized as follows.

“There’s a reason why the starting loads for typical spitzer and roundnose .308 Win. bullets typically deliver 2,200+ fps velocities. These bullets are constructed so a minimum residual striking energy is required to adequately penetrate and expand upon impact. If muzzle velocity is reduced too much, they can not perform as designed.”

So, Mr. Slusher, that’s the reason 150-grain, .30-caliber lead bullets can be fired at 1,700 to 2,000 fps and, at reasonable distances, can surely and humanely take game. One industry source suggested that the lighter (125/130-grain) jacketed bullets loaded to at least 2,100 fps should be satisfactory. Another suggested substituting 150-grain bullets designed for the .30-30 WCF in the .308 Win. to at least 2,000 fps and restricting the range to 150 yards, i.e., typical Eastern woods conditions.

After speaking with my industry friends, I recalled my usual course of action in this situation—selecting an alternate rifle/cartridge. Choosing to handload more fragile .30-30 bullets suggests that one should at least consider using a rifle chambered for that cartridge. I also hadn’t considered loading lighter bullets that also will reduce recoil. So I prepared and shot more test loads.

I also included muzzle energy data so you can consider another important technical factor. Most sources state 1,000 ft-lbs is the minimum bullet energy required to dispatch a deer-size game animal. Of course, that’s not muzzle energy. Several of the reduced loads listed in the charts will not provide that level of performance beyond 50 yards, while others might retain that much up to 150 yards. Of course, the shorter barrels of the two test rifles I had available for testing further restricted the recorded velocities.

Compared to full-power .308 Win. data, the theoretical recoil of the reduced-performance handloads is reduced by approximately one-half to two-thirds. Of course, the recoil generated by factory or full-power .30-30 ammo is only about half compared to the .308 Win.

One final but very important caution is warranted. When loading reduced-recoil ammo, you will be loading less propellant. Several 12-grain charges of Red Dot will fit in a .308 Win. case. You can easily load two charges of a fast-burn-rate propellant and possibly not notice your mistake. Firing a round with a double charge of a shotgun or pistol powder will most likely cause a catastrophic event, i.e., recoil may still be reduced somewhat because the firearm will probably burst.

Obviously, a careful handloader preparing reduced-power loads safely can achieve satisfactory results at the range or in the field. Just remember, practically speaking, you don’t get something for nothing. Fully determine the limitations and potential consequences associated with this practice and take the necessary measures to preclude or accommodate them.

  • Joe black

    Would it not just be possible to use .30-30 data in the .308 given they use similar weight bullets and case capacity is nearly identical?

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