The .307 Winchester and .356 Winchester Lever-Action Cartridges
November 27, 2018
The .307 Winchester and .356 Winchester lever-action cartridges were front-page news when they were introduced a little over three decades ago. They aren’t often seen or mentioned in hunting camps today, but they should be because no other cartridges enable a tube-magazine, lever-action rifle to cover more hunting territory.
Mention lever-action rifles, and the Winchester Model 94 springs to mind. And when most hunters think of the Model 94, they immediately think of the .30-30 Winchester cartridge. But the grand old lever action has been available in more powerful cartridges, and it began with the introduction of the .375 Winchester in 1978. Its case was a strengthened and slightly shortened version of the old .38-55 Winchester case, and it was loaded with 200- and 250-grain bullets at advertised velocities of 2,200 and 1,900 fps. In addition to punching a bigger hole through deer than the .30-30, residual energy at 100 yards was about 12 percent higher. Maximum chamber pressure was set at 52,000 CUP, quite a bit warmer than the 38,000 CUP of the .30-30. To reduce momentary receiver stretch of the Model 94 action, the walls of the receiver in the area of the locking bolt were thickened, and to differentiate that version from the standard rifle, it was introduced as the Model 94 Big Bore XTR.
The original plan was to eventually add a .408-caliber cartridge on that same case. Pilot rifles were built, but when the .375 version proved to be a slow seller, the decision-makers at U.S. Repeating Arms (builders of Winchester rifles at the time) headed in a different direction in late 1982 by introducing the Model 94 Angle Eject.
For the first time in close to 90 years of production, America’s favorite deer rifle threw spent cases to the right rather than into the sky, which allowed a scope to be mounted centrally over the receiver. Because the stock of the Model 94 had considerable drop for use with open sights, a new Monte Carlo-style stock with a higher comb was added. Weaver scope-mounting bases and rings were included. The rifle also inherited the beefed-up receiver of the earlier Model 94 Big Bore. But the biggest news of all was its new .307 Winchester and .356 Winchester chamberings. Like the .375 Win., maximum average pressure for the two cartridges was set at 52,000 CUP. In early 1983 I received a couple of the first Model 94s in .307 and .356 to come off the production line, and I still have them.
Not to be left behind, Marlin announced a Model 336 ER (Extended Range) with a 22-inch barrel in .307 Win. and a Model 336 ERC (Extra-Range Carbine) with a 20-inch barrel in .356 Win. Due to sticky case extraction with Winchester .307 ammo, the ER version never went into production. The carbine in .356 Win. was produced, and since I already had a Winchester 94 in that caliber, my Marlin went to Harry McGowen for rebarreling to 7mm Shooting Times Easterner, which is the .307 Win. case necked down and fireformed to minimum body taper and a sharper shoulder angle. I still have that rifle, too.
Bullet diameters are 0.308 inch for the .307 Win. and 0.358 inch for .356 Win. Their cases are rimmed versions of the .308 Winchester and .358 Winchester cases. During the process of forming rifle cartridge cases, the final step left the rim oversized, and it was then turned to the desired diameter. When making .307 and .356 cases, Winchester simply left their rims at a larger diameter than those on the .308 and .358 cases.
Capacities of cases will vary, not only from manufacturer to manufacturer, but also among different lots from the same manufacturer. So for this report, I checked the gross capacities of various cases by first weighing them and then weighing them again after they were filled to the brim with water. Capacities of Winchester .307 cases from the 1980s as well as more recent production averaged 56.5 grains, while the average for Hornady .307 cases was 55.3 grains. The .308 Marlin Express case is a shortened .307 Win. case with an average water capacity of 51.2 grains. Averages for .308 cases were 54.9 grains (Winchester), 54.7 grains (SIG), 54.4 grains (Hornady), and 54.1 grains (Nosler). This is not to imply that load data for the .307 Win. and .308 Win. should be interchanged. Only pressure-tested data identified by reputable sources as developed specifically for the .307 Win. should be used for it. The same goes for the .356 Win.
Original advertised velocities for the 150- and 180-grain Power-Point bullets of the .307 Win. were 2,760 fps and 2,510 fps. The .356 Win. was loaded with 200- and 250-grain Power-Points at 2,460 fps and 2,160 fps. Some deer hunters consider 1,000 ft-lbs of energy the minimum required for quick kills, and both cartridges exceeded that as far away as 300 yards. As chronograph tests from 20-inch barrels would reveal, a bit of optimism was stirred in with those velocity figures, but the new cartridges were still considerably more powerful than the .30-30 and .35 Remington.
The Potent Pair Today
Winchester eventually discontinued the 150-grain .307 and 250-grain .356 loads. The other two are still listed on Winchester’s website, but they are virtually impossible to find. That’s the bad news. The good news is Hornady’s introduction of .307 Win. LEVERevolution ammo loaded with a 160-grain FTX bullet at 2,650 fps from a 24-inch pressure barrel.
By the way, this is not the first time Hornady has loaded the .307 Win. I first learned about LEVERevolution ammo during a media event in early 2005, and several calibers, including .307 Win. loaded with the 160-grain FTX, were there for shooting. Of several boxes of .307 ammo left over, one of them mysteriously ended up at my home. After that small batch of ammo was produced, decision-makers at Hornady put the .307 Win. on the backburner, and there it stayed until 2018.
The .356 Win. is not presently on the Hornady ammo menu, but unprimed .307 cases are, and by using a full-length resizing die with a tapered expander button, they are easily necked up for 0.358-inch bullets. That does it for other bullets, but another step is required prior to loading the Hornady 200-grain FTX. When seated to its cannelure in a standard-length case, cartridge length exceeds the SAAMI maximum of 2.560 inches. Trimming the case to a length of 1.965 inches allows that bullet to be seated to its cannelure while staying within the SAAMI maximum. This is only 0.040 inch shorter than the standard “trim to,” so plenty of bullet-gripping neck length remains. Case shortening to accommodate the FTX bullet is not unique to the .356 Win., as it is also standard procedure when loading the .444 Marlin, .45-70, .450 Marlin, and other cartridges for lever-action rifles.
Cases do not have to be shortened when loading Hornady’s 140-grain MonoFlex and 160-grain FTX in the .307 Win., but there are different versions to be mindful of. The No. 30396 FTX is for the .308 Marlin Express, while No. 30395, with its cannelure located farther forward, is for the .30-30 and the .307 Win. The two MonoFlex bullets are No. 30311 for the .308 Express and No. 30310 for the .30-30 and the .307. Specially contoured seating stems offered by reloading die manufacturers will prevent the tips of FTX and MonoFlex bullets from being distorted or broken off when they are seated into cases. When adding rifles in .307 and .356 to my battery in 1983, I already had dies for the .308 Win. and .358 Win., and they have worked fine through the years. Should a .30-30 shellholder not fit, one for the .444 Marlin surely will.
In their news release for the .307 and .356 chamberings, USRAC officials warned that roundnose bullets should not be used due to the possibility of magazine tube detonation. It proved to be no obstacle for the .307 because plenty of 0.308-inch, flatnose options were, and still are, available. They include Pro-Hunters weighing 125, 150, and 170 grains from Sierra; the 150- and 170-grain A-Frame bullets from Swift; 130-, 150-, and 170-grain FNSPs from Speer; and the Hornady 170-grain InterLock FP.
Inadequate case neck tension on a seated bullet can increase velocity spread due to erratic propellant ignition. Switching the expander plug in the full-length resizing die I use from 0.307 inch to 0.306 inch resulted in lower spreads with some powders for slight improvements in accuracy. The Sierra bullets included in this report were 0.308 inch, but older Sierras are 0.307 inch, and a 0.305-inch expander plug is best for them. Regardless of the bullet, a firm roll crimp is important, as is keeping cases trimmed to the exact same length for uniform crimps.
Softnose bullet pickings are slimmer for the .356 Win., but that has never been a problem because the Speer 180- and 220-grain flatnose bullets are quite capable of handling everything from deer to the biggest moose in the woods. When developing loads for the .356 Win. back in 1983, I found that cannelure locations required seating those bullets to overall lengths that exceeded the SAAMI maximum. My rifle fed the 180-grain bullet at 2.575 inches just fine, but since the cannelure on the 220-grain bullet was positioned even farther back from the nose, the case had to be shortened 0.050 inch for it. Speer eventually eliminated that issue by shifting the cannelures of the two bullets a bit forward, and so they remain today.
That the .307 Win. and .356 Win. are not popular today saddens me because no other cartridges allow a lever-action rifle to cover more hunting territory. According to Hornady’s Handbook of Cartridge Reloading 10th Edition, the .307 Win. pushes all bullet weights from a 20-inch barrel as fast as the .308 Marlin Express from a 22-inch barrel. With 200-grain FTX bullets loaded to maximum and fired in the .356 Win. from a 20.5-inch barrel and in the .338 Marlin from a 24-inch barrel, maximum velocities are 2,450 fps for the former and 2,400 fps for the latter.
The bottom line is, while the .307 and .356 may be struggling, they are far from dead, and Hornady has given both a new lease on life.