September 18, 2023
We recently celebrated the 125th anniversary of the .30-30 Winchester cartridge. Added as a chambering option soon after the Model 1894 Winchester lever action was introduced, the “thirty-thirty” carbine is recognized as the most popular rifle/cartridge combination for whitetail hunters east of the Mississippi. But I wanted to know if the classic lever-action cartridge can perform better in a bolt-action rifle.
The first step was to find a bolt gun. I believe only three models were chambered in .30-30 (the Winchester Model 54, the Savage Model 340, and the Remington Model 788). I was fortunate to find a nice Model 788.
In total, more than a half-million Model 788s were made from 1967 to 1983, but very few were made in .30-30. Because the Model 788 was chambered for several .308 Winchester-class cartridges that are loaded to much greater pressures than the .30-30, it can handle a bit “hotter” handloads than a Winchester lever action.
Plus, it has a detachable magazine. This is—or so I initially thought—the 788’s most important difference from a lever action. It eliminates having to load roundnose or flatnose bullets to preclude inadvertent ignition during recoil, as is the norm for tubular-magazine lever-action rifles. A pointy Spitzer bullet with a much better ballistic coefficient (BC) can fly farther and flatter than a comparable-weight, blunt-nose bullet.
Bullets I used for this report included the Sierra 150-grain JSP FN and the Hornady 170-grain JSP FN. I also tried the Speer 150-grain Gold Dot JSP, the Lapua 167-grain Scenar HP, and some cast 165-grain plainbase RNFP bullets.
I quickly discovered a hitch in my plans. In order to function properly in a typical lever action, the usual .30-30 cartridge overall length (COL) is nominally about 2.50 inches. I thought I might be able to extend the COL for the bolt-action Model 788. However,
I discovered the 788’s detachable magazine accommodates only a “standard” length .30-30 cartridge with very little margin to seat a longer handload topped with a Spitzer bullet. On the positive side, the .30-30’s extended neck provides ample “grip” to hold any .30-caliber, 150- to 170-grain bullet securely.
I then determined that typical recommended powder charges filled the case to the base of the long neck so the deeply seated Speer Gold Dot and Lapua Scenar bullets actually rested on the propellant. However, even seated to a barely longer COL, the bullet ogive was slightly submerged below the case mouth. I adjusted my Lee factory crimp die to just close the case mouth onto the bullet jacket.
As you can see in the accompanying chart, the Model 788 performed well even when using those two unconventional bullets.
I also loaded Hornady’s revolutionary soft-polymer-tipped FTX bullet weighing 160 grains. And I learned something interesting when comparing ballistic coefficients. I found that the typical roundnose/flatnose bullet’s BC is rated at .19, while the Hornady FTX is .33—a significant improvement. The Speer Gold Dot’s BC is rated at .46, for an even more significant step up in flight performance.
According to Hodgdon’s reloading data, 150-grain bullets—regardless of nose shape—can be launched at 2,400 to 2,500 fps using LEVERevolution (LVR) propellant. A roundnose/flatnose bullet starts out at about 2,100 ft-lbs of muzzle energy but drops below 1,000 ft-lbs around 175 yards out. Although the Speer Gold Dot bullet starts out with the same velocity and energy, at about 325 yards it’s still clocking 1,900+ fps and can deliver 1,250 ft-lbs or so of power. That’s a heck of an improvement by just loading and firing an excellent pointy bullet in a bolt-action rifle.
The heavier FTX bullet, backed by an appropriate charge of LVR, loses only 100 to 150 fps muzzle velocity, so muzzle energy is still around 2,000 ft-lbs. However, downrange performance falls between the two 150-grain examples described earlier. At 300 yards, it will be traveling at about 1,600 fps with just over 1,000 ft-lbs of energy. It almost doubles the original .30-30’s effective hunting range, and the Speer Gold Dot will do even better and provides an additional margin of terminal performance.
All in all, I was quite pleased with the performance of my handloads in the Model 788. And I eventually arrived at what should have been the obviously practical conclusion: All else being equal, bullets with substantially better drag characteristics provide much better ballistic performance.