The Grand Old .30-30 Winchester
June 24, 2019
Thanks to modern bullets and powders, the 125-year-old .30-30 Winchester is still going strong.
When I was a kid, we all wanted a .30-30 rifle, but we also knew it was the one we’d replace when we had money. It was clearly “entry level.” Pundits have predicted the demise of the .30-30 as a hunting cartridge for years, but I bluntly ask them, “So how’s that turned out?”
The .30-30 Winchester cartridge dates to 1895. Although “.30-30” sounds like it was once a blackpowder cartridge, it was a smokeless cartridge from Day One. The second “30” in its name denoted 30 grains of smokeless propellant.
Original specs listed a 160-grain bullet at a muzzle velocity of 1,970 fps, but by 1902 the velocity spec was reduced to 1,885 fps. Eventually, availability of more evolved and stable smokeless propellants permitted better velocities.
The original 160-grain load was replaced with two: a 150-grain bullet at 2,370 fps and a 170-grain load at 2,180 fps. Maximum average pressure was 42,000 psi. Those reference velocities are from a 24-inch test barrel. The Winchester 94 that we used at the Speer lab had a 20-inch barrel and produced velocities 50 to 140 fps less depending on propellant and bullet weight.
Factory ammo stayed with those two bullet weights and softpoint bullets for decades, but there were some improved bullets, too. Winchester refined the conventional softpoint into the Power-Point with a profiled jacket notched for uniform mushrooming at a modest velocity. Remington produced an interesting 170-grain Core-Lokt hollowpoint bullet whose jacket was as long as the bullet with a hollow cavity that is best described as a dimple. It expanded back to about the crimp can-nelure, leaving a long shank for deep penetration.
A cartridge’s popularity is tested by how many factory loads are offered and what high-tech bullets are available in that factory ammo. For example, the .303 British (fondly thought of as “Canada’s .30-30”) shows only one or two loadings per company and with simple bullet designs. Even the vaunted .280 Remington is showing up as a “one-load wonder”—except for Remington, which offers four loads.
The .30-30 is far ahead of those two cartridges. For instance, Midway USA catalogs 27 .30-30 Winchester loads from six large and two smaller makers. When I reviewed the catalog offerings of six major ammomakers, I found that they market a total of 14 loads with modern, premium bullet designs. There are seven all-copper hollowpoints, some with polymer tips. The only bullet on that list that was in production before I started at Speer in 1987 was the Nosler Partition, and it is still on anyone’s “A-list” today. That tells me the .30-30 is not going to be shuffling off to some retirement home anytime soon.
Why the .30-30 Is Going Strong
Other than affordability and nostalgia, what makes the .30-30 Winchester work? Ballistically, bullets of reasonable weight and modest velocity give quite decent penetration on game without turning to shards of scrap metal on the way though the animal. Part may be shooters’ mindsets. Having heard for years that the .30-30 is a “100-yard deer cartridge,” owners may be holding fire until within that magic and oft-quoted distance, achieving a higher hit percent and better shot placement with less velocity decay.
The distance issue brings up a point I found in several of Jack O’Connor’s books. O’Connor advised sighting any rifle 3 inches high at 100 yards and shooting for a kill zone on the animal, not a point. That minimized holdover/holdunder corrections. Today, we call that “maximizing the point-blank range,” and it’s best figured with a computer program. O’Connor never had a computer, but he squeezed a lot of triggers.
If we create a kill circle with an 8-inch diameter, then the bullet trajectory for “no holdover/holdunder” must have a midrange rise of 4 inches or less. We need a trajectory that will stay inside an 8-inch circle as long as possible while sighted 3 inches high at 100 yards. We find the typical non-pointy .30-30 bullet stays in that zone for a little under 200 yards. According to O’Connor, if you sight a .30-30 for “dead-on at 100” you are leaving something on the table.
Although the .30-30 has never been touted for its accuracy, any inability to make tight groups was a gun issue. The most popular .30-30 rifles were lightweight carbines with steel bands that attached a tubular magazine to a thin-walled barrel.
One rifle that showed how well a .30-30 can shoot was the low-cost Remington Model 788 bolt gun. Made from 1967 to 1983, it was offered in .30-30 for the first three years of production. With minimal tweaking, those .30-30 Model 788s could print sub-MOA groups.
Let’s not forget that the .30-30 also found popularity and success in hunting handguns like the Thompson/Center Contender. Speer’s 14-inch-barreled .30-30 Contender posted velocities that were less than 100 fps behind the same loads in our 20-inch Model 94 carbine. There was more than enough accuracy and power for use in handgun metallic silhouette competition.
Bolt rifles, handguns, and single-shot rifles don’t require blunt bullets, so handloaders have the full gamut of .30-caliber bullets to explore. Of course, Hornady addressed the tubular magazine safety issue with its LEVERevolution ammo with Spitzer bullets whose flexible plastic tip was soft enough to be safe in lever guns.
Those handloading the .30-30 for lever guns should full-length resize their hunting loads. On the other hand, the late Ken French of Thompson/Center recommended Contender reloaders always neck size and treat the case like it was rimless. He said you get best case life and accuracy from neck-sizing rimmed bottleneck cases in Contenders.
Realistically, most old cartridges will see a slow decline in popularity, but I don’t think the .30-30 is there yet. Unlike the .45-70 that was virtually buried and arose from the dead, the .30-30 has been a steady performer in the field and in popularity for 125 years.