Just a few years after the .30 WCF was introduced, a fellow by the name of Ransom E. Olds developed a horseless carriage that looked like a sleigh with large bicycle wheels. Thus it was that our beloved .30-30 Winchester began to earn its reputation in the days of the horseless carriage. Autos have advanced a bit since then, and while you might be driving a new Lexus instead of a curved-dash Olds, the .30-30 is still a popular cartridge. Gaining its fame as a deer hunter’s round in slick little carbines, it was destined to become the most popular medium-powered, general purpose rifle round in history, and it has been a topic in gun journalism for eons. Since I am interested in vintage stuff, I have had an interest in the .30-30 Winchester for a long time. As a recent long winter was coming to a close, I hankered for an outdoor activity, and the project I envisioned would examine the performance of a wide variety of .30-30 ammo in various rifles, looking for trends in velocity and accuracy, and evaluating and comparing the quality of results in many combinations. What clinched the deal for me was the variety of action types in my collection. Although the .30-30 is always most associated with the lever-action choice, there have been a number of interesting rifles using other actions. Thus, the attractive possibility of comparing not only different loads but also different actions really got me excited.
All rifles used in this project, except the Browning single shot, were purchased used, and all used arms were in excellent condition with excellent bores. All rifles had demonstrated good to excellent accuracy in previous handloading experiments. I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Russell Wiley, for loaning me the Thompson-Center Contender used in these tests. I hasten to observe that the TC Contender and the Marlin 336 are the only arms in the list that are still available. At the time of this writing, the Model 94 Winchester has disappeared from the marketplace. Also, probably very few persons would want to buy a used, bolt-action .30-30 rifle for deer hunting, when, for the same dough, they could have a .308, or something even more modern. Nevertheless, I feel that the inclusion of vintage bolt action rifles in this test adds interest and allows a clearer picture of the total capability of this ancient cartridge. Such arms are still available in the used market.
The chamber lengths quoted below in the rifle descriptions were measured with a Stony Point Chamber-All OAL gauge using a Sierra 170-gr flat nose bullet.
1. Winchester Model 94 Angle Eject. Barrel Length: 24”; Twist: 1 in 12”; Chamber length: 2.611”; Weight w/scope: 7 lbs, 6 oz; Scope: Bushnell Perma-Focus 3-9X.
Alias “Mister Slim,” the Model 94 has a slim barrel, a slim forearm, and a slim receiver. This is the archetypal “thutty-thutty” and one of the most widely used and recognized arms in history, though grandpa never saw his kick the empties out to the side like this Angle-Eject model does. I chose a 24-in barreled version of John Browning’s invention because it was the only chance I had to use an arm with the barrel length that is the same as that generally used for quoting factory velocities. The only tuning was to insure tightness in the connection of buttstock and forearm.
2. Marlin Model 336 CS. Barrel length: 20”; Twist: 1 in 10”; Chamber length: 2.602”; Weight w/scope: 8 lbs; Scope: Simmons Whitetail 3-9X.
Alias “Uncle Fred,” the Model 336 is another lever action and a worthy competitor for the Model 94. Solid, smooth, and well-finished, it has a bit bulkier feel than the Model 94, and like Uncle Fred, it has a bit of a pot belly (in the forearm, actually). This one provided the 20-in barrel so popular for lever actions for so many years. Again, the only tuning was to insure tightness in the connection of buttstock and forearm.
3. Savage Model 340. Barrel length: 22”; Twist: 1 in 12”; Chamber length: 2.846” Weight w/scope: 8 lbs 1 oz; Scope: Bushnell Trophy 3-9X
Alias “The Hired Hand,” the Model 340 in its day was an economical, behind-the-back-door bolt action, but if value is measured by performance, it would not be right to call it a “poor man’s rifle.” How many thousands of these plain, plump items were sold by Savage from 1950 to 1985 I do not know. They have no serial numbers. Mine has no taps for receiver sight or scope, so it must be an early model. I added a B-Square side mount so that it could be scoped. This repeater is fed by a clip, which on more modern arms is now called a “detachable magazine” and for which you will pay extra on, say, a Remington 700. Isn’t progress interesting? The barrel joins the receiver by means of a fluted nut ahead of the recoil lug, a method still used on Savage 110-series rifles. Removing the action from the stock, I found shiny contact areas on the interior wood, indicative of a long and intimate association with the metal. Therefore, no tuning was attempted.
4. Remington Model 788. Barrel length: 22”; Twist: 1 in 10”; Chamber length: 2.567”; Weight w/scope: 8 lbs 1 oz; Scope: Simmons Whitetail Classic 4-12X.
Alias “Unashamed (to be a .30-30),” the Model 788 is another bolt action, also clip-fed, and Remington’s answer to the economical hunting rifle question. In bringing out this model in 1963, Remington did an amazing thing. They did not simply cheap down a Model 700. With its nine rear locking lugs, the Model 788 has an entirely different action, and a very strong one to boot. It has a reputation for very good accuracy in most of the calibers for which it was chambered. Alas, the Model 788 was discontinued in 1984. The .30-30 was apparently a minor chambering (it required a different design of the bolt head) and I felt lucky to find one in excellent condition at a gun show. Examination showed the fore-and-aft bedding was not quite level, but a shim placed under the rear tang solved that situation. A previous owner had apparently floated the barrel.
5. Browning Model 1885 Traditional Hunter: Barrel length: 28”; Twist: 1 in 12”; Chamber length: 2.601”; Weight w/scope: 10 lbs 7 oz; Scope: Leupold Vari-X III 4.5-14X.
Alias “The Patriarch,” the Model 1885 is the modern version of John Browning’s single-shot design, patented in 1879, then sold to Winchester to become the famous “High Wall” in 1885. Although it is the oldest design in the group, it is by far the most expensive in modern form, and this shows in the quality of materials and the general fit and finish. I wondered if I could expect a bit of “light magnum” effect from its 28-in barrel. This rifle’s quality, charisma, and accuracy were apparent from the very beginning, and I attached a good piece of glass using the excellent Browning bases and rings. No screwdriver has ever touched a slot on this rifle, and may lightning strike me if I am ever tempted to “tune it up a bit.”
6. Thompson Center Contender. Barrel length: 14”; Twist: 1 in 10”; Chamber length: 2.587”; Weight w/scope: 4 lbs 6 oz; Scope: Burris 5X.
Alias “The Achiever.” OK, so it’s not a rifle, but it does have a 14-in barrel. I chose to include it for that reason, to give me a comparison at the short end of the barrel spectrum. This was my first brush with a Contender and the reasons for its reputation for quality and accuracy quickly became apparent. The Burris scope had an adjustable objective lens and target turrets, and was held by T/C bases and rings.
Ammunition makers have had a long time to get this one right and there are probably more different loads available today in .30-30 than at any other time in its history. Also interesting is the fact that innovations in factory ammunition are still applied to the ancient cartridge, witness the fact that loads with premium bullets are now available. One of the most exciting innovations is the Hornady “Leverevolution” round which uses a spitzer-type bullet but which can still be safely used in a lever-action rifle.
I will report on some of the newer loads and innovations, including Hornady’s Leverevolution, in a future report. For this report I fired 608 rounds of traditional .30-30 factory ammunition, 13 different commercial products with 150- or 170-gr bullets, the weights normally used for hunting medium game. Each round was chronographed and the total assembled into 4-shot groups for the estimation of accuracy potential with the two lever actions, two bolt actions, the falling-block single shot, and the single-shot pistol described above. Results using the following loads will be shared.
1. Winchester Super-X 150-gr. Power Point.
2. Winchester Super X 150-gr. Silvertip.
3. Winchester Supreme 150-gr. Power Point Plus.
4. Remington 150-gr. Core-Lokt Soft Point.
5. Hornady Custom 150-gr. Interlock Round Nose.
6. Federal Classic 150-gr. Hi-Shok Soft Point Flat Nose.
7. Speer Nitrex 150-gr. Flat Nose.
8. Winchester Super-X 170-gr. Power Point
9. Winchester Super-X 170-gr. Silvertip.
10. Remington 170-gr. Core-Lokt Soft Point.
11. Hornady Custom 170-gr. Interlock Flat Point.
12. Federal Classic 170-gr. Hi-Shok Soft Point Round Nose.
13. Federal Premium 170-gr. Round Nose with Nosler Partition Bullet.
Preliminary measurements of uniformity were made on the new factory loads before the range firing was begun. The different brands were very uniform in web diameter, neck diameter, and base-to-datum length. Some minor differences were found in overall length, comparator length, and neck runout.
Testing Factory Ammo
What procedures should be used to evaluate rifles and loads, and how much shooting do you have to do to get a reliable estimate of a round’s performance? The answer is, a lot, in my experience, if you want the results to be statistically reliable, especially in the evaluation of accuracy. On the other hand, I needed to balance reliability with economy and time. Even .30-30 rounds are not cheap. Therefore, I fired two 4-shot groups with each load in each rifle over a solid rest at a distance of fifty yards. This provided a string of eight shots for determining average velocity and standard deviation, and two groups for the estimation and comparison of accuracy. Working mainly in the cool of April, barrel heating was not a big problem. The fifty-yard distance made it easier to set and retrieve the large number of targets, and minimized the effect of wind and weather, important because the shooting had to be done on several different days. As noted above, one should fire a lot more than two 4-shot groups with a particular load in order to evaluate accuracy potential with confidence. Nevertheless, I hoped to be able to see some trends in the accuracy results, and I think that did come about.
Lastly, I was helped by the fact that the .30-30 is a pleasant round to shoot. Sometimes as many as 96 rounds were popped off in one afternoon but I didn’t get too terribly punchy or exhausted from the recoil. Try that with your .300 Win Mag, or even with a .308!
The results of the chronograph measurements made with the rifles are shown in Table 1. For the T-C Contender, a slightly different animal, I combined the velocity and accuracy results in Table 2. In studying the velocity results, keep in mind that the published factory velocities (for “standard” loads from a 24-in barrel) are 2390 fps and 2200 fps for the 150-gr. and 170-gr. bullets, respectively. My results, averaging all loads over all rifles, show 2325 fps and 2140 fps for the two bullet weights, respectively. In general, factory .30-30 loads give superb uniformity of velocity and they largely deliver the advertised velocities, allowing for differences in barrel length. Fifty of the total of 65 rifle-load combinations resulted in standard deviations of less than 20 fps.
Averaged over all rifles, the fastest 150-gr. load was the Winchester Supreme Power Point Plus (2390 fps, averaged over all rifles) which is, in fact, advertised as a higher velocity load. Note, however, that it beat out the Winchester Silvertip by only 44 fps. There was a difference of only 94 fps between the slowest and the fastest of the standard 150-gr. loads. The fastest 170-gr. load was the Remington Core-Lokt, at 2183 fps, and here also, a difference of only 96 fps between the fastest and slowest loads.
In general, longer barrels gave higher velocities in accord with our usual expectations. However the variation was perhaps not as great as one might have expected. The .30-30 is relatively insensitive to barrel length, probably because of the use of relatively fast powders at relatively low pressure levels in factory loads. There were some velocity surprises, however, one being the Marlin 336, which, even though it had the shortest barrel of the rifles
(20”), turned in the third-best average velocity for all loads. In fact, it was not very far behind the 24-in barreled Winchester 94. Perhaps this may be attributed to the Marlin’s Micro-Groove rifling in combination with a 1 in 10” twist rate.
The Savage 340 (22” Bbl) turned in the lowest average velocity for all loads. This is almost certainly due to the fact that this rifle has a considerably greater amount of free bore than the others. Measurements with the Stony Point Chamber-All gauge showed the Savage chamber to be a full quarter-inch longer than the chambers of the other rifles. I don’t know if this is common with 340’s.
The Browning 1885 was the velocity champ, again as expected in view of its atypical barrel length of 28”. The 1885 beat 2400 fps with 4 of the seven 150-gr loads, and beat 2200 fps with 2 of the six 170-gr loads. Even for this rifle, however, the averages of all loads were less than 2400 fps and 2200 fps with the 150- and 170-gr loads respectively. Also, the Browning average velocity exceeded that of the Winchester ’94 by only about 4 – 6 fps per inch of barrel length, depending on load. Thus, the “light magnum” effect of the long-barreled Browning was very modest, indeed.
The T-C Contender with its 14-inch barrel did give up an increment of velocity to the rifles, but perhaps not as much as one might have expected. Specifically, it gave up 201 fps to the average rifle with 150-gr bullets and 164 fps with 170-gr bullets. However, in comparison with the Savage 340, the slowest rifle, the Contender gave up only 104 fps and 98 fps with these bullet weights, respectively. Comparing the 14-in barreled Contender with the 22-inch barreled Remington 788, we find a difference of 22 fps per inch of barrel with 150-gr bullets, and 20 fps per inch with 170-grainers.
The accuracy data, based on two 4-shot groups fired at 50 yards with each load in each rifle, are presented in Table 3. Each entry is the average of the two groups. Center-to-center measurements of the widest shots in each group are given in minutes-of-angle (MOA) for each rifle-load combination. The number given is therefore the actual size in inches of the group you could expect to get at 100 yds. I have also included the average measurement for the best three of the four shots in the groups of each load. It seemed that three-and-a-flyer was a rather common occurrence. The lever actions seemed especially to have this tendency Perhaps, therefore, the best indication of potential accuracy is given by the Best 3 column. At any rate, both group measurements are there for your information.
In general, the factory loads gave superb accuracy results. With certain individual rifles, the results refute the conventional wisdom, namely, that the .30-30 is a relatively inaccurate cartridge. In a good rifle, it is nothing of the sort. With both bullet weights, the 4-shot groups averaged for all loads in all rifles was less than 2.5 MOA, while the best 3/4 averaged less than 1.5 MOA and seldom exceeded 2 MOA with any of the loads or rifles. Comparison of the accuracy results for different loads amounts to splitting hairs more than anything else, especially when considering hunting applications, which is where these loads will surely be used, and for which all are completely acceptable.
The most accurate load with 150-gr. bullets was the Hornady Custom, giving a scant 2 MOA and 1 MOA for the 4- and 3-shot groups, respectively. With 170-gr. bullets the Hornady Custom again turned in the best overall performance, although there was really not much variation in the accuracy of the different factory loads with this bullet weight, and the average figures for all rifles show that there was only a slight preference for the heavier bullet weight.
Before beginning this test, I expected the bolt actions to be more accurate than the lever actions, and the Browning 1885 to be the best of all. This is pretty much the way things turned out. In general, the lever actions had a bit more tendency toward “flyeritis” than the other rifles, and the Winchester 94 was especially prone to throwing the first shot of a string quite low with 150-gr loads. Note, however, that the 94 gave the bolt actions a good run for the money with 170-gr. loads, and turned in an outstanding performance with that bullet weight. The Winchester 94 was really the only rifle that showed a marked preference for the 170-gr. over the 150-gr. loads in the accuracy department.
The Savage 340 deserves special mention while on the subject of accuracy. In spite of its lengthy chamber, the Savage was pretty close in accuracy to the Remington 788, normally considered to have a better and stronger action. This is not to take anything away from the 788, which is truly outstanding.
One can find amazing results upon examining specific loads in specific rifles. The Savage 340, for example, did very well with the 170-gr. Winchester Power Point. So did the Remington 788 and the Browning 1885. The Winchester 94, on the other hand, had a taste for the 170-gr. Winchester Silvertip. I will leave it to the reader to use the table data to make any desired comparisons of this type. Suffice to say, more than one very good load could be found for each rifle from among the available factory loads, and it would behoove the hunter who anticipates a long relationship with the .30-30 to investigate the performance of his rifle with a variety of factory offerings.
The Browning 1885 is the class of the group in the accuracy category. Produced for Browning by the Miroku establishment in Japan, it is extremely well-made. We would allow, however, that it was also the heaviest rifle in the group, had the best trigger pull (three crisp pounds, right out of the box) and was equipped with the best glass. These factors undoubtedly played a role in obtaining the excellent accuracy results. I am gratified that a design that is now more than 130 years old (but admittedy updated) shoots as well or better than many more modern factory rifles designs. Hats off to John M. Browning and Miroku. If you want a fine shooter, and are lucky enough to find one of these pieces in the shooting market, don’t let it get away.
Refer to Table 2 for the accuracy results obtained with the Thompson-Center Contender.
The Contender’s accuracy with .30-30 factory loads may be described as very good to
excellent. I am sure there is quite a bit of “operator error” in the accuracy results, as
shooting a heavily recoiling pistol from the bench is quite a different proposition than
firing a rifle. Nevertheless, the groups obtained were usually better than I can shoot with
a .44 magnum at fifty yards, and in a number of cases were smaller than the groups
obtained with some of the rifles that were tested. Again, the best guide to potential
accuracy with the Contender is probably represented in the “Best 3” column, where only
two of the 11 reported group values exceed 2 MOA.
It is sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees in a report that involves as much data as this one, but I hope the reader can get something useful out of the data tables. It is clear that all of the factory loads tested are adequate for hunting at the usual .30-30 ranges. It is also clear that the various brands are quite competitive, with each of them capable of delivering superior results in one or more of the test rifles. If you have a particular rifle, you can be sure to find a factory load that will do very well with it,
Now I can’t wait to get to the range with some of those LeverEvolution rounds.