I am amazed at the deer population in America and the activity in the guns and ammo industry that it stimulates and sustains. Judging from the number of available hunting rifles in various calibers, and all of the factory ammo available for them, big game hunting in general is alive and well and making money for a varied industry. But, it is a very competitive situation, and products which will give an edge in the marketplace are always vigorously pursued.
If the success of a hunting rifle-cartridge combination can be measured by the number of gun sales and animals harvested with them, then the hammer lever action rifles using the .30 WCF have to be at the top of the historical heap. Millions of guns sold, and probably millions of deer taken by them since the late 1800s, attest to their success. Midway USA currently lists 33 loads in the .30-30 ammo category, proving that all of the great thirties appearing since, including the latest short magnums, have not been able to kill the first of the smokeless powder sporting rounds. All this is true in spite of the fact that everyone (?) knows that the .30-30 just doesn’t have enough power and the lever rifles, the Winchester Model 94 most famous, are just not accurate enough. For this reason, attempts to pump up Old Flat Cheeks with other chambering have always generated a lot of interest.
How about a Rimmed .308W?
The best attempt occurred in the 1980s when Winchester beefed up the Model 94 and modified the ejection system to kick the empties out to the side (the 94AE), allowing the mounting of a scope directly over the action. The strengthened arm could support cartridges generating up to about 52,000 psi, putting it definitely in the big leagues. The cartridge offered to use this new strength was called the .307 Winchester, basically a rimmed version of the .308 Winchester which offered much more poop than the old .30-30. Having thicker case walls, ballistics were not quite as good as those of the .308W in a bolt gun, but they came close, and the 150- and 180-grain loadings were essentially equivalent in performance to the fine .300 Savage. Introduction of this round for the Winchester Model 94 should have signaled “Game Over” in the deer woods.But alas, this offering was not a commercial success, nor was its big-bore companion, the .356 Winchester. The Model 94 was the only rifle offered in the .307 chambering, which was eventually withdrawn, and now the 94 itself is gone as an American made arm. Too much competition from too many different kinds of rifles and cartridges. Add the fact that flat point bullets still had to be used with the .307 for safety in the tubular magazines, so downrange performance continued to be less than desired.
But the idea of the handy woods gun never seems to die, and so, in 2007, along came something called the “.308 Marlin Express.” As the name indicates, Marlin is the perpetrator of this round, along with Hornady and Hodgdon, the folks who produce the factory ammo and reloading components. The Marlin platform for the round is the Model 308XLR, a stainless, 24-inch barreled rifle of the Model 336configuration, long proven to be strong and effective in its previous incarnations. The cartridge body is comparable to the .307 Winchester, but slightly shorter overall, so it will work fine in a lever action, but has a bit less powder capacity.Most of the pundits of the shooting press composed rhapsodies of praise and acceptance for the .308 ME when it appeared. One of the best reviews was written by Rick Hacker and appeared in Guns and Ammo Magazine (December, 2006). Mr. Hacker is a fellow who never met a lever action that he didn’t like, and he found plenty to like about the potential of the new cartridge in its stainless Marlin weapon. Ballistics make the cartridge, and the .308 ME is well-endowed, sending a 160-grain bullet out at 2,660 fps, with 2,513 fp of muzzle energy. It arrives at 300 yards with a retained velocity of 2026 fps and energy of 1457 fp. If sighted in to be 1.7” high at 200 yards, then it arrives at 300 yards at -6.7” Thus, the cartridge attains a point-blank range of 300 yards and arrives at that distance with strong killing power. This is an incredible achievement for a short round suitable for lever actions. In general, reviewers in the gun press have labeled the .308 ME as a “rimmed .308 Winchester,” which emphasizes its considerable capability. There is no question of its suitability for most big game hunting, in the West as well as the East.
One question is, of course, can you put one in the vitals of a game animal at 300 yards? Can you put ‘em all on a dinner plate at that range, or even a turkey platter? Marlin claims to have given some attention to improvement of accuracy in the 308XLR, and the quality of the Hornady ammunition is likely to be above reproach, so field performance will tell the tale. Mr. Hacker did not report any groups shot during his evaluation, but did report he was able to ring a gong (?) at 400 yards. Anecdotal accounts in the press mention 100-yard groups of 1.0 to 1.5” and that is fine, but accounts of formal bench shooting at range seem to be scarce. It is possible that I have missed some accuracy reports.
Credit Hornady’s LEVERevolution technology for the outstanding ballistic performance. The pointed, Flex-Tip bullet is very efficient and resists atmospheric drag way better than the flat- and round-noses of traditional .30-30 loads. The progressive, Hodgdon LEVERevolution powder does the rest. Hacker quotes Hornady’s Chief Ballistician Dave Emary as follows:
“Of Course, the downrange performance of the .308 Marlin Express, which duplicates the .308 Winchester, would not have been possible without the high energy, highly progressive propellants that did not exist in the past. They burn slowly while steadily building up pressure faster.”
Three Similar Short Thirties
While you are digesting that little nugget, let’s have a look at the picture of three very similar cartridges, left-to-right, the .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express, and .308 Winchester. Case capacity is similar with these three, but the 52,000 psi working pressure of the .308 bests the other two. The .300 Savage uses 47,000 psi, and, interestingly, the .308 ME is also loaded to 47,000 psi. Appearance surely isn’t everything, but a quick study tempts me to say that the Marlin Express is about as close to being a rimmed .300 Savage as it is a rimmed .308 Win. Of course, Hornady and Marlin would not get much advertising punch out of calling their Prince a “rimmed .300 Savage.”
The .300 Savage
The .300 Savage first saw the light of day in 1920. It was the original short-action, no-neck thirty and way, way ahead of its time. Note the 30-degree shoulder and the straight case. Savage wanted to duplicate .30-06 ballistics in a cartridge that would work in their great Model 99 lever action. They came pretty close in 1920 with the 150-grain load, but the case does not have the length or capacity to be competitive with bullets of 180 grains. Since then, the gap between the Savage and the ’06 Springfield has widened. My copy of the 1965 Gun Digest (one of the best editions ever) lists the 150-gr .300 Savage at 2670 fps and 2370 fp for muzzle velocity and energy, respectively, which was far ahead of the 150-gr load of the .30-30 Winchester. Having a rotary magazine and using an efficient spitzer bullet, retained energy was 1410 fp at 200 yards, and still over a thousand at 300. Midrange trajectory for a 200 yard zero was only 3.2” On the other hand, the 150-gr .30-06 Springfield came in at 2970 fps and 2930 fp in 1965, so, no contest there. But it does seem that the .300 Savage is more than a little bit similar to the 40-years-younger .308 Marlin Express. Back in 1965, according to the rifle directory of the Gun Digest, you could have a Savage Model 99E in the .300S for $104.50. Actually, you could have had the combo for even less 92 years ago when the .300 Savage round first became available.Super Performance, Anyone?
Now a very interesting fact is, while Hornady used the LEVERevolution technology for the .308 Marlin Express, they have recently released a 150-gr load for the .300 Savage in their Superformance line of cartridges! The Superformance line is advertised as giving 100-200 fps greater velocity than conventional loads in all cartridges in the line, again attributed to the use of more efficient powder. For the .300 Savage this now means a muzzle velocity of 2740 fps and muzzle energy of 2500 fp. At 300 yards you will get 1407 fp of punch. With a 200-yard zero the bullet will arrive -8.8” at 300 (All figures from Hornady data tables). Go figure.
In closing, let’s give a little attention to the .308 Winchester, which one might describe as a rimless version of the .308 Marlin Express. Ammo development of the Winnie has not been ignored; several loads are available in Hornady’s upscale Superformance line of cartridges. With a 165-grain SST bullet, muzzle velocity is 2840 fps fps and muzzle energy, 2955 fp. With a 200-yard zero, it arrives at 300 yards at -7.6 in. with 1858 fp of smack remaining. If you want it in a lever action, you could try the Browning BLR Lightweight ’81. It has a straight-grip walnut stock, a 20-inch barrel, a rotating bolt that locks in a barrel extension, and a detachable magazine. All this charm weighs a total of 6 lbs. 8 oz.