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The .30-30 WCF, A new look at an old favorite.

3030 Contender

If you've got a bolt action or single shot .30-30 in the closet, it's time to dust it off and try it again. "Old reliable" may surprise you.

When the antelope buck went over the hill and out of sight, I dropped into the stream bed and closed the distance quickly. Keeping the low hill between us, I crawled the last fifty yards on my belly. Locating the bedded buck, I carefully sat up behind a sagebrush and took aim with my .30-30. I heard the bullet hit, the buck struggled briefly but never got up. The range was 230 yards.

Mention the .30-30 cartridge, and immediately the lever action Model 94 springs to mind. The cartridge and the gun simply belong together. It's natural I suppose, because when Winchester introduced the .30-30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire) in 1895 it was chambered in the Model 94.

The lever action at the time, was considered the ultimate in quick handling, rapid firing deer rifles. This mild recoiling round combined with such a quick handling rifle as the Winchester '94 gained popularity rapidly. It was soon chambered in other lever guns, and along the way many bolt action, single shot and combination guns were chambered for the .30-30 as well. In Europe, where combination guns have been most popular, this cartridge is known as the 7.62X51R.

The .30-30 proved to be adequate on deer class game at moderate ranges. As long as the range didn't exceed 100 to 150 yards, then performance was excellent. This met the needs of most deer hunters and over 100 years later, it is still a favorite. It has often been speculated that more deer have been shot with the .30-30 than any other cartridge.

Deer hunting has changed in many areas of the country and many of us are hunting in areas where 100 yards is considered a close shot. Under these circumstances, the venerable old cartridge leaves something to be desired. Never noted for outstanding accuracy in lever guns, the .30-30 falls short in the trajectory and energy departments. However, for its intended use, the .30-30 produces adequate accuracy, energy and trajectory. Occasionally someone will ask, "Can I improve the performance of the .30-30?" Simply put, the answer is "Yes," but it requires an explanation.

The trajectory and downrange performance of the .30-30 is handicapped primarily because of the flat and round nose bullets it uses. The reason these bullets are used is important to your personal safety. In any gun with a tube magazine (most lever actions), the primer of each round rests directly upon the nose of the preceding cartridge. If pointed, spitzer type bullets are used, the rounds in the magazine have the potential for "chain ignition."

For those who own a .30-30 that does not have a tube magazine, spitzer bullets may be used with no threat of chain ignition or personal harm. These guns include; the Savage 99 lever action, Winchester Model 54 bolt action, H&R single shot and others. My own .30-30 is a Thompson Center Contender Carbine, a 21" barreled single shot .

Since all .30-30 factory ammunition uses flat or round nose bullets, the use of spitzers is a handloading proposition only. Such use is safe in appropriate firearms as long as you stay within acceptable pressure limits and use proper reloading techniques. Let's take a look at what you have to gain.

In order to stay within safe pressure limits, your handloads will push 150 grain bullets to essentially the same velocity regardless of their design. The major difference between round nose, flat point and spitzer designs is their ballistic coefficient. This is a numerical figure that expresses how efficiently they pass through the air. When started at the same initial velocity, the more efficient bullet retains more velocity and greater energy than it's less efficient counterpart.

A quick look at figure #1 shows noteworthy downrange performance differences between the two bullets. P.O. Ackley's Handbook for Shooters charts the impact energy needed for a variety of species, with 900 ft. lbs. the minimum for deer. Experts generally agree that more is better. With this standard, the round nose bullet is below minimum at 150 yards while the spitzer is still within the minimum at 300 yards, a significant difference.

Comparing the trajectory of the two 150 bullets, the round nose is falling rapidly after 150 yds. making hits difficult beyond that range. The spitzer bullet has retained enough velocity to make its trajectory useful to a careful shooter out to 300 yards. Of course shooting to 300 yards requires good range estimation and an accurate load.

While many lever action shooters may be satisfied with three to four inch 100 yard groups, I believe that mounting a good scope and bench testing these guns would show many of them capable of better accuracy. In my own Contender Carbine, Winchester 150 gr. Silvertips will shoot three shot groups into an inch all day long. My favorite handload will do the same, often with some groups as small as 5/8 inch. The .30-30 is an accurate cartridge.

My own experience loading pointed bullets in the .30-30 centers around the Nosler 125 grain Ballistic Tip. The Sierra reloading manual lists a 125 grain flat nose bullet at 2600 feet per second. Substituting the Ballistic Tip for the flat nose, my brother and I worked up a load using 35 grains of IMR 3031 powder. This is very near the maximum, but shoots well on paper. If you look at figure #2, you'll see an increase in energy and trajectory performance over the 150 grain Ballistic Tip out to 300 yards.

Performance on game in the field is the critical issue with any load. Bullet expansion and penetration must be balanced and based on the size of game hunted and impact velocity. The .30 caliber 125 grain bullet is considered a varmint bullet when used at .30-06 velocities, however at the lower velocities of the .30-30 it is effective on deer and antelope.

After several years using this load, I feel its performance is best when limited to 200-250 yards. Even this is a significant improvement over factory loads. In a bolt action or single shot firearm, with safe handloads, a spitzer loaded .30-30 can be more than just a short range woods gun. Try it you'll be amazed!

Since this article was written, Hornady has come out with their "LeverEvolution" ammunition. It should provide similar ballistics for non-reloaders and can be used in typical lever action rifles.

Ballistic Charts

Fig. #1 — 150 gr. Bullet Comparison

Hornady 150 gr. round nose — Ballistic Coefficient 0.185
Distance Velocity in ft./sec Energy in ft./lbs Trajectory
muzzle 2300 * 1762 - 1.5"
100 yards 1876 1172 + 2"
150 yards 1687 757 0"
200 yards 1507 604 - 5"
300 yards 1212 489 - 20"
Nosler 150 grain Ballistic Tip — Ballistic Coefficient 0.435
Distance Velocity in ft./sec Energy in ft./lbs Trajectory
muzzle 2300 1762 - 1.5"
100 yards 2114 1488 + 3"
200 yards 1936 1248 0"
300 yards 1769 1042 -12.5"
* Maximum load in Hornady's manual

Fig. #2 — 125 gr. Ballistics

Nozler 125 gr. Ballistic Tip — Ballistic Coefficient 0.366
Distance Velocity in ft./sec Energy in ft./lbs Trajectory
Muzzle 2600* 2251 -1.5"
100 yards 2400 1919 +2.3"
200 yards 2200 1626 0"
300 yards 2038 1369 -9.4"
* Maximum load in Sierra's manual

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