.270 vs .308 Cartridge Comparison

.270 vs .308 Cartridge Comparison

As the .270 Winchester approaches its 100th anniversary (first developed in 1925), it’s remarkable that this classic hunting cartridge is still popular in the USA. After all, there are certainly better, faster, more versatile, and/or softer recoiling cartridges on the market today.

Christensen Arms Ridgeline FFT

Image: Christensen Arms Ridgeline FFT

Similarly, though the .308 Winchester (and its near-twin military brother, the 7.65x51mm NATO) has recently lost some ground to the upstart 6.5 Creedmoor (for competition/tactical/hunting use) and .277 Fury/6.8x51 (in military use), it is still considered the most popular high-powered rifle cartridge in the world, and nearly every manufacturer considers the .308 one of the primary calibers it must make rifles to accept.

Obviously, there are some differences between the .270 and .308. However, hunters in similar or identical roles often use them, and are still the two most popular medium- and big-game hunting calibers in America. We will compare these two venerable, popular rifle cartridges and see if we can help you make an informed decision should you be in the market for a new hunting or target rifle.

.308 Winchester ballistics

The original intent of the 7.62x51mm cartridge, which was introduced in 1952 commercially by Winchester as the .308 Winchester cartridge, with effectively minor differences, was to duplicate the performance of the military M2 .30-06 cartridges in a shorter, lighter package, as well as serve as a NATO-standard rifle round that all participating nations could use. The .308 caliber cartridge was a huge commercial success, becoming America's most widely used hunting caliber and probably the world.

Specs of .308 Winchester

Image courtesy of Revivaler: Specs of .308 Winchester

As a military cartridge, the 7.62x51 NATO certainly had a long run during the cold war, and is still being used in heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, and designated marksman rifles to this day, but the comparatively heavy recoil combined with the greater necessary weight of the ammunition, rifles, and magazines ushered in the widespread use of the smaller, lighter 5.56x45 NATO cartridge (used in the M16/M4 family of rifles) for infantry rifles, and the other roles may eventually be usurped by the upstart .277 Fury as noted above.

Let’s talk about the effective range and other aspects of the .308’s ballistics.

The effective range of the .308

When talking about effective range, it’s important to define our parameters. If we mean the maximum range of a 7.62x51 machine gun like the M60, the military operation manual specifies 800 meters, and other sources say the cartridge’s effective distance is 1200 yards. If, on the other hand, we’re talking about a SWAT team sniper that absolutely has to be able to make a headshot on his first shot, knowledgeable sources say the maximum tactical distance of the .308 is as close as 200 yards.

Video: What Is the Maximum Effective Range of .308?

For hunting deer-sized game, the effective range of the .308 is more dependent upon the skill of the shooter to place a shot in the kill zone of the game animal accurately enough to make an ethical, quick kill than it is dependent upon the bullet itself. Many of today’s high-performance bullets will reliably expand enough to be effective beyond 800 yards on deer-sized game. Still, very few hunters exhibit the skill to take game ethically at those longer distances. For most hunters under field conditions, the maximum effective range of the .308 Winchester is around 300 yards, and 400 would be pushing it. At these ranges, the terminal ballistic performance of a well-designed hunting bullet fired from the .308 is usually very good. Hunters who truly, actually have the skill to achieve ethical kills at over 400 yards often opt for one of the 7mm or 8mm magnums or one of the .300 magnums to get a flatter trajectory, less wind drift, and more energy at longer ranges than the .308 Winchester can provide.

Savage Arms .308 Win 110 Tactical

Image: Savage Arms .308 Win 110 Tactical

With a verified sniper kill of 1,250 meters (1,367 yards) using the 7.62x51/.308 Winchester cartridge, the majority of military sniper schools will place the maximum effective range of the 7.62x51/.308 at between 850 and 1,000 yards, and at 1,000, there are much better choices today. Accurate fire with the .308 at 1,000 yards is possible with a good rifle, long-range scope, and exceptional shooter. Still, today most people shooting targets past 800 yards regularly will either step down to one of the hot new flatter-shooting 6mm-6.5mm cartridges or step up to a .300 or .338 magnum to push heavier, longer, higher-ballistic-coefficient (BC) bullets out that far with less wind drift and bullet drop than the .308 Winchester.

Video: Former Sniper Jim Gilliland Talks About The Shot

.308 Winchester bullet velocity

The original military loading of the T65E5 cartridge pushed a 147-grain bullet at 2,750 feet per second, which was essentially equal to the M2 .30-06 but fell short of some of the heavier military .30-06 loadings. It proved very effective in combat, and as noted, the 7.62x51 is still the primary sniper and designated marksman chambering for many militaries around the world.

Video: 308 Velocity - SHORT vs LONG (16-inch vs 24-inch)

Commercial loads and handloading can improve performance up to a point, the main limitation being the .308s lower case capacity compared to long-action cartridges (like the .270 Winchester and .30-06 for example). Match 168-grain .308 ammo from Hornady, Black Hills, and PMC offers velocities between 2,650 and 2,700 fps at the muzzle, and boutique premium manufacturers like Double Tap and Buffalo Bore sell 150-grain loadings clocked at 2,900+ fps, while Winchester’s “Superformance” 150-grain Interbond is exiting the muzzle at a smokin’ 3,000 fps. (All speeds are using 24” barrels.)

Of course, if you favor greater velocity, you can use lighter bullets, and the .308 does well with bullets down to around 100 grains. Commercial loadings of .308 with the lighter bullets are becoming somewhat rare, but Cor-Bon sells a 125-grain JHP advertised at 3,100 fps, and Underwood’s 110-grain Hornady V-Max loading is clocked at 3,200 fps. Handloading can potentially get you even more velocity, but for practical purposes with real-world bullet weights, around 2,750 fps is usually the top end for the .308 Winchester.

Bullet drop of the .308 Winchester

The .308’s heavier bullets perform well in retaining energy at longer ranges compared to some smaller calibers. Still, bullet drop has always been a real factor compared to long-action calibers like the .30-06 and .270 Winchester. Black Hills 168-grain match ammo, zeroed at 100 yards, shows a bullet drop of 4.2 inches at 200 yards and 15.3 inches at 300. By 400 yards, the bullet drop is over 34 inches; at 500, it’s more than 62 inches. This is one reason the .308 is not often selected for long-range hunting today and is losing ground in long-range target shooting to the 6 and 6.5mm cartridges.

If we use the 150-grain bullet with the same 100-yard zero, things are a little better, with 13.4 inches of bullet drop at 300 yards, 30.5 inches at 400, and 56.4 inches at 500, but that’s still a significant amount of drop to deal with for hunters and target shooters.

Let’s look at the .270 numbers.

Image courtest of: Shooting Times

.270 Winchester ballistics

The .270 was arguably the first successful flat-shooting hunting cartridge in an era where bigger was better. It took some time for the .270 to gain popularity. Still, it was helped greatly by the writings of noted outdoor author and hunter Jack O’Connor, who famously favored the cartridge and spawned millions of fans, both of his writing and of the .270. Let’s take a look at the ballistics of this nearly hundred-year-old classic.

The effective range of the .270 Winchester

Since the .270 Winchester is almost always used for hunting (though there are snipers and tactical marksmen who have used it), the effective range for the .270 is, like the .308, fundamentally limited by the skill of the person shooting it. Most reasonable people would place the maximum effective hunting range on large game like elk at around 400 yards, with pronghorn and whitetail perhaps extending that a little to 450 or even 500 yards with the right bullet (and shooter). In normal field conditions, most hunters would be wise to limit their shots with the .270 (or any similar cartridge) to 300 yards, if only because that’s about as far as most hunters can shoot accurately. The .270 retains energy well and maintains up to 1,500 ft-lbs of energy out to about 400 yards, the energy threshold many consider necessary to kill an elk ethically.

Video: .270 Win Bullet Drop - Demonstrated and Explained

As far as target shooting, the relatively narrower, longer bullets of the .270 offer excellent ballistic coefficient, wind-bucking, and penetration downrange compared to shorter, fatter bullets of the same weight and the high velocity of the .270 that earned it so many fans in the 1930s and ‘40s are still relevant today. Now magnum and ultra mag .274 caliber hunting cartridges offer better performance. Still, of course, that comes with an increase in cost and recoil and a drop in availability compared to the widely popular .270.

Bullet velocity of the .270 Winchester

The original 1925 loading of the .270 had a 130-grain bullet leaving the muzzle of a 24-inch barrel at 3,140 feet per second, which was impressive then and is impressive today. For several decades in the mid-to-late 20th century, ammunition manufacturers lowered the velocity of nearly all factory .270 Winchester loads to around 3,000 fps or even lower in response to some complaints that the high-speed bullets were causing too much damage to deer and ruining too much meat. However, in the 21st century, ammo makers have freshened up all their loadings, and speeds are back up to where they should be, but with better-constructed bullets that penetrate well, expand reliably, and don’t destroy meat more than any other cartridge.

Today, Federal’s Nosler ballistic tip .270 Winchester 130-grain loading reaches 3,060 fps muzzle velocity, while Cor-Bon’s 130-grain load reaches 3,100 fps. As with any rifle cartridge, you can step down in bullet weight and gain an increase in velocity. Cor-Bon’s 110-grain DPX screams out of a 24-inch barrel at 3,450 fps, while Double-Tap’s Barnes TSX 110-grainer tops 3,465. Handloaders can potentially push it even more, and bullets as light as 90 grains are available for the true speed freaks out there.

If you go the other way and choose heavier bullets, the .270 continues to impress, with a 150-grain Federal Sierra GameKing moving at 2,830 fps. Double Tap offers a 160-grain Nosler Partition loading at 2,850 fps and even a 180-grain Woodleigh Weldcore at 2,625 fps.

Modern loadings continue to take advantage of the .270’s excellent .274-inch bullet diameter and respectable case capacity, producing lots of speed without burning out barrel throats too quickly.

.270 Winchester bullet drop

This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, with the .270 Winchester. Advertised and proven over the decades as a flatter-shooting cartridge than the .30-06 it was derived from (as well as the .30-06’s ballistic cousin, the .308 Winchester), the .270 has a respectably low bullet drop at all practical ranges. Federal’s 130-grain ballistic tip with a 100-yard zero drops just 2.8 inches at 200 yards and 10.6 inches at 300. At 400 yards, the bullet drop is 24.4 inches, and at 500, it’s 45.2 inches.

As has been pointed out, when loaded with a well-designed 130-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of about 3,060 fps and sighted to touch 3 inches above the line of sight at 100 yards, the .270 Winchester’s bullet doesn’t rise more than 3.5 inches above the line of sight, touches the line of sight at approximately 270 yards, and doesn’t drop below 3.5 inches lower than the line of sight until about 325 yards, which means you effectively have a point-blank hold on a 7-inch diameter target (matching the vital area of deer-sized game) from up close out to 325 yards.

.270 vs .308: which is better for you?

Now that you know the pros and cons of these two popular cartridges, let’s discuss some specific comparison areas and help you decide which cartridge might be best for your unique situation and needs.

Price

The price difference between .308 and .270 for hunting ammo is almost always a wash. You might be able to find one or the other on sale during “pre-hunting-season” promotions, but generally, for both basic and premium offerings, a box of .270 Winchester will cost you about the same as a box of .308 Winchester. Rifles are generally the same price, with the possible advantage of .308 due to their ubiquitous availability across all platforms and action types.

Surplus ammo is where the .308 can make some headway, though, as 7.62x51 is a military cartridge, while the .270 isn’t, and there’s no surplus .270 available anywhere. Surplus 7.62 is not too cheap these days either, but if you look around, watch for sales, and check ammo aggregators that search for ammo online, you can get some good deals. Of course, shooting surplus ammo gives you surplus-level performance, so it’s great for plinking and blowing up milk jugs, but don’t try to press it into service in a hunting or serious target shooting role.

Uses for .270 and .308 Winchester, and pros and cons

For 90% of people who want a good hunting rifle, the .270 or .308 Winchester will be entirely satisfactory, and it would be difficult to distinguish among them for common hunting purposes. That last 10% of specialization is where we can start calling a winner one way or the other.

The extra length of the .270 cartridge compared to the .308 means that the .270 requires the use of a long-action rifle receiver, while the .308 can be built on short-action receivers. Bolt travel is thus less with the .308, meaning in some cases, you can maintain your cheek weld while running the bolt without interference, and rifles can theoretically be made lighter and more compact.

The .270 can have greater speeds than the .308 in the same bullet weight. At a distance, longer, higher-BC bullets will fly faster and farther if you stabilize them with the appropriate twist rate. By that, we mean that all other things being equal, a longer, smaller diameter bullet will have a greater sectional density and a better ballistic coefficient than a shorter, fatter bullet that weighs the same and will retain velocity better. A 150-grain .274-inch diameter .270 Winchester bullet, then, is necessarily longer and thinner than a 150-grain .308-inch diameter bullet of the same material construction, and the .270 will have a greater sectional density and an improved ballistic coefficient. This likely will make no practical difference at closer hunting and target-shooting distances. Still, as you move out farther, the .270 shows better numbers, retaining its velocity better due to less air drag, flying straighter, and is less affected by wind.

Another area in the .270 with a potential advantage is in case capacity. Since you can cram more powder in a .270 Winchester case, it has more top-end speed potential than the .308. The SAAMI specs for the .270 Winchester include a maximum chamber pressure of 65,000 psi, while the .308’s is 62,000 psi. That’s not much more, but it is more. So if you want to hot-rod your hunting or target rifle and chase the maximum velocity you can safely achieve, the .270 is the winner.

However, the .308 has the edge in overall versatility due to its ability to handle light and heavy bullets, up to 220 grains. The .308 gives you what some people call close-range momentum, where a heavier, larger-diameter bullet just seems to really knock game down better than a lighter, faster bullet. For big bears, moose, eland, kudu, and similar very large game, the .308 is often favored over the .270, though the latter has been used successfully on all of those animals. Additionally, as noted above, a surplus of 7.62x51 ammunition (and semi-automatic battle rifles) is available if that’s something you desire.

Ammunition availability might slightly favor the .308, especially if you include surplus ammo. Still, nearly every hunting shop, big box store, and gun store in America that sells hunting rifles will almost certainly have one or two loadings of both .270 and .308 Winchester. This can vary by region as well.

One point in favor of the .270 is that it retains around 1,500 ft-lb when loaded properly. of energy out to about 400 yards, which is considered the minimum energy suitable for elk. The .308 usually drops below that energy threshold at about 300 yards. So, you gain around 100 yards extra of effective elk-hunting range with the .270, assuming you can utilize that extra range in an ethical fashion. When comparing these two cartridges, this 100-yard-farther metric generally holds up.

As pointed out above, out to 300 yards, a properly zeroed .270 is a point-blank-hold rifle. It is excellent for newer hunters or infrequent sportsmen and women who may not have much experience with holdovers or elevation adjustments at range. You can hold the crosshairs of your .270 rifle in the vital area of a deer and get an ethical kill shot from up close out to 325 yards away, and that’s a useful feature for many people.

As Jack O’Connor was fond of pointing out, the .270 offers a level of power and a flat trajectory appropriate for hunting any animal in North America, while maintaining a recoil level that most hunters can comfortably handle. .308 recoil is usually subjectively judged to be about the same as the .270 with equal bullet weights, though the .270 is often “thought” to be softer shooting because that’s what the shooter expects. The actual free recoil between the two platforms is essentially identical.

So, as our grandpappy said, you pays yer nickel and you takes yer choice. Both the .270 and the .308 are excellent hunting and target rifles, and with proper loads, either can do just about anything you need it to do. For closer shots on heavy or thick-skinned game, we might favor the .308, while for longer, open-country hunting for pronghorn, deer, or elk, we might opt for the .270. If you need 168-grain and heavier bullets, go with the .308, but if you want the best ballistic coefficient for super-long-range target shooting, the .270 may be your choice between these two offerings. The devil is in the details, and that’s what makes this hobby so much fun, isn’t it?

Store your rifles safely within a Liberty Safe

Whichever rifle you choose (and why not have both), be sure to keep all your firearms and accessories secure from unauthorized access, humidity damage, theft, and fire in a quality, US-made gun safe from Liberty. We have a wide selection of models and prices available for you to check out in our online catalog, or you can click to find a dealer showroom near you.


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