30 Caliber Riflemen

Where Have The 30 Caliber Riflemen Gone?
by: Germán A. Salazar
This article was originally published in the March, 2009 issue of Precision Shooting.

Bryan Litz’s article "What's Wrong With 30 Caliber?" (Precision Shooting, Feb. 2009) prompted me to give the matter some though and perhaps bring some historical perspective to bear on the question. I value Bryan’s work quite highly, as he has the ability to give us the sort of minute technical analysis that provides the foundation for progress in our discipline. Furthermore, Bryan is a great long-range competitive shooter and thus brings practical knowledge to his theoretical work – an invaluable combination. I hope that adding a touch of historical perspective to his thoughts, a sprinkling of science and maybe a dash of whimsy, might help us to further evolve our thoughts on the subject.

Bryan’s article is centered on the premise that a high ballistic coefficient (BC) is a bullet’s most valuable attribute in regard to its performance in long-range competition. He carefully scales his chosen “standard,” the 6.5mm 142 grain Sierra Match King, (SMK) bullet both up and down the caliber scale, and concludes that the lack of 30 caliber bullets which are proportionately equal to the 142 SMK is a significant factor in the demise of the 30 caliber from the long-range scene. I think that Bryan’s scale analysis is ballistically correct, but I’d like to have a broader look at the problem and its origins.

Beginning with the adoption of the Krag rifle in 1892, the United States became a nation of 30 caliber shooters. The Krag was relatively short lived as our service rifle and saw little competitive use. However, the Krag’s unlovely 220 grain round nose bullet was carried over into the .30-03 ammunition adopted for the new Springfield rifle, the Model 1903. The early years of the 20th Century were a time of rapid advances in small arms ballistics. Smokeless powder made the small bore, as 30 caliber rifles were then called, a practical replacement for the old 45 caliber warhorses and every modern nation was working to improve its arsenal. The French developed a streamlined, boat tail bullet known as the Balle D (bullet D) and its shape would be familiar to anyone who has looked at a modern match bullet. The specifics of the French bullet were considered a state secret, especially the boat tail. German and Swiss ordnance departments quickly followed the French lead toward pointed bullets and the race for better ballistics was on. The new bullets not only gave the individual military rifleman greater range and a flatter trajectory, which minimized aiming error, but they materially enhanced the range and power of the machine gun as World War I would tragically demonstrate.

The United States Army Ordnance Corp’s officers were technological followers more than leaders in those days but even they knew a good thing when it ran over them, so in 1906 the .30-03’s 220 grain round nose with its muzzle velocity of 2300 feet per second (fps) was scrapped in favor of a pointed 150 grain flat base bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2700 fps. The case neck was then shortened 0.07" and the .30-06 cartridge was born. The 173 grain boat tail M1 bullet was introduced in 1922 in an effort to bring United States machine gun capability in line with that of the European powers. With the nation at peace, the M1 bullet found good use on the rifle range as it was a far better match bullet than the 150 grain flat base which it replaced. The 150 would return in later years as the M2 bullet, a consideration driven by the inadequate impact areas of many National Guard ranges; but that’s no condemnation of the 173, simply another indication of its superb ballistics. See generally: MG Julian Hatcher, Hatcher’s Notebook, The Stackpole Company, 1962; see also: Dr. K.C. Erickson, The Evolution of the Match Bullet, Precision Shooting, Special 3 1995, Vol. 1, p. 44.

Frankford Arsenal and commercial manufacturers competed each year for the contract to supply the National Match ammunition. FA ammunition would be loaded with select lots of the M1 173 grain bullet whereas the commercial makers used similar 180 grain bullets. From 1922 until the mid 1990’s, a period of over 65 years, millions upon millions of 30 caliber rounds, loaded with these bullets as well as other commercial derivatives of the old M1 bullet, were fired downrange by a nation of competitive 30 caliber riflemen. Our collective notions of whether a cartridge has good or bad ballistics are almost always in unspoken reference to the .30-06 with a 173 grain to 190 grain bullet. That is the standard against which we measure our cartridges whether knowingly or unknowingly.

The reason for this universality of 30 caliber use, of course, is simply that the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP) mandated 30 caliber for competitive shooting. If you didn’t like 30 caliber, you could always shoot Smallbore, or 300 Meter International Shooting Union (ISU) matches, although Americans in ISU matches generally stuck to 30 caliber. In fact, we didn’t call ourselves “Highpower” shooters; we were 30 Caliber shooters, in distinction to Smallbore shooters. Have a glance at the American Rifleman reports from Camp Perry for those decades and you will find that the word Highpower is a rarity. All this changed when the NRA amended rule 3.17 to allow any caliber not larger than 30 caliber into competition.

Smaller calibers, subcalibers in the parlance of the traditional rifleman, have genuine ballistic advantages as Bryan describes in his article. The lower recoil is an additional and significant benefit as I will describe later. Unfortunately, these benefits come at the cost of significantly shorter barrel life, requiring more time testing new barrels and loads as well as the obvious additional expense. Perhaps even worse, once the NRA said, in effect, “anything goes” shooters, who are a competitive bunch by definition, began an endless and expensive quest for the perfect cartridge for across-the-course shooting, followed by the quest for the perfect long-range cartridge, the perfect mid-range cartridge and so on. That is why, in my opinion, that rule change was a terrible decision, turning traditional 30 caliber shooting into today’s Highpower shooting, which is as much a ballistic arms race as it is a test of marksmanship.

While the long-range Any-Rifle rule permitted calibers other than the 30 caliber prior to 1988, it was the rule change for across-the-course shooting and David Tubb’s 1988 Camp Perry win with the 7mm-08 that drove the interest in the subcalibers into high gear just as surely as Mid Tompkins’ 1963 win with the .308 brought the curtain down on the .30-06. The new rule may have brought an end to the 30 caliber era, but it was that era which established the standards by which we are guided today.

Changing a rule, however, does not change opinions overnight and even for those who were eager to make a change, the needed infrastructure of a broad selection of high quality match bullets, barrels and suitable powders took some time to develop. Across-the-course shooters, ever in search of recoil reduction for rapid-fire, adopted the smaller calibers quickly and benefited from them. Long-range shooters with 1000 yards of uncertainty ahead of them and a concurrently greater need for precision were slower to change. The great Creighton Audette foresaw the challenge ahead in his 1981 seminar at Camp Perry:

“The .30 is the logical caliber for the thousand, simply because of the availability of a wider variety of bullets and of bullets with more consistent accuracy. Some success has been had with the 6.5 and 7 mm’s. In theory, bullets of equal ballistic performance to the .30 caliber can be driven at equal or higher velocities, with less recoil, so the smaller bullets should have an advantage. In practice, this does not work out for several reasons. The longer the bullet jacket in relation to its diameter, the more difficult it is to draw the jacket concentric and lack of wall concentricity in jackets is a prime source of bullet error. The smaller bullet must be proportionately longer to obtain the same ballistic coefficient. There is a much greater market for the .30 caliber target bullets in the U.S. than the 6.5 or 7 mm and manufacturers can afford to spend more time in producing highly accurate bullets in the .30 caliber because of the volume. The bullet bearing surface in contact with the rifle bore is longer, for equivalent ballistic performance, in these smaller calibers than in the .30 caliber, there is less bore area to absorb and diffuse the heat, and the result seems to be more fouling and a less reliable degree of accuracy in long strings of shots.” (Creighton Audette, Handloading for the Match Rifle, Highpower Rifle Shooting Vol. II, p. 54 at p. 82, NRA, 1981.)

Thirteen years after Audette’s seminar, Dave Milosevich won the 1993 Leech Cup at Camp Perry shooting a .300 Winchester Magnum with 190 grain SMK bullets – the then dominant combination. Subsequently, he wrote a memorable article entitled Thirty Caliber: Still the 1,000 Yard Choice at Camp Perry, Precision Shooting Special II, 1993, p. 39. In that article Milosevich praised the 30 caliber’s “durability”, his term for the .30’s resistance to bullet blow-ups and fouling based inaccuracy as well as its relative insensitivity to heat and all around reliability. Acknowledging the coming sub-caliber tidal wave, Milosevich wrote: “The smaller, high-intensity cartridges are not yet threatening to replace the .300 Winchester and .30-.338 Magnums in 1,000 yard prone competition. However, the 7mm Remington Magnum, 6.5mm-.284 Winchester, and 6mm Remington Improved are starting to make their presence known.” While he was right about the .30’s virtues, the subcalibers were making fast progress in long-range shooting by 1993, especially the 6.5-284. In fact, the article’s title is really an acknowledgment of the increasingly competitive sub-calibers: still down, perhaps, but gaining.

Audette and Milosevich weren’t wrong in their analysis. Each correctly described the situation as it then existed and each was correct in his technical assessment of the deficiencies of the smaller calibers for 1000 yard shooting, but perhaps they underestimated the virtues of the sub-calibers and the quick market response to their deficiencies. Audette did not foresee the emergence of the cottage industry in small caliber bullets for long-range use, led by Berger and JLK, which changed the face of bullet making. Both also believed American shooters to be more bound by tradition than they actually were and neither man could have foreseen the emergence of moly-coating, boron-nitride coating and other processes which have helped the smaller calibers endure the 70 to 80 shots we are often required to shoot between cleanings.

Fast forward another fifteen years to the present and, as Bryan Litz has so ably pointed out, the 30 caliber is dead in long-range shooting (not including Palma shooting where it is mandated). Oh, there’s a hardcore 30 caliber man here and there; I fall into that category myself, still shooting the .30-06, but hardly to the exclusion of the smaller calibers. It is, in fact, my embrace of the smaller calibers while keeping one foot in the 30 caliber camp that allows me to say that I differ with Bryan on only one significant point: I don’t believe that a heavier or higher BC bullet will bring the 30 caliber back to the forefront of long-range shooting. There are deeper reasons than simple BC envy driving America’s long-range shooters to abandon their 100 year love affair with the 30 caliber and those reasons are as firmly grounded in physics as is Bryan’s BC driven scale analysis.

An analysis of many years of plot sheets from 600 to 1000 yard matches shows that I, like many shooters, tend to lose points to shots “in the corners” at 2:00 or 10:00. These shots are not simply the innocent byproduct of a poorly timed pulse beat and an unseen gust of wind; they are most frequently the result of the muzzle moving in that direction just as the shot breaks – even if that movement is within the X ring. These plot sheets also show that these corner shots happen far less frequently with cartridges such as the 6BR and 6XC than with the .308 and .30-06. Do we move less when shooting small calibers? No, of course not. The real culprit is the amount of muzzle movement after the shot breaks but before the bullet clears the muzzle. This is barrel movement during barrel time (BMBT). BMBT tends to carry the muzzle in the direction in which it was moving when the shot broke. How far it carries the muzzle is the salient point of this discussion.

1960 Western 197 gr. .308; 1960 Remington 168 gr. .308;
1962 Lake City Match 173 gr.; Handloaded Norma .308 Magnum 190 gr.
We never needed anything else.

Let’s assume for the moment that we have three cartridges with a muzzle velocity of 2800 fps. A 6BR with a 105 grain 6mm bullet, next a 6.5-08 with a 142 grain 6mm bullet and a .30-06 with a 190 grain bullet. All three will have roughly the same barrel time, but we can agree that the recoil will be markedly different. In fact, we quickly realize that unless the shot breaks with a perfectly still muzzle, the additional BMBT of the heavier 30 caliber bullet will result in the muzzle pointing further away from the center of the target at the moment the bullet exits. Thus, whereas the 6mm that breaks in the X ring moving towards two o’clock will still give you an X at two o’clock, the 6.5mm will often give you a 10 at two o’clock and the .30-06 will give you a nice fat 9 at two o’clock. Increasing the bullet weight will make this worse, not better. In order to eliminate the effect of BMBT, we would have to scale the rifle and shooter as well as the bullet. Since that might be a tad impractical, a higher BC bullet in 30 caliber will have to rely on low drag design, not increased mass if it is to have any chance at success; but even then, a similar design in a smaller caliber would be a better choice.

It’s hard to say with absolute certainty that we are at the end point of caliber reduction, but I think we are there. If someone were to predict that 1000 yard matches will be won by a 17 caliber in the future, it might sound ridiculous; but then, so did the notion of a 6mm winning at 1000 yards not so long ago – and that is now a regular occurrence. However, despite a great deal of effort by many talented bullet makers, barrel makers, gunsmiths and shooters, the 90 grain .224" bullets have failed to make an impression on long-range shooting, so I think smaller calibers are even less likely to succeed. Bullet jackets need a certain amount of thickness to hold together and that becomes disproportionately large as caliber decreases; at some point you run out of room for the lead! More intangibly, many experienced shooters have noted that when conditions are a little unsettled, larger calibers seems less affected than the smaller calibers. I don’t mean regular wind drift in a given speed of wind, but rather the little swirls out in the middle of the range, or the transition from a side wind to a boil, or some of the just plain weird moments that happen over 1000 yards of terrain. Maybe the sheer mass of a 190 or 210 gr. bullet helps at those moments. I don’t think I want to go to the line at 1000 with a 45 grain .17 caliber bullet no matter what the BC!

Long-range shooting should be, in my opinion, primarily a contest of marksmanship and wind reading. While the 30 caliber rule didn’t require a specific cartridge for long-range shooting, in reality there were only a handful of competitive cartridges and their characteristics and preferred loads were well known. In the past two decades long-range shooting has, to a significant degree, turned into a ballistic contest in which the biggest winners are the barrel makers, bullet makers, die and reamer makers and those competitors who have ready access to 1000 yard ranges for testing. I live right next to a great 1000 yard range and can test just about as much as I want to. However, not everyone can do that and the lack of standardization in long-range cartridges, which creates a need for almost continuous testing, makes for a very uneven playing field and ultimately a less rewarding sport.

As much as I might wish for a return to the 30 caliber mandate, I’m not expecting that to happen; so my 30 caliber shooting will remain restricted to Palma matches where it is required and to local matches where a smile at the end of the day is as rewarding as a win. For state, regional and national level matches, where the expense and effort are highest, I will reluctantly, but confidently continue to be a sub-caliber shooter with the 6BR and 6XC because I, like all the other 30 caliber riflemen, have gone down the sub-caliber path of rational behavior in response to an irrational rule change. The NRA killed the 30 caliber in Highpower competition and no one even held a wake. Rest in peace old friend, you served us well.

I would like to thank Bryan Litz for allowing me to write this companion piece to one of his many eagerly awaited articles; it is a true privilege. I would also like to thank Allen Elliott, Hap Rocketto, Bob Jensen and Middleton Tompkins for their contributions to this article.

Related Articles:
Sibling Rivlary: .308 vs. .30-06
The Logical .30-06
The Full Metal Jacket Match Bullet
The 40XL
Borden Tubegun Special Action

A few historic pictures from Chris Punnett's page:  http://cartridgecollectors.org/30-06intro/


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