History: .30-80 WCF - The Origin of the .308 Winchester

The following article by Ray Meketa is a fascinating account of the early development of the commercial .308 Winchester cartridge; we are very grateful to him for sharing it with our readers. This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct 2008 issue of the IAA Journal and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the International Ammunition Association, Inc. For those with a greater interest in cartridge collecting, we highly recommend the IAA's website at www.cartridgecollectors.org .

.30-80 WCF - The Origin of the .308 Winchester
by Ray Meketa

Even as World War II was being fought, and millions of rounds of ammunition were being manufactured in ammunition plants across the country, the U.S. Army began looking toward a new generation of small arms. More specifically they envisioned a select-fire "light rifle" to take the place of both the M1 Carbine and M1 Garand, firing a cartridge larger than the .30 Carbine but smaller than the .30-06 while still maintaining the range and power of the .30-06. A challenging goal to say the least.

In 1944 Springfield Armory was instructed to develop the new weapon and Frankford Arsenal to develop the cartridge. Guided by general cartridge dimensions and desired ballistics established by the Chief of Ordnance, Frankford Arsenal purchased a supply of commercial .300 Savage brass from both Winchester and Remington and assembled them into test cartridges to determine pressures, velocities, and appropriate powders and primers. Once it was concluded that the project was feasible the Arsenal produced 10,000 prototype cases for further development and designated the cartridge the T65. Over the course of the next five years the T65 went through several design changes including neck length, shoulder angle, and case length. The final case design was approved in 1949 and designated the FAT 1E3 but tests continued until August 1954 when the assembled cartridge was standardized as the 7 .62 x 5lmm NATO. It would be another three years before the rifle, the M14, was perfected and adopted.

Even though some of the prototype Frankford Arsenal cases mysteriously made their way into wildcatter's hands in 1950 and 1951, it wasn't until l952that the Chief of Ordnance gave Winchester permission to use the FAT 1E3 case commercially. Winchester introduced both the cartridge, the .308 Winchester, and its new Model 70 Featherweight Rifle in late 1952. Advertising for the new combination showed the cartridge in both Super-X and Super Speed brands, loaded with 110-, 150-, and 180-grain bullets. Touted as "a new trend to satisfy shooters' needs for short, lighter high-powered hunting cartridges and lighter weight rifles," it was an immediate and long-lasting success.

But there is evidence to suggest that Winchester had its sights set on the NATO case for at least three years prior to Ordnance Department approval. So we have to go back to 1948 for the story. What follows is based in large part on Winchester reference material and five experimental rifles housed in the Winchester Collection, Cody Firearms Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, in Cody, Wyoming. Any reader having additional, or corrected, information is encouraged to contact me or the editor.

As early as 1948, Winchester was considering the development and marketing of a new model bolt-action rifle, similar to, but costing less (cheaper) than the popular Model 70. Designated the Model 80, records indicate that one of the first prototype rifles, chambered for an unspecified .30 caliber cartridge, was tested to destruction and then scrapped. At least three other Model 80 rifles, in .30 caliber, appear on Winchester firearms reference collection data sheets but their whereabouts are unknown.

Four of the five surviving prototypes in the Cody Firearms Museum include three right-hand and one left-hand bolt-action Model 80 rifles with non detachable box magazines, open sights and chambered for a developmental cartridge now called the .30-80. The final .30-80 rifle in the museum is based on a Model 70 action. serial number 158891, which would indicate a manufacturing date in 1950. With a2l 3/4" lightweight barrel (compared with the standard 24" barrel of the Model 70) this could be a prototype Model 70 Featherweight rifle, chambered for the new cartridge and intended to be tested and evaluated along with the Model 80.

So, why the .30-80 designation? Subsequent events tell us that Winchester was contemplating using the FAT 1E3 case as the basis for commercial cartridges in several different calibers, ranging from .224 to .358. The original .30 caliber was the most likely candidate to be first in the series and, with the prototype Model 80 rifle as the test platform, designating the cartridge as the .30-80 was only logical. But there are no cartridges that actually have such a headstamp, at least none that I'm aware of. This in itself is not unusual because the fabrication of headstamp bunters is an expensive undertaking and a prototype or an experimental cartridge without a headstamp is more the norm than not. But printing box labels is another thing entirely and we do have surviving boxes of those first prototype cartridges, all clearly marked as containing .30-80 WCF cartridges.

.30-80 WCF cartridges are loaded with a Western Cartridge Company 150-grain Silvertip bullet, a flat nickeled primer, and except for the lack of a headstamp, their appearance is that of a typical .308 Winchester cartridge. Those that I have seen vary in case length from 1.960" to 1.980" - shorter than the FAT 1E3 standard of 2.015" - resulting in a noticeably shorter neck. While it's true that many of the commercial .308 Winchester and 7.62 x 51 NATO cases measure as little as 2.005", those are well within manufacturing tolerances, whereas it appears that the .30-80 WCF cases were manufactured intentionally short. Were they shortened to better fit the prototype Model 80 magazine box, or for some other reason? Considering the thorough Arsenal testing leading to adoption of the NATO case, it would be strange indeed for Winchester to further experiment with neck length for any reason other than mechanical. But I have yet to find any documentation to support either conclusion.
These .30-80 WCF boxes and cartridges do pose some questions. Exactly what were they to be used for and when and why was the decision made to change the cartridge name? They were loaded for use in the Model 80 rifles, obviously, but the surviving boxes appear to be intended for some use other than in-house development testing of the prototype rifles. They are reminiscent of the familiar Olin Industries plain brown boxes of new empty cases. More than a simple storage container for the cartridges but definitely not for public sales. Sort of a semi-commercial look. My guess is that Winchester sent the prototype rifles out for field tests and market analyses in 1951 and 1952, together with the boxed but un-headstamped cartridges. This is a standard procedure of the major firearm manufacturers before introducing a new product.

Reports on the Model 80 rifles must not have been encouraging. Perhaps the quality and performance of the rifle didn't meet expectations or it may be that shooters simply were not ready for a cheaper model rifle. (As all firearms collectors know, a cheaper version of the Model 70 was eventually introduced in 1965, a marketing blunder by Winchester, soon followed by declining sales.) Whatever the reasons, in 1952 the decision must have been made to abandon the Model 80 and introduce the cartridge, albeit with a fresh name and the original 5l mm case length, in a new Model 70 Featherweight Rifle. Winchester requested and received Ordnance Department permission to use the cartridge commercially, an approval they were confident would be quickly granted. With the Model 80 out of the picture the .30-80 WCF designation made little sense and the .308 Winchester was born.

Fifty six years later the .308 Winchester remains one of the most successful and popular hunting cartridges in the world. It is also commonly used for long-range competition and the case itself is the basis for countless wildcat cartridges. I will be the first to admit that much of this narrative is conjecture on my part based solely on the limited evidence I have been able to uncover. Regardless, the few surviving .30-80 WCF cartridges and boxes are very collectible and this meager attempt to document their origin should add to their value.

Unfortunately, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center would permit neither photography nor handling of the five rifles in their collection. I thank Mr. David Kennedy, Curator, Winchester Collection, Cody Firearms Museum, for permission to access the written material and for his help in clarifying certain features of the rifles. I am indebted to Curol Hartung of Cody, Wyoming for her diligent search and compilation of Museum records which are the primary basis for this article. -rm

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