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.
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.
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