With the turn of another century well behind us, the development of rifles and cartridges continues with the trend toward bigger, hotter, and flatter shooting rounds. Today it is no trick at all to find a basic bolt-action that throws big, boat-tail spitzers close to 3000 feet per second. While they are entertaining to read about and probably fun to shoot, I hardly ever hunt brick outhouses at a mile and a half.
The availability of all this heavy hardware leads some to question the usefulness of the old standard offerings and the 30-30 Winchester has suffered its share of derision. I still hear an occasional “expert” say that they are no good past 50 yards and tell stories of cronies who emptied one into a big buck- only to have him run away and be seen the following year. I believe these tales can generally be placed in one of two categories- “Baldface Lies” and the “Chronicles of Them What Can’t Shoot”.
Author’s son Erik, at age 7, proves that you really CAN kill a deer with the poor old 30-30.
Younger son Mark, proves it again 12 years later!
The lever-action 30-30’s virtues are many. New rifles are available at moderate prices and used specimens can be found at about a third the price of a really nice sporter. The more recent versions are capable of mounting a scope over the bore and even the old lever-actions are adaptable to receiver sights. The rifles are mechanically accurate enough for any sensible hunting chore. I have put many a Winchester or Marlin on paper at 100 yards, and the vast majority would place three shots in two inches or less with good sights or a low-powered scope. Many would hold close to one MOA and a couple have been scary accurate. The groups in this target were fired with the post-64 rifle above using the factory iron sights.
This group was shot at a little over 200 yards, same load, from a particularly accurate little pre-safety Winchester 94 Angle Eject.
Ammunition for the 30-30 is available anywhere and remains economical compared to other hunting cartridges. Still, reloading the 30-30 is a worthwhile endeavor and the best-shooting loads I have ever fired were born of my battered old Pacific press. Brass is abundant and the cartridge lends itself well to reloading. Go easy on the case lube and spring for a factory crimp die, which preempts a lot of problems associated with case length. It does not eliminate the need to trim entirely. Best accuracy comes with sorting cases by manufacturer. Do NOT try to make the 30-30 into a brevet magnum by overloading it. If you can shoot, you probably don’t need the extra powder anyhow. If you do need it, pass on the 30-30 and buy more rifle to begin with.
When the 30 WCF arrived on the scene in 1895, with its 160 grain bullet at 1900 feet per second, it was viewed as a fine long-range hunting rifle and it quickly established itself as a reliable killer. Today, this seems ridiculous; but consider that its predecessors posted velocities in the 1300-1600 fps range, and it all comes into perspective. It was far easier to punch the boiler room at 200-250 yards with the flat-shooting Winchester. I have fooled with the 30-30 to about 330 yards and I can see why westerners soon came to like it.
Three, 3-shot groups with an iron-sighted 94 Winchester at 330 yards- including a sight adjustment.
The new 1894 was notably handier than the vast majority of big game rifles then available and it didn’t kick as hard, either. These qualities endeared it generations of American hunters, ranchers, and lawmen.
Yes, lawmen- and that application is by no means limited to the last century. I have a few decades behind a badge, and many miles traveled, with a 94 Winchester within easy reach. Its presence has been comfort to me and a terror to the few wayward souls who got a social introduction to it. An awful lot of people have seen the 30-30 do its dirty work on junk dogs and deer; and they want no part of that on the third button of their shirt. For criminals in and behind autos, I am convinced that it beats a .223 all hollow. There are far worse choices in a defensive carbine and no less an authority than Jeff Cooper noted that fact.
As a handy hunting rifle to about 200 yards, the 30-30 excels. It has ample power for the clean harvesting of deer at that distance, provided that the shot is well placed. This requires usable sights and considerable practice. Getting the most from your lever-gun requires careful regulation of those sights, a common-sense approach to their use at various distances and the restraint to pass up shots where a specific, vital area of the target cannot be engaged with confidence. Confidence is the product of practice.
Several years ago I was hunting with a 94 Winchester made in the 1970’s, fitted with a Williams “Foolproof” receiver sight, and a fine blade mounted up front. which I had zeroed for 200 yards with 150 grain Winchester factory loads. I was still-hunted a heavily-wooded waterway, between two big bean fields, and I was sure I’d heard a deer moving around timber. But frankly I was cold, tired of the rain, and ready to go home for the morning. I was slogging out uphill over the harvested field, when I stopped on a terrace to catch my breath. As I rested I looked back at the timber and saw a nice fork-horn buck, walking out from the trees.
Going prone on the muddy terrace, I guessed the buck to be about 250 yards, so I held the tip of the front sight on the top edge of his shoulder as I waited a few seconds to get my breathing under control. The buck turned nearly broadside, and lowered his head to forage. I pressed the trigger and as the rifle bucked I heard the solid impact of the bullet. The buck stumbled forward a step and fell on his chin. The slug had taken a 1″ section of bone out, upon exiting his shoulder. After the advent of Google Earth I ranged that shot at about 235 yards. My ballistics charts tell me that a 150 grain Winchester Silvertip has slowed to around 1600 fps, but it was enough to accomplish the task at hand.
The next year, I watched as a coyote snuck through grass as high as his neck, toward the treestand my wife & I were sitting in. Peggi saw him about 125 yards out, put the post under his head and pressed the trigger on that same 94 Winchester. Thwock! No more Mr. Coyote.
I used the old-school Winchester 150 grain Silvertip and Power-Point for decades and have seen enough deer fall to them to be confident in their effectiveness. The last 20 years saw the old 30-30 get a boost with new powders and factory loads like the ‘Ballistic’ Silvertip, Nosler’s Partition and Hornady’s LeverEvolution. These are nice additions but I don’t see them as critical to the survival of the cartridge or rifles that fire it.
In its heyday, common 30-30 loads were used on all manner of game including some large, irritable species with a propensity for vacuuming the human gene pool. In 1895 John Horton of Kalispel, MT used one to kill a huge grizzly that had terrorized that area, killing men and cattle, for nearly 20 years. In 1965, a world-record grizzly fell to one .30/30 bullet fired by Jack Turner. In dire circumstances we use what we have. While dangerous game is not the forte of the little cowboy gun, a 30-30 lever action is handy enough to always have along. For all the developments in ammunition for this cartridge, I’m a little disappointed that nobody makes a flat-nosed, heavy-jacket FMJ bullet more suitable to these purposes.
It is great fun to explode jugs of water at 400 yards with a necked-down lightning bolt and for quarter-mile hunting, the 30-30 is a waste of time. But about 85% of real-world rifle chores can be handled by a good shot with a 94 Winchester and 110 years of technological advances hasn’t changed that. If you see beauty in utility, it is the Sophia Loren of hunting rifles.