The .30-30 Winchester is still one of America’s favorite deer cartridges.
When they close their eyes and try to imagine a deer rifle that best represents classic Americana, many hunters likely picture a lever-action chambered in .30-30 Winchester. That shouldn’t be surprising because after all, the .30-30 Winchester has been around for well over a century and has arguably taken more deer in United States than any other cartridge.
The question remains though: why is the .30-30 Winchester still so popular? It’s an old design originally intended for a hunting market that has drastically changed since the 1890s. Perhaps even more significantly, the .30-30 can’t come anywhere close to the performance of newer cartridges like the 7mm Remington Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, or even the .30-06 Springfield on paper.
Even so, demand for the .30-30 Winchester is still high in the United States and it consistently ranks among the best selling cartridges with the big ammunition companies.
In today’s post, I’m going to discuss why the .30-30 Winchester remains so popular after all of these years despite its advanced age.
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.30-30 Winchester History
First introduced by Winchester Repeating Arms in 1895 for their Model 1894 rifle, the .30-30 Winchester made history as the first sporting cartridge loaded exclusively with smokeless powder. Winchester originally named the cartridge the “.30 Winchester Smokeless” and it carried a “.30 WCF” (short for .30 Winchester Center Fire) headstamp.
However, the management at rival gun manufacturer Marlin knew a good thing when they saw it and adopted the cartridge for use in their Model 1893 rifle several months later. Not wanting to give their competitor free advertising, Marlin worked with the Union Metallic Cartridge Company (UMC) to produce identical ammunition with the designation .30-30 Smokeless, or just .30-30 for short.
UMC derived those names by using the black powder naming convention in common use at the time that consisted of the caliber of the cartridge followed by the standard load of powder in grains (like the .45-70 Government for instance). Since the new Winchester cartridge used a .30 caliber bullet (.308″ diameter) propelled by 30 grains of smokeless powder, the cartridge received the designation “.30-30.”
Despite their best efforts, the name .30-30 Winchester eventually stuck and the cartridge now carries a “.30-30 Win” headstamp.
The original .30-30 Winchester load consisted of a 160 grain bullet propelled at 1,970 feet per second (1,379 ft-lbs of energy). This was a significant step up in performance compared to the two black powder cartridges available in the Winchester Model 94 at the time: the .32-40 Winchester (165gr bullet at approximately 1,450fps for 770ft-lbs of energy) and the .38-55 Winchester (255gr bullet at approximately 1,320fps for 987ft-lbs of energy).
During those days, lever action rifles still ruled supreme with hunters in the United States. So, by introducing a new cartridge that was both dramatically more powerful than the competition and available in a dependable, lightweight, easy to handle, and reasonably priced rifle in the Model 1894, Winchester created the perfect conditions for a major commercial success with the .30-30 Winchester.
Not surprisingly, hunters all over North America, quickly started snapping up the new rifles and cartridges. Over the years, it’s gained a reputation as a wonderful cartridge for hunting deer, black bear, and feral hogs at short to moderate range. It’s quite possible that hunters have taken more deer with Model 1894 rifles chambered in .30-30 Winchester than any other rifle/cartridge combination.
Indeed, the fact that competitors have specifically marketed their cartridges as better alternatives to the .30-30 (like Remington did with the .35 Remington) and that the .30-30 case has spawned so many wildcat and factory derivative cartridges (like the .219 Zipper and the 7-30 Waters) are both testaments to the popularity and longevity of the cartridge.
.30-30 Winchester Ammo
Even though the .30-30 is well over a century old, it’s still extremely popular in the United States and ranks up there with rifle cartridges like the .223 Remington, .308 Winchester, 7.62×39, .270 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield in yearly ammunition sales. As a result, just about every ammunition manufacturer produces .30-30 ammo. For instance, Barnes, Browning, Buffalo Bore, Federal Premium, Fiocchi, Hornady, Nosler, Prvi Partizan, Remington, Sellier & Bellot, and Winchester all manufacture at least one .30-30 Winchester load.
In the years following Winchester’s release of the .30-30, the major ammunition companies introduced 150 grain and 170 grain loads for the cartridge. These are now the most popular bullets weights for .30-30 ammo. Due to the advent of better quality smokeless powder, modern loads reach around 2,400 feet per second with 150 grain bullets and 2,200 feet per second with 170 grain bullets.
Since the Model 1894 rifle has a tube magazine, bullets in the magazine are stacked tip to primer. For that reason, most .30-30 ammunition uses round or flat nosed bullets to prevent recoil from causing the tip of one cartridge from detonating the primer of a cartridge stacked on top of it. While using flat or round nose bullets does eliminate that potential safety risk, those stubby bullets aren’t very aerodynamic and downrange performance suffers.
Fortunately, there are a couple of options to help alleviate that problem to a certain degree.
First, .30-30 Winchester ammo is available as part of the Hornady LEVERevolution line. These bullets have a flexible polymer tip that increase the ballistic coefficient of the bullet, but are safe to use in a tubular magazine. Loaded with either 140gr MonoFlex or 160gr FTX bullets, the .30-30 Winchester LEVERevolution ammunition offers a significant ballistic improvement over .30-30 ammo loaded with traditional flat or round nosed bullets.
Winchester’s Deer Season XP line of ammunition also features a polymer tip to help improve ballistic performance and it’s a GREAT deer hunting load.
Buffalo Bore also produces a line of “heavy” .30-30 Winchester ammo designed for optimum performance on really big game like brown bears or moose. With a 190 grain bullet pushed at around 2,100 feet per second (1,860 ft-lbs of energy), this is one of the hottest .30-30 loads currently available.
Firearms In .30-30 Winchester
No matter how good a cartridge may be on paper, availability (or lack thereof) of the cartridge in quality firearms has a lot to do with whether or not the cartridge makes it into the mainstream. Fortunately for the .30-30, Winchester Repeating Arms originally introduced the cartridge in the excellent Model 1894 lever action rifle. Undoubtedly, pairing the new cartridge with one of America’s most popular lever action rifles helped spur acceptance of the .30-30 Winchester by hunters and shooters.
Since it’s a rimmed cartridge, .30-30 Winchester is most commonly chambered in lever action and single shot firearms as well as a few handguns like the Thompson Center Contender.
In addition to the Winchester Model 1894, the Marlin Model 336 and the Savage Model 99 are both extremely popular lever action rifles available in .30-30. Henry has produced several lever action models in .30-30 (like the Henry All-Weather) as has Mossberg with the Mossberg 464, 472, and 479. Thompson Center has also produced their break action single shot Contender rifle and pistol in the cartridge for many years. Ruger also produces the Ruger No. 1 single shot in .30-30 as well.
Though it was never really a popular cartridge for bolt action rifles, Winchester produced the Model 54 in .30-30 for a time. So did Remington and Savage (and a few others) with the Remington 788 and the Savage Model 340 respectively.
Hunting With The .30-30 Winchester
In short, the .30-30 Winchester caught on because it was powerful enough to get the job done when hunting whitetail deer and black bear at short to moderate range, but still had relatively mild recoil in a lightweight and easy to carry rifle. Since most hunters east of the Mississippi very rarely take shots on deer past 150 yards, they loved the hard hitting .30-30 and didn’t really need a cartridge with a flatter trajectory for most applications. Those characteristics also made it a really good deer hunting cartridge, especially for small framed and/or inexperienced hunters.
The .30-30 Winchester remains a favorite in many parts of the United States for those same reasons. Additionally, advances in powder and bullet technology have improved certain aspects of the cartridge and made it an even better hunting cartridge in many respects.
For instance, hunters in the United States and Canada have used the .30-30 Winchester to harvest untold numbers of elk, grizzly bear, and moose over the years. Though many say it’s a borderline choice for the job (and not without reason), it will certainly work in that role with good shot placement. Additionally, the advent of much better quality controlled expansion (particularly bonded or monolithic) bullets have undoubtedly made the .30-30 Winchester more effective on really large game than it used to be.
At the same time, hunters who want to wring every last bit of performance out of the .30-30 Winchester can do so with some of the polymer tipped bullets currently available on the market.
As you can see in the table below comparing Winchester’s Super-X 150gr JHP in .30-30, Hornady’s 160gr FTX LEVERevolution in .30-30, and Nosler’s Trophy Grade 150gr Partition load in .30-06 Springfield, the Hornady load has a noticeably flatter trajectory and has over 50% more energy at 300 yards than the traditional 150gr .30-30 load. That being said, it’s still not a long range load by any stretch of the imagination and falls well short of the .30-06.Yes, many of the more modern cartridges like the .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield are clearly more powerful than the .30-30 Winchester. However, the body of evidence also indicates that all of those cartridges (including the .30-30) are tremendously effective on most species of big game. Truth be told, the biggest advantage those newer cartridges have over the .30-30 is that they have a higher velocity, flatter trajectory, and a longer effective range.
If you’d like to read a more detailed discussion on the .30-06 Springfield and some of the other popular .30 caliber cartridges, read the articles below:
Realistically, hunters armed with a .30-30 have a maximum effective range of around 150-200 yards. When using a polymer tipped bullet and a scoped rifle (like a Marlin 336), it’s possible to extend that somewhat to around 250 yards or so. That’s plenty of range for most hunters though.
On the other hand, the .30-30 Winchester is not really suited for hunting situations that might require longer range shooting, such as a mule deer hunt in Arizona, an elk hunt in Colorado, or a pronghorn hunt in Wyoming.
Instead, the .30-30 Winchester thrives in the thick hunting conditions most commonly found in eastern states.
While it does have a reputation as good cartridge for a brush gun, the .30-30 isn’t particularly great at shooting through cover. Contrary to what many believe, those round nosed bullets will still deflect after hitting leaves or tree limbs. However, the cartridge is known for great performance in thick brush primarily because it has a mild recoil and is primarily available in quick handling and lightweight rifles ideally suited for fast shots on game at close range.
Best .30-30 Winchester Ammo For Hunting
All of the big ammunition companies make several different loads .30-30 ammo specifically designed for hunting deer and other North American big game. Visit the link below for couple of recommendations for some of the best .30-30 Winchester hunting ammo currently available on the market.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to touch on how the .30-30 Winchester stacks up against the .45-70 Government. Those are the two most popular cartridges among hunters who use lever-action rifles in North America. However, as you’ll learn here shortly, the .30-30 and .45-70 are very different cartridges.
30-30 vs 45-70
The .30-30 shooters lighter and smaller diameter bullets than the 45-70 Government. With modern factory ammo, the .30-30 normally shoots bullets at a higher velocity, has less recoil, and less bullet drop at most ranges. However, the .45-70 has substantially more muzzle energy and more retained energy at typical hunting ranges.
For instance, Hornady makes ammunition for both cartridges as part of their LEVERevolution line: a .30-30 load firing a 160gr FTX bullet at 2,400 feet per second (2,046 ft-lbs) and a .45-70 load firing a 325gr FTX bullet at 2,050 feet per second (3,032 ft-lbs).
With a 200 yard zero, that .30-30 load will hit 3” high at 100 yards and about 12” low at 300 yards. It has 1,643 ft-lbs of kinetic energy remaining at 100 yards, 1,304 ft-lbs of energy at 200 yards, and 1,025 ft-lbs of energy left at 300 yards. The .45-70 load also hits about 3” high at 100 yards, but drops nearly 28” at 300 yards with that same 200 yard zero. On the other hand, the .45-70 has 2,158 ft-lbs of energy remaining at 100 yards, 1,516 ft-lbs of energy at 200 yards, and 1,083 ft-lbs of energy at 300 yards.
In terms of external ballistics, the .30-30 has a 300-400 fps advantage in muzzle velocity over the .45-70, but the .45-70 uses significantly heavier bullets and has a whopping 50% more muzzle energy than the .30-30! That advantage in energy does narrow as the range increases, but neither cartridge is really ideally suited for longer ranged shooting. At ranges inside 150 yards (where they’re both strongest), the .45-70 has a clear advantage of the .30-30.
As you can see in the photo below, the .30-30 Winchester uses a rimmed, bottle-necked case and shoots .30 caliber bullets while the .45-70 Government is a straight-wall, rimmed cartridge that shoots .45 caliber bullets.Typical bullet weights for the .30-30 are 140-170gr (150gr and 170gr bullets are most common) while the .45-70 is usually available with bullet weights in the 250-405gr range (250gr, 300gr, 325gr, 350gr, and 405gr bullets are most common).
At the same time, the 30-30 Winchester has substantially less recoil than the .45-70 Government. When fired from 7 pound rifles (like a Marlin 336 or Mossberg 464 in .30-30 and the Marlin 1895 Guide Gun in .45-70), the Hornady loads above produce approximately 15 ft-lbs and 37 ft-lbs of free recoil energy for the .30-30 Winchester and .45-70 Government respectively.
That’s a pretty big difference!
Using a heavier rifle or a lighter .45-70 load that’s safe to use in a Trapdoor Springfield will result in diminished recoil, but the .30-30 will still probably beat the .45-70 in this area.
However, all of that makes perfect sense. The .30-30 Winchester is known for moderate power and moderate recoil in easy to carry lever-action carbines. The .45-70 Government (especially with modern ammunition) has a reputation for hard hitting performance on both ends.
While they’re both very common and widely used, the .30-30 Winchester is also a more popular cartridge, so ammunition is more common and often quite a bit cheaper than .45-70 ammo. The .30-30 is probably a better choice for casual shooting or plinking. There’s no reason why you couldn’t go shoot a .45-70 just for fun (and LOTS of people do), but it’s just more expensive and a little harder on the shoulder.
Both cartridges are great options for those who like to reload. They’re also both well suited for those who like using cast bullets as well as jacketed or mono-metal bullets. So, there are lots of options for both cartridges if you like to hand load.
With all that in mind, the .45-70 Govt provides bone crushing power at the expense of more recoil. It is a serious big bore heavy hitter, which makes it an ideal choice for hunters who need that sort of performance on really big and or dangerous game like moose or brown/grizzly bear. That said, it’s not necessarily overkill for hunting smaller critters either and it will work just fine for game animals like deer and hogs.
On the other hand, the .30-30 Winchester still remains a great choice for many hunters. Especially in areas where longer ranged shots are not likely, it’s just about perfect for game like deer, feral hogs, and black bear.
Final Thoughts On The .30-30 Winchester
Don’t be fooled by the deceptively anemic performance of the .30-30 Winchester on paper. While it does indeed have its limitations, the .30-30 is an outstanding choice for hunting under the right circumstances. After all, there is a reason why so many hunters still continue to use the .30-30 Winchester: because it just works extremely well for the vast majority of hunting situations in the United States.