For a variety of reasons, the .308 Winchester is considered by many to be the ideal survival rifle cartridge. It is compact, powerful, readily available, and frugal in its component use. But let’s consider the other half of the combination, the rifle itself, before looking more closely at the cartridge. Regardless of how ideal the cartridge, if the only rifle chambered for it has all the ergonomics of a barrel imbedded in a concrete block, it’s not going to be very useful, is it?
Let’s dispense with one concept, right off the bat: semiauto battle rifles. Don’t get me wrong, I like a G3 or FAL as much as the next guy, and those tricked-out, $3000 M1As sure do look cool. But, and I’m sure I will lose a few readers right here, they are not survival rifles, not to my way of thinking. See, I don’t buy into the concept that survival entails daily gun battles with the zombie hordes in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. In my humble opinion, and I may be wrong, that seems a sure-fire way to not survive for long. At the very least, it means one may have made some strategic errors that, just perhaps, might need looking into. Nope, they’re cool and all, and I wouldn’t mind having one or more of them, but those autoloaders are heavy, have detachable magazines which can be lost, stolen or destroyed (and must be bought, at any rate); not to mention that they really like to have full-power, jacketed-bullet ammo, and become less reliable the further from that ideal the available ammunition becomes.
I guess the best direction to take here is to describe what is, to me, the role of the survival rifle. I will use a .30/30 Winchester as an example of a handy rifle and good power level. A Model 94 Winchester would be wonderful, and is my favorite for its handling qualities, but for the survival rifle I will choose the Marlin 336, simply because it is easier to field-strip to deal with any problems. Unlike the Winchester, the removal of one screw gives access to the chamber end of the barrel, as well as the bolt and several other key parts.
The .30/30 cartridge that it is chambered for is cheap to buy, and a very good power level for deer, black bear, wild hog, as well as protection against feral dogs and almost any other attacker one might have to deal with. It has even been used successfully, many times, against the large bears. On the other end of the spectrum, there used to be a factory small game load available for the .30/30 consisting of a lightweight lead bullet loaded to a velocity which approximated the power level of the .32/20. The .32/20 was a near-ideal homesteader’s rifle cartridge, even taking many deer for the pot. The only problem was its lack of power for the occasional shot that could have benefitted from a bit more oomph. The old .30/30 small game load could be used just like a .32/20 to harvest squirrels, rabbits, groundhogs, all the way up to that doe that has been pilfering from the garden, and do so without attracting too much attention. Although that load is no longer available as a factory loading, it is no problem for the handloader to duplicate it with a 115 grain (or thereabouts) cast lead bullet of the type intended for the .32/20, seated over enough shotgun or pistol powder to give about 1200 fps velocity. Such a load doesn’t require a gascheck, nor very much lead or powder. Then when necessary, the load can be switched to a full-power load for real deer hunting, dispatching larger varmints, etc.
The only way that the .30/30 could really be improved would be to give it one more available notch up in power, for longer shots and in case that big bear did show up, or perhaps one needed to shoot something behind cover. Oh, and it would be nice if I could make my own brass from other cartridges. Sure, the .30/30 is common, and it would be possible to form .30/30 brass from 7-30 waters, or .25/35, or .32 Winchester Special, but how often do you run across those rounds at your local range?
I only mention those things because the .308 covers them all. The .308 can be loaded with the same .32/20 level loads as the .30/30, using the same components. It is also very happy at the .30/30 power level, using the same jacketed or cast bullets and the same powder charge as the .30/30, but at lower pressure (and slightly less velocity, if using the same load grain-for-grain, but not enough to make it not still work). But when necessary, it can also be loaded to several hundred fps faster than top .30/30 loads. And if you need to stock up on brass and can’t seem to find enough .308, here are a few of the cartridge cases you can easily reform into .308: .243, 6mm Remington, .25-06, .257 Roberts, .260 Remington, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08, 7×57, .280 Remington, .30-06, 8×57. I could go on, but you get the idea. Basically, any rifle cartridge that uses the standard rimless case with a .473″ head diameter, with the exception of the .250 and .300 Savage, and the .22/250. Most of the rest of them are at least as long as the .308, and can therefore be reformed and trimmed to make .308 brass, if needed.
So if the .308 is the best cartridge, what’s the best rifle to take that cartridge? A Mauser ’98, hands down. But you will have to either build your own (as I did), or hope that you will one day luck onto one of the Israeli arsenal rebarreled .308 Mausers. Good luck; they’re in high demand. Or you can settle for one of the .308 Enfields that are still reasonably easy to find. But don’t fool yourself that they are as good as a Mauser. They are good, but as a rugged, unstoppable survival rifle, the Mauser wins.
Of course, you will read claims of the Enfield being far superior to the Mauser and all other bolt-actions, but read further and you will find the reasons for its superiority being given as follows: 10 round magazine capacity, detachable magazine, and the fastest to operate of all bolt guns. OK, let’s break that down: fastest to operate. What’s that good for? Gun battles with mutant zombies. We were gonna avoid those, remember? Detachable magazine. That was already covered as a bad thing. Too easy to lose. Last, 10 round mag capacity. There’s that gun battle/mutant zombie thing again. So what are the traits of the Mauser? It has enough camming power to shove a misshapen, bent or mangled round into the chamber if you really gotta shoot something right now. Enough slam to the firing pin to light any primer that has any fire at all left in it. And if you yank on the handle hard enough, that big claw extractor is gonna pull something out. Also, it’s strong, and it is very likely to feed properly and to not double-feed. Those are the reasons professional hunters in Africa favor them. And they are the reasons that you probably should have one, if not in .308 then in .30-06, or 8×57, or 7×57.
But what about that nice lever action we were talking about? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have one of those in .308? No, they’re not as rugged as a Mauser, but those little carbines are so slick, so easy to handle and carry and shoot, that it is worth it to stick with the .30/30, just to have that handy little rifle to carry around the ‘stead. Well, here’s good news: It is possible to have one of those in .308, and I’m not referring to one of the expensive Savage 99s, Browning BLRs or other rifles only rich guys can afford. They don’t fall into the same category anyway. I mean they do have a lever, but they don’t have a tubular magazine, the handling qualities of a “real” levergun, nor cheap and readily available parts.
I’m also not referring to the new rimmed .308 Marlin Express round. I’m talking about buying a cheap used Marlin .30/30, and rechambering it to .308 Winchester. Now, let me immediately explain a couple of things. First, I am not advising anyone to do this. I am simply describing what can be done, why it is feasible, and the shortfalls that must be kept in mind if it is done. If you read the description and don’t believe it, don’t do it. Also, if you are expecting to simply rechamber an old 336, and then start stuffing factory .308 ammo into the magazine and shooting it like it is intended for it, stop now. That is not what I am advocating. In fact, I am not advocating anything; merely describing a thought process.
OK, with that out of the way let’s take a look at why this is (in my opinion and for my own use) feasible. First, the Marlin 336 has been factory chambered and sold in .307 Winchester, which is nothing more nor less than the .308 with a rim added, and loaded with flatnose bullets (in deference to the tubular magazine), seated deeper than in the .308 to keep overall length down to what the lever action rifle is happy with. That’s all. Pressure is identical, and .308 loading dies work perfectly with the .307, requiring only a different shellholder. In fact, you can actually fire singly-loaded .308 ammo in the .307, although the factory discourages this practice. I have become convinced by reading several online gun forums, that the .307 Marlin is exactly the same as a .30/30 Marlin except for the chamber. In fact, there are a couple of gunsmiths who have similarly converted many 336s, and their customers are on the forums proclaiming their happiness with the conversion. Do your own research though, and make up your own mind; don’t take my word for it.
I would like to point out that most of these conversions are for the .307 and .356, not the .308 and .358, but some of those customers say that the rimless versions feed and extract perfectly. And why not? After all, the second most popular chambering in the 336 is the .35 Remington, which is itself a rimless round. So if I rechamber a .30/30 to .308 and have extraction difficulties, I’ll just put a .35 Remington extractor in it. But I’ve heard reports that the .30/30 extractor works fine with .308 cases.
Anyone who builds something like this must take responsibility for its safe use. Don’t build one and then trade or sell it; and warn family members that it’s not safe for public consumption. Pointed bullets are fine, but only if only one is loaded into the magazine. With one in the chamber, that gives two rounds, which should be enough for hunting. Or load one pointed-bullet load in the chamber, and fill up the magazine with blunt-bullet loads. Although they are probably safe, I would limit full-power loads, if for no other reason than to maximise the life of the rifle and brass. On the other hand, it should handle .300 Savage level loads with aplomb; bolt thrust with those loads would probably be less than full-power .30/30 due to the larger case head area and lots of case body taper in the .30/30.
It should go without saying that this is a handloader’s proposition. If you don’t handload, and tailor your loads, this is not the rifle for you. But if you are of the mindset that it is a wildcat cartridge, kind of like an improved .30/30 with the rim cut off, it just may be a viable way to achieve the ideal survival or homestead rifle.