This article is cross-posted here through the kind permission of Ed Harris
--------------------------------------------------------------Memories of the .30-30------------------------------------------------------------
Part I – Frank Marshall’s “Appalachian Assault Rifle”
A favorite of lawmen and deer slayers alike, .30-30 lever-guns defended our Home Front in two World Wars, fed a then-mostly rural nation and still have utility for sport and home protection.
My childhood wasn’t different from others of the Baby Boomer generation. Northern Virginia after World War II was an odd mix of The Walton’s and American Graffiti. The rural south still existed where we now call it “outside the beltway.” When Dad bought our Annandale house in 1954, State Route 236, aka “Little River Turnpike” was a 2-lane country road between Alexandria and Fairfax Courthouse, which wasn’t yet a city. Our neighborhood was surrounded by dairy farms, hardwood forests were full of game, and we shot my brother’s open-sighted Remington Model 511 .22 bolt-action out the upstairs bedroom window to kill woodchucks raiding Dad’s vegetable garden. Our neighbor was an avid hunter who let us watch him butcher deer and feed scraps to his two German shorthaired pointers. When I turned 12, he showed me his deer rifle, a Winchester Model 94 in.30-30. Like any kid who watched TV cowboys of that era, I was enthralled!
The opening, in 1963, of Interstate 495, the now-infamous “Beltway,” put “my world” on a fast track towards destruction. By the time I became old enough for Dad to allow me to have a rifle of my own, the fields and woods around us were rapidly falling victim to the developers’ bulldozers. Within a few years we were immersed in suburbia, strip malls, and the Cold War. Our shooting activity moved indoors to Fort Belvoir. This meant that my first rifle would be a target .22, the targets paper, and life would never be the same.
Summer visits to our uncle’s West Virginia farm prolonged our sanity. There was no TV, so instead we learned about reality. Meat doesn’t come from a seed planted under cellophane-covered meat trays in the grocery. Veggies don’t grow in the can. “If you eat, thank a Farmer.” Outdoor recreation is a celebration of God’s Creation which rewards you with peace, solitude, time for contemplation and rest after completing a day’s cheerful labor.
Uncle Bill told us the truth about guns. His stories were very different from what we saw on TV. His .30-30 Winchester Model 94 had guarded coal trains from Nazi saboteurs, kept order during mine labor disputes, ended the suffering of sick or injured farm animals, and helped feed starving neighbors during the Great Depression. This rather plain rifle had been carried by a humble farmer, who never expected to see armed combat again after returning from the Pacific after WWII. But, when deputized to serve on a sheriff’s posse he had to fire it to take out a “bad man who tried to kill my friend.”
Recalling the event invoked no pride, but a simple wisdom explaining that “grown ups” acknowledge that both good and evil forces exist in our world, which sometimes compel honorable men to make difficult choices which are necessary to protect our country and those whom we love. A suppressed slight tremor in his voice reflected deep conviction as he explained that our Second Amendment isn’t just about hunting, gun collecting and target shooting. Guns aren’t adult toys, but serious tools. Too many shooters today have forgotten that simple fact.
While my older brother, Rick and I had shot .22s and knew fundamentals, firing our first center-fire, watching the .30-30 explode a pumpkin, accompanied by the smack of steel butt-plate against T-shirted shoulder and ringing in our adolescent ears made a lasting impression. Sadly, a .30-30 lever-gun would not find a spot in my closet until I reached middle age. A few years ago a circa-1942 Winchester Model 94 carbine appeared at an estate sale, which brought back memories as if it were yesterday. So, I had to have it.
My choice of firearms in early adulthood was influenced by NRA target shooting on a high school rifle team, coached by WWII and Korean War veterans. My first high-power rifle was an 03-A3 Springfield, later replaced by a match M1 while in college. Plentiful, DCM surplus Ball M2 meant that I didn’t need to start hand loading or casting bullets until the cheap GI ammo dried up. My first article “Cast Bullets in the M1 Rifle” was published in American Rifleman in 1967. That’s when I first met Frank Marshall.
My shooting mentors were retired military officers who were also target shooters. But Frank was our devil’s advocate, the contrarian who provided a practical balance that kept us in touch with reality. “While you guys are arguing that minute-of-angle crapola, do you see that buck over there laughing at you?” Sighting-In Days at Fairfax Rod & Gun Club brought out the curmudgeons and lively discussion topics. The .30-30 Winchester was a favorite deer camp subject, because the target bolt-gunner’s who favored .30-‘06s were always quick to ballyhoo the lever-guns. While Frank owned bolt guns and shot them as well as any man, he remained a staunch defender of the lever-action in the deer woods. Salient arguments I remember are summarized:
The .30-30 is ubiquitous. Guns and ammo are sold everywhere. A rural lawman, farmer or forester could find .30-30s at any crossroads grocery. (A federal special agent I trust still advises field agents not to carry any gun of a caliber they cannot buy ammo for at Wal-Mart). Since I found the Sleepy Creek range in WV I’ve bought several .30-30s just to exploit the THOUSANDS of rounds of brass gleaned over the years. Lever guns remain popular in rural areas because they are cheap, plentiful, and familiar and they work. In remote regions a .30-30 is the only high-power rifle many people have heard of.
It Offers Practical Hunting Accuracy. Grouping of the average lever-action .30-30 is not spectacular, but is adequate for the utilitarian. Groups of 3” to 4” at 100 yards are normal for open sights. Peep sights will knock an inch off of that. I’d advise today’s 30-30 user to get a receiver sight. Post-war rifles are already drilled and tapped for them. A peep sight provides useful improvement over traditional open sights, because it is faster in snap shooting and obstructs less of the target than open buckhorns. Use a threaded target aperture in bright light and simply unscrew the disk at twilight.
Frank liked the practical simplicity of open sights, stressing that a .30-30 was a “short range” (meaning less than 200 yards in the Infantry sense) rifle. Open sights should be zeroed so that when using a “fine bead” (drawn down into the notch) factory loads strike 3 inches high at 100 yards. This provides a 150-yard, point-blank range, which defines the realistic limit for factory loads fired from a typical 3 minute-of-angle carbine. With open rear, step-elevator sights moving the sight one step on the elevator adjusts the point of impact about 3 minutes of angle. Setting factory open rear sights on the second step generally brings point of impact up to strike about 3-4 inches high at 100 yards, which is a good field zero for most hunting. So zeroed, if you to take a 6:00 hold on the brisket of a deer, you will make a good hit as long as you have hair under the bead and no daylight above the bead sight.
A 1/16 inch bead subtends about 8 minutes of angle when out on the end of a 20-inch carbine. If the deer is far enough away that the bead covers the animal from shoulder to brisket, then hold right there and shoot. If you zeroed your rifle to strike 3-4 inches high at 100 yards, covering the forequarters with the bead should give a solid hit on a deer if you do your part out to about 150 yards, which is the maximum effective range of a .30-30. If the animal is far enough out that you cannot see enough of the animal around the bead to clearly identify the head and hindquarters, then it is probably over 200 yards and too far to shoot at and be sure of a humane kill.
A peep sight has a better sight radius which reduces sighting error, but it doesn't increase effective range. A .30-30 is a 150-yard deer rifle, because typical lever-guns won't shoot much better than 6 inches at 150 yards. A 1/16 bead is a useful range estimator. Sight your rifle in to strike 3 inches high at 100, adjust windage carefully until it absolutely perfect and then leave it alone. People who used irons sights as they were intended to be brought alot of venison home.
A “coarse bead” hold was a common long-range expedient a hundred years ago when the .30-30 was our first flat-trajectory, smokeless powder big game rifle. Here the bead is centered between the points of the semi-buckhorn, while the flat front sight base is raised to bridge the gap across the lower notch. This provides a useful long range zero at maximum effective range, which works out to 200 meters with my 94 Winchester and 1893 Marlin, hitting a 12” steel gong with factory loads and a center-of-mass hold.
Combat Accurate, If You’re a Cowboy. As a law enforcement or home defense gun Frank compared his Winchester to an SKS, calling it his “Appalachian Assault Rifle.” Lever guns today have the advantage of a non-threatening, familiar appearance which “doesn’t scare the natives. In 19th Century close quarter battle, lever actions had tactical advantages, offering a large magazine capacity and rapidity of fire compared to single-shot breechloaders and early European bolt-guns. The Ottoman cavalry and Pancho Villa agreed. A bolt-rifle magazine cannot be topped off without taking it momentarily out of the fight (Unless it’s a Krag!-Editor), whereas you can shove more rounds through a lever-action loading gate whenever you need to. On the frontier and against bandits in dusty border towns a lever gun was “as simple as it ever got,” said Frank.
Purists Debate Winchester vs. Marlin If you must scope a lever gun the Marlin enables optics to be mounted low, over the bore, where they belong for snap-shooting. But in snow-shoe country when a rifle would not be protected in a saddle scabbard, hunters liked the Marlin’s solid top receiver and side ejection port because they kept rain, snow and tree debris out of the action. The Marlin breech-bolt, lever and ejector removed easily to enable cleaning from the breech, avoiding wearing out the muzzle crown, as happened to many Winchesters. While it is true that the Winchester action is more exposed to the elements, Winchester fans like to point out that say its open-top makes it easier to inspect the chamber, pry out a stuck case, clear a jam or debris. Doing so in the Marlin action requires disassembly. No big deal say Marlin lovers. They do it every time they clean and can do so in the field with a Scout knife, when required. “Winchesters should be issued to natives or Neanderthals lacking the mechanical aptitude of an Army Private to maintain their field equipment,’” Frank said.
Scope vs. Iron Sights. Franked conceded that a scope was indeed a help for old guys with poor eyesight to reduce sighting errors, but he still liked to quip “the only sighting error you’ve got is that extra head-space between your ears!… the buffalo were decimated, Indians wiped out and two World Wars fought with rifles that barely do 3 minutes of angle… What are you shooting at, cockroaches?”
Frank never had much faith in collimators and was highly skeptical of rifle scopes unless the maker’s name was German. Most zero problems seen during Sighting-In Days were with neophytes using discount-store, variable-power scopes, in high see-through mounts which defeated the whole purpose of having a scope on a snap-shooting rifle, and never zeroed beyond “bore sighting.”
Iron sights are simple and “best for conscript troops and farm boys,” Frank said. “Once zeroed you can forget the darned things until you get too old to see them.” (At age 70 Frank finally did scope his deer rifle – Leupold was a German, wasn’t he?).
Pre-WWII Square bolt, conventionally rifled Marlins. Soon after Winchester introduced the .30 Winchester Center-Fire (WCF), in 1896, Marlin, started offering its Model 1893 (previously available chambered for the .32-40 and .38-55), for the “new” .30-30 Marlin, thus avoiding use of the Winchester trademark, and following familiar black powder naming conventions, using the caliber and the smokeless powder charge in grains. About 900,000 Model 1893s were made between 1893 and 1935.
In 1936 manufacturing modernization resulted in the Model 36. Both the 1893 and Model 36 rifles have a square breech-bolt cross section and conventional 4-groove barrels with ten-inch twist of rifling, similar to Springfield and Krag rifles of their era. The Model 1893 pictured was produced originally as a .32-40 and was factory refitted with a Model 36 .30-30 barrel shortly after WWII. While mis-matched for collector purposes, it made possible an affordable, traditional American hunting rifle which fit my needs. The 4-groove Marlins shoot cast bullets well, but you will need to slug your barrel because groove diameters as large as .310-.311” are not unusual. The Models 1893 and 36 are entirely safe at normal .30-30 pressures, but are not suited for hotter wildcats some people try on the post-war Model 336 and Guide Guns.
Post-WWII Round Bolt 336s. After World War II Marlin again modernized its manufacturing process for lever-action rifles. The Model 336, introduced in 1948, has a bolt of round cross section which is machined from bar stock, and is hard chrome plated. The carrier was re-designed to produce a smoother-working action. The thicker receiver is heavier-walled and stronger than the Winchester. Microgroove barrels came into common use with the introduction of the Model 336 and remain so, except in the current production Marlin Cowboy rifles which have Ballard-type conventional rifling.
Microgroove rifling was first used in the Pedersen Device for the M1903 Springfield rifle. It used a rifled chamber insert, which matched the rifling pitch of the Springfield barrel. Microgroove rifling enabled jacketed bullets to attain full velocity and normal gyroscopic stability without being damaged upon entering the normal rifle bore. After World War II during development of the Model 336, Microgroove rifling was found well adapted to the then-new process of “button rifling” because it reduced tool driving force. Marlin exploited this technology to build a product identity around the Microgroove trademark. While it is commonly believed that Microgroove barrels don’t shoot cast bullets as accurately as conventional rifling, they do fine with suitable loads and work best with hard, long-bodied bullets having a short bore-riding nose, large enough to properly fit in somewhat larger bore and groove diameters.
Heavy vs. light bullets. Frank said that New England old timers when he was a kid in the 1930s thought the .303 Savage with its 190-gr. bullet at about 1950 f.p.s. was a better deer killer than the lighter 150 or 160-gr. bullets used in the .30-30, which lacked penetration. The 170-gr. bullets came out later as a “solution to a non-existent problem… because hind end of a deer is to eat and not to shoot.” Ellis Lea was a West Virginia lawman before going into the Army during WWII. He added that early .30-30s bullets had thin, flimsy jackets and great gobs of exposed pure lead at the nose which deformed if you stared too long at them. Fragile, fragmenting bullets were great anti-personnel loads, but tore up meat and wouldn’t exit either a man or a deer. The 150-gr. Winchester Silvertip was never a satisfactory hunting load, but a fragile, fragmenting bullet, developed for law enforcement use, to the reduce risk of over-penetration. In pre-WWII days before the term “patrol rifle” had been coined, a “car gun” still meant a lever-action, rather than a military-style “black rifle.”
Controlled expansion bullets such as the Remington Core-Lokt and Winchester Power Point Bullet were post-war developments, but brought the .30-30 into its own as a game rifle. Modern 150-gr. loads shoot a little flatter in open country, and expand easier on deer. The 170-grain soft-points are still the bullet of choice in heavily-wooded country where the man with only one rifle may also be called upon to do take bear, elk or moose at short range. The .30-30 isn’t recommended today for larger game than deer, but Frank always said “it always worked just fine for anybody who could get close, shoot well and didn’t have his head all confused from reading crap in gun magazines!”.
Cast bullet performance is improved by re-throating. A .30-30 SAAMI-dimensioned chamber has a 15 degree forcing cone departing directly from the chamber neck with no ball seat. It works OK with jacketed bullets, but severely limits the choice of cast bullets which fit properly. Cast bullets with a bore riding forepart large enough to be engraved by the lands chamber with difficulty and may result in bullets being pushed back into the cartridge case, unless securely crimped. Cast bullet accuracy and flexibility of choice is improved by re-throating to a form similar to the one used in the .300 Savage, having a short ball seat of a length approximately 1/10 of the bullet diameter, with a shallow forcing cone angle, typically 3 degrees. A Marlin chamber can be reamed by hand from the breech end. This requires removing the butt-stock, and using a reamer with an extension rod and T-handle. The same job on a Winchester 94 is more complex, because the rifle must be disassembled and the barrel unscrewed from the receiver.
A US military pull-type headspace reamer for the .30 M1 Carbine can be used to re-throat 94 Winchesters without removing the barrel. This enlarges the chamber neck diameter slightly, but it does work OK. A .30-30 chamber has a neck diameter of .330-.332 while typical case necks have a wall thickness of about 0.011.” This limits safe bullet diameter to 0.310 unless you turn case necks, which are already pretty thin. An M1 carbine chamber has a mouth diameter of .337,” the same as a tight-necked .308 bench gun. Enlarging the .30-30 chamber neck a bit doesn’t impair utility with jacketed loads, and helps users of old rifles having barrels with larger groove diameters (over .309”) which have tight chambers that don’t accept cast bullets large enough to fit the bore. So re-throating your old .30-30 may be worth the effort. Frank sure thought so.
[Break” ends Part 1 here]
Part II continues......Tales from the Back Creek Diary - Part II - The Ammo, Factory, Reloads, Cast Lead, and Otherwise
If one cartridge should be identified as ideal for utility with cast bullets, it would be the .30-30 Winchester. It achieves full, normal ballistics and hunting performance with cast bullets which compares favorably with factory jacketed loads. Doing so is easily accomplished using off-the-shelf, bullet designs and cheap wheel-weight alloy which is available everywhere. Mattern described several classes of loads for the Springfield. Frank Marshall applied a similar logic to the .30-30 in assembling either sub-sonic plinking and small game loads, “.32-40 class” target loads or heavy “deer” loads.
Before WWII the ammunition factories offered reduced power small game loads for the .30-30. These were assembled with a 100-gr. bullet and about 6 grains of fast-burning powder which provided ballistics very much like the .32-20 Winchester. However, hand loading was much more common, because factory ammunition was expensive.
Depression-era hunters often used 100-120 grain cast bullets intended for the .32 S&W Long or .32-20 with a light charge of whatever pistol or shotgun powder they had lying around. Frank told me that common practice was to force a 0 or 00 buckshot through the bullet sizing hole in the handle of an Ideal tong tool. Since store bought powder was expensive for a kid rationing meager funds he learned to pour a tiny powder charge salvaged from a misfired .22 LR round into a primed .30-30 case, pushing the sized buckshot flush into the case mouth, smearing a little cup grease or tallow over it. This provided a nearly silent load which shot OK for small game or varmints to about 50 feet.
Any powder which could be gleaned from misfired handgun, shot-shell or .22 ammo was salvaged, blended in a jar and portioned carefully with a home-made dip measure, made by soldering a .32 ACP case onto a wire handle. Every precious scrap of lead pipe, shot or recovered bullet was salvaged, blended and cast into bullets on the gas stove.
A rimmed case of modest capacity works much better for reduced loads than larger rimless cases, such as the .30-’06. The .30-30 case is almost idea because its reduced capacity improves ballistic uniformity with these light charges. Rimmed cases avoid the common problem experienced when using rimless cases for light loads, in which primer blast drives the case forward, setting the shoulder back and shortening the body length. Rimless cases used repeatedly for reduced loads eventually experience excessive headspace which leads to misfires or case head separations, unless flash holes are enlarged. However, if you mix these cases up and assemble a full load in them it may cause an accident, so using an unmodified, rimmed case for light loads makes more sense. Round-nosed bullets less than 150 grains are best for non-destructive small game loads. At subsonic velocities they make little noise and destroy little more meat than a .22 LR.
Most pistol and shot-shell powders available today do not behave safely in severely reduced loads, so I don’t recommend less than 4 grains of any powder in the .30-30. The best current powders for minimum .30-30 loads are Clays, Bullseye, Tite Group, 700X, Red Dot, Unique or WW231. Use only soft, lubricated lead bullets of 150 grains or less. Best accuracy in my rifles with ten-inch twist was with the 130-gr. NEI #82 cast of wheel-weights, tumbled in Rooster Jacket and sized to .311 with 5 grains of Bullseye for 1080 f.p.s. in a 20-inch barrel and 1” five-shot groups at 50 yards.
If you want a jacketed-bullet, reduced load for the .30-30, use 110-gr. SPs intended for the cal.30 M1 carbine, seat to 2.4” OAL and use the Lee factory Crimp Die to prevent bullets from telescoping into the case under compression of the magazine spring. Larger .312 diameter jacketed bullets intended for the .32 H&R Magnum may not chamber unless case necks are turned. They weren’t as accurate for me as the cheaper, bulk Remington .30 carbine soft-points from Midway. Do not attempt to load less than 5 grains of the pistol powders with a jacketed bullet, as you may stick a bullet in the bore. A .30-30 charge of 5 grs. of Bullseye gives 1000 f.p.s. with the .30 carbine soft-point.
Do not exceed 6 grains of the faster pistol or shot-shell powders in the .30-30. A charge of 6 grs. of Bullseye is a snappy load with flat trajectory to 100 yards and ballistics like the.32-20 Winchester, 1250 f.p.s. with the 110-gr. jacketed carbine bullet,(about 80-100 f.p.s. less than a lubricated cast bullet of similar weight), 1330 f.p.s. with the 130-gr. NEI #82 and 1450 f.p.s. with the 94-gr. Meister LFN (on the ragged edge of leading, but accuracy is still OK for 2” five-shot groups at 50 yards if you only shoot a few).
At the 6 grain charge level you can begin to use SR7625 or PB. When using Unique, SR-7625 or PB the charge in a .30-30 can safely be increased up to 7-1/2 grains if the load doesn’t lead and accuracy remains good, but do not exceed that in the .30-30 case. Below 1300 f.p.s. soft alloys expand only if bones are struck, so flat-nosed bullets are best.
“.32-40 class” target and woods loads; Wheel weights + 2% tin (13 BHN) alloy enables reliable expansion of flat-nosed bullets above 1600 f.p.s., approximating .32-40 “high velocity” loads intended for the 1893 Marlin and 94 Winchester, (but not Ballards). Suitable .30-30 charges with the #31141 or #30-180FN are 16 grs. of #2400, 18 grs. of 4198 or 21 grs. of RL-7. These make satisfactory deer loads if you don’t attempt shots shoot past 50 yards and shoot well. The effect on game of firing these in a rifle is nearly identical to using full-power .30-30 loads from the Contender pistol with a 10” barrel.
Softer 1:25 tin/lead expands reliably in loads equivalent to black powder loads in the .32-40 down to about 1300 f.p.s. Suitable charges are 12 grs., of #2400, 14 grs. of 4198 or 16 grs. of RL-7. When velocities are kept below about 1400 f.p.s. plain-based bullets or gas-check designs used without the gas-check will provide good results.
Heavy (Deer) Hunting Loads
The .30-30 Winchester operates at a maximum average pressure of 40,000 cup. Normal factory ballistics are closely approximated with 30 grains of IMR3031 and a 170-gr. jacketed bullet or 36 grs. of RL-15 and a 150-gr. jacketed bullet. The same powders which are used successfully with jacketed bullets achieve similar velocities with cast loads, using a 10-15% charge reduction from the jacketed load. Suitable charges with the #31141 or #30-180FN cast of wheelweights+tin, gas-checked are 21 grs. of 4198, 24 grs. of RL-7, 26 grs. of 3031, 30 grs. of H4895 or H335, or 32 grs. of IMR4895, 4064, WW748 or Varget. These are full loads around 2000 f.p.s. and should not be exceeded.
For deer hunting the .30-30 performs best with heavier, flat-nosed 170-190-grain bullets such as the RCBS 30-180FN or the Lyman #31141. If greater penetration and slower expansion are desired, substitute a round-nosed bullet such as the #311291. For best game performance alloy hardness should not exceed BHN15 and velocities should exceed 1800 f.p.s. Weight retention and penetration of cast bullets are reliable to the maximum velocities attainable in this cartridge. Hunting accuracy equal to factory loads for up to a dozen rounds is no problem with adequate lubrication. I “double-lube” heavy hunting loads which push alloy compatibility using 50-50 Alox-Beeswax in the grooves and tumbling the entire bullet after sizing either with Lee Liquid Alox diluted 50-50 with mineral spirits, or Rooster jacket. I’ve bagged about a dozen deer using cast loads in the .30-30. Most were shot at ranges from 50 to 150 yards and didn’t require finishing shots. It is normal to trail them a short distance, but none were lost. This is no different than my experience using factory .30-30 loads.
While box magazine and break-open guns can safely handle pointed bullets, jacketed spitzers have heavier jackets than perform well at .30-30 velocities. While it is true that the Savage 99, Remington 788 and the Contender pistol are stronger than the average lever-gun, I no longer recommend .30-30 loads which exceed factory pressures. I confess to having used heavier-than-standard .30-30 loads in my Remington 788 and Contender pistol, but I do not anymore, and don’t recommend that you do either. That’s because there is risk of a mix-up if you have more than one rifle. Don’t take a chance.
Tell your favorite caliber, and ask any questions you need help with.
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