.30-30 loads for leverguns

THE .30-30 WINCHESTER CELEBRATES its 115th birthday this year. This old timer, the first American smokeless-powder sporting cartridge, has maintained a loyal following for over a century, making it one of the oldest cartridges still in common use. Even more surprisingly, the .30-30 still hovers near the top of the list of most popular hunting cartridges and now it’s been given a new lease on life with new bullets and new powders.

It was introduced in 1895 as one of the chamberings available for the Model 1894 lever-action rifle. The original loading featured a 160gn flat-nosed bullet and 30 grains of the new- fangled smokeless powder. Hence, the name .30-30 for .30 calibre bullet and 30 grains of smokeless powder, a designation which adhered to the older way of naming a calibre based on black powder. Muzzle velocity was 1970 fps. This doesn’t sound very fast, but it was pretty exciting back in an era when America’s favourite deer rifle was the .44-40 Winchester which sent a 200gn bullet ambling along at less than 1200 fps.

The “thutty-thutty” as westerners called it, achieved instant popularity. It’s effective range was twice that of the .44-40, and it kicked less and killed deer just as dead as bigger cartridges, such as the .45-70 Govt. The .30-30 didn’t rust or foul barrels like the old black powder cartridges, and ammunition was cheap (76 cents for a box of 20 rounds). The Winchester Model 94 rifle in .30-30 was just as affordable, selling for $17.50, which was considerably less than any of the other Winchester lever-actions.

By the 1930s the original 160 gain bullet had been replaced by one weighing 170 grains, and the velocity was increased to 2250fps. Other loadings included a 165gn full-metal-jacketed bullet at the same velocity for use on fur bearers and waterfowl and a 110gn soft-point at 2550fps for predator/varmint hunting.

Today, every major ammomaker produces loads for the .30-30. The standard factory loads for many years were a 150gn bullet at 2390fps and a 170gn at 2200fps. Bullets included Remington’s Core-Lokt, Winchester’s Silvertip and Power-Point, Federal’s Power Shok, and Hornady’s Interlock. A popular choice for larger deer was Federal’s Premium load featuring the Nosler 170gn Partition at 2200fps. Attempts made to soup-up the .30-30 included Hornady’s Light Magnum loading and Federal’s Fusion, but it was left to Hornady’s LEVERevolution ammo which featured an elastomer Flex- Tip spitzer bullet to dramatically boost the ballistical performance of the venerable .30-30.

Hornady’s 21st century ammo featured a sleek pointed boattail bullet that was safe when stacked in a tubular magazine thanks to its soft elastomer tip that cushioned the primer. Ballistics were improved too, to drive a 160gn bullet at a fast 2400fps. Sighted in 3 inches high at 100yds., the Flex Tip bullet zeroes at 200 yds., and drops only 12 inches low at 300. That’s a pretty flat trajectory for a traditional levergun.

Remington has long held the .30-30 velocity record with its Accelerator loading at 3400fps. Attaining such incredible speed within acceptable breech pressures was accomplished by loading a sabot-encased 55gn jacketed bullet of .224 calibre weighing only 55 grains. This load is limited to small rodents and pest birds, but Federal offers an even more effective form of pest control; the Sierra 125gn hollow-point at 2570 fps.

A number of rifles suitable for use with pointed bullets have been chambered for the .30-30 through the years. They include a few single-shot rifles like the Savage 219 and the Winchester 1885, the Model 54 Winchester and Savage Model 99 rifles back in the 1920s, and the later Savage Model 170 pump- action, bolt-action Savage Model 340 and Remington Model 788. But the .30-30 has always been seen as a traditional outside- hammer, lever-action proposition. Today, there’s quite a choice of rifles available in .30-30. In lever-actions there’s – the Marlin 336C, 336SS carbines and XLR rifle with 610mm barrel; Henry Big Boy carbine; Mossberg 464; and Rossi Rio Grande. The Winchester Model 94 has resurfaced in a limited edition. And there’s a pair of single-shots – the New England HandiRifle and Thompson/Center G2 Contender.

Over the years the .30-30 has had to compete against other new, supposedly “better” cartridges, but it managed to survive and outlived them all. A minor set back occurred when Marlin chambered its Model 336 rifle for the .35 Remington and in more recent times a more serious challenge was issued by the more powerful .307 Winchester round. But although the .307 shaded the .30-30 by some 375 fps in muzzle velocity, it never looked like replacing the .30-30 as America’s favourite deer rifle. Why? Don’t ask me. Nostalgia maybe? But now it is facing a new threat, from the .308 Marlin Express which pushes out a 160gn FTX bullet at 2660fps and is being chambered in the excellent Marlin .308 MX. With the sole manufacturer of ammo being Hornady, however, the odds are against it ever posing a serious threat to the well established .30-30.

Handloading for a .30-30 lever-action is straightforward and poses no serious problems, but recoil affects the rounds in the magazine in a way that requires special attention. As the gun fires, recoil tries to push the bullets deeper into the cases of cartridges in the magazine. Solving this problem is simple, but the detail of getting the job done requires a little bit of extra care. Basically, reloads that are to be used in tubular magazines need to be properly crimped. With the .30-30 when you get away from a single-shot or bolt-action, your ammo needs the extra ruggedness you get with a crimp.

The wall of the .30-30 case is relatively thin and has a tendency to lengthen quite rapidly. New cases measure 2.025 to 2.030 inches, and their length will usually increase .003 to .005 inch on the first firing of a factory load. Maximum case length is 2.039 inches, and it is not unusual to have to trim cases back to 2.030 inches after the second firing.

Cases in a given batch of brass generally lengthen at uneven rates, so that some of the lot will be too long while the rest will be normal, or somwhere in between. If the handloads you plan to assemble require crimping for use in rifles with tubular magazines, you’ll have to trim them all to a uniform length in order to assure a uniform crimp. And whenever cases have been trimmed, their mouths must be deburred and chamfered.

The crimp can be made as heavy as desired, providing there is a groove or cannelure on the bullet to receive the case mouth. If you attempt to put a roll crimp on a cartridge neck that’s holding a jacketed bullet without a correctly placed cannelure, you will either get no crimp
or else ruin the entire round by swelling the shoulder. Fortunately, all of the various flat-nose bullets together with Hornady Flex Tip bullets intended for use in the .30-30 have the cannelure correctly located.

For hunting, if we crimp the mouth of the case into the bullet, the cartridge will be better able to withstand the rough handling it’s likely to get. But there’s another advantage from crimping it provides a reliable way to maintain “shotstart” pressure.

As the powder charge is ignited, we need to hold the bullet back for few milliseconds to allow the powder charge to start burning properly. The pressure that builds up in the case and finally pushes the bullet out of the case is called “shotstart.” There are several ways of getting the uniform “shotstart” pressure that is necessary if the ammo is to be accurate. In varmint/target rifles for instance,the control of “shotstart” pressure comes from the force necessary to push the bullet into the rifling. As a rule try to seat the bullets uniformly so that they don’t travel more than 1/32 of an inch before they engage the rifling. Reloads for the .30-30, however, cannot have the bullet seated out far enough to exceed the maximum overall cartridge length or they won’t feed through the action properly. But the crimp accomplishes two things. It not only prevents the bullet being pushed back into the case by recoil and magazine spring pressure, but it also provides a reliable way to maintain “shotstart” pressure by working in both the pushing and pulling direction.

The majority of bullet-seating dies, including my Simplex set, are designed to create a crimp. Most of these depend upon very accurate control of case length to achieve a reliable crimp. Some seating dies do an entirely adequate job of crimping, but some are not so good. If you don’t mind carrying out a separate operation, Lee’s bullet crimping die produces a tight “factory- quality” crimp that makes the extra work worthwhile. The die consists of a collet that pinches the mouth of the case into the cannelure groove when the press ram pushes up on the bottom of the collet sleeve. Thus, the crimp is always in the same place relative to the base of the case, even if case lengths are slightly uneven. The number of the .30-30 crimping die is 90822 and it costs a reasonable $21.00.

Traditional leverguns have breechbolts that lock up at the rear, as do the Savage 99, and Remington 788. These rifles allow cases to stretch more rapidly and need more frequent trimming which limits the number of times they can be reloaded. By my rule of thumb it’s wise to discard cases after four or five maximum load firings in these rifles.

Everything considered, including accuracy, trajectory and downrange energy, 200yds is about the maximum effective range of the .30-30 when it is loaded with blunt-nosed bullets. Handloading the .30-30 with Hornady’s 160gn Flex-Tip pointed bullets is a horse of a different colour because doing so effectively transforms a 200yd. deer slayer into a 300yd. deerslayer.

Even more important to gaining a flatter trajectory, Hornady’s pointed Flex-Tip bullet has a high B.C of .330 compared with .186 and .189 for blunt-nosed 150 and 170gn bullets. So Flex-Tip sheds velocity much more slowly, allowing it to deliver more energy to distant game.

Let’s compare the standard 150gn FN load with the 160gn FTX load. The 150gn FN starts out with the nominal muzzle velocity of 2390fps which drops off to 2019 fps at 100yd., 1685 at 200 and 1398 at 300. The 160gn FTX starts out at 2400fps and is still doing 2150fps at 100yds., 1916 at 200 and 1699 at 300. So the pointed FTX bullet is travelling as fast at 300 yds. as the 150gn FN is at 200! But retained energy figures show an even more dramatic difference. The 150gn FN which sheds velocity twice as fast has 1902 ft/lb of energy at the muzzle dropping off to 1357 at 100, 945 at 200 and 651 at 300. The 160gn FTX has 2046 ft/lbs at the muzzle dropping off to 1643 at 100, 1304 at 200 and 1025 at 300. So the LEVERevolution factory ammo or Flex Tip handloads deliver almost as heavy a punch at 300 yds. as conventional loadings of that cartridge do at 200.

Handloading the .30-30 with the pointed 160gn FTX bullet adds another 100 yds. of range to a lever-action .30-30. The average pig shooter who hunts lignum is probably pretty well fixed using blunt-nosed bullets, but the goat and deer hunter will benefit greatly from using pointed bullets.Accuracywise too, there’s a big improvement.

I used to be content if my handloads with blunt-nosed bullets produced sub-4 minute grouping, but FTX bullets in a Marlin I tested averaged 2- 2-1/2 inch groups at 100yds.

I’ve quoted factory ballistic figures, but they were taken in a 610mm barrel and there’s a considerable velocity loss in a carbine with 500mm barrel. I chronographed Hornady’s LEVERevolution load at 2280 fps from a Henry 009 levergun rather than the listed 2400fps. During my test I discovered that I could equal that velocity with two different powder charges. I picked 35-1/2gn of W-748 and 30gn of AR2219, both of which averaged 2280fps. The spherical powder was sparked off with the hotter CCI 250 magnum primer and the tubular powder with the CCI 200.

Incidently, a good varmint load in a .30-30 carbine is the Speer 110gn FNHP and 34gn of Re-7 for 2820fps, while for predators the Sierra 125gn FNHP or Speer 130gn FSN with 37gn of AR2208 turns up 2485fps and 2465fps respectively.

The .30-30 owner doesn’t need more than one good load for hunting and Hornady’s 160gn FTX bullet substantially increases the performance of classic leverguns. Those of us who handload the .30-30 are no longer limited to blunt-nosed bullets, today we have the option of shooting a more streamlined bullet, one that not only increases the reputation of the old timer, but makes it more solidly entrenched as the most popular lever-action calibre of all time.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, January 2011.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.