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 by John Barsness

What can the .30-30 do? Well, in its early days many hunters considered it a fine all-around North American cartridge, so killed elk, moose and grizzlies without many problems.
What can the .30-30 do? Well, in its early days many hunters considered it a fine all-around North American cartridge, so killed elk, moose and grizzlies without many problems.

MY FINAL “big” game animal of 2014 was an eating-sized South Texas pig, taken on December 14th with the same cartridge used on my first big game animal, a mule deer doe killed the day before Thanksgiving in 1966 — the .30-30 Winchester.  I hadn’t intended to use the .30-30 on either animal, but that’s how it worked out.

In 1966 the rifle was supposed to be the Mosin-Nagant 7.62 Russian I’d purchased for $10 and then “sporterized.”  I’d worked up a handload with my new Lee Loader, but deer opportunities had been few, mostly because I was totally dependent on older hunters to drive me anywhere I could hunt.  My father’s health wasn’t great, and after taking a doe on opening weekend he hadn’t felt like going out.  I’d only hunted two days out of the 5-week rifle season, and now the last week was coming up.

Another of my father’s friends offered to take me and one of my junior-high buddies to a ranch crawling with mule deer.  My father said I should take his Glenfield lever-action .30-30, equipped with a cheap 4x scope.  “Glenfield” was a long-gone, lower-priced Marlin line, with dark-stained birch stocks rather than walnut.  My father bought the rifle at the local Montgomery Wards store, also now long-gone, and the ammo may have even been “Monkey Wards.”  They used to sell their own line of ammo, I believe made by Federal, and I shot a lot of their .22 rimfire stuff back then, because 50-round boxes were several cents cheaper than the Remington and Winchester stuff at the hardware store.

We got to the ranch just at daybreak, and while bouncing up a ranch road in my father’s friend’s Dodge Power Wagon, I spotted a deer in the pines on a nearby ridge, which disappeared when the pickup stopped.  We decided on a pincher move, with the owner of the Power Wagon driving around the ridge to cover the back door, while my friend and I waited 15 minutes before easing into the timber.  Almost immediately I jumped a big doe and her two near-grown fawns from of their beds at very close range.  The .30-30 came up and the scope settled on the doe’s shoulder, and at the bang the deer went down.

The pig was taken with a Winchester Model 94 carbine after the scope on a bolt-action .243 went screwy.  I’d already taken three whitetails with three shots, but when I aimed at the base of the neck of a doe facing me at about 125 yards, the bullet went below the chest, unzipping the belly skin and breaking a hind leg.  (Scopes go screwy frequently when I go on such “industry” hunts to field-test stuff.  Usually I’m the only one with a screwy scope, but on this hunt another guy’s scope also went bad.)

The guide, a kid named Brendan, and I followed the blood trail for over an hour through the brush, jumping the deer twice without getting a shot, so recruited another guide named Larry, who owned a trailing hound.  The dog got on the trail quickly, but it led through a herd of cattle, including a not-very-friendly bull, and we had some adventures before finally finishing off the deer with Larry’s .30-30.  We’d dragged the deer to the nearest ranch road, leaving it there while we started walking back to the pickup.  Almost immediately a couple modest-sized pigs, one white and one black with a little white, wandered out of the brush onto the road a few hundred yards a few hundred yards ahead of us, walking away.

“Here!” the dog-guide said.  “Use my rifle!”  He shoved the Winchester 94 into my hands.  Aside from some scratches it was just as it came from the factory, including the open sights.

I levered a round into the chamber and asked, “How’s it sighted-in?”

“It shoots a little low.”

“At what range?”

“Any range.”

That’s when I noticed the elevation ladder was missing from under the rear sight.  But that was okay, since with a rifle I’d never fired before my plan was to get really close, often possible with feral pigs, especially young ones.

As I started after the pigs they made a left turn into the brush — only it turned out not to be the brush, but a side-trail, as I discovered after sneaking up behind the brush.  They were maybe 100 feet down the trail, feeding slowly along.  It would have been an easy shot except two cows also stood in front of them, and I had to wait until the two cows split apart to shoot between them.  The black-and-white pig was the first to turn semi-broadside, and I held the bead front sight high on the shoulder to compensate for the rifle shooting “a little low.”  At the shot the pig jumped high in the air and then ran off into the brush, where we found it after following a foot-wide blood spray for 50 feet, its heart blown apart.  Larry was right, his rifle did shoot “a little low”!

There’s actually something a little backwards about the use of both borrowed rifles.  The 4x scope on my father’s Glenfield was unnecessary for a young kid who could kill prairie dogs at 50 yards with an open-sighted .22, and open sights aren’t supposed to be ideal for 62-year-old men.  But both rifles worked, which is what the .30-30 does.

In between those two borrowed .30-30’s I’ve owned five of my own, including two old Savage 99’s (one a rifle with a 24” barrel that needed to be shortened an inch, due to having been cleaned too often from the muzzle, the other a saddle ring model with a 20” barrel), a Marlin 36 (not 336) rifle with 24” barrel and half-length magazine, a 14” Thompson/Center Contender barrel, and a century-old Sauer outside-hammer drilling with 12-gauge barrels.  For some reason I felt compelled to handload for them all.

This made some sense with the Contender barrel (though I’ve never been able to work up as much enthusiasm for “hand carbines,” as a friend calls pistols chambered for rifle cartridges), but not much with the others.  Factory ammo will do about anything really required of a .30-30 rifle, and doesn’t suffer from the same hyper-inflation as ammo for other rifle cartridges.

For those who want to handload for the old round, one of the very first American sporting cartridges specifically designed for smokeless powder, I’ve listed the results from various handloads.  Basically, any powder with about the same burn-rate as IMR4895 will work, especially IMR4895.

The 34.0 grain load of Reloder 15 with 170-grain bullets used to be listed as maximum by Alliant powder, back before Alliant became part of ATK, which is when I started using it.  Now RL-15 doesn’t even appear in Alliant’s data for 170-grain bullets (though 34.0 grains is listed as max for 150’s), and Nosler lists a maximum of 31.5 grains.  I dunno the reasons for any of that, but the 34.0 grain load has worked well in the three .30-30 rifles I’ve used it in.

What can the .30-30 do?  Well, in its early days many hunters considered it a fine all-around North American cartridge, so killed elk, moose and grizzlies without many problems.  This was because it shot amazingly flat compared to the black powder cartridges they were used to.

When sighted-in at 100 yards, the 405-grain bullet from the classic .45-70 black powder load drops about two feet below point of aim at 200 yards.  The .30-30’s 150-grain round-nose factory bullet is only about seven inches down at 200.  This may seem pretty pitiful to hunters used to scope-sighted rifles shooting spitzers at 3000 fps or more, but was pretty hot stuff in the 1890’s — especially for hunters figured who sighted-in their .30-30’s a couple inches high at 100, so bullets would land only about three inches low at 200.

A .30-30 is capable of doing okay even beyond 200 yards, especially with spitzer bullets in a scope-sighted rifle.  Yes, you can load spitzers in many .30-30’s, including old Savage 99’s, Marlin 340’s, Remington 788’s and T/C Contenders, and you can even use spitzers “safely” in tube-magazine Marlins and Winchester lever-actions.  Just load one in the magazine and one in the chamber.

But what’s the, uh, point?  With a 150-grain spitzer, the trajectory’s only going to be about half an inch flatter at 200 yards.  I didn’t even load spitzers in my drilling, because the flip-up leaf and tang aperture sights were pretty much “regulated” for 170-grain factory loads.  (Actually, they were probably regulated for the original Winchester factory load, featuring a 160-grain bullet at around 2000 fps.  But they worked fine with today’s 170-grain loads, which landed an inch or two above the front sight at 100 yards.)

Many 21st-century hunters think the .30-30 is “marginal’ for deer, whatever “marginal” means.  Maybe they believe in foot-pounds of energy, or high velocity, or whatever modern hunters think about rather than how quickly game dies.  My experience is that the .30-30 kills deer quickly, and my experience with other big game cartridges indicates it will also kill elk pretty well.

After all, a typical .30-30 bullet is going to penetrate at least couple of feet through ribs and lungs, opening a good-sized hole along the way.  Or at least that’s what I’ve seen on various deer.  I’ve yet to meet an elk more than two feet thick, and most aren’t that wide.  According to the hunting notes I’ve been keeping on big game since 1966, 90% of the animals taken have been within 200 yards.  That’s all animals, killed by both me and my companions, in various places around the world, and probably 98% of those animals haven’t been any bigger than an average elk.

There are ways to make sure .30-30 bullets penetrate a little deeper, since Barnes and Nosler make TSX’s and Partitions specifically for the old round.  These might work a little better than, say, a 170-grain Remington Core-Lokt, but they might not.  I’ve used the 170-grain round-nose Partition some, and it works very well.  In fact, for those who believe complete penetration is the ultimate magic on big game, I’ve never recovered one.  But one reason they work is the front core of all Partitions is made of fairly soft lead alloy, so expands easily and makes a big hole in big game.

I doubt if many .30-30 users shoot the half-inch groups considered necessary by some modern hunters for modern deer, but then I’ve also noticed that .30-30 users tend to be realists, who know 2-inch or even 3-inch groups work fine for killing big game out to 200 yards.  My .30-30 rifles have all been capable of 3-shot groups of two inches or so at 100 yards.

Long before “ultralight” big game rifles became common, Winchester and Marlin lever-action carbines weighed the magic six pounds.  The extra ammo in the tube magazine shifted the balance forward, they could be shot pretty offhand, and the light weight made them easier to carry in the hands, where a “woods rifle” should be, especially if we’re going to shoot deer quickly.  They still work just as well for shooting at woods ranges as way back when, as I rediscovered when shooting that eating pig in Texas.

Right now, I don’t have a .30-30, but that won’t last long.  Ideally it would be a Glenfield carbine, but Glenfields aren’t as common as they used to be (is there a Glenfield collector’s society,  There are, however, plenty of Winchester Model 94 .30-30 carbines, and by some odd chance I haven’t owned one yet.  That might be where fate finally heads.


Savage 99, 23-inch barrel, open sights:

Bullet (grains, brand, style)Powder (brand)Charge (grains)Accuracy (inches)Velocity(fps)
150 Speer flat-noseIMR4895  34.01.842200
170 Speer flat-noseIMR4895  32.01.442073

Thompson/Center Contender, 14-inch barrel, 4x Bausch & Lomb scope:

Bullet (grains, brand, style)Powder (brand)Charge (grains)Accuracy (inches)Velocity(fps)
130 Hornady Spire PointH335  34.01.722139

Savage 99, 20-inch barrel, Lyman tang sight:

Bullet (grains, brand, style)Powder (brand)Charge (grains)Accuracy (inches)Velocity(fps)
125 Nosler Ballistic TipH335  34.02.442289
170 Nosler PartitionRL-15  34.01.632137

Marlin 36 rifle, 24-inch barrel, Williams receiver sight:

Bullet (grains, brand, style)Powder (brand)Charge (grains)Accuracy (inches)Velocity(fps)
170 Nosler PartitionRL-15  34.01.632166

Sauer drilling, 28-inch barrel, flip-up tang aperture sight:

Bullet (grains, brand, style)Powder (brand)Charge (grains)Accuracy (inches)Velocity(fps)
150 Sierra Pro-Hunter RNVarget  34.01.612344
170 Nosler PartitionRL-15  34.01.922323

John’s new book MODERN HUNTING OPTICS and other great stuff can be ordered online at