Let’s start by clearing something up. Long range shooting is not Sniping and Sniping is not just long range shooting. I remember during my first deployment as a sniper asking my spotter, who had been in the game for a long time already, what he thought the difference between a “Sniper” and a long range marksman was. He replied simply with one word: “fieldcraft”. A more perfect answer couldn’t have been given. But without going down that road too far, let me list the reasons I believe that the .308 Win round is by far the best choice for Snipers to this day. It seems like almost every week a new round is being invented. Ballistics-wise, there are many of these that are far superior to the .308. So, would it not make sense that they would be better for Snipers? Well, no.
A little less than 10 years ago, I sat in a giant auditorium with the heads of the entire Army’s Sniper community. Conventional forces, National Guard, Special Operations, etc. had all been gathered for a conference for a few reasons, and among them was deciding what the primary sniper rifle of the Army would be (in terms of caliber, features, etc. – not the brand name). The Special Forces community had recently taken a big hit, and for the time being, was no longer able to purchase their own firearms outright, and had to use whatever the regular Army was using. This element led to numerous conversations and eventually the purchase of the .300 Win Mags that are currently in the Army system. I was strongly opposed to this for a multitude of reasons, some of which I will discuss in this article. My voiced opinion did nothing to dissuade the call for these rifles, and a short time after their fielding, I was receiving calls and emails from guys deployed with the guns saying the same things I had said at the conference. The problem was, they were asking for my help in solving these issues, and I wasn’t always able to. Here, in no particular order, are the reasons that the .308 is the best choice for Snipers.
1. Availability of Ammunition
Let’s face it, Snipers are not running around far off lands by themselves most of the time. Also, their general loadout is usually around 100 rounds. So, what happens when they run out of ammo in a firefight? Well, the wonderful thing about .308 is that it’s a NATO round and machineguns (M240B, M60, etc) fire the same bullet. The grain and ballistic coefficient (BC) are different, and M80 ball (machinegun ammo) is not nearly as accurate as 118LR (match grade), but guess what? It still shoots, is effective and relatively accurate out to 500 meters or so, and is all over the battlefield. If you run out of .300 Win Mag ammo in combat, you basically now have a giant paperweight.
2. Barrel Life
This one is pretty simple. A match grade .308 barrel will last for 7,500 – 10,000 rounds. With a .300 Win Mag, 6.5 Creedmoor, etc. you’re looking at 1,000 – 1,500 rounds. That means that the odds of your barrel being shot out and needing to be replaced during a deployment where most Snipers don’t have that ability, is pretty high. Not to mention the military system to do this isn’t exactly efficient.
3. It’s a Slow Moving (relatively) Round
Wait, what? Did he just say that he likes a round because it’s slow? Yeah, I sure did. It’s not necessarily that .308 is slow, but that the other rounds (.300 Win Mag, 6.5 Creed, etc) are too fast. Snipers work in teams. The spotter is generally the more skilled of the two and for good reason. It is not difficult to learn to shoot. In fact, it’s pretty easy. What is difficult is reading wind, calculating atmospherics, seeing the trace of the round, being able to tell exactly where that round went, and give a correction in the event of a miss that places the next round on target.
I recently helped out at the Mammoth Sniper Challenge as an RO (Range Officer) and ran one of the stages. At my stage there were targets from 250 – 700 yds. My job was to tell the other RO who was keeping score whether the competitor hit the target. I’ve been in this world since 2002 and my ability to read trace is better than average I would say. What I found during this match was astounding to me. For those who shot with a .300 Win Mag, 6.5 Creed, and a few other rounds, it was very difficult to see their trace. As soon as the shot was heard, I would almost immediately see impact. For a competition, this isn’t a big deal, but for the real deal, you can’t always see impact. If the round is moving too fast for the spotter to see trace and where it went, what are the odds that he will be able to make a correction and get his partner on target? I can tell you that during this competition, I saw that happen exactly 0 times. No one was able to get their partner on target shooting these calibers for a second-round hit.
4. It Shoots Far Enough
There seems to be a trend in the firearms industry of wanting to shoot farther and farther. You’ll see videos of ridiculous guns trying to break world records (shooting a target the size of a car), and sadly some of this has crossed into the Sniper’s arena. Even some of the claims of long shots by military Snipers make me raise an eyebrow sometimes, for a very specific reason. How did you know it was a bad guy if it was that far away? Now, I’ll admit that optics have taken huge strides forward in recent years, but a bad guy with a gun at 1,500 meters, even through a crystal clear 20x scope, is very hard to positively identify. Not taking into account that most times you will only see part of the target. And for that reason, I think that being able to engage an enemy out to about 1,000 meters (most of the time) is good enough. If it’s not, you may need to call for fire or break contact.
There are obvious applications for larger rounds, i.e. vehicles, shooting through walls, etc. But I believe that these are the exception. The M24 Sniper rifle is a long action because when it was built, they originally intended to re-barrel the guns later in .300 Win Mag. This only recently happened after the conference I mentioned earlier. Maybe there was a good reason for the Army not doing so for so many years. Just because something is new and shiny, and maybe even out performs what you have, doesn’t necessarily make it better. The Sniper community as a whole has suffered with the consequences of the decision to go to a different caliber. At least they didn’t phase out .308 altogether, but just added the .300 Win Mag to the arsenal. Or, for most Snipers I know, I should say the Arms Room. Considering that the Sniper’s job is not only long range marksmanship, I firmly believe the .308 is currently the best choice for this profession.