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When it comes to the scholarly debate about the iconic rifle cartridges of the Cold War, the 7.62x51mm NATO (308 Winchester) and the 7.62x39 Soviet are always omnipresent in the discussion. One became a staple NATO round and the most prevalent big game hunting cartridge in North America, while the other became a symbol of pure, unadulterated ruggedness and dependability.

Both are excellent cartridges and will serve you faithfully, but which is the better choice will depend mostly on your intended purpose.

In this article, we will investigate the origins and history of each rifle cartridge, their advantages and disadvantages, and which rifle cartridge is going to best suit your needs.

It’s time to don your Ushanka and lock and load, comrade, as we are pitting the Pride of Mother Russia against the Freedom Loving long range American powerhouse.

7.62x39: The Hammer of Lenin

During the later stages of WWII, the Soviet Union decided that they wanted to develop an intermediate cartridge for their new battle rifle. They wanted this rifle cartridge to be suitable for a host of firearms, from a semi-auto carbine for close range to fully automatic machine guns for suppressive fire.

Hundreds of unique cartridge designs were submitted but eventually, the Soviets settled on 57-N-231, which had cartridge dimensions of 7.62x41mm.

7.62x39 ammo
The first bullet used was not a boat tail design, as the Soviet cartridge designers assumed (incorrectly) that a boat tail design was best only for long range shots. The designer's assumption that all combat would be held at close range led them to this decision.

However, after extensive testing, the Soviets determined that the boat tail increased close range accuracy as well and a new boat tail bullet was adopted. This longer bullet required the cartridge case to be shortened to 39mm and the ubiquitous 7.62x39 was born.

The 7.62x39 was adopted for the semi-automatic SKS and Mikhail Kalashnikov’s famous battle rifle, the AK-47. The Ak-47 became the most mass-produced military rifle in existence and the 7.62x39 has shared in its success. 7.62x39 ammo fires a 123 grain weight fmj bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,350 fps for a combat effective range of 400 yards.

With the popularity of the 7.62x39 on the rise, soft point (SP) hunting ammo has become more readily available for hunting whitetail and other medium sized game animals.

The 7.62x39 has seen combat on 5 continents and is truly one of the most prevalent and combat-effective rounds to come out of the Cold War.

.308 Winchester: America’s Long Range Rifle Cartridge

After the Korean War, the US Military saw the writing on the wall and began developing a new cartridge for its frontline soldiers. Although the M1 Garand had conquered the European and Pacific theaters in WWII, the long action 30-06 Springfield round was not the ideal choice for semi-auto and fully automatic fire.

The M1 Garand got the job done in Korea, but the generals knew it was time to put the old girl out to pasture as advancements in rifle technology were surpassing the en bloc fed M1 rather quickly.

With the success of the German designed Sturmgewehr 44 (STG-44) in the latter stages of WWII and the widespread success of the AK-47 afterward, the US Military knew that they needed a select-fire battle rifle for the next evolution of warfare.

In the early 1950s, development began for the new cartridge that would eventually become the 7.62x51mm NATO. However, before being accepted by the US military, the Winchester Corporation jumped the gun and released the cartridge to the civilian market in 1952 as the 308 Winchester.

The 308 Winchester round quickly became a commercial success as Winchester offered it initially in their Model 70 bolt action hunting rifle.

Hunters and long range shooters loved the hard hitting new cartridge and its versatility. Compared to the 30-06 Springfield, the 308 Winchester fit into a short action and had an almost identical ballistic performance with a shorter case length (63mm vs 51mm).

The 7.62x51mm was officially adopted as a NATO round in 1954. The 7.62x51 NATO cartridge and its host rifle, the M14, saw limited use in Vietnam before being replaced by the M16 and the 5.56x45mm NATO (223 Rem).

Although the 7.62 NATO saw only limited use as a battle rifle caliber, it saw extensive use in the US Military’s machine guns and sniper rifles. The 308 Winchester was designed to fire a 147 grain weight bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps and muzzle energy of 2,560 ft-lbs for a combat effective range of up to and beyond 800 yards.

The 308 Winchester has truly survived the test of time as it is still popular with hunters, marksmen, law enforcement, and military shooters alike. The 308 offers excellent ballistics (though it is beginning to be over shadowed by the 6.5 Creedmoor) and a long track record of accuracy, power, and sheer combat effectiveness.

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