The 308 Winchester has an effective range of about 550 yards when hunting whitetail deer. When hunting elk, the effective range is somewhat shorter, falling closer to about 350 yards if your aim is to effectively and humanely harvest game.

For self-defense, the .308 (7.62×51) has military history proving it can neutralize a threat at almost 1400 yards.

What Do We Mean by “Effective Range”

Here is how the US Department of Defense defines “maximum effective range”: “the maximum distance at which a weapon may be expected to be accurate and achieve the desired effect.” This means two things: A competent marksman firing a 308 Win rifle can realistically expect to hit a human-sized target at 875 yards; and a 308 Win cartridge will reliably neutralize a human-sized threat at distances up to 875 yards.

.308 Win’s Effective Range

Looking downrange with a .308 rifle

If you open up a copy of the US Army Technical Manual 9-1005-306-10 and turn to page 30, it will tell you that the maximum effective range for the M24 Sniper Weapon System is 800 meters (or 875 yards). This rifle is chambered for 7.62×51, which is analogous to the commercial 308 Winchester cartridge. (The 7.62×51 has virtually identical physical dimensions and a slightly lower chamber pressure.)

We’re not being perfectly accurate here, as the 308 Win does offer slightly different ballistic performance to the 7.62×51 for which the M24 is chambered. Ballistic performance will differ if your own rifle’s barrel isn’t 24” long, which the M24’s is. Furthermore, every cartridge offers significantly different ballistic and terminal performance.

Civilian vs Military Needs

Yet 9-1005-306-10 doesn’t tell the entire story. In the Army’s case, “the desired effect” is to create a disabling wound channel within an enemy combatant’s body. The Army has determined that impact energy as low as 60 ft lbs can achieve this. However, you need significantly greater energy to humanely anchor a whitetail or elk. You would probably want greater energy than that for home defense as well. (The 25 ACP, which is widely disparaged as being too weak for self-defense, only delivers about 60 ft lbs of energy to its target at close range.)

As a general rule you want at least 1,500 ft lbs of energy for ethical elk hunting. For whitetail, look for at least 1,000 ft lbs. Depending on which expert you consult, the minimum recommended energy for self-defense ranges between 220 and 300 ft lbs. Let’s say the average between those two numbers (260 ft lbs) is acceptable.

How Distance Impacts Energy

Hornady .308 ammunition with a sophisticated polymer tipped bullet

This all begs the big question: At which maximum ranges will 308 Win ammo reliably deliver those amounts of energy? Let’s compare several different American manufacturers’ cartridges to one another and see.

Muzzle Velocity (fps)G1 Ballistic Coefficient1,500 ft lbs Range (yds)1,000 ft lbs Range (yds)260 ft lbs Range (yds)
Remington Core-Lokt 150gr PSP28200.3142554191149
Remington Core-Lokt 180gr PSP26200.3833185141571
Federal Fusion 150gr SP28200.4143365531518
Federal Fusion 165gr SP27000.4463605901728
Federal Fusion 180gr SP26000.5034076632065
Hornady Superformance 150gr SST30000.4154156331601
Hornady Superformance 165gr SST28400.4474296591800
Winchester Super-X 150gr SP28200.2992423991094
Winchester Super-X 180gr SP26200.3873225191588

There are some interesting conclusions to draw from these data.

First, the 308 Win is sufficient for self-defense at any feasible range. The longest confirmed kill with the 7.62×51 (in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least) was achieved by Staff Sergeant Jim Gilliand. The distance was 1,375 yards. In short, if you can hit a human-sized threat with a 308 Win, you can neutralize it.

Before we draw conclusions about the 308 Win’s maximum effective range for hunting, it’s important to bear in mind that every round performs very differently. Each bullet also offers unique terminal ballistics. A simple soft point bullet which strikes a deer with 1,000 ft lbs of energy may deal dramatically less damage than a high-tech polymer tipped expanding bullet could have. You can also humanely kill a whitetail or an elk with far less than 1,000 or 1,500 ft lbs of energy. That’s the magic of shot placement at work!

.308 Effective Range for Whitetail & Elk

With all of that in mind, the 308 Win rounds’ average maximum effective range for whitetail is 550 yards. For elk, it is 343 yards. (This is from our relatively limited sample size of nine rounds compared above.)

Those are great stats! And the 308 Win’s generous effective range for taking medium and large game isn’t the only reason for its popularity. Granted, a lot of veterans prefer taking game with a cartridge they’re accustomed to firing, but the 308 Win’s manageable recoil, swell accuracy and widespread availability all make it a great pick come hunting season.