The Ugly Duckling


Staff member
About 15 years ago, I bought a group of Contender barrels from an estate sale. A couple of them were used to make some very interesting wildcat barrels, but one that never got much love was a 10" .30-30 barrel. In many ways, the 10” .30-30 is a very limited gun – an ugly duckling, if you will. I suspect that the standard weight jacketed bullets are going too slow to expand, leaving only the lighter bullets (like the 125 Ballistic Tip) useful for hunting. While cast bullets group just fine out of this barrel, typical .30-30 weight cast bullets still shoot very high with the rear sight bottomed out. Well, I finally got off my backside and got this gun scoped. It will get zeroed for my 170-190 grain cast HPs at 1600-1700 fps and will remain that way for as long as I'm alive. Typical .30-30 weight (e.g. 170 grains) cast bullets shoot just fine, but still shoot very high with the rear sight bottomed out (I guess the factory calibrated the iron sights for the lighter bullets). Over the years, other shooting projects were deemed “more important”, and the 10” .30-30 barrel sat in the back of the safe for years, ignored and unused.

Two trends in my life led to a change in that status. One, I’ve been shooting, and hunting with, cast bullets almost exclusively now for a number of years, and so my experimental shooting has been slowly evolving more and more towards “cast bullet friendly” cartridges and guns. And two, now that I’m in my mid-50s, I can still shoot with iron sights, but it‘s getting harder and harder to use them quickly and effectively in hunting situations (low light, quick shot presentations, etc.). A scope would address the issues of getting point of aim and point of impact to jive for this 10” .30-30 barrel, and make the gun more shootable for my middle-aged eyes, but it would not address the jacketed bullet expansion issue. However, the good news is that cast bullets (both hollow points and solids) can be tailored to expand at the lower velocities attained by the 10” .30-30. In addition, as a general statement, cast bullets can provide higher velocities and lower pressures than do their jacketed counterparts. Getting older gave me an excuse to do some more shooting experiments!

Part of the motivation behind this project was the fact I go over to the Olympic Peninsula to visit a buddy of mine each fall, and the two of us do a little coastal blacktail deer hunting while I’m there. For those of you who have never been to the Olympic Peninsula, the woods tends to be very thick, and the weather tends to be overcast and rainy, so the woods tend to be dark and damp, and shots tend to be short (30-35 yards is typical over there). When a shot opportunity comes along, the presentation is commonly only for a few seconds, so the hunter needs to be able acquire a good sight picture and shoot NOW. While these coastal blacktails aren’t very big (generally only about 100 lbs, or maybe a little more), the shot presentation may, or may not, be favorable, so having a little extra bullet mass for extra penetration depth can be comforting, in case the presentation is less than ideal. A rapidly expanding bullet is also desirable in order to help put the animal down as quickly as possible and avoid a difficult tracking job in the dark, wet, rainy woods.

A number of years ago, my friend Jim Taylor sat down to work up a preferred cast bullet load for his pet .30-30 Winchester levergun. After experimenting with a variety of cast bullets, powders, and loads, he settled on the RCBS 30-180-FN (which weighs a little over 190 grains as-cast with WW alloy) over 26.0 grains of H335, for 1900-2000 fps (depending on barrel length). This is by no means a maximum load in terms of pressures, but pushing a cast bullet much faster than this with a 1 in 10” twist commonly has a negative impact on accuracy. I have a fair amount of experience loading cast bullets in the .30-30, and I haven’t found anything that surpasses the Taylor load in a levergun – reliable accuracy, significant thump, and moderate pressures.

30-30 and cast bullets.jpg

Which cast bullet designs were suitable for this project? For my .30-30 leverguns, my favorite cast bullets are the RCBS 30-180-FN (200 grains) and the Lyman 311041 (181 grains) (these bullet weights include GC and lube, and all bullets were cast using 3 parts range scrap and 1 part linotype, for a BHN of ~12). For this short-barreled Contender, where I am trying to enhance bullet expansion, I am also very interested in the HP version of the Lyman 311041 HP (173 grains), which is explosive at 2000 fps, but expands rapidly at an impact velocity of 1600 fps or so. Recently, NOE has come out with a HP version of the RCBS 30-180-FN that they list under the 311-195-FN name (194 grains), which should be an excellent hunting bullet for this 10” Contender (NOE Bullet Moulds, 1030 S 350 E, Provo, UT, 84606;, (801)377-7289). What’s more, NOE offers this design in gang moulds, making it possible to cast healthy supply of excellent hunting bullets in a short period of time, making load development that much easier.

NOE 30 195 GC HP.jpg

For this 10” Contender project, I was also interested in the RCBS 30-150-FN (163 grains), since the lighter bullet weight might result in higher velocities from the 10” T/C, and enhance expansion of the solid cast bullet.

Past experience on game animals has shown that cast bullets, at a hardness of about BHN 12, will mushroom moderately at 1600 fps impact velocity, and expand readily at higher impact velocities. At impact velocities below about 1400 fps expansion of cast solids is pretty limited, unless the bullets are cast very soft. Cast HPs, on the other hand will expand down to impact velocities of 1100 fps, and expand rapidly at 1600 fps, and basically just explode at 2000 fps. Since the motivation behind developing these loads is rapid expansion on smaller deer, my targeted muzzle velocities for these loads are to get the cast HP loads going about 1600-1700 fps, and the cast solids at 1800+ fps, for optimum expansion.

Medium burning powders work best in the .30-30, and my personal favorites historically have been H335 and 4895. Cast bullets were all sized .310”, and lubed with homemade moly lube (50/50 beeswax/moly grease).

I got the Leupold 2x scope mounted and took the gun out to get it sighted in. It was a clear, cold, brisk day, with 30+ mph winds. The logical place to start was the Taylor load (26.0 grains of H335) with these cast bullets since I knew that was a proven performer. I got the scoped dialed in fairly quickly and was pleased to find that all four bullets tried (311041, 311041 HP, RCBS 180, and NOE HP) grouped into an inch or less at 25 yards during this sight-in session, in spite of the winter wind and my less than perfect technique (i.e. shivering). The 311041 and 311041 HP were particularly accurate. Chronograph data from these loads showed they were going 1400-1500 fps, so the 10” barrel was losing about 500 fps relative to the rifle numbers. Time to start working up loads….

I started off with the Lyman 311041, because I had a healthy supply of those already cast up and I figured I could learn a thing or two about powder selection with it. 4895 turned in very good accuracy, but staying within published (i.e. pressure tested) maximum charges, velocities were limited, and lower than what I was shooting for (your mileage may vary, I believe this particular lot of 4895 is a little bit slower than normal). H335, BL-C(2) and Varget were notably better in the velocity department, so that’s where I focused my attention. For the 181 grain Lyman 311041, velocities topped out at about 1850 fps with H335 and BL-C(2). Accuracy was particularly good with 31.0 grains of H335, with 5 shot groups running just over an inch at 50 yards. With bullets cast reasonably soft (e.g. BHN of 11-12), this would make a good general purpose hunting load. With commercial hard-cast bullets (BHN of 16+), this load would probably drill right through a deer with very little expansion at this velocity.

Because of the nature of the quarry and hunting conditions I was planning for, I was tailoring these loads for rapid expansion, so I was particularly interested in working with the cast HPs. I found just what I was looking for with Varget. For the 173 grain Lyman 311041 HP, I was able to get right at 1700 fps and excellent accuracy with 32.0 grains of Varget. For the 194 grain NOE HP, I was able to get good accuracy and 1680 fps with 31.0 grains of Varget. These muzzle velocities would deliver expansion at ranges far longer than any shot I would take with this 10” .30-30 Contender. This was exactly the level of performance I was hoping to get out of this project.

30-30 TC and 311041 HP target 3.jpg

Lastly, I played around a little bit with the RCBS 30-150-FN, and the fastest load I tested was 35.0 grains of BL-C(2) for right at 1800 fps. Accuracy was acceptable, but since I could drive the heavier Lyman 311041 faster, and with better accuracy, I doubt that I will be shooting much of the RCBS 30-150-FN in this gun (but it shoots very nicely in my Marlin leverguns).

So the take home lessons from this project are: 1. Cast bullets allow a level of versatility with the 10” .30-30 Contender that is not readily available with jacketed bullets, or factory ammo. 2. Velocities of 1650-1850 fps are readily achieved with 170-195 grain cast bullets within reasonable pressures from the 10” T/C. 3. Cast HPs provide excellent accuracy and rapid expansion in this velocity regime, making this combination an excellent moderate range hunting package. I am looking forward to hunting with this combination this fall.