The Cold War may not have been fought with bullets, but that doesn’t mean each side didn’t have its own iconic rounds, just in case. Before the 5.56×45, and even after it, the United States had the .308 Winchester (7.62x51mm), while on the Soviet side, it was 7.62×39.
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Both of these rounds are very impressive and each has its own strengths, but they’re also pretty different.
In this guide, we’ll put these two cartridges head to head, comparing their basic specs, ballistic performance, and suitability for various tasks to get a thorough understanding of both 7.62×39 and .308, as well as how they compare to each other.
First, let’s kick things off with a little bit of history.
Some Important Background
Of these two rounds, 7.62x39mm came first, in the midst of World War II. The Soviet Union decided that they needed an intermediate cartridge that could be used in a wide range of infantry weapons, including carbines, selective fire rifles, and light machine guns.
Design work started in 1943, but it wouldn’t be until 1947 that it was finalized. Designed in tandem was the SKS and AK-47 rifles. The AK-47 went on to become the single most mass-produced military rifle in history, and 7.62×39 went along for the ride, gaining popularity throughout not just the Soviet Union and Soviet satellite states, but across the globe.
.308 came a little bit later, after the close of the Korean War. The United States wanted to update their current service rifle and cartridge, the M1 Garand and .30-06 Springfield.
They shortened the case of the .30-06, resulting in a lighter, more compact round with almost identical performance. They finished the design in 1952 and paired the new round, then called T65E5, with the M14 rifle that they’d also been developing.
Meanwhile, Winchester was looking at T65E5 and saw the potential for a civilian market. In 1952, they released the round for the general public as a hunting round, under the name .308 Winchester.
Two years later, in 1954, T65E5 would be officially adopted by NATO under the designation 7.62×51 NATO.
7.62×39 and .308 Today
While 7.62×39 is not as popular as it once was, it’s certainly not faded into obscurity.
It’s used by many militaries and law enforcement agencies around the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia. It doesn’t really see official use in the US, but it’s still quite popular for both target shooting and hunting. The AK platform also still has plenty of enthusiastic fans, helping keep 7.62×39 relevant.
.308 is also still very popular, with tons of options for both ammo and rifles widely available. .308 is a common choice for hunting medium to large game. It’s also extremely popular for competition shooting, especially long-range competition.
.300 BLk vs 7.62x39mm Dimensions
7.62×39 Vs. .308 Win Specs
|Parent Case||None (Unique case)||.300 Savage|
|Bullet Diameter||.312 (7.92mm)||.308” (7.8mm)|
|Neck Diameter||.339 (8.6mm)||.3433” (8.72mm)|
|Base Diameter||.447 (11.35mm)||.4709” (11.96mm)|
|Case Length||1.524 (38.7mm)||2.015” (51.2mm)|
|Overall Length||2.205 (56mm)||2.8” (71.1mm)|
|Case Capacity||35.6gr H2O (2.31cm3)||56gr H2O (3.6cm3)|
|SAAMI Max Pressure||45,010 psi||62,000 psi|
As you can see based on these measurements, while the rounds are very close in diameter, they’re still very distinct, with 7.62x39mm being significantly shorter, giving it a much lower case capacity. It also has a significantly lower max pressure rating.
By The Numbers: Ballistic Comparison
7.62×39 Vs. .308 Winchester Ballistics
|Cartridge||Muzzle||100 Yards||200 Yards||300 Yards||400 Yards|
|.308 Win 150gr||2850 fps||2648 ft-lb||2533 fps||2137 ft-lb||2.5”||2263 fps||1705 ft-lb||0.4”||2009 fps||1344 ft-lb||-8.5”||1774 fps||1048 ft-lb||-26.1”|
|7.62×39 123gr||2360 fps||1521 ft-lb||2049 fps||1147 ft-lb||3.4”||1764 fps||850 ft-lb||0”||1511 fps||623 ft-lb||-14.7”||1296 fps||459 ft-lb||-44.7”|
Now let’s take a look at what those different numbers mean for the performance of each of these two rounds.
Clearly, .308 maintains its velocity and energy much better over distance than 7.62×39 does, leading to a flatter trajectory.
Looking at numbers is great and all, but what do those numbers actually mean about how each of these two rounds performs in real life? Let’s look at how 7.62x39mm and .308 compare for different purposes.
7.62×39 has been increasing in popularity as a hunting round for medium to large game, but it still can’t match .308 Win for that purpose.
As we covered in the ballistic comparison, 7.62×39 has a tendency to lose velocity relatively quickly, at least compared to .308, giving it a curved trajectory. The farther the target, the worse the effect.
In addition, the rapid energy loss limits 7.62×39’s effective range for an ethical kill. Generally, you want at least 1000 ft-lbs of energy for an ethical kill on a whitetail or similarly sized animal. By 200 yards, 7.62×39 is well under that threshold.
Depending on the game you’re after, 7.62×39 isn’t practical or ethical past about 150-200 yards. .308 Win on the otherhand can reach out to at least 500 yards on most mid-sized game. Just be careful – the cartridge is only as good as the hunter.
Once again, this comes back to .308’s flatter trajectory. It just gives you greater accuracy and the impact is greater the longer the range. If you’re shooting competitively, there’s no question that .308 is the better round.
On the other hand, if you’re only looking for a recreational round, accuracy isn’t the only consideration. 7.62×39 does have lower recoil, making it easier and more comfortable to shoot over extended periods, especially for newer or weaker shooters.
In addition, 7.62×39 is only about half to a third of the price of .308, so if you’re out shooting a lot, the savings are significant. If you want something you can shoot on a budget, 7.62×39 is by far the winner.
While .308’s extra power is great for hunting, especially at range, it comes as a liability for personal and home defense.
Overpenetration is a real concern with .308. If you live in a house in the middle of huge piece of property out in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably fine. But if, like most of us, you live on a suburban lot, or even in an apartment building or condo, the risk of .308 going straight through your wall and into the next home over is just too high.
Even in the best possible outcome, you’re responsible for the damage to someone else’s property, but the worst-case scenario is that an innocent bystander is hurt or killed.
Don’t risk it. 7.62×39 is plenty effective enough for a home defense situation without so much risk.
And just to add some icing to the cake, 7.62×39 is an awesome choice to suppress with subsonic loads pretty easy to find. Load those up, throw a can on it, and you have a hearing safe home defense tool.
Available Rifles and Ammo
Last up, let’s talk about availability. There are two facets to consider here: the number of options available and the cost of the options that are available. A different one of these rounds comes out on top for each of these factors.
When it comes to available options, .308 is the clear winner. The ubiquity of this cartridge means that few others beat it in terms of the variety of options, even including some really unusual exotic rounds.
As for rifle availability, .308 still outshines 7.62×39, especially in the bolt action game, though there are plenty of semi-auto choices as well, like the famous AR-10 platform.
While 7.62×39 ammo and rifles certainly aren’t rare, they just don’t have the same breadth of availability.
But as we’ve already said, when it comes to cost, 7.62×39 has .308 beat handily, with 7.62×39 ammo ringing up at a fraction of the price of .308. The same trend holds true for rifles as well, especially if you can get your hands on a surplus rifle.
Despite the age and appearance, an SKS is a pretty solid option and doesn’t cost much.
Both of these cartridges are awesome, and both are kinds in their own lanes. If I had to choose just one, I would pick .308 Win since it has more power and more flexibility.
But really, the correct choice is both.
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