I honestly never thought I would see the day when we would have to choose between shooting regularly to maintain proficiency and having some ammunition in reserve "just in case," but that is exactly where are at folks. If you think I am kidding, cruise the lots of local retail firearms businesses several mornings in a row. Eventually you will figure out which day the ammo comes in, because you will find a bunch of shooting enthusiasts waiting politely, but anxiously, in line for a few boxes of precious gun fodder. Firearms are trickling into dealer stock rooms and parts onto gunsmiths' benches, but only drips and drabs of the stuff we feed our blasters are making it into consumers' hands. One thing I can say for sure about the current ammo shortage is ammunition manufacturers are not to blame. Most companies are working as hard as they can to get as much product out as possible without sacrificing quality. The demand is simply too much for them to keep up with, and I cannot see that changing anytime soon.
My business consumes 150 to 300 rounds of centerfire rifle ammunition in an average week, sometimes much more than that. That means I am constantly on the prowl for available and affordable fodder. Several months ago, I noticed one of the few types of .308 Win. ammunition available was commercial versions of the U.S. military's M80 "Ball" load. M80 (and NATO equivalents) has been around for a few decades, being issued in belted and boxed variants for semi- and full-automatic military arms. This load is often used in designated-marksman long arms and has even been pressed into service in sniper rifles used in the War on Terror.
Depending on the source, projectile weights range from 145 to 150 grains, all in a fully metal-jacketed, boattail configuration. Machine gun ammunition is often purposefully loaded to create dispersion at the target, creating a "beaten zone" to kill or incapacitate as many enemy personnel as possible with each burst. That fact usually makes it an unlikely choice for point targets. The U.S. military's accuracy standard for M80 Ball (boxed or on stripper clips) is a mean average radius of 5 inches at 600 yards for all groups tested from a given lot of ammunition. That measurement loosely equates to a 10-inch circle or approximately 1.6 MOA at that distance. The standard for belted M80 is a 7.5-inch mean radius at 600 yards, or approximately a 15-inch/2.4-MOA circle. While in the Army, I fired various lots of M80 through my sniper rifles to gain "dope" just in case our match loads ran out in a combat theater. I was confident of hitting a bad-guy-size target, but I never thought of it as particularly suitable ammunition for accurate fire.
I decided it was time to find out if any of the available M80 equivalents would shoot well, so I gathered up nine brands and headed to the range for a test. My plan was simple: Use a practical rifle of known accuracy to shoot a small amount of each load at 100 yards, checking accuracy, reliability and velocity. I decided to use an 18-inch barreled AR and low-power optic for this exercise, reasoning that at best, this is a battle-rifle cartridge. I did try to factor out shooter error somewhat by using a good trigger (Geissele SSA-E) and shooting from a bag rest on a bench.
Prior to testing the M80 loads, I fired a known factory load (Hornady 168-grain A-Max) to get an accuracy baseline for the day. This .308 AR is capable of .6-inch groups at 100 yards, but the average this day for five, five round groups was .86 inch/.81 MOA. That is about as good as I can manage consistently using a 6.5X optic.
The M80 loads' accuracy varied by brand in this small snapshot test, ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 inches for five-shot groups. Some of this stuff looked pretty rough out of the box, so I expected malfunctions, but every load operated as designed. I was surprised to see the standard deviation (SD) values for several brands measured less than 20 fps—far better than seen in true machine gun ammo. In terms of accuracy, I found the bulk of these M80 loads to be worthy of general-purpose shooting tasks.
Far from being relegated to belt-fed battle beasts chattering away in far off lands, commercial M80 Ball ammunition is relatively affordable, marginally available and capable of hitting targets with modest accuracy. That is about as good as we can expect in the current ammo market.
Cartridge Designation and Origin
DAG/MEN 145-grain (Germany)
Prvi Partizan 145-grain (Serbia)
Wolf 145-grain steel case (Russia)
R1M1 146-grain (South Africa)
Armscor 147-grain (USA)
Magtech/CBC 147-grain (Brazil)
PMC 147-grain (Republic Of Korea)
Winchester 147-grain (USA)
Lake City 149-grain (USA)
Velocity measured in fps 20 feet from the muzzle with an Oehler Model 35P chronograph. Temperature: 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Accuracy measured in inches for five consecutive, five shot groups at 100 yards from shooting bags. Testing performed with a Citizen Arms 18-inch-barreled AR with a Bushnell Tactical SMRS 1FP 1-6.5x24 mm scope with a BTR-2 reticle.