Cartridge Discussion: The .30-06
Here's yet another old retread. Hope the fans and detractors of the .30-06 will speak up about their impressions of the round.
Just passed the anniversary of the centenary of its introduction to the world of riflery, the great .30-06 is a cartridge that is so dependable and well balanced that its performance is taken for granted. If I’ve heard it said once, I’ve heard it said a hundred times that the .30-06 is BORING. Over the years several prominent gun writers have been willing to commit this opinion to print. A critical examination of this cartridge belies this accusation and calls into question the accuser’s discernment. This is an exciting cartridge! It comes closer to being that mythical “all around” rifle cartridge than any other round. The more specialized rounds that exceed .30-06 performance capabilities in some specific category give something else up to it in one or more other categories. If it fills one up to hunt with a whiz-bang, ____(fill-in-the-blank) magnum then go for it. Just don’t think that one’s favorite cartridge is somehow essential and the .30-06 is chopped liver because it just ain’t so!
A Legendary History of Fine Performance
The .30-06 originated in 1906, the year of which the last two digits form the suffix of its name designation. It was a modification of the .30-03; the original cartridge adopted for the U.S. Model 1903 Springfield. The original round was very similar to the .30-06 but featured the 220 grain round nose bullet of the .30-40 Krag at a velocity of 2300 fps. In 1906 it was deemed advantageous to utilize the ballistic performance afforded by a 150 grain spitzer bullet launched at the significantly higher velocity of 2700 fps. The cartridge’s dimensions were modified by shortening the neck and slightly altering the shoulder as an accommodation to this new bullet shape. The resulting cartridge armed our military for the next 51 years, and in sporting guise provided a benchmark big game cartridge for hunters the world over. The .30-06 has been available in every type of rifle action: single shot, bolt, lever, pump, and semi-automatic. To say that a cartridge is in the .30-06 class is to label it as suitable for all species of North American big game. In its 101 years of service it has also been successfully used on every species that walks the planet, including the “Big Five”: elephant, rhinoceros, cape buffalo, lion, and leopard. Though demonstrably capable of taking such large game animals, the .30-06 lacks the stopping power necessary to break down these species in an emergency situation, exposing the hunter to the possibility of a mauling.
The .30-06 is at home in the game fields of North America and for African plains game. Teddy Roosevelt was enthused to take his custom stocked 1903 Springfield on his famous 1909 safari and by doing so was one of the very first hunters to employ the .30-06 as a sporting round. The cartridge will shoot a wide array of .30 caliber bullet weights with enough velocity to take most any of these species out to 300 yards. Though I shoot the .30-06 competitively at distances out to 600 yards, I feel that shots taken at game animals farther than 300 yards are a stunt regardless of the cartridge used. The .30-06 is a flat shooting round and provides a useful trajectory for 99% of distances that a prudent hunter is likely to engage his quarry. A .270 Weatherby Magnum using a 130 grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 3300 feet per second has long been considered an extremely flat shooting big game round. When sighted to be dead on at 300 yards, this cartridge/bullet combination drops an additional 8 1/2 inches at 400 yards. A .30-06 with a 150 grain bullet and an initial velocity of 3000 feet per second sighted to be dead on at 300 yards drops an additional 11 inches at 400 yards. If a rifleman isn’t skillful enough to compensate for this piddly 2 1/2 inch difference in bullet drop at the extreme range that 400 yards represents, then he should have enough respect for game animals to refrain from taking long shots with any round. Another way to consider the relative trajectory of the .270 Weatherby Magnum and the .30-06 is that if each cartridge/bullet weight mentioned is sighted for 300 yards, the .270 Weatherby Magnum will be 3 inches high at 100 yards and 3 2/3 inches high at 200 yards, while the .30-06 will be 3 ¾ inches high at 100 yards and 4 2/3 inches high at 200 yards. When comparing the old ’06 to such a hot number, we’re not talking the rainbow trajectory of the .45-70 or .30-30. The .30-06 is a very capable long range round that provides the same effective reach for its user as the hotter round and with less expense.
A Uniquely Flexible Big Game Cartridge
The secret to using the .30-06 is to match the bullet to the game pursued. A tremendous variety of bullet weights and styles, from 100 grains to 250 grains, are available for the .308 bore diameter, most of which are handled with aplomb by the ’06. That means bullets that more than double in weight through the range of weights available, a feature not available in component bullets of any other rifle bore diameter. The .30-06 handloader can customize his loads to do most anything that may be asked of a rifle, from varmint shooting to moose along with target shooting.
Years ago 110 grain and 125 grain spitzer bullets made a competent varmint round out of the ’06 with high initial velocities of up to 3400 fps. Of course these shed their velocity more quickly when compared to the hot .22’s, .24’s, or .25’s, and they have a mite more recoil than most modern varmint shooters would wish to put up with. Unless one were intending to sit down and wear out the prairie dogs over a long afternoon, the light .30 bullets would still serve well for coyote or other open country varmints where a number of shots are not anticipated.
I consider the .30-06 to be a bit much for our Texas whitetail deer, but many are taken with it each fall. The 150 grain bullet is a real stem winder when used on small Texas whitetails or antelope. The 180 grain is less destructive and I’ve used it quite a bit for my deer hunting. The 165 grain bullets may be the very best choice for deer, sheep, goat, black bear, or caribou. 180 grain bullets are generally considered good medicine on elk. The heavy 200 and 220 grain bullets would be useful for the heaviest species of North American game, such as moose or the big bears. The weights heavier than 180 grain are frequently forgotten here in the lower 48 states but would be suitable for Alaskan or African heavy game species. The .30-06 becomes a bit of a chore to shoot from the bench rest when the heavies are fired, with noticeably heavier recoil than a typical 150 grain load. Loads have been published over the years using 250 grain bullets but I have not tried them. About 2200 fps is all that can be managed with this weight, so it would have limited application in the ’06.
What this weight selection means, is that the fellow who desires to be a one-gun hunter, using the same rifle for all of his hunting needs, will be well served with the .30-06. He can feel confident that he has chosen his rifle wisely when he becomes involved with the inevitable cartridge discussions around the campfire in hunting camp.
Much is made of the ballistic coefficients and sectional density of the .284/7mm bullets but, for those who like to peruse such things, take a look at some of the .308 bullets (Sierra bullet data).
180 grain spitzer boat tail
B.C. .501 S.D. .271
200 grain spitzer boat tail
B.C. .560 S.D. .301
220 grain spitzer boat tail Matchking
B.C. .629 S.D. .331
Heady stuff! Not picking on 7mm because I like it really well, however it seems that 7mm is touted for it's bullets. It ain't the only efficient bullet diameter available.
I’ve played with this cartridge for many years. It is my favorite rifle round. My first centerfire rifle was a U.S. Military Smith-Corona 1903-A3 .30-06, and my first deer were taken with that rifle. The .30-06 has been my choice for high-power rifle competition which, since the 1980’s average 700 rounds per season. I began my personal handloading guide by thoroughly testing many bullets and powders in the .30-06. This has turned into a lifetime’s work as I’m always looking for a load that is just a little more accurate or wish to try out the latest and greatest powder introduced by any of several makers. Listed below are selections from my handloading data that have given me top performance in my rifles. I am always available by email if more detail is desired, as I won't publish exact loading data on this web site.
110 gr. spitzer: Reloder 11, 3440 fps, 2891 me, 1 1/2 inches/100 yds,
125 gr. spitzer: IMR 4064, 2719 fps, 2047 me, ¾ inch/100 yds.
125 gr. spitzer: H380, 3178 fps, 2797 me, 1 inch/100 yds.
150 gr. spitzer: IMR 4350, 3010 fps, 3012 me, 7/8 inch/100 yds.
150 gr. spitzer: IMR 4895 2668 fps 2729 me 1 inch/100 yds. (Low number Springfield load)
165 gr. spitzer boattail: H414, 2811 fps, 2895 me, 1 inch/100 yds.
168 gr. spitzer boattail: IMR 4895, 2561 fps, 2447 me, ¾ inch/100 yds.
173 gr. spitzer boattail: IMR 4895, 2668 fps, 2729 me, 1 inch/100 yds,
180 gr. spitzer: IMR 4831, 2769 fps, 3065 me, 1 inch/100 yds.
180 gr spitzer boattail: IMR 4895, 2658 fps, 2818 me, 7/8 inch/100 yds.
200 gr. spitzer boattail: IMR 4831, 2609 fps, 3016 me, 1 inch/100 yds.
220 gr. round nose: IMR 4831, 2549 fps, 3168 me, 3/4 inch/100 yds.
Velocities taken with an Oehler Model 12 chronograph
Smith-Corona Model 1903-A3 used for velocity testing
Winchester Model 70 (pre-64) standard weight w/6x Leupold used for accuracy testing
Five-shot groups fired at 100 yards
One will notice that 1 inch groups or even less may be had with the .30-06 with all bullet weights except for those pesky 110 grain spitzers. They give reasonable results, but the rifling twist rate of 1 turn in 10 inches doesn’t give optimum accuracy with these bullets in my experience. I had set a goal of collecting inch or less five-shot groups with bullets of each weight in my old Winchester Model 70 but those 110 grain slugs just haven’t yielded the required results.
A full-sized .30-06 represents the upper end of recoil toleration for most shooters. I can and have fired all manner of rifles for group from the bench rest, including .375 H&H Magnum, .378 Weatherby Magnum, .405 Winchester, and .458 Winchester Magnum but don’t profess to find it much fun to test the heavy artillery. In a summer weight shirt I can enjoy about 20 rounds of .30-06 fired off the bench from my Winchester Model 70, but will have a difficult time shooting quite as tight groups upon opening the second box of ammo.
The cartridges that whip the .30-06 in power generally must burn copious amounts of powder to do it and are punishing to shoot. The cartridges that tout flatter trajectories frequently give up bullet weight and down range punch for some larger species, and may also be powder burners as well. The .30-06 is economical, whether one purchases factory ammunition or handloads. It represents good value on the range or in the hunting field. I will go out on a limb and say that I don’t consider any magnum rifle cartridge under .308 inch bore diameter to be superior to the .30-06 for any game animal, at any range, or under any conditions. Assuming good hits, what game animal will shake off a .30-06 but will collapse when a magnum of smaller bore is used?
I’m not through experimenting with this unique cartridge. Shilen, the supplier of custom barrels, is only about 45 minutes east of where I live. I intend to have a 26-inch, bull barrel .30-06 made up on a suitable action just for fun. Fitted with a high-powered target scope, such a rifle would be a real treat for me.
The .30-06 offers a tradition of performance and utility unmatched by any other cartridge. For those about to choose their first big game rifle, the .30-06 has to be near the top of the list of possible choices. The rifle aficionado who has one of everything else to play with might choose this excellent multi-purpose round to add to the rack. It might just become his favorite.