When in doubt: .30-06: why? Because it's America's most beloved cartridge for a very good reason--versatility.The light was just about done when the pigs came out of the brush. Two sows with weaned piglets came first, but back in the brush I could see the dark shapes of two bigger pigs, almost certainly boars. With the clock ticking I waited. A short fight ensued while one boar chased off the other, then the victor trotted out to join the sows. As he moved out of the shadows I saw the gleam of good tusks, but he mixed with the sows immediately so I had to wait several long seconds for him to stand clear. When he did he was quartering to me, maybe 40 yards. Perfect. He dropped at the shot and stayed down. And that was that.
The next and last night, another stand. We were down to maybe five minutes of good light, and I'd just about given up when I saw movement along the edge of a far treeline. They moved out quickly, stepping into a narrow lane of lower grass. The lead animal seemed to be a blocky boar, and the camera was on him. He stopped at about 80 yards, again quartering to me, and I took the same shot, on the point of the shoulder. The boar went over backward and lay still. The two boars were almost identical, one weighing 239 pounds, the other 231. The rifle and load were the same, a Sauer 303 firing .308-inch 180-grain Hornady InterLocks at 2,700 fps. The cartridge? The 106-year-old .30-06.
LET'S LOOK AT THE RECORD
There are no mysteries to the history of the .30-06. It was America's service cartridge from 1906 until the late 1950s (and persisted longer in machine guns). It saw service in both world wars, Korea, the early days of Vietnam and dozens of interventions in between. Switch the countries and much the same could be said of the .303 British and 8x57 Mauser. The latter cartridge still retains a following, but even in Germany the .30-06 is the more popular choice. Fact: The .30-06 is the most powerful cartridge used as standard issue by any major power in the 20th century. This, rather than its longevity as a service round, probably has much to do with its continued popularity as a sporting cartridge.
Over the decades, the cartridge has had its ups and downs. Propellants were different in the early days of smokeless powder, requiring larger cases. We also didn't know as much as we now know about case design. So there's no question that the .308--essentially a shortened .30-06--is a more efficient cartridge and, with modern powders, is able to come closer than ever to .30-06 performance. There's also no question but that the modern "short and fat" cartridges are still more efficient, and shorter cases can be housed in shorter, lighter actions.
But regardless of fad and fashion, the .30-06 remains a very powerful and smooth-feeding cartridge.
The upside of the .30-06's longevity--and its continued popularity--is that .30-06 loads have continued to evolve. After just 10 years with the very smooth, but relatively weak Krag-Jorgensen (and its rimmed .30-40 cartridge), the U.S. military switched to the 1903 Springfield. The cartridge also followed the design of Mauser's successful rimless military cartridges, but had a somewhat longer case (63mm vice the typical Mauser 57mm), allowing more case capacity and higher velocity. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the .30-40 Krag's 220-grain roundnose bullet at a mild 2,400 fps was--initially--retained.
In those days our War Department (now the Department of Defense) was ruled by officers who went clear back to the Civil War, with tactical thinking from a time that had passed. There was resistance to the Krag because of the profligate waste of ammo that might ensue if troops were armed with repeating rifles. The Springfield--almost uniquely among bolt-action military rifles--has a magazine cutoff so, on order, troops could hold the full magazine in reserve and single-load the rifle. With such archaic thinking at the top, it's surprising that the cartridge was redesigned just three years later. By then many European powers had long since shifted to spitzer bullets. While the advantage was probably theoretical with open-sighted rifles, the more aerodynamic bullet made a big difference in maximum effective range of tripod-mounted MGs. The neck was shortened slightly, creating a bit more powder capacity, and the heavy-for-caliber roundnose was replaced by a 150-grain spitzer at 2,700 fps. The result? The .30 U.S. Government Model of 1906, the ".30-06."
The previous cartridge became known as the .30-03, with both versions available for many years. Theodore Roosevelt's famous Springfield, his favorite rifle from 1909 until his death in 1919, was actually a .30-03. The shorter-necked .30-03 cartridge would chamber and could safely be fired in .30-06 rifles, but not the reverse. This confusion took years to die out.
Over the years, the military shifted back and forth between 150-and 174-grain bullets, boattails and flat-bases, and the velocity went up and down. Although velocity gains (as always) have been incremental rather than exponential, in sporting ammunition the curve has been straight up, primarily because of improved propellants. The 2,700 fps that was once the standard 150-grain velocity is now standard velocity for the 180-grain bullet (that's a 20 percent increase in bullet weight at the same velocity). The 165-grain bullet is pretty much standard at 2,800 fps. And today a normal load for the 150-grain bullet is a very respectable 2,900 fps.
Of course, these standard velocities are not the limit of .30-06 performance. Handloaders have been able to do better for generations. For many years my favorite load was a max charge of good old IMR 4350 with a 180-grain Partition. In a 22-inch barrel I got an honest 2,800 fps, which is stepping out pretty good. Federal's High Energy line and Hornady's Light Magnum loads took the .30-06 into territory once owned by the .300 H&H and now owned by the .300 RCM, RSAUM and WSM. Hornady's current Superformance .30-06 loads are the fastest factory loads my research could locate. Superformance ratings are 180-grain bullets at 2,820 fps, 165-grain bullets at 2,960 fps and 150-grain bullets at 3,080 fps.
Fact: With modern loads the .30-06 gives up very little to the short mags, the .300 Winchester Magnum and the great old .300 H&H.
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
Provided you have the performance you need, there are advantages to choosing a popular cartridge. There are literally hundreds of factory .30-06 loads from the majors and minors incorporating a huge variety of bullets. Volumes of load recipes can be found, and the choice of bullets is almost limitless. Historically, .30-06 factory loads have run from 110 to 220 grains, plus Remington's 4,000-fps Accelerator sabot load. The 110-grain load, though fast and light recoiling, was generally not particularly accurate and has disappeared. The old 220-grain RN, slow but famous for penetration, has also vanished from the majors. I think this is OK; today's hunting bullets are so much better than they used to be that the extra weight isn't really necessary.
Today the lightest standard loads are a speedy 125-grain offering from Winchester and a new light-recoil 125-grain load from Hornady. The heaviest standard load is a 200-grain offering from Federal. Component bullets run the gamut from 100 to 250 grains, but across the board the most popular choices remain 150, 165 and 180 grains. In that range, Hornady features several bullet styles, but Black Hills, Federal, Norma, Remington and Winchester all offer a variety that, in total, includes a healthy mix of plain old bullets and the top premium projectiles.
Choice in rifles is equally robust. Every factory bolt action in the world is chambered to .30-06, and for most manufacturers it will be one of the first chamberings for a new model. This is simply because--in spite of all our brave new cartridges--the .30-06 sells. It's nominally 2 1/2-inch case pretty much defines what we think of as a "standard length" action.
Most single-shots are also chambered to .30-06. In other actions the selection becomes more limited. The few surviving slide actions--Remington's Model 7600 and Krieghoff's Semprio--are chambered to .30-06. With semiautomatics and especially lever guns, the action length becomes a problem. Other than the old Model 95 Winchester, Browning's long-action BLR is the only .30-06 lever action. There aren't many semiautos designed with an action long enough to handle the .30-06 case, but there are some good ones, including Remington's Woodsmaster (now updated as the Model 750), Browning's BAR and the Sauer Model 303.
OK, let's get back to those two wild boars I shot last week. There was little magic involved. The ranges were short, the shot angles were optimum, and I was perfectly steady. Boars in the 230-pound class aren't huge, but they are fairly tough. Even so, there are dozens of cartridges and bullets that would have achieved the same results--most of the time. Here's the main point to the exercise: Both pigs dropping at the shot and staying down was exactly what I expected to happen. The .30-06 just plain works.
There is a reason: For generations now most .30-caliber hunting bullets have been designed to provide optimum performance at .30-06 velocities. While this remains a constant, bullets have evolved. Thirty years ago I was most likely to use 180-grain bullets as standard. I never jumped all the way up to 220 grains, but I did use 200-grain bullets from time to time. In recent years I'm much more likely to use faster, flatter-shooting 150-grain bullets for deer, while I generally still stick with 180-grain bullets for elk, African plains game and such.
I haven't used a bullet heavier than 180 grains in the .30-06 in years and, at .30-06 velocities, I no longer see a need for them, but since the late '80s I have used quite a few 165-grain bullets. They offer a perfect compromise, faster and flatter-shooting than the 180s and (all things being equal) offering more penetration than the 150s. But here's the beauty: "Bad" choices in the .30-06 are few. The manufacturers know darned well that any .30-06 load from 150 grains upward will be used on elk. The heavier bullets are definitely better for elk, but at .30-06 velocities with that lovely bullet performance you can get away with less than ideal choices.
Make really good choices and performance becomes downright awesome. Back in the 1970s the Nosier Partition was the best bullet readily available for tough game. I had great luck with it on African game, and I used it a lot on this continent as well. The old Partition is still a great bullet, but we have a lot more choices today. I know more now than I did 35 years ago. Today I know that there aren't any bad bullets at .30-06 velocities, and while some bullets are softer than others, sheer bullet weight covers a multitude of sins.
In recent years I've taken a host of game with that plain old 180-grain Hornady Interlock at the standard velocity of 2,700 fps. It's fast enough for average situations, doesn't kick much and has awesome bullet performance. Hornady also offers several lines of newer and "better" bullets, but plain old ones work just fine in the .30-06.
I've also used the premium bullets. On a Saskatchewan hunt--where the deer can be big-bodied and there's the possibility of longer shots--I used the 150-grain Barnes X. A fine buck came across an open expanse of snow behind my blind, the last place I expected to see a deer. There was no time for a rangefinder, so I held high on the shoulder, took the shot and plodded out through the deep snow to collect a nice buck. On an African hunt I used tough 180-grain Swift A-Frames for kudu, wildebeest and zebra, but I used a quicker-opening 180-grain Swift Scirocco to take a leopard. I don't generally recommend using two different bullets on one hunt, but a leopard hunt is different, and you shouldn't go into a leopard blind without zeroing your rifle at the exact distance from bait to blind. We did, and at very last light I pasted a nice tom.
I'll concede that the .308 Winchester is a more accurate cartridge on average and offers probably 95 percent of the .30-06's performance. That's all well and good, but I want that 5 percent. It's all about confidence, and I have confidence in the .30-06, based on experience. I simply do not feel the same about the .308. And since I consider neither to be a serious long-range cartridge, any slight difference in accuracy is really immaterial. It's more about the confidence factor.
As far as accuracy goes, well, while the .308 may be the winner, I have no issues with the .30-06. As mentioned above, loads are virtually unlimited, and usually you can find something that will work. Although I accept it as true, in my casual testing I rarely see hard evidence that the .308--or any of the magnum .30s--are demonstrably more accurate than the .30-06. Part of this has to do with load selection, and undoubtedly my own abilities are at play. But, after 106 years of load development, rifles chambered to .30-06 seem to range from very acceptable to extremely accurate. While some loads work better than others--and this varies from rifle to rifle--I can honestly say that I have never put a .30-06 on the bench and found accuracy so bad that it couldn't do the hunting that needed to be done.
When a manufacturer asks me to test a new rifle and asks what caliber I would prefer, I usually say something like, "A .30-06 will be fine." There are two reasons for this. First, I figure the .30-06 to be the most likely to be available. Second, I'm reasonably certain I can find a load that will perform.
STILL IN THE HUNT
Jack O'Connor was a .270 fan. Warren Page was a 7mm man. I'm all about equal opportunity and like a lot of cartridges. The .30-06 is not always the answer. For open-country deer, sheep, goat and pronghorn, a .270 is a better choice be-cause it shoots flatter, kicks less and still has plenty of power. For my own moun-tain hunting I have almost never chosen a .30-06. For big sheep in big, open mountains, I'll usually choose a faster .30 caliber or a 7mm magnum. For big bears I definitely prefer a larger caliber.
It is a great deer cartridge, but it probably has more horsepower than is absolutely necessary. Because of that power, the .30-06 really isn't for beginners.
Nor is it an ideal long-range number, even though I have made some of my own longest shots with a .30-06. On the range I've shot it out to 1,000 yards with little difficulty. At some point with any cartridge, holdover is just a number. As long as you know the distance and the hold, trajectory doesn't matter so much. Realistically, however, I think of the .30-06 as about a 300-yard proposition.
Within that window, give or take, it's devastating on deer-size game. It's equally effective on elk, black bear and wild hogs. I have no idea how much African plains game I've taken with the .30-06, but I know it has never let me down.
We have just come through a second "magnum era," with many hot new cartridges to choose from. Some of them have already died away, but the good old .30-06 remains strong. This is no accident. It still sells because it's a great cartridge.