The cartridge first known as “Ball Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906” is without question the most famous American rifle cartridge, not only in our own country but throughout the world. In 1903 we replaced the Krag-Jorgensen in .30-40 Krag with the long-serving and much-loved 1903 Springfield and a new .30-caliber cartridge. The Springfield was a Mauser clone, its rimless cartridge similar to Mauser’s designs, but longer with more case capacity. The initial 1903 cartridge was loaded with the same 220-grain roundnose bullet as the Krag, but in 1906 the bullet was changed to a faster and more aerodynamic 150-grain spitzer. At the same time the case neck was shortened by .07-inch, thus the Model of 1906—the .30-06—went forward to make history. The .30-06 served the United States in both World Wars, the Korean conflict, the early years of Vietnam, and a dozen banana wars in between. It was chambered to the Springfield, the Pattern 14 Enfield, the Marine Corps’ Johnson semiauto, the Garand, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and several versions of the Browning machinegun. Clear into my time, the 1970s, the .30-06 was still seeing use both with snipers and in the Browning light machinegun.
JUST PLAIN GOOD
It is often written that the popularity of the .30-06 as a sporting cartridge is based on its use as a military cartridge. Yes, this has much to do with its initial popularity. Until some time between the World Wars the lever action was America’s most popular repeating rifle action. The returning doughboys had indeed loved their Springfields and Enfields, and respected the other team’s Mausers. Many turned to bolt actions…aided by tens of thousands of surplus rifles dumped on the market, along with new commercial bolt actions from the major manufacturers. After World War II the ascendancy of the bolt action accelerated, and it has long been the most popular rifle action in the world.
On the other hand, there are lots of great cartridges suitable for bolt actions, and it has been more than fifty years (1957) since the Garand was replaced by the M-14 in 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester). The .308 Winchester is a great cartridge, no question…but as a hunting cartridge it has never approached the popularity of the .30-06. If its lasting claim to fame is that it was America’s military cartridge during some of our biggest and most successful wars, then why isn’t the .303 British as globally accepted as the .30-06? After all, the .303 British was in service from 1888 until 1957, and in an empire the sun never set on it was used in a lot more places. The .303 British was a very popular sporting cartridge, but it has faded into history, while the .30-06 remains a world standard hunting cartridge. I suggest that its lasting value as a hunting cartridge is primarily because it is so damn good!
Today we have a bewildering array of hunting cartridges to choose from, including an even more bewildering array of fast and flashy magnums. In 1920 the .30-06 was fast and flashy, but today its ballistics are quite pedestrian. Over the years it has been factory-loaded with everything from 100 to 220 grains, and handloaded with component bullets from 100 to 250 grains. The most popular loads today are 150, 165, and 180-grain bullets, at “standard” velocities, respectively, of 2920, 2800, and 2700 feet per second. There is nothing special about these figures…except that they work.
Recoil and muzzle blast are moderate, accuracy is generally pretty good, and bullet performance is uniformly spectacular. This is because most .30-caliber bullets are designed to provide optimum performance at .30-06 velocities. The fact that the velocities aren’t extreme also helps, because high velocity is the great enemy to bullet performance. And while .30-06 velocities are as not as impressive as the magnums, the recoil is also not as impressive…and under most circumstances the .30-6 is fast enough. With 150-grain bullets it is a near-perfect deer cartridge…and will certainly do for pronghorn and sheep. With 180-grain bullets it is superb for elk, fine for moose…and although it isn’t ideal, has probably handled more big bears than all the other cartridges put together. The 165-grain bullet is the great compromise, flatter-shooting than the 180s, harder-hitting than the 150s.
In North America we generally have the luxury of knowing exactly what game we are hunting, so I’ve taken a lot of deer, pronghorn, caribou, and even a couple of sheep with the .30-06 and 150 or 165-grain bullets (whichever shot best in that rifle). For elk and black bear I’ve used 180-grain bullets. Even though the .30-06 is a genuine favorite of mine, I’ve never used it for moose or big bears. On specific hunts for specific animals we do have the luxury of choosing the perfect tool.
The .30-06 has shined most brightly for me in Africa, where you cannot choose the perfect tool, and where you have no idea what a hunting day may bring. You might have to take 200-yard at a small steenbok, perhaps a longer shot at a much larger kudu—or a closer shot at a bigger and tougher zebra. We could argue the perfect rifle and cartridge for each situation, but this is meaningless because you must use the rifle you are carrying. Over the years I have used many rifles and cartridges in Africa, so I’ve had opportunity to compare.
I am totally convinced that the .30-06 is the best, bar-none, absolute champion African plains game cartridge, and over there I shoot 180-grain bullets almost exclusively. The first time I personally ever used the .30-06 was in Africa, on my first safari in 1977. This makes me a Johnny-come-lately to the ’06, but I managed to make a good choice. In Africa the plains game rifle might be used every day, so it must not kick you into next week every time you squeeze the trigger. It must reach out a bit for the smaller antelope in open country…but its bullet must also have the power and penetration to handle a 500-pound wildebeest or an 800-pound zebra. The .30-06 does all these things with quiet efficiency.
Big game is a matter of preference. I generally consider the .30-06 outclassed, but I have taken rhino and elephant with 220-grain solids. Before there was a “caliber minimum” lots of buffalo were taken with the .30-06 as well. If your “one gun” is a .30-06, however, in a pinch it will do.
On that first safari in Kenya I had a classic case of “missitis” the first couple of days. Then I straightened up and my PH straightened me out, and I had 14 straight one-shot kills with the .30-06 and 180-grain Nosler Partitions handloaded to 2800 fps. I have been a fan ever since! The closest shot was a dik dik at maybe 30 yards. The longest shot was a Coke’s hartebeest for lion bait. This was late in the hunt and I was feeling cocky; it was a facing shot in a crosswind at 400 yards. I held a body’s width into the wind, quite a bit high, and the bullet entered center of chest. The largest animal taken with the .30-06 was a zebra, down in its tracks.
The most difficult shot was at the only good East African impala we saw, following his herd through a narrow window in heavy cover at maybe 200 yards. I was on the scope, PH Willem Van Dyk was on the binoculars; he told me to get ready, as there would be no time for me to see the horns. He said, “He’s next, he’s coming.” I picked up the reddish brown, found the shoulder with the rifle swinging, and squeezed. The buck went down in the opening, and Van Dyk said, “Expletive, man, you can shoot.” I have had great confidence in the .30-06 ever since, and although I have used many other cartridges, I keep coming back to the .30-06 for my “light rifle.”
One of the first, and certainly the most publicized, sporting use of the .30-06 was on Theodore Roosevelt’s safari in 1909. The Springfield rifle wasn’t generally available to the public yet…but it’s possible that Teddy, fresh out of the White House, knew someone. His 1895 Winchester in .405 and his .500/.450 Holland & Holland both gave good service…but it was the Springfield he used the most. I have actually held that rifle, and it is not, despite all the history, a .30-06; it is an unmodified .30-03, the older version. No matter. It was the 1909-1910 Roosevelt safari that clinched the historical record of the .30-06.
Just a few years later Leslie Tarlton, one of the professional hunters on the Roosevelt safari, and a man who is credited with taking perhaps the most lions of anyone, anywhere, any time, wrote that he considered the “American .30 Springfield as the very best of the smallbores” (as the .30-caliber was then considered). As the years passed most Americans who journeyed to Africa carried a .30-06: Author Stewart Edward White in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway in 1934, Robert Ruark in 1952…and so forth. It was this tradition that made me choose the .30-06 on my own first safari…and the legend was exactly accurate!
As the years passed the .30-06 became America’s darling in the game fields of North America. It was the “go-to” choice for gunwriters like Colonel Townsend Whelen—and it was the early favorite of Jack O’Connor. Yes, he became an outspoken champion of the .270, probably a better choice for the wild sheep he loved to hunt. But he was an early advocate of the .30-06, and in later years, he admitted privately that the .30-06 was more versatile.
For generations now the .30-06 has been the most popular cartridge among North American hunters. Its ballistics aren’t sexy, and it has competition from many newer cartridges that are longer, shorter, fatter, and often faster. The .30-06 just plods along, doing its many jobs as well today as it did fully a century ago. Despite all that competition, it remains the standby for millions of American riflemen.
POPULAR AIN’T ALL BAD
Besides the simple fact that it’s a great cartridge, the .30-06 offers advantages in its longevity and its popularity. Every major firearms manufacturer throughout the world chambers to this cartridge…and anywhere in the world where rifles and ammunition are available at all, you will find the .30-06. There are more than 130 .30-06 factory loads, from Remington’s 55-grain sabot Accelerator to Federal’s 220-grain loads. We have a century of handloading data, thousands of recipes for getting the best performance from the rich array of .30-caliber bullets.
The.30-06 is hardly a cutting edge cartridge—but because of its popularity it will be on the cutting edge of any new load development. A good example is Hornady’s new Superformance line, using new propellant technology that increases velocity without raising pressure or increasing load density. The first loads seen in this new line were, you guessed it, in .30-06—and they increased the velocity of the tired old warhorse very close to standard .300 Winchester Magnum performance (as Federal’s High Energy and Hornady’s Light Magnum loads have also done).
If you want a hunting rifle for a specialized purpose, whether it’s pronghorn, mountain game, Alaskan brown bear, or three-toed gazork, then there are specialized cartridges that are probably ideal. But if you are going to own just one centerfire hunting rifle, make it a .30-06. It is the versatility king, short of thick-skinned dangerous game the ultimate jack-of-all-trades…and, as generations of riflemen have learned, it works!
Editor’s Note: Born and raised in Kansas, Craig Boddington has been writing about his passions, hunting and shooting, for more than 35 years. Currently Executive Field Editor for InterMedia Outdoors, Boddington has published more than 4000 articles and 22 books, is the host of outdoors television shows on both The Outdoor Channel and The Sportsman’s Channel, and has produced six feature-length DVDs. Check his website at: www.craigboddington.com.