.30-06: National Mistake?
January 04, 2011
Now that you've logged back on, pour yourself two fingers and settle into the lounger.
With caps doffed in respect for the aging patriarch of American cartridges, the printing of this article was delayed until the century mark had passed. The well-earned kudos and plaudits are fading, and it's time for a more sober analysis of the beloved John Wayne of chamberings. Like the Chevy smallblock, the .30-06 is versatile and powerful, but it, too, has flaws and excesses.
In spite of its bull-in-a-china-shop excesses, perhaps the .30-06's greatest gift was the confidence it gave green troops. Once under fire, Americans found the mild 6.5x50 Arisaka or 7.62x25 Tokarev could kill them just as dead, but no American grunt ever feared being outranged or undergunned.
I have no desire to be hung in effigy down at the VFW, nor do I want my image to become the dart board at next season's hunting camp, but reality must at some point intrude into our affection for the once and future buck stacker.
Craig Boddington warned me that "You're being set up" when he heard I was writing this, but I'll stand by it. I'm grateful for his warning and have tread carefully, for emotions run deep when a familiar tool has saved lives or garnered meat for the family.
We must remember the circumstances of the period when .30-06 was chosen. Most of the men making the decisions had entered military service with the .45-70, and after enduring the recoil of the trapdoor carbine, they felt that the jolt of the '06 was nothing to be concerned about. There was, at the time, a considerable embarrassment that the contemptible Spanish had shot the pants off of our troops in Cuba and that U.S. military marksmanship had been uniformly terrible.
A scapegoat was needed, and the Krag was picked. Along with the rifle, the .30-40 cartridge, loaded with a slow, heavy 220-grain roundnose, was blamed for everything but the Yellow Fever epidemic.
The high pressure, long casing and needlessly heavy bullet demand heavy, cumbersome weapon designs. While beloved for its firepower, the BAR was loathed for its weight and reduced magazine capacity. The same weapon in .276 Pedersen would have been slightly less effective over 500 yards but lighter and more reliable--with less recoil, more ammunition and more than enough killing power.
The bizarre 1895 Lee-Winchester straight pull had performed so poorly with the odd 6mm Lee Navy cartridge that Marine detachments were swapping to the Krag before the Moros' blood had dried. The 6mm would enjoy one moment of glory, that of helping to defend the Peking legations during the Boxer Rebellion, but its long, roundnosed, highly stable bullet merely poked neat holes without transferring a lot of energy or trauma to the target. This raised a red flag of caution to the men who would choose America's next-century cartridge.
National pride would have suffered if we had gone to the nearly ideal 7x57 Mauser, which had just given us a drubbing. The British, too, had suffered greatly at the hands of 7x57mm Mausers in the Second Boer War. They immediately launched a program to design a better cartridge than the .303, which ultimately failed due to being overpowered.
These were days of high nationalism, and a nation was not really a sovereign state unless it had a proprietary cartridge. The U.S. was riding a crest of national pride that would have alarmed the staunchest of today's patriots, and, damn it, we would have a bigger cartridge than anybody. And we got it: No nation has ever used a longer casing for its service rifle.
It seemed to make sense to everyone. A heavy cartridge was necessary to take down a horse, it could shoot through sandbags, and it was useful for long-range interdiction fire. This was a pre-machine-gun technique, wherein a unit would set sights on umpteen hundred yards and so many degrees and conduct indirect fire. In practice it was found merely to waste ammunition and shorten barrel life.
Almost immediately there were problems with the new .30-03. Recoil from 220-grain ball was so severe, it kicked long-time shooters immediately into flinching. It bored through range berms and killed and injured soldiers who were pulling targets. Marksmanship scores, which were poor, got worse.
The solution was a lighter pointed bullet. But even with a 150-grain spitzer in the 81?2-pound 1903, recoil was harsh. Not only were shooters flinching, they were barely bothering to aim. Good marksmanship was so difficult to achieve and maintain that a cash incentive had to be offered. The famous Marksman/Sharpshooter/Expert badges entered service with the Marines and a similar system with the Army. Experts made an extra three dollars a month, roughly a 15 percent pay bonus.
Many attempts have been made to mitigate the overpowered .30-06's recoil. These snaps were taken by the author's father, Erick, of a fellow competitor at the 1936 National Matches: "Shooters to the line! Assume a good sitting--Target 43, what the'¦?"
Recoil is one of the most under-appreciated issues associated with declining interest in the shooting sports. The .30-06 started being used for deer hunting in the 1920s. Since then, hundreds of thousands of young shooters have suffered a .30-06 being the first rifle placed into their adolescent shoulders. How many fired one round and thought, This is for the birds? How many wives have fired one round out of their husband's deer rifle and said, "That's enough for me"? If those first rounds had been with a moderately pressured 7x57 or a mild .300 Savage, we'd have a lot more sport shooters and hunters in this nation.
Militarily, consider the extra costs associated with such a massively overpowered cartridge: The machine guns and the automatic rifles had to be many pounds heavier than if they had been built for a more practical chambering. They could have been built lighter and handier. How much extra shipping was necessary to carry the additional and unnecessary weight of the ammo itself?
Then there is the issue of taper, or, rather, lack of it. The most important feature of a combat firearm is reliability, and a straight-walled case, such as the '06, doesn't suffer dirt and grit or c
orrosion well. During the .30-06's service life, all weapons were issued with a ruptured-cartridge-case extractor. A tapered case is far more reliable, and this is immediately evident considering the number of weapons that were considered reliable in other tapered calibers but not in '06.
The Lewis gun worked quite well for the Brits and Japanese in .303 and 7.7, while the U.S. Navy's .30-06 Lewis was derided as worthlessly unreliable. The same goes for the Chauchat, which worked poorly in 8mm Lebel and barely at all in '06. Straight-walled cases stack neatly in magazines, but when it comes to military service, a strong taper is worth all the cleaning in the world.
The Garand finally tamed the recoil dragon, resulting in vastly increased shooting scores and reduced flinching but with a weight penalty for both rifle and ammo. Here the author enjoys plinking with a friend's M-1 at the Silver State Range in Beatty, Nevada.
If we had not had weapons designers with the talent of Browning and Garand, .30-06--with far too long a case wall--might have been replaced well before 1957. Many nations changed cartridges in the first half of the century. You're thinking, yes, and almost all those nations were going up in caliber, not down. That is true, but it's largely due to tracer performance in automatic arms.
Too, the long, slender casing is an inefficient powder column, requiring more powder to achieve performance. Contrast it with any number of shorter .30s that get almost the same velocity from a smaller capacity and with less recoil.
An attempt was made in 1932, with the almost-intro of the farsighted .276 Pedersen--which would even today be as close to perfect for men and deer as any casing ever devised--but it was blocked by Dugout Doug. Just think if the Garand had fired from a 10-round clip with 30 percent less recoil and just as much practical horsepower.
Also, had we gone with the perfect Pedersen, we still might be using it instead of that ridiculous mouse cartridge with which we've been saddled for four decades.
American Nimrods have been pursuing whitetail and pronghorn with a cartridge fully capable of taking dangerous game with one shot. Yes, that's a confidence builder, but how many people have been turned off by heavy recoil? This massive mbogo was taken by the legendary Sam Fadala. He received permission to use his .30-06 due to a shoulder injury.
So, looking back, what should we have done, and when should we have done it? Ballistically, the best military round in existence in 1903 was the 7x57, but if the .30 minimum ("horse killer") faction was to win, then a rimless, spitzer-loaded .30-40 might have been the ticket. Or we could have adopted the 7.65x53 Belgian/Turkish/Argentine, which is so close to 7.62 NATO that we might have saved ourselves the trouble of procrastinating for 54 years.
On the same note, we could have been ahead of the game and chosen .30 Remington, which was also introduced in 1906, or .300 Savage, which came out in 1920. Incidentally, 7.62 NATO was created by putting a feed-friendly shoulder on a .300 Savage, not by circumcising a .30-06.
Rocky path to mastery
The best rifle I own, and the one that has won the most matches and beer bets, is a stock 1903 that I inherited from my father. At a recent club match, it won with a score of 99-4X using a two-inch bull. It is a fabulous rifle with fantastic ballistic prowess, but it only took me 20 years to master. Now that I'm a fat, middle-aged editor, my shoulder can handle the recoil. When I was a scrawny teenager it was brutal.
My father was in high school ROTC prepping for the 1936 National Matches. An old soldier at Presidio Monterrey saw some promise in him but noticed he was flinching. He tied a string around the trigger and had my father work the action, prone rapid, for several hundred rounds while the veteran marksman sat on a campaign chair behind the line, tugging the trigger. That took care of the flinch, and Dad went on to 16 summers at Perry. But with a lighter, but still lethal, chambering there wouldn't have been a flinch in the first place.
Delusions of Marksmanship
There is another problem with .30-06: Its incredibly potent performance on the range is difficult to duplicate under field conditions. Certainly, millions of hunters who mastered the '06 on a KD range tried to use the cartridge's admirable ballistic potential to take ridiculously long and ultimately unethical shots. With .300 Savage or .30 Remington, they would've been less likely to go for that 450- to 600- "Shucks, I'm not certain, but'¦" yard shot and end up with wounded, wasted game. How much venison has fed worms because men thought they could shoot as well as their .30-06?
And finally, as men switch rifles, they almost always go up in power. As .30-06 is really adequate for everything but the largest bears, trading up from '06 has resulted in a large percentage of American sportsmen carrying huge, overbore magnums that would be more suitable for Africa or the last ice age.
The author is a life-long shooter of the .30-06 and admires its versatility and accuracy but firmly contends its power is overrated and its recoil excessive for new shooters. The above group won a military bolt-gun bench match, and the author and rifle have won a number of other club, town and CMP matches. Such bench accuracy is difficult to duplicate in the field and gives an illusion of prowess.
I know a woman who's reliably bagged numerous elk and deer using a mild 6.5 Swede. She knows the scope isn't going to reposition her eyebrow and the recoil will not loosen teeth, and she puts her rounds where they belong at realistic ranges.
Designed with hubris, too straight-walled and needlessly powerful, the harshly recoiling .30-06 has cost this nation of riflemen a lot over the last century. Has it been worth it?
Napolean is quoted as saying, "The moral is to the physical as three is to one." With that in mind, there is another way of looking at the .30-06.
Confidence is one of the most critical emotions affecting mens' will to fight, especially green troops. In spite of the above listed difficiencies, at no time did an American fighting man have to worry about being outranged by an opponent. He also went into combat fully confident in knowing that if he cou
ld hit the enemy, there would be significant damage.
What could we have gone to? Left to right: National pride kept us from simply adopting the far gentler but equally effective 7x57 that had so recently embarrassed both British and American forces; .30 Remington, available from 1906, produced almost identical ballistics as a 7.62x39--arguably the most successful infantry cartridge ever; the abrupt shoulder of the .300 Savage, dating from 1920, was eventually smoothed out to become the .308; perfection was available from 1923 with the elegant and beautifully tapered .276 Pedersen; .308/7.62 NATO--we waited 54 years to adopt a twin brother to the 7.65x53 Mauser, available all along; .30-06--give and shoulders above the competition, but at what cost?
At the same time, the well-practiced sportsman going into the deer woods never had to fear that he didn't bring enough gun. If he could get a hit on target, his trusted .30-06 would put venison on the table.
So was it worth the trade? The emotional advantage over the more pedestrian facts? Were the logistical and mechanical shortcomings outweighed by increased confidence? In the end, was it the best tool for the job or a national mistake?