September 16, 2022
The “06” in .30-06 tells you how long it’s been around, as in 1906. It was adopted as a military cartridge for the 1903 Springfield, adapted to a British rifle design for the 1917 Enfield and then, perhaps most famously, was the cartridge chambered for what Gen. George Patton called “the greatest battle implement ever devised”: the M1 Garand.
And, man, did it catch on with the sporting public. Rifle makers jumped on it quickly. Winchester adopted it for the Model 1895 lever action as early as 1908, and bolt actions followed from Remington (1921), Winchester (1925) and Savage (1928). In fact, the introduction of the Winchester Model 54 bolt gun in 1925 included not only the .30-06 but also the then-new .270 Win.—which was based on the ’06 case. That sparked one of the greatest campfire discussions of all time, one repeatedly hashed over in the outdoor press for decades: “Which is better, the .270 or the .30-06?” for big game hunting.
Virtually every rifle manufacturer has offered the ’06 since then, and every ammo maker has produced loads. In addition to the .270, the .30-06 case was the basis for some great offspring rounds: .25-06 Rem., .280 Rem. and .35 Whelen, and I think it’s almost impossible to argue that the .30-06 has not been our most popular sporting cartridge over the past century. So why do I think it’s slipping? For 13 years Brad Fitzpatrick has been penning the big game rifle roundup found elsewhere in this issue. And from his research I’ve been building the accompanying chart that lists new models along with their chamberings. And looking at the chart the past few years shows a troubling trend for the ’06.
In recent times the .308 Win. has eclipsed its older, longer brother in our chart, but today we’re seeing other short-action rounds coming to the fore. This year the 6.5 Creedmoor continued the dominance it has shown for the past several years, with 27 rifles in this year’s report so-chambered. It’s followed closely by the .308, but lurking right behind is the 6.5 PRC—a cartridge that didn’t even exist just five years ago—at 19 rifles.
The .30-06? Only a dozen. And at that it ranks behind the still-popular .300 Win. Mag. (22) and 7mm Rem. Mag. (16). It’s not even the undisputed king of the non-magnum long actions, being tied on this year’s list with the .280 Ackley Improved. At least the ’06 can take some solace in the fact it is slightly more popular the .270 Win. on this year’s list. It’s pretty clear that long and slender is out; short and fat is in. The most modern designs—the PRCs, 6.8 Western and others—are shining examples of efficiency. They’re able to match longer cartridges in terms of velocity while being housed in short-action rifles that, being stiffer, tend to be more accurate. And they benefit from tighter tolerance specifications in both rifle and cartridge, another boon to accuracy.
But does that mean “outdated” rounds like the .30-06 are any less effective? No. To be honest, for years I ignored the .30-06 despite (or probably because of) its popularity. Today I own three .30-06 hunting rifles, plus a 1903 Springfield, a 1917 Enfield and two M1 Garands. My first ’06 was a Remington Model 700 CDL, with which I took two black bears. A Marlin XL7 collected a fine Kansas whitetail. And after shooting Ruger’s then-new American at FTW Ranch out to 700 yards as part of the rifle’s introductory media event—and then wringing it out on my home range for the RifleShooter review—I hung on to that one as well.
Of these three, the American sees the most action—usually in the hands of my wife, who shot a cow elk with it a couple years back. She says of course I’m still allowed to use it, although I notice every time we go deer or elk hunting she’s already packed the Ruger with her stuff. This is the beauty of the cartridge. With lighter 150- or 165-grain bullets it’s a fine deer rifle, although I admit it’s a little on the overgunned side. In its 180-grain form it can handle elk, moose and bears with ease. In fact, our own Craig Boddington called it one of our best elk cartridges, and last year I killed a Colorado bull at 300 yards with a Savage in .30-06, firing Hornady’s new CX bullet, at 300 yards. The elk took a few steps and fell over dead.
While it may not be your first choice for our big bears, with the right bullet it can handle them. Proof of that can be found in J.Y. Jones, who killed every big game species in North America—including a brown bear and a polar bear—with a .30-06. And I’m certainly no Africa expert, but based on my two trips over there, I don’t see how an ’06 wouldn’t be ideal for plains game. The .30-06 does its job without undue recoil or muzzle blast. The older I get, the less I care to take the pounding of a magnum, and while ’06 kick is not nothing, it’s manageable for most people. Further, I have zero interest in shooting game at long range. My personal yardage limit stops well inside the .30-06’s reach.
In some actions you can fit up to two more rounds of .30-06 as opposed to, say, the 6.5 PRC—hunting’s latest darling. Those one or two rounds could spell the difference in a situation where the first shot doesn’t go as planned. Speaking of ammo, you’re going to pay a good bit less for .30-06 loads than you will for many of the newer big game cartridges. Plus, when I looked, there were plenty of .30-06 loads available online while many of its competitors were not. However, the fact is that new, cool stuff that actually works can and will eventually take over—in part because there’s also a generational aspect at work.
Last year I was at a media event where a manufacturer showed us a prototype of a new rifle action. The question of possible chamberings arose, and there was an immediate division in the room. The younger guys—accomplished and knowledgeable writers all—pooh- poohed the inclusion of an older cartridge (not the ’06, which wasn’t even up for consideration) in favor of hot new flavors. I and a couple of others yelled, “Get off my lawn!” Not because we don’t acknowledge the on-paper superiority of some of the terrific new cartridges but, at least in my case, because it seemed wrong to disenfranchise the guy or gal who might love the idea of the new rifle but prefers to stick with what he or she likes to shoot and has confidence in.
Look, I don’t think the .30-06 will actually disappear. At least not in my lifetime and probably not in the lifetime of the generation behind me. But just like the 7x57, .300 Savage, .284 Win. and many others I could name, time passes by even good things. It would be a shame to see the ’06 shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s incredibly versatile, doesn’t kick you into next week, and ammunition remains widely varied and affordable. It may not still reign supreme, but it’s too good to be forgotten.