100 Years of Progress?

By Bruce Rutherford

The .30-06 is 100 years old this year and the number of us that think it is perfectly adequate, with the proper bullet, for any species of North American Big Game are becoming fewer everyday. Surely there has to be something better after all these years. Let's look back, briefly, at the cartridge technology that immediately preceded the .30-06.

The Big Game hunting cartridges of the 19th Century accomplished the desired result in very simple fashion. Whether it was grizzly bears and bison in North America or elephants and Cape buffalo in Africa, a heavy, large caliber bullet, pushed with lots of black powder, got the job done.

These cartridges, and the guns that fired them, had two major drawbacks. The guns were heavy and awkward, and the cartridges had a rainbow-like trajectory. Quigley notwithstanding, accuracy in field conditions past 150 yards was pretty much a guessing game. Apart from target rifles with calibrated vernier sights, shooting from a bench, over a precisely known distance, with no crosswind, the old black powder cartridges were a short-range proposition.

They were effective, however. The grizzly bear was almost shot into extinction and the bison herds were reduced from 60 million animals to a few thousand in less than 50 years. Despite their limitations, the old guns and cartridges were plenty adequate.

Then along came smokeless powder and the smaller, faster calibers. They were almost universally rejected by the old timers. No way a .30 caliber bullet could kill as well as a .45 or .50 caliber. The old timers were wrong of course, just as they were wrong about Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which was published at about the same time.

What Dr. Einstein knew, that the old timers didn't, was the relationship between energy, velocity, and mass. Simply speaking, a projectile of a given mass will have energy equivalent to the square of its velocity. Another way to put it is that you can reduce the mass by half and still have more energy, if you double the velocity. If you check the ballistic tables, you will see that a .30 caliber bullet weighing 180 grains at 2800 feet per second has more energy than a .45 caliber bullet weighing 400 grains at 1300 feet per second. Almost twice as much, in fact. This fact, along with the vastly superior ballistic coefficients of .30 caliber spitzer bullets, is what drove the old black powder cartridges into obsolescence.

But wait a minute, all those grizzlies and bison are still dead, no doubt about that. Besides, the old timers would argue, ain't how a bullet gets there that's important, it's what happens when it hit's the animal. Now if you had one a'them fancy flat shootin' bullets of yours that would instantly turn into a .50 caliber when it hit the ribcage, then you would have something.

Well, that's exactly what you've got with a modern, well constructed, expanding, bullet. A projectile that arrives with twice the energy and quickly expands to almost twice its original diameter. The equivalent of the .45-70 or the .50 Sharps at point blank range. Or, in other words, the 180 grain .30-06.

There are modern calibers that are even more impressive. But they kick harder, cost more, and are harder to shoot straight. If the old black powder cartridges could decimate 60 million bison and most of the grizzlies, then the .30-06 certainly could, and anything else in North America as well.

As a footnote, I feel compelled to confess that I am not immune to "newer-and-better-caliber-itis". I own other rifles than my trusty old '06. But I also recognize that buying new guns and/or pouring over the Internet and gun catalogs is mostly a function of not being able to be out hunting at the time. It has been my observation, that obsession with the newest thing on the market is inversely proportional to the time actually spent out in the field. Perhaps a lifestyle change is in order.

Note: The .30-06 is covered in detail in several articles on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

Back to Rifle Information

Copyright 2006, 2012 by Bruce Rutherford. All rights reserved.