The Popular .30-06 Springfield

By Chuck Hawks

.30-06 Spfd.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The famous .30-06 really started in 1903 with the .30-03 Springfield military round adopted for the (then) new 1903 Springfield service rifle. This was the cartridge and rifle adopted as a result of painful lessons learned in the Spanish-American War.

In 1906 the .30-03 cartridge was updated to match the newly revised German 8x57JS service round. The neck was shortened .1 inch and a 150 grain spitzer bullet at 2,700 fps was substituted for the previous 220 grain RN bullet at 2,200 fps. The revised cartridge was called the .30-06 Springfield; .30 inch being the bore diameter, '06 representing the year it was adopted by the US Army, and Springfield being the Federal armory where it was developed.

The .30-06 has been going strong ever since, and it is one of the most widely distributed sporting cartridges in the world. The Europeans sometimes call it the 7.62x63, and many European rifles have been so marked. Like the .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, and .308 Winchester, ammunition for the .30-06 can be found everywhere game is hunted. These four cartridges comprise my "short list" of all-around cartridges for worldwide use. (See my article All-around Rifle Cartridges for more details.) The .30-06 undoubtedly qualifies as one of the world's best all-around hunting cartridges, and I would guess that if push came to shove, most experts would put it in first place.

The .30-06 case is 2.494 inches long, and the cartridge has an overall loaded length of 3.340 inches. It requires a rifle with a standard length action. Actually, the .30-06 is the longest of the famous Twentieth Century military cartridges that fought two World Wars and became famous "all-around" hunting cartridges the world over (two others being the .303 British and 8x57JS Mauser), and it essentially defined how long a "standard length" action must be. The .30-06's rim diameter followed the example of the 7x57 Mauser (which was the inspiration for the .30-03) and measures .473 inch. This likewise became a de-facto standard dimension, allowing the bolt faces of sporting rifles to accomodate a wide range of cartridges without modification.

Almost every gun company that builds a long action rifle chambers it for the .30-06. If you wanted to buy a new .30-06 today, you would find you could purchase a pump action Remington 760, a semi-automatic Browning BAR or Remington 7400, or a lever action Browning BLR. Almost every standard length bolt action rifle is chambered for the cartridge, including the very popular Browning A-bolt series, Remington 700 series, Ruger 77 series, Savage 110 series, Weatherby Mark V series, and Winchester 70 series. Overseas such famous names as Blaser, CZ, Mauser, Sako, and Steyer-Mannlicher build .30-06 sporters, along with many others. Fine single shot rifles like the Ruger No. 1 and Browning "high wall" are also chambered for the .30-06, as are a few double rifles.

In the year 2000 the .30-06 Spfd. was the number one selling centerfire rifle cartridge in America. .30-06 ammunition is loaded not only in North America, but also in Europe, Africa, Australia, South America, and probably other places. There is a very large selection of factory loads for the caliber, with bullets ranging from 125-220 grains in weight. The reloader has bullet choices ranging from 100 grains to 250 grains.

With the right loads a hunter armed with a .30-06 can tackle everything from jackrabbits to elk, and it shoots flat enough to be included with the long-range big game cartridges. I feel that large, thick-skinned game should be left to the medium and big bores, but nearly everything else is within the capabilities of the .30-06 Spfd. It is my understanding that most Alaskan guides recommend the .30-06 as the minimum cartridge for use on grizzly and brown bears.

Recoil energy is about 20 ft. lbs. in an 8 pound rifle shooting the 180 grain factory load. This is about as much kick as the average shooter can handle, so the .30-06 represents the top power level suitable for the majority of shooters.

The most common factory loaded bullet weights for the .30-06 are 150 grain, 165 grain, and 180 grain. These are the best bullet weights for almost all medium and big game hunting with the .30-06, so they are also the bullets most often used by reloaders. The sectional density (SD) of these three bullet weights is as follows: 150 grain .226, 165 grain .248, and 180 grain .271. Using Nosler Partition spitzer bullets for comparison, the ballistic coefficient (BC) of these bullets is: 150 grain .387, 165 grain ..410, and 180 grain ..474.

The regular factory load for the 150 grain spitzer bullet in the .30-06 has a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,910 fps with muzzle energy (ME) of 2,820 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 2,342 fps and 1,827 ft. lbs. Zero this load so that the maximum bullet rise (mid-range trajectory) is 3 inches, and the average spitzer bullet will not fall 3 inches below the line of sight until it reaches 285 yards. Any load with a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of 285 yards can take a lot of game. This is the flattest shooting of the standard .30-06 big game loads, and probably the best choice for medium size deer, antelope, goats, and sheep.

The regular .30-06 factory load for the 165 grain spitzer, regarded by many as the best general purpose bullet weight for the .30-06, gives a MV of 2,800 fps and ME of 2,872 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 2,283 fps and 1,909 ft. lbs. That load has a maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of about 273 yards.

The popular 180 grain factory load has a MV of 2,700 fps and ME of 2,913 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 2,023 fps and 1,635 ft. lbs. This load will suffice for all thin-skinned big game, given reasonable bullet placement. Its MPBR (+/- 3") is about 269 yards.

The penetration of most .30 caliber 180 grain bullets at .30-06 velocities is excessive for deer and antelope, and the expansion too slow. 180 grain bullets like the Nosler Partition and Remington Core-Lokt give all the penetration required for any North American game. As Jack O'Connor (the Dean of gun scribes) wrote, the factory loaded 180 grain Remington Core-Lokt bullet will shoot through both shoulders of an Alaskan grizzly bear and kick up dirt on the far side. There are heavier bullets available for the .30-06, including 200 grain, 220 grain, and 250 grain slugs, but they would be needed only in cases requiring extreme penetration. If you need a bullet that heavy you would probably be better off using a medium bore rifle.

There are premium factory loads for the .30-06, which (in a 24 inch barrel) give a significant boost to velocity. Hornady's Light Magnum load gives the 150 grain spire point an advertised MV of 3,100 fps and ME of 3,200 ft. lbs. The Light Magnum load for the 165 grain spire point boat tail claims a MV of 3,015 fps and ME of 3,330 ft. lbs. Hornady's Light Magnum for the 180 grain spire point boat tail bullet has a catalog MV of 2,880 fps and ME of 3,316 ft. lbs. These are about the top velocities attainable within the .30-06's SAAMI pressure limit of 50,000 cup.

Reloaders can use bullets weighing from 110 to 250 grains, but the 150, 165, and 180 grain bullets are the most popular. The second edition of the Sierra Bullets Reloading Manual shows that 52.2 grains of IMR 4350 powder behind a 150 grain bullet gives a MV of 2600 fps, and 59.3 grains of IMR 4350 gives a MV of 3000 fps.

The second edition of the Sierra Bullets Reloading Manual shows that 48.2 grains of IMR 4350 powder behind a 165 grain bullet gives a MV of 2400 fps. 56.5 grains of IMR 4350 powder gives a 165 grain Sierra bullet a MV of 2800 fps.

The Sierra Bullets Reloading Manual also shows that 48.7 grains of IMR 4350 powder behind a 180 grain bullet gives a MV of 2400 fps. 56.0 grains of IMR 4350 gives a 180 grain bullet a MV of 2800 fps. All of these Sierra loads used Winchester cases and primers, and were chronographed in a 26 inch barrel.

The .30-06 Springfield maintains about a 100 fps advantage in MV compared to the .308 Winchester when equivalent loads are compared. This is due to the greater powder capacity of its longer case. That translates to about 1 inch less drop at 300 yards, or a 10 yard increase in maximum point blank range.

When comparing the .308 and the .30-06 cartridges, my conclusion is that if a person intends to purchase a standard size rifle (for instance a Remington M-700 BDL), then he or she might as well buy a .30-06 and take advantage of the 30-06's somewhat flatter trajectory. For any rifle with a standard length action, it is pretty hard to go wrong with the .30-06.

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Copyright 2001, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.