A Perfect Pair? (.270 Win. and .30-06)

By Chuck Hawks

Okay, I admit, its been fun debating the relative superiority of the .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield since the .270 first challenged the .30-06 back in 1925. That long running controversy has helped to propel these two cartridges to the top of the charts. (There is no such thing as bad publicity, right?) The .30-30 may be the best selling big game cartridge of all time, but the .30-06 is the best selling big game cartridge for bolt action rifles, and the .270 Winchester is number two.

Both can trace their roots back to the obsolete .30-03. The .30-06 is based on a slightly shortened version of that case, and the .270 is based on a necked-down .30-06 case. The shoulder angle is identical and so is the powder capacity to the base of the shoulder. Both require a long, but not magnum length, rifle action.

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

The .30-06 became famous as a military cartridge shooting a 150 grain spitzer bullet (SD .226), and that is still a very popular bullet weight with hunters, particularly those seeking CXP2 game. (In North America that would primarily include deer, black bear, caribou, antelope, sheep, goats, and feral hogs.) The 150 grain bullet was introduced in the .30-06 at a MV of 2700 fps, but improvements in powder technology have increased that to about 2900 fps in most factory loads today. However, the load that made the .30-06's reputation with hunters as an all-around big game hunting cartridge--meaning all of the above CXP2 game plus elk, moose, and grizzly bear--is the 180 grain bullet (SD .271) at a MV of about 2700 fps.

.270 Win.
.270 Winchester. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .270 Winchester is purely a hunting cartridge with no military background. Winchester introduced it with a 130 grain bullet (SD .242) at a MV of about 3140 fps, and at the time it was the flattest shooting commercial big game cartridge in the world. And it is still the long range hunting cartridge to which all others are compared. When properly placed that high velocity 130 grain bullet kills CXP2 game like lighting. And it has also accounted for more CXP3 game than seems reasonable. But for those who wanted a heavier projectile for use on elk and moose, a 150 grain bullet (SD .279) at a MV of 2900 fps is offered.

So now both the .270 and .30-06 can handle all CXP2 and CXP3 game, at normal or long ranges, by changing bullet weights. Thus either caliber is suitable for the one rifle big game hunter.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is a hassle, not to mention expensive in the long run, to keep changing bullet weights. That normally requires re-zeroing the rifle, which means a special trip to the rifle range. The result is that most hunters don't bother to re-zero, and in the end just stick with one bullet weight. Often that becomes a compromise weight, such as 140 grains (SD .261) in .270 and 165 grains (SD .248) in .30-06. But, these compromise bullets are not ideal for CXP2 or CXP3 game; they're merely passable for both.

The fact remains that the .270/130 superior to the .30-06/150 as a long range and CXP2 game load. Conversely, the .30-06/180 is superior to the .270/150 as a CXP3 game load. You'd have to be a dyed in the wool .270 or .30-06 true believer to dispute the reality of those statements, and the majority of experienced hunters would agree with me. The late, great Jack O'Connor once wrote (to paraphrase) that if all .270 loads but the 130 grain and all .30-06 loads but the 180 grain were to be discontinued, we would not be greatly inconvenienced. I am inclined to agree with him, since I have habitually zeroed my .270 rifles for 130 grain bullets and my .30-06 with 180 grain bullets.

So my suggestion is to forget the "one rifle" idea altogether and spring for two rifles. Consider purchasing a .270 and a .30-06. Use the .270/130 grain load for long range shooting and hunting CXP2 game, and the .30-06/180 grain load in the woods and for hunting CXP3 game. No more compromise bullet weights and no more having to re-zero your rifle.

And the nice thing is that you need to take two rifles on any important hunt, anyway, just in case one malfunctions. With these two, they can substitute for each other in a pinch. Sure, you'd prefer to shoot your elk with the .30-06/180, but if it's out of commission for some reason the .270/130 has a long track record as an elk slayer. Conversely, if your .270 is out of action the .30-06/180 load shoots flat enough to cover the majority of shots. And, while it kicks a little harder and might not kill deer quite as fast at long range as the .270/130, there is no question that it can do the job. The two calibers and loads complement each other. Gee, a perfect pair!

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.