Cartridge selection is driven by ballistics and emotion. The savvy among us trust ballistics, the rest follow their heart. The .30-06 Springfield was once the undisputed choice for big game hunting; in 1927 the esteemed gun writer Townsend Whelen proclaimed it one of the best. But that, just like Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, was from a time we’ll not see again.
In a 1954 D. M. “Karamojo” Bell, who killed more than a thousand elephants—about 800 with a 7x57 Mauser—said if he had it to do over his choice would be the .308 Win. What Bell realized then, was the same thing Whelen suggested three decades prior, “…that the cartridge be such that the rifle using it shall have sufficient accuracy, flat enough trajectory and a moderate enough recoil so that the sportsman can place his bullets with sufficient degree of accuracy.”
Ballistics Matter on Both Ends Comparing Hornady’s Precision Hunter ammunition, the .30-06 will deliver about 9 percent better performance than the 308. The trade off—there’s always a trade off—is this performance increase comes with a 16 percent increase in recoil. In other words, with what is arguably the best big game hunting ammo you can buy, the .30-06 gives you about half what you pay—suffer—for.
Some might point out the .30-06 will handle heavier bullets. True, but given our modern projectiles, 200 or 220 grain .30 caliber bullets offer no advantage. Back in Whelen’s and your grandpa’s day, this was not the case. At .30-06 velocities the weakly constructed 180-grain or lighter bullets of that time, shed lots of weight during penetration. 200 or 220-grain bullets didn’t because they impacted at slower velocities, thus penetrating deeper.
With bullets like the Partition, Triple Shock, AccuBond and ELD-X, those weighing less than 200 grains offer a better ballistic balance. This is why 200 grain or heavier .30-06 ammunition is almost as rare as flying frogs. Modern projectiles have even improved the performance of smaller cartridges. They can now hang with the '06 and not whack you near as hard.
Consider the 6.5 Creedmoor. Comparing similar bullet weights, the Creedmoor will shoot flatter and just as hard as the ought-six. But, the .30-06 will kick 34 percent harder. Though some will argue you gotta get used to recoil if you’re going to hunt big game, it’s an established fact, the harder a rifle kicks, the more difficult it is to shoot with consistent precision.
Size & Weight The other downside to the .30-06 is length; the cartridge measures about 3.334 inches. The .308 Win. and similarly sized cartridges only measure about 2.75 inches. This means the action and rifle will be shorter, more rigid, and can be cycled faster. It also means the rifle will weigh about a half-pound less, and still not kick as hard. The ballistic performance of modern smaller cartridges is not significantly sacrificed because they’re loaded to slightly higher pressures.
You might contend a half-pound is nothing to fuss over. But, after carrying hunting rifles of all sorts, all over the world, I agree with Whelen on another point, “A man will travel farther, hunt over more country, have a better chance of coming on game, and be in better condition when he does if his weapon is light.”
Ballistics vs. Emotion When it comes to killing big game, shot placement and bullet construction matter most. The letters and numbers printed on a cartridge case have no bearing on lethality. They can however be an emotional inspiration. Your daddy might’ve hunted with a .30-06; might’ve killed his best buck with one. Maybe that’s why you trust and are devoted to an archaic cartridge. And, I’m OK with that; a hunter should like his tools.
But, it goes both ways. I had a tenderfoot braggart of an uncle who boasted of the .30-06 with the same misplaced faith of those who think Hillary won’t go after their guns. His marksmanship and character were always in question, and all my family despised him. I suspect most of his family didn’t like him either. I’ve forever linked the ought-six to his deplorableness and have never or ever will, hunt or kill an animal with a .30-06!
In 1984 Jeff Cooper wrote, “A 30-caliber, 150-grain spritzer at 2700 fps may not be a ‘magnum,’ but it has been logging one shot kills all over the world for so long that one may well ask why anything more is necessary, unless one’s target weighs over 1000 pounds.” Those are the ballistics of the 308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, and 6.5 Creedmoor. If you need more power than that, you’re going to need a lot more than you’ll get from a 30-06. The only thing it does better than those cartridges is kick harder.
Emotions might trump ballistics when it comes to cartridge selection, but they do not change them. By modern standards, the .30-06 sucks.