Two decades have passed since I first dropped a whitetail with a bolt-action chambered in .30-06 Springfield. At the time I had no knowledge of the cartridge’s history, no idea many gun owners eschewed it for excessive felt recoil, and a blissful ignorance of its love-it-or-hate-it status within the industry. It dropped a stout-necked buck with a single shot and I had meat in the freezer. Nothing else mattered.

Fast-forward to the present day. As it turns out, my early hunting days involved a cartridge with a fascinating history that packed a solid punch. Here are a few details on the making the .30-06 Springfield, a front-runner in my firearms-history-buff repertoire.

An example of a .30-06 Springfield cartridge.
An example of a .30-06 Springfield cartridge.mfg photo

Parent Case

To understand the venerable .30-06, one must first look at its parent case: the .30-03 Springfield. Historically, the .30-03 enjoyed a relatively short period of use. It was developed in 1903 as a replacement for the .30-40 Krag, the cartridge utilized by the Krag-Jorgensen, the first bolt-action rifle adopted by the US military.

With the creation of the .30-03 the military hoped to correct the limitations of the old Krag-Jorgensen – a gun with a weak action thanks to its single locking lug and the negative feature of being loaded one round at a time – while simultaneously gaining ballistic advantages. In the end, things literally went a bit sideways.

From some perspectives, the .30-03 was ahead of its time. Rifles of the era had shortcomings that made it impossible for the cartridge to succeed. For example, there were serious erosion problems associated with the round; the rifles couldn’t handle the higher pressure and heat generated by the heavy bullet and its goal velocity. The era’s ballistics weren’t up to the heavy 220-grain bullet itself, resulting in problems such as its trajectory wavering away from the intended target. Today there aren’t many of the original .30-03-chambered rifles left; the military converted most to .30-06.

The Springfield Model 1903 rifle was originally designed for the .30-03 cartridge. It was redesigned in 1906 for the new .30-06 cartridge.
The Springfield Model 1903 rifle was originally designed for the .30-03 cartridge. It was redesigned in 1906 for the new .30-06 cartridge.web photo

Development and Design

The .30-06 was officially adopted by the US military on October 15, 1906, just three years after its parent cartridge began its short stint in the military. The “30” referred to the caliber while the “06” referenced the year. It was developed at the advent of smokeless powder and rimless cases; although neither was brand new, they were young enough to be in the early stages of understanding.

With its necked-down case meant to accommodate a 150-grain spitzer bullet, the rimless, bottleneck cartridge was poised to become the new sweetheart of our nation’s military.

Old M1903 Springfield rifles were modified for the new cartridge, chambers resized and barrels shortened, and potential maximum effective range was guesstimated. Whereas the .30-03’s range was severely hampered by its curving trajectory and hefty bullets, the .30-06 was significantly enhanced by its lighter-weight spitzer bullet.

History of the .308 Winchester
Used in the woods and on the battlefield since the 1950s, the .308 continues to be one of the most versatile rifle rounds ever created—find out why.
History of the .308 Winchester

Early range estimates placed its lethality out to 4,700 yards but it turned out testing had only been done out to 1800 yards. Years later, it was discovered the cartridge’s actual effective range was around 3,300 yards, exposing a rather large discrepancy.

Even so, it was a vast improvement over its predecessors, and the .30-06 would retain its respected status for decades to come for most, and for more than a century where some of us are concerned.

The semi-auto M1 Garand replaced the Springfield '03 but was also chambered for the .30-06 Springfield.
The semi-auto M1 Garand replaced the Springfield '03 in 1937, but was also chambered for the .30-06 Springfield.file photo

Ballistics

Ballistically speaking the .30-06 was ahead of many if not most of its ammunition-peers at the time of its inception and continues to hold its own today. Quite simply, it fulfills a particular niche—and it’s a broad niche.

From the perspective of energy, it gets the job done and then some. Loads such as the Hornady 150 grain SST Superformance boast a muzzle energy of 3159 foot-pounds; energy drops to 2700 foot-pounds at 100 yards, remaining more than enough.

The number typically bandied about when hunters debate how much energy is required to ethically kill a Whitetail deer is 1,000 foot-pounds (though I don't feel that's the most important metric). Bottom line: the .30-06 more than meets the average person’s needs for energy.

.30-06 Ballistic Table

Hornady 150 grain SST Superformance

Range Velocity (fps) Energy (ft/lbs.)M
Muzzle: 3080 3159
100 yards: 2848 2700
200 yards: 2627 2298
300 yards: 2417 1945
400 yards: 2216 1636
500 yards: 2025 1366

Velocity is another of the cartridge’s strong suits with the aforementioned Hornady round delivering 3080 feet-per-second of muzzle velocity. At 100 yards the SST Superformance’s velocity drops to 2848 fps and at 200 yards it’s 2627 fps. Even at 500 yards velocity remains above 2000 fps.

Last, but certainly not least: trajectory. Although the cartridge was originally designed for ranges of 1000 yards and beyond, reality must be addressed.

Yes, you can shoot the .30-06 at 1000 yards, but today’s ballistics do include cartridges with a flatter trajectory. That said, the drop rate isn’t quite as stone-like as some claim.

Let’s compare it to the lighter-weight and far more modern creation, .300 Blackout. At 100 yards, Hornady 150 grain SST Superformance in .30-06 drops 1.4” and at 300 yards the same load has an average drop rate of 6.4”. Also at 100 yards, Hornady 110 grain GMX in .300 Blackout drops 3.3”with a 13.6” drop at 300 yards. The .30-06 may drop a bit faster than some of its brethren but it’s all about perspective.

Use

It should come as no surprise the cartridge’s most popular use is for hunting. It might be a cliché, but it’s true: it’s capable of dropping most big game in North America. Hunting with the .30-06 is best done within 500 yards and the usual advice to be familiar with the your gun’s – and your – capabilities remains true. Make a dope sheet, stick to it, and enjoy taking everything from hogs to elk with the 100-year-old(plus) cartridge.

The Winchester Model 70 in .30-06.
The Winchester Model 70 in .30-06 was the rifle model used by legendary USMC sniper Carlos Hathcock in Vietnam.mfg photo

A friend of mine recently acquired an older bolt-action .30-06 with an 18” barrel, to which my immediate response was, “what an awesome brush gun!”. Thanks to the inherent power of the chambering it’s quite effective at close ranges and when combined with a shorter barrel it’s easily maneuvered in thick brush.

In the woods of Wisconsin you may not run into a sounder of angry feral hogs but there are bears and wolves a-plenty (yes, wolves are protected from hunting in America’s Dairyland, but self-defense in case of an attack is another story). Brush guns have traditionally been lever-actions, but a short-barreled bolt with the power to bull through the brush to halt an attack by an enraged predator absolutely fulfills the role, in my book.

White Feather

There’s also fun to be had using the .30-06 at the range. If you’re thinking I’m referring to only shorter distances, guess again. The .30-06 is a fantastic choice for honing your marksmanship skills in general and rocks at ringing steel at 1000 yards and beyond. This is, after all, the cartridge famed USMC sniper Carlos Hathcock II—AKA “White Feather”—used both as a sniping tool and to win the Wimbledon Cup. Hathcock won the Cup, which is a 1000-yard match, in 1965 using his Winchester Model 70 chambered in—you got it—.30-06 Springfield.

USMC sniper Carlos Hathcock with his 1965 Wimbledon Cup trophy
USMC sniper Carlos Hathcock with his 1965 Wimbledon Cup trophyphoto from winchesterguns.com

The year after winning the match, Hathcock was deployed to South Vietnam where he used that same rifle to strike fear into his enemies.

Perhaps his most stunning, and legendary, shot was the one he {made through an enemy sniper’s scope}(http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/mythbusters-database/shoot-sniper-scope-or-gun-barrel/) (you've probably seen this recreated in a movie or two); the bullet passed through the scope straight into the enemy’s skull.

While Hathcock’s record-length sniper kill of 2,500 yards may have been made using a .50 BMG (fired from a modified Browning M2 machine gun), his second-longest sniper shot of 1,200 yards was made with his .30-06. So, you could say this cartridge is accurate at longer ranges.

USMC sniper Carlos Hathock in Vietnam.
USMC sniper Carlos Hathock in Vietnam at work with his bull-barreled .30-06 rifle.photo from USMC archives

Cons

There are those among us harboring negative feelings towards the .30-06 with the top two complaints being felt recoil and an argument along the lines of “but my .308 Winchester…”.

Although it’s true for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, the felt recoil of rifles chambered in .30-06 isn’t as extreme as some believe.

Felt recoil depends on various factors including the weight of the rifle, the specific load being used, and the design of the gun in question. A heavier rifle mitigates felt recoil to an extent just as a lighter load produces less energy than a heavier one. For example, an eight-pound rifle loaded with a 150-grain bullet produces approximately 17 pounds of recoil while a 180-grain bullet in the same weight rifle produces around 20 pounds of recoil.

There’s no denying this is significant recoil energy, but consider this: a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with a 3” 1 5/8 ounce shotshell packs a 51-pound-plus whallop. If I, as a 135-pound teenager, was capable of practicing and hunting with a .30-06—without a single complaint—so can you.

Federal Premium's Vital-Shok Trophy Copper cartridges are an example of a modern .30-06 hunting round.
Federal Premium's Vital-Shok Trophy Copper cartridges are an example of a modern .30-06 hunting round.mfg photo

.30-06 vs. .308 Win.

The .308 Winchester vs. the .30-06 Springfield argument is a frequent, but also somewhat nonsensical one. I’m a fan of .308; I’m a fan of .30-06. Both have merits. What the .308 Win doesn’t have is a significant edge over the .30-06.

When it comes to accuracy, the two cartridges are fairly similar, but when it comes to trajectory, things are a bit different. The Hornady SST load with a 150-grain bullet for each cartridge tells the following story: at 100 yards the two are reasonably close with the .30-06 having a drop of 1.4” and the .308 Win a drop of 1.5”—but at 400 yards, it’s the .30-06’s 18.9” drop versus the .308 Win’s 23.1”. By 500 yards the .30-06 drops 38.4” and the .308 Win is dropping 47”. This may not be an enormous difference in drop rates but it does vary from the usual “my .308 Win has a better trajectory” tale.

Today, many .30-06 bullets feature a polymer tip to help them avoid deformation.
Today, many .30-06 bullets feature a polymer tip to help them avoid deformation.mfg photo

As for the other differences, here’s a fast summary:

Felt recoil of a 7.5-pound rifle chambered in .308 Win with a 150-grain bullet is 15 pounds (as opposed to the 17 pounds a similarly-sized and weighted .30-06 produces). Yes, rifles chambered in .308 tend to be a hair lighter than those chambered in .30-06; the Remington 700 ADL in .30-06 with a 24” barrel weighs 7.375 pounds while the Remington 700 ADL in .308 with a 24” barrel weighs 7.25 pounds. That’s a difference of 0.175 pounds. All in all, nothing to suggest the .308 has noteworthy advantages over the .30-06.

Get Some

With more than a century of use under its ammo belt the .30-06 has some stories to tell but there’s always room for more. If you don’t own one yet, this is a great time to add to your collection. Why not expand the tale of the .30-06 by making a few related memories of your own?

.30-06 Specs
Parent Case: .30-03 Springfield
Case: Rimless, bottleneck
Case Length: 2.494"
Primer: Large rifle
Bullet Diameter: .308"
Neck Diameter: .340"
Shoulder Diameter: .441"
Base Diameter: .471"
Rim Diameter: .473"
Rim Thickness: .049"
Overall Cartridge Length: 3.34"