It is perhaps not surprising that the most popular hunting rifle caliber in the United States and the most popular hunting rifle caliber in Europe are so similar. Yet the history of each is quite different; the 30-06 started out as a military caliber that was progressively adopted by hunters in North America whereas Europe’s most popular hunting caliber, the 7x64mm Brenneke, was developed by Wilhelm Brenneke as a hunting round. But put the two side by side and they look almost identical, and compare the ballistics and they are also very similar. Given that there have been a great plethora of hunting rifle calibers created over the years yet it is only the ones with a special something that seem to survive, and the 30-06, like the 7x64mm Brenneke, is one of those calibers.
The story of the 30-06 begins in warfare and both the American 30-06 and the British .303 Mk VII came into existence because of American soldiers experience in the American-Spanish War of 1898 and British soldier’s experience in the Boer War of 1899-1902. In both cases American and British soldiers were using rifles loaded with moderate velocity, heavy round nosed bullets and found themselves facing an enemy armed with Mauser rifles shooting 7x57mm spitzer bullets at them. It was an experience that quickly persuaded both the American and British military to modernize post haste. In the case of the US the standard military cartridge was the 30-40 Krag in the Krag–Jørgensen rifle, a cartridge very similar to the British .303.
In the case of the US military the first version of the new cartridge created for the military was the 30-03 (i.e. .30 caliber of 1903). This new caliber retained the heavy 220grain round nosed bullet but increased the muzzle velocity from the 2,000fps of the 30-40 Krag to 2,300fps. The long range shortcomings of the 30-03 made themselves evident quickly and within three years a new caliber had been designed based on the 30-03 but firing a shorter and lighter 150grain spitzer bullet at 2,700fps. The big difference between the two calibers is not only in the increased velocity but also in the increased ballistic coefficient of the new spitzer bullet, which was .405. The 30-06 has a shorter neck than the 30-03 because it was intended for a lighter and physically shorter bullet so in order to re-chamber the existing Springfield 1903 rifles that the military had changed over to the rifles had their barrels removed and shortened at the chamber end; and were then re-chambered for the shorter 30-06, re-threaded and re-fitted.
The 30-06 and the M1903 Springfield rifles were what US soldiers carried to the trenches of the First World War and it was discovered that its maximum dangerous range was much less than had been mathematically estimated. To address this problem after the war a new loading for the 30-06 was developed using a 174grain spitzer boat tail bullet with a ballistic coefficient of .494 (G1) that dramatically increased this. This cartridge was subsequently replaced with one which went back to almost the same performance as the original 30-06 loading. This new cartridge was loaded with IMR 4895 powder and a 152 grain spitzer flat base bullet with a new gilding metal jacket that effectively solved the problem of jacket fouling that had plagued the earlier loadings. This new loading produced a muzzle velocity of 2,805fps and muzzle energy of 2,656ft/lb.
It was the attributes that had made it such a superb military cartridge that also made the 30-06 an equally superb hunting cartridge. It was long enough to hold a substantial charge of nitro powder, of small enough case diameter that a standard Mauser 98 or Springfield rifle magazine could hold five rounds, and capable of driving .308″ diameter bullets up to 220grains with ease. It was its superiority, and the availability of large quantities of military surplus rifles, that led to many trying it, discovering its superiority over what they had previously been using, and adopting it. During the inter war years and after the Second World War the 30-06 continued to gain popularity until by the 1950’s it was America’s most popular rifle cartridge for bolt action hunting rifles.
Nowadays the 30-06 is still the most recommended caliber for a hunting rifle throughout North America and in much of the world. The reason is that it can be chambered in a standard long bolt action with a 24″ sporter weight barrel tipping the scales around 8lb for the bare rifle, plus mounts and rifle-scope on top of that. Such a rifle is light enough to carry all day for most hunters but with enough weight to absorb the recoil when a shot is fired. Fitted with a good straight stock the recoil of the 30-06 is easily managed by most people. The 30-06 can be chambered in lighter or heavier rifles and the barrel length can be made shorter if desired although both muzzle blast and recoil from a short barrel become unpleasantly sharp for many so 24″ is what manufacturers tend to offer as standard and sensibly so. If the barrel of a 30-06 is pruned down to 20″ carbine length for example then velocity loss is going to drop it down to the same ballistics as the .308 Winchester. If a much shorter and lighter rifle with less muzzle blast and recoil are wanted then the shooter should evaluate the .308 Winchester as an alternative. Factory Rifles for the .308 Winchester are normally made on short bolt actions with a 22″ sporter barrel bringing the weight of the bare rifle down under 8lb (for example the Winchester M70 Super Grade in .308 Winchester is listed as weighing 7lb 12oz whilst the 30-06 with a long action and 24″ barrel weighs 8lb 4oz).
Nowadays the 30-06 is by far the best choice for most hunters in North America. The cartridge is at its best with bullets in the 165grain to 220grain range and it is with those bullets that its superiority over the popular .308 Winchester becomes apparent. The cartridge is loaded by almost every ammunition manufacturer on the planet and there are likely not many gun shops in the United States or the rest of the world that would not have packets of 30-06 ammunition sitting on their shelves. For range shooting, benchrest shooting and other target sports the 30-06 is probably not the best choice any more. But for pretty much any North American and European hunting it is one of the best choices one could make. That being said, if one is intending to take on the North American or European big bears or do something exotic like hunt camels in Australia where the ranges will be long and the camels are big, then a heavier caliber would be recommended. That would be the time to consider the .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum or 375H&H Magnum for example. The 30-06 has a good reputation for African plains game, although one would want something rather larger for African dangerous game. But for most hunters it is all the rifle they will ever need, having all the power and range wanted without an uncomfortable dose of recoil or muzzle blast.
The 30-06 is 111 years old this year and it shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. I suspect that it will still be around in 111 years from now regardless of all the new cartridges that will no doubt be invented between now and then.
Jon Branch is the founder and senior editor of Revivaler and has written a significant number of articles for various publications including official Buying Guides for eBay, classic car articles for Hagerty, magazine articles for both the Australian Shooters Journal and the Australian Shooter, and he’s a long time contributor to Silodrome.
Jon has done radio, television, magazine and newspaper interviews on various issues, and has traveled extensively, having lived in Britain, Australia, China and Hong Kong. His travels have taken him to Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan and a number of other countries. He has studied the Japanese sword arts and has a long history of involvement in the shooting sports, which has included authoring submissions to government on various firearms related issues and assisting in the design and establishment of shooting ranges.