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Bob Hagel once wrote a few words that should be engraved in the mind of every big-game hunter. He stated, “You should not use a cartridge that does the job when everything goes right; you need one that works when everything goes wrong.”
Hagel, who wrote books and magazine articles from the 1960s onwards and worked in the West as a guide and outfitter, had pretty much seen it all. And done it all, at least as far as the American West is concerned. By and large, he seemed to prefer cartridges like the .338 Winchester to, say, the .270 Winchester class. If you’re a good and careful shot, with more prudence than rashness, the .270 Win. is certainly more than adequate for elk. But as Hagel knew, things go wrong: A puff of wind moves the bullet, the bull takes a step at the wrong time, and the next thing you know the bullet has hit the paunch, and a very strong animal is now in the bush, bleeding little and moving fast.
There is no guarantee that had you used the .338, its 250-grain slug would have brought down the bull, but there is a better chance than the reverse. Like all words of wisdom, however, Hagel’s can be taken to extremes and rendered meaningless. If the .338 is good, is the .458 Winchester Magnum better? Obviously not.
For the better part of a century, the .30-06 was the standard by which all other hunting cartridges were measured. Lesser rounds, like the .270 Win. and .308 Winchester, claimed to be as good; larger ones, like the .300 Winchester Magnum, bragged that they were better. For its part, the century-old ’06 strolled modestly along, letting the results do the talking.
Today, the .30-06 is 113 years old—barely older than smokeless powder itself—yet it’s still about the best all-around big-game cartridge we have. It’s not ideal for Alaskan brown bears, but it has killed thousands of them; nor is it the best for pronghorns at long range; it’s a little much for whitetails and maybe on the light side for elk. But bullet for bullet and load for load, no cartridge today can do all of those things better than the ’06.
This is not for want of trying. Since the 1930s, rifle companies, gunsmiths, and wildcatters have tried to develop better rounds. One by one, the challengers have proven not quite up to it. First came the .270 Win. in 1925; in 1952, it was the .308 Win.; a decade later, the 7mm Remington Magnum. All had their merits, but none unseated the .30-06. Today, there are YouTube heroes and TV personalities with more ego than experience claiming that the latest challenger, the 6.5 Creedmoor, is the equal of the .30-06 and even betters it at some impossible ranges.
This is hogwash. Much as I admire the 6.5 Creedmoor, the ’06 it ain’t. It will do many things well, but so will its spiritual ancestor, the 6.5x55 Swedish. As a longtime admirer of the latter, and a longtime user of the .30-06, I am here to tell you there is a world of difference, and I don’t care what bullet you’re using, or what powder you’re using, or how impressive the overlong ogive and the stratospheric ballistic coefficient are.
In 1967 Hagel wrote a piece in Gun Digest called “1,000 Yard Shooting!” After looking at all the pros, cons, limitations, and considerations, he summed up with these words: “As to shooting any game at 1,000 yards—if you do manage to get the bullet into a vital area, you are damn lucky; if the bullet happens to kill the animal cleanly, it is a miracle, and you are very, very lucky. You were also foolish for trying it.”
YouTube heroes, the 6.5 Creedmoor, and the latest laser rangefinders notwithstanding, those words are as true now as they were 52 years ago.