February 06, 2021
Recently, reader Robb Piper from Pennsylvania sent a letter complimenting my fellow gun scribe Joseph von Benedikt on his article “Getting the Most from Your .30-06” that appeared in an issue of Shooting Times. Mr. Piper enjoyed Joseph’s focus on extending the “top end” of .30-06 performance but said he’d also like to see more about using America’s favorite rifle cartridge at the other end of the scale: lighter loads for varmints, game hunting, and lower-recoil practice.
I am a strong proponent of getting as much time in the field with your big-game rifle as possible. Whether you are target shooting, plinking, or thinning out the varmint population, any extra time with your rifle can improve your ability to put big game in the freezer.
I’ve said before that the .30-06 is about the longest .30-caliber case that does well with reduced loads. Mr. Piper picked the right cartridge.
The recoil of big-game rifles makes most people shy away from using them on varmints. I’m not saying take only your .30-06 on the next varmint hunt, but rather use it for part of the hunt. This is about familiarity, not punishment.
For limited use, you can use your regular big-game loads. If you want to shoot more than a dozen or so shots, you may want to “go light” with either factory or handloaded ammo that is softer on your shoulder.
There are some useful factory loads that fit this category. Remington catalogs a thin-jacketed 125-grain softpoint at 3,140 fps. I have a small stash of this load, and it shows varmint-capable accuracy in my rifles. Winchester and Federal have products with similar specs, and Hornady goes one better. It loads a 125-grain SST bullet in the Custom Lite line with a nominal muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps for reduced recoil. It is not a classic varmint bullet, but it will do the job.
Handloaders have more flexibility. Most bulletmakers offer .30-caliber components in weights between 110 and 130 grains. I prefer the 125- to 130-grain bullets because they have higher BCs for flatter trajectories, and there are some very sleek bullets in that niche. A good rule of thumb is to use the starting loads shown for propellants in the midrange of burning rates like H4895, Varget, Reloder 15, and IMR 3031. At Speer, we found some very consistent .30-06 start load velocities using Accurate 2015 under a Speer 130-grain hollowpoint.
If you need to go lighter, visit the Hodgdon website and read the article on using H4895 for creating reduced rifle loads. I approve of their method and think the article is an excellent resource that works across a wide range of cartridges and bullet weights. With 125- to 130-grain varmint bullets, you don’t need more than about 2,600 fps to have a lot of fun.
In the past 20 years, several of the big ammomakers sold low-recoil hunting ammo for the .30-06, but I can find only two in 2019 catalogs: the Hornady load I mentioned earlier and a load from HSM. Either should do quite well on critters up to whitetails and maybe larger.
Factory low-recoil .30-06 ammo for big game was of three schools. The more common was the pattern seen in the Hornady load—a really good light bullet (125 grains) at modestly reduced velocity (2,700 fps). The second school was from Federal: load a heavy (170 grains) .30-30 bullet to about 2,200 fps. The HSM offering falls in between, pushing a 150-grain bullet at 2,375 fps. The last two loads reproduce .30-30 Winchester performance.
As I was wrapping up my career at Speer, we tested some reduced-recoil .30-06 loads that approximated the version Federal was loading. Surprisingly, extreme slow-burners like Reloder 25 and IMR 7828 showed promise, but we did not have time to wring them out for final acceptance, so they stayed in the files. One load I will recommend uses Accurate 5744 and Speer’s 170-grain .30-30 FN seated to an overall length of 3.050 inches. A charge weight of 33.0 grains of 5744 achieved 2,175 fps at under 40,000 psi of pressure and with very consistent performance. Accurate 5744 has always been a very linear and well-behaved fuel in the low- to medium-pressure regimes.
If you are introducing the .30-06 to a novice shooter, a stepped approach usually works best. Start low and work up the power level incrementally. When I helped a coworker train his diminutive daughter on his .30-06, we started with a 125-grain cast lead bullet at about 1,200 fps. We crept the velocity level up to 1,400 fps, then to 1,600 fps, where we switched to a 130-grain jacketed bullet. We increased bullet weights and propellant charges incrementally until she announced that she was happy with the load and didn’t want anything more powerful. At that point we were loading 150-grain hunting bullets to 2,400 fps—that’s a little better than .30-30 performance—using 40.0 grains of IMR 3031. The young lady became a successful Texas whitetail hunter with that load.
Using this approach, you need access to cast bullet data for the light end. I strongly recommend avoiding jacketed bullets until you are loading over 1,600 fps because you can lodge a .30-caliber jacketed bullet in the bore if the velocity is too low. I would have loved access to some of the propellants we have today for developing her loads. We started with Unique, which made us pay close attention to powder position. Today, fuels like Accurate 5744 are unsurpassed for filling this niche. Hodgdon’s Web-based Reloading Data Center even has very mild .30-06 data for Trail Boss. Handloaders today have choices we didn’t have 40 years ago.