A lot of hunting cartridges have come and gone since the .30-06 Springfield was born more than 100 years ago, but not a single one does it all as well as the grand old '06.
Several years ago, I was assigned the pleasant task of naming and writing about what I considered was the all-time greatest big-game cartridge ever created by the hands of mortal man. Rather than taking the easy way out by jumping right into the best of the best, I came up with a top-10 countdown that included nine cartridges that were great in many ways but still fell short of being as useful as the cartridge I placed at the very top of the heap.
Those of you who have been reading Shooting Times for more than a few years might recall that my selection as the cartridge of all cartridges was nothing less than the .30-06.
Quite a few years have passed since I wrote that piece. During that time, several new cartridges have emerged from the bushes, but not a single one comes close to being as versatile as the .30-06. Flatter trajectories of some of the newer cartridges make them a bit better for open-country shooting of pronghorn antelope and such, whereas higher levels of energy delivered to the target by others make them a bit better on bigger stuff, such as elk and moose. And yet more than 100 years after its introduction, not a single one does it all as well as the old .30-06 Springfield.
For many years, the .30-06 has been the most popular big-game cartridge among not only American hunters but among hunters worldwide. There are logical reasons behind its great success, and at the very top of the list is the fact that it generates about the maximum level of recoil the majority of hunters can handle on a regular basis. Many of us can shoot more powerful cartridges on an occasional basis, but a steady diet of heavy recoil is no fun at all.
The key to becoming a good shot on game is plenty of practice between hunting seasons, and the less comfortable a cartridge is to shoot, the less likely the owner of a rifle chambered for it will use it for punching a lot of paper. The relatively mild level of recoil dished out by the .30-06 encourages those who own rifles chambered for it to shoot them as often as possible.
Due to its global status as a big-game cartridge, ammunition manufacturers in countries around the world load the .30-06. This is quite comforting to know when you and your rifle arrive for a hunt in a faraway land only to discover that the airline has misplaced your ammo. A supply of cartridges will probably be awaiting you at the nearest gunshop.
While they may be a brand you have never heard of-- loaded with a bullet the name of which you cannot pronounce-- they will be better than no cartridges at all. If no gunshop is in the area, the outfitter you will be hunting with will likely have .30-06 ammunition left behind by clients who hunted with him before you.
Anytime a product becomes a commercial success, its options increase accordingly, and this applies to many things, including cartridges. The .30-06 leads the pack here as well, and the last time I counted, Federal, Remington, and Winchester offered more than 60 different loads. Add to those the various loads offered by smaller companies, and it is easy to see that the .30-06 offers something for everyone and everything.
Need to bump off the rascally coyote that keeps raiding Aunt Bessie's henhouse? Remington's 55-grain Accelerator load with its 55-grain saboted bullet at 4080 fps will put a stop to such nonsense. Headed for an elk hunt and want to "magnumize" your rifle in .30-06? Federal's High Energy recipe loaded to 2880 fps with the Nosler 180-grain Partition duplicates the performance of .300 H&H Magnum factory ammunition and falls short of the .300 WSM by less than 150 fps.
Need something to make the match-grade M1 Garand you just bought perform to its full potential? Federal Premium ammo loaded with the 168-grain Sierra MatchKing is what you are looking for. I could go on and on, but you get the point; regardless of the task at hand, the .30-06 is capable of getting it done.
Due to its great popularity, the .30-06 is one of the very first cartridges in which a new rifle becomes available, and it is offered in rifles of all types.
As the lever action goes, the Winchester Model 1895 is both scarce and expensive, but if you simply must have a hunting rifle of this type in .30-06, you can do a lot worse than the Browning BLR. If a single-shot rifle is your cup of tea, take a serious look at the Blaser K95, Ruger No. 1, Browning 1885, Thompson/Center Encore, Dakota Model 10, Merkel K1, and Mossberg SS-1. I have taken game with the Ruger, Browning, T/C, Dakota, and Blaser single shots, and I could live happily ever after if any of these was the only big-game rifle in my battery.
Except for an old Remington Model 81 in .300 Savage that I simply love to take on deer hunts, I am not much of an autoloader man, but for those who are, the unsinkable Remington 742 (now known as the Model 7400), the newly introduced Remington Model 750 Woodsmaster, and the Browning BAR will fire each time their triggers are squeezed, and they will keep on shooting until the deer is down or the magazine is empty.
And for those who agree that General George S. Patton was correct when he stated that the M1 Garand is "the greatest implement of battle ever devised," Springfield Armory is now producing that rifle in all its glory.
Then we have the bolt-action rifle. One of the best ways to assure the commercial success of a new bolt gun is to offer the .30-06 as one of its available chamberings, and one of the best ways to assure that a new rifle is doomed to failure is to never offer it in .30-06. This is a lesson most rifle manufacturers learned long ago, and it is one they remember even today. Truly successful rifles such as the Winchester 70, Remington 700, Browning A-Bolt, Sako 75, Weatherby Vanguard, Ruger 77, and Savage 110 have something other than the type of action they share in common--they have long been available in .30-06 Springfield.
The .30-06 was not the first rifle cartridge that I bought reloading dies for many years ago (the .243 and .270 came first), but I have probably spent more time at the reloading bench with it than with any other big-game cartridge. The two most accurate rifles of this caliber I have ever owned were a Pre-'64 Winchester Model 70 target rifle and a Remington 40-X. Both thrived on the Sierra 168-grain MatchKing nudged out of the muzzle at 2700 fps by IMR-4895. A match-grade M1 Garand I used to own was not as accurate as those two rifles, but it was accurate enough to be great fun to shoot.
Back when I hunted with the .30-06 a lot more than I do today, I usually stuck with two bullets--the Speer 150-grain spitzer for deer and antelope, and the Nosler 180-grain Partition for elk. Most of the rifles I have used through the years had 22-inch barrels, and they delivered close to 3000 fps with the 150-grain bullet and 2800 fps with the 180-grain bullet.
Not long ago, I discovered the effectiveness of the Nosler 125-grain Ballistic Tip on pronghorn antelope. When exiting the muzzle at 3300 fps and zeroed three inches high at 100 yards, it is just about dead-on point of aim at 300 yards and about 10 inches low at 400, where it is still delivering close to 1500 foot-pounds of energy. That's .270 Winchester flat from a cartridge capable of handling bullets heavy and stout enough for use on game as large as Alaska brown bear.
The .30-06 can be quite accurate with about any concoction, including reduced-velocity loads, and I have included two in my data chart--one for use on small game at close to medium ranges; the other a .30-30 Winchester-equivalent load that's just the ticket for a young deer hunter who is a bit sensitive to recoil.
Long live the .30-06 Springfield. May its voice never be silent for as long as game all around the world is there to be hunted.