LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Face it, non-magnum .30 caliber hunting cartridges are popular for two reasons.
These bullets strike a unique balance between ballistic efficiency and wounding capability. Smaller diameter projectiles, such as 6.5mm and 7mm, fly flat and penetrate deep, but they create narrower wound channels. Larger bullets, such as 8mm and .35 caliber, make wider holes in game animals but are not the best at longer ranges. The .30 shoots flat enough for serious long range work and makes big enough holes with adequate penetration.
The other reason is simple. The three most powerful nations in modern history, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union all used .30 caliber cartridges in their service rifles. Wherever in the world these nations had influence, those countries’ service cartridges took hold. Soldiers from these armies, American GI’s in particular, wanted their familiar thirties for hunting when they returned to civilian life.
The Thirty Somethings
The author analyzed five .30 caliber cartridges (.30-30, .308, .30-06, .303, 7.62x54R) for trajectory, effective range, and recoil with modern ballistic software available free online from shooterscalculator.com. Calculations were corrected to standard temperature (59F/15C) and pressure (29.92 inHg/1013 mbar) at sea level.
Trajectory in this test is defined as Maximum Point Blank Range (MPBR): the distance over which a bullet rises three inches above sight line and then drops three inches below to hit within a six-inch kill box. Imagine a bullet arcing through a six-inch diameter pipe for a certain distance.
Effective range in this test is the minimum impact energy recommended for a humane kill on medium game such as deer or antelope (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game such as elk or moose (1500 ft-lbs), and the minimum velocity most hunting bullets require for reliable expansion (1800 fps). If the minimum energy range exceeds the minimum expansion range, the minimum expansion range becomes the maximum effective range since unexpanded bullets are much less effective regardless how much energy they possess.
Recoil calculations were based on an eight pound rifle weight, except the .30-30 which used a seven pound carbine. As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf is considered enough recoil to affect most shooters’ accuracy. The less recoil, the more accurate the shooter, and hence, the more effective the cartridge.
All calculations were based on the heaviest Nosler AccuBond™ bullet available in factory loaded ammunition for each caliber, unless otherwise noted. The AccuBond™ is a good all-round hunting bullet with high ballistic coefficients (BCs) and terminal performance similar to the time tested Nosler Partition™. Both BC and sectional density (SD) are noted for each bullet tested. BC quantifies a bullet’s aerodynamic efficiency, and SD predicts relative ability to penetrate into a game animal; the larger each number, the better.
Specialized long range bullets were not used as they are unnecessary for most hunting situations. Muzzle velocities are the nominal industry standard for the tested bullet weight in each caliber.
Some cartridges were handicapped by the fact the ammunition companies don’t offer the heaviest bullet weights, rather they offer the most popular or common. This put some cartridges at a disadvantage since only factory advertised velocities were used. The author acknowledges hand loaders can achieve much better performance in many instances because they can select bullets offered as separate reloading components.
Points were awarded as follows:
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for maximum effective range on medium and large game, respectively, and one point deducted for every 25 yards less than 200 yards.
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for minimum expansion velocity, one point deducted for every 25 yards less.
- One point for every 10 yards MPBR beyond 200 yards and one point deducted for every 10 yards less.
- One point for each ft-lbsf recoil less than 15, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf greater than 15.
Here’s how each cartridge ranked. Detailed performance figures are summarized in the table at the article’s end.
First Place: .30-06 Springfield, 40.5 Points
180 gr. AccuBond at 2700 fps. The .30-06’s ability to use bullets between 110 and 240 grains makes it the choice for the one gun hunter. With the right load, the “Ought Six” can drop everything from wood chucks to Kodiak bears. The fact factory ammo and reloading components are available everywhere—from the largest U.S. city to the smallest African rail stop or Australian sheep station—proves why it is so popular.
Second Place: .308 Winchester, 29.8 Points
180 gr. Partition at 2570 fps. It’s easy to understand why the .308 is the best-selling rifle cartridge in America. It is versatile, accurate, and has moderate recoil. It would have scored higher in this test, but no major ammunition maker offers an AccuBond™ heavier than 165 grains. Although the 180 grain Nosler Partition™ used in this test has a BC close to a 180 grain AccuBond’s, the hundred feet or so less muzzle velocity than the .30-06 puts it at a deficit in this test which it can’t overcome.
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Third Place: 7.62x54R, 21.5 Points
180 gr. PPU soft-point at 2624 fps. No surprise here. The 7.62x54R is often called “The Russian .30-06.” It suffered in this test because no high-BC hunting bullets are offered in factory ammunition at the moment. Given a bullet with a BC similar to the 180 gr. AccuBond, it would run neck and neck with its American counterparts.
Fourth Place: .303 British, 18.2 Points
180 gr. Winchester Power Point at 2460 fps. During the British Empire’s heyday, English hunters used the .303 to take almost every game animal on the planet. Like the Russian, this classic cartridge lost many points in this test due to low-BC bullets. Ammo makers also limit this cartridge’s chamber pressure since there are still so many older Lee-Enfield rifles out there. Hand loaded with slippery bullets and fired in a strong, modern rifle, the .303 is a great performer.
Fifth Place: .30-30 Winchester, minus 7.9 Points
170 gr. Partition at 2200 fps. Despite last place, the .30-30 is still a fantastic hunting cartridge. It has taken more deer for more years than perhaps any other. Ammunition manufacturers only offer low-BC, flat or round nose bullets in this cartridge because spitzer-type pointed bullets are dangerous in lever-action tubular magazines: the bullet points can ignite the cartridge in front under recoil.
The .30-06’s runaway victory in this test is due to the 180 grain AccuBond’s availability in factory ammunition (Winchester). The AccuBond’s superior BC gave the .30-06 a massive range advantage over the others.
With equal bullets, the .308 Winchester performs close to the .30-06, and is available world-wide just like its bigger, older brother. The .308 is a fine choice for every soft-skinned game animal except the biggest bears or bison, and perhaps the best choice for use in light-weight, bolt-action or AR platform rifles.
While the 7.62x54R has just begun to attract a following in the United States, hunters in Eastern Europe and Africa rely on it. It is accurate, hits hard, and a good choice if one hunts in the Third World.
The .303 British is just a good, honest cartridge. A budget challenged hunter could do far worse than an inexpensive sporterized Lee-Enfield rifle combined with some high-quality 174 or 180 grain bullets.
The .30-30 came off the worse in this test, but the medium game energy and bullet expansion velocity limits are a bit arbitrary when applied to this cartridge. The Nosler Partition used in this test, for example, will often expand at speeds as low as 1600 fps. Coupled with the rapid energy dump into the target by this and similar bullets, it will reliably anchor deer a bit beyond what the test might suggest. Paired with its traditional platform, a sleek lever action carbine, there is perhaps no finer short to medium range deer cartridge. In capable hands this centenarian can drop elk, moose, and black bear, too. A hunter armed with a .30-30 is well armed indeed.
Oh, my choice? I’d be happy with any in this test, but if pressed, I’d pick the .308. It just does its job with no fuss, and less powder. Unless the larger bears were on the menu, then I’d opt for a .30-06 loaded with either 220 or 240 grain premium bullets.
If there is a world-standard hunting cartridge, the .30-06 is it, as this Africa hunt demonstrates.
The 7.62x54R is an excellent hunting cartridge with the right ammunition.
.30-30 Winchester: THE deer killer since 1895
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
LJ Bonham (author) on February 07, 2019:
Tom, the .300 Savage is a marvelous round and the .308 Winchester's parent, but it just isn't popular enough to qualify for this article. I may do a piece on it in the future. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Tom on February 05, 2019:
What about 300 Savage?
LJ Bonham (author) on January 26, 2018:
The .35 Whelan is a superb cartridge, just not a thirty caliber. The .30-40 Krag is also a good thirty.
Cubefarmer on January 22, 2018:
35 whelan. 30 40 Krag
LJ Bonham (author) on July 14, 2017:
You're right, the .30-40 was and is a good round. A lack of sporter rifles chambered for it combined with its short service history conspired to hold it back in the market place. Glad you enjoyed my piece. Check out the other virtual shootouts I've published, I think you'll like those as well.
Ed Palumbo from Tualatin, OR on July 12, 2017:
I enjoyed reading this Hub and agree with the choice you'd narrowed down - the .308 Win. The .30-40 Krag is another thirty caliber that deserves honorable mention, but it's not a fraction as popular as the .30-'06 and .308 Win. You developed some very good points and I enjoyed your thought process!