What's the Best .30-06 Based Cartridge? The Answer Will Surprise You
.30-06 Family Virtual Shootout
The .30-06 Springfield is the most popular sporting rifle cartridge in the world. It is versatile, accurate, and plentiful. Every rifle maker offers at least one model chambered for this old war horse.
The U.S. military adopted the .30-06 in 1906 (hence the “06” in its name) as an improvement on the .30-03 which the Springfield Arsenal had designed to replace the somewhat under-powered .30-40 Krag. The .30-06 earned its spurs during World War One. Many U.S. veterans fell in love with the .30-06 during their service days and wanted to hunt with it when they returned to civilian life.
Post-War Baby (Cartridge) Boom
They also began to experimented with the then new cartridge and found it responded well to modifications. Soon cartridges were developed based on the .30-06’s 62mm-long case which had a higher powder capacity than rivals such as the 57mm Mauser case. Experimenters necked the 06’s case up and down to produce different performance levels for different sized game animals or hunting environments.
How do the .30-06’s descendants compare to their parent, and to each other?
The author analyzed six .30-06 based cartridges 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) at sea level.
Trajectory 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 (average vital zone for big game). Imagine a bullet traveling 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 (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game (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 a nine pound rifle weight, which is average for most scoped and loaded sporter-type rifles. As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf is considered enough recoil to affect most shooters’ accuracy.
Standardized Test Methodology
All calculations were based on the heaviest Nosler AccuBond™ bullet available in 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, and the 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 some instances because they can select bullets only 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 than 200.
- One point for every ten yards MPBR beyond 200 yards, and one point deducted for every ten yards less than 200.
- 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: .280 Remington, 51.8 Points
Remington’s answer to the .270 Winchester scored highest despite the fact a 140 grain bullet is the heaviest offered by the major ammunition makers. Hand loaders will find this is one cartridge which benefits from 150 -175 grain bullets which have higher BCs and will improve effective range against larger game such as elk and moose.
Second Place: .270 Winchester, 49.2 points
The popular .270’s performance is almost identical to the often ignored .280. It came a close second in this test because just like the .280, the heaviest AccuBond™ in a factory cartridge is 140 grains, a weight which compromises between the 130s preferred for medium game and the 150 - 160s suited to larger animals. A .270 which is well matched to the intended game is a terrific companion for any hunter.
Third Place: .25-06 Remington, 41.9 Points
Although it scored a distant third place in this test, the .25-06 wins a real world trifecta. It is the lowest recoiling, flattest shooting, hardest hitting cartridge in existence. Although, for some inexplicable reason it has lost market share over the last decade. Again, here is a cartridge which could have scored higher if ammunition makers offered a heavier AccuBond™ bullet. The 110 grain tested is best for deer sized game and predators, but the cartridge becomes a giant slayer with 115 – 120 grain bullets. Its lowest in class recoil makes it a natural for novice and recoil sensitive shooters, or anyone who understands lower recoil means more accurate shots.
Fourth Place: .30-06 Springfield, 40.5 Points
While it scored mid-pack in this comparison, the .30-06 is still more versatile than its progeny. This cartridge’s ability to use bullets between 110 and 240 grains makes it the choice for the one gun hunter. The smaller caliber .30-06 spinoffs may shoot flatter and the larger calibers may hit harder, but only 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’s outback—proves why it is so popular.
Fifth Place: .338-06 A-Square, 36.3 Points
A wildcat cartridge until just a few years ago, the .338-06 takes .30-06 cartridges to a new level for use against large, heavy critters. .338 caliber bullets have tremendous sectional densities—grain for grain, they drive deeper into animals than most others. This means even at the modest velocities this cartridge generates, it is more than a match for large, thin skinned animals. Although it generated the highest recoil forces in this test, it is still much milder to a shooter’s shoulder than any .338 caliber magnum.
Sixth Place: .35 Whelen, 22.3 Points
Although rendered a bit redundant with the .330-06’s debut, the .35 Whelen filled the heavy hitter role in the .30-06 family for decades. .35 caliber bullets may not have sexy coefficients compared to the .338’s, but they hit big, tough animals hard. Just try to talk an Alaskan sour dough into selling their old .35 Whelen and you just might have to duck a punch.
The .30-06 has spawned the most versatile cartridge line up in history. There is little a hunter cannot do with any .30-06 based round, expect perhaps take Africa’s Big Five. Although, before laws in some African countries restricted its use on dangerous game, the .35 Whelen had been used on everything the continent has to offer, including elephant.
The .25-06 is a mild mannered deer hammer, and can put elk and moose in the freezer. It is also a best pick for long range predator control; it makes small holes in valuable pelts.
The .270 and .280 are loved by hunters the world over, especially those in the western United States. They’ve given unsuspecting deer and elk dirt naps across five hundred yard wide canyons for decades. Given heavier AccuBonds™ in factory ammunition, they would have left all the others even farther behind in this test.
The .338-06 and .35 Whelen have the same mission in this great cartridge family. It’s a shame most hunters view them as short range specialty rounds for use in heavy cover. Their effective ranges in the 500 yard neighborhood make them ideal for all-round hunting, especially when the game is big and shrugs off lesser cartridges.
Although it looks mediocre in this test, the venerable .30-06 is still perhaps the best choice in the bunch when all factors are considered. Both .30-06 ammunition and guns chambered for it are available world-wide, and it is affordable to shoot which means more practice. Practice makes for accuracy, and accuracy puts more meat on the table than any other single thing.
The .30-06 family contains perhaps the best hunting cartridges in history. Few could argue otherwise.
.30-06 Family Feud Test Results
With the right bullet, the .270 punches way above its weight class.
The .25-06 Remington: perfect speed goat medicine.
.30-06 and a 1903 Springfield rifle. Classic.
The .338-06 is not a common round, but cases are easily formed from .30-06 brass.
The .35 Whelen packs a wallop!
Questions & Answers
© 2017 LJ Bonham