Modern Varmint Loads for the .30-06 Springfield
Date: Mar 15 2021
It is truly remarkable that a 115-year-old cartridge remains one of American’s most endeared. Dean Grennell wrote in Handload No. 1, “Every little while, when some intrepid gunwriter can’t think of anything else to write about, he falls back on the one traditional subject which always seems to sell. It is but the work of a moment for him to drag a case of cold beer over next to the typer and bash out a white-hot hunk of prose under some sort of title such as, “IS THE .30-06 OBSOLETE?”
That was back in 1966, yet the ancient .30-06 Springfield persists. Despite the recent appearance of sexy cartridge sensations such as the 6.5 Creedmoor, Short Magnums, or any number of necked-down African dangerous-game cartridges meant to stoke the delusions of would-be American Snipers, the .30-06 remains as popular, and versatile, as ever. Outside of specialized stipulations, such as equipping a youth shooter or petite woman, the .30-06 serves for just about anything the North American big-game hunter is likely to tackle. And while it has become fashionable to minimize any cartridge’s capabilities, I would include bull elk, and even brown bears, in that assessment given viable bullet construction and shot placement, obviously.
Firearms and cartridges have become increasingly specialized, but it’s also true a good many blue-collar hunters find the need for but one centerfire rifle. For these hunters, the .30-06 does it all, especially given the mind-blowing array of .308-caliber component bullets offered to handloaders. This includes varmint bullets, which is the subject under discussion here.
Granted, handloading light-for-caliber bullets for the .30-06 Springfield isn’t something likely to move hardcore varminters. But again, I’m addressing one-rifle shooters who might get the itch to thin some jackrabbits, ground squirrels or prairie dogs during the off-season, if just to keep shooting skills sharp.
The test rifle perfectly reflects that philosophy; a plain, sporter-barreled Winchester Model 70 manufactured in 1966. It is a Black & Decker kind of rifle – wholly dependable, shooting well, but not spectacularly. The 22-inch tube includes standard 1:10 rifling twist inspired by the classic cup-and-core bullets of its day, so it tends to shoot tighter 100-yard, five-shot groups with roundnose bullets than spitzers of the same weight. It is topped with a favorite Tract Optics’ Toric Ultra HD 2-10x 44mm scope.
Contemplating small game, varmints (including wild hogs) and predators, I chose Hornady’s 100-grain Short Jacket/SJ Varmint (G1 BC .152), Cutting Edge Bullets’ 100-grain ESP Raptor (.230), Nosler’s 110-grain Tipped Varmageddon (.293), Hornady’s 110-grain V-MAX (.290), Barnes’ 110-grain M/LE TAC-TX FB (.289) and Berger’s 115-grain Flat Base Target (.289). Most of these bullets include G1 ballistic coefficients (BC) higher than .224-caliber 55-grain bullets of the same series. Aside from the reduced Short Jacket loads, powders consisted of case-filling formulas with medium burn rates commonly used to stoke 55-grain or heavier .223 Remington loads. Modern, temperature-stable options were heavily favored. Shooting was conducted on a wind-chilled day with temperatures hovering in the teens while wearing insulated gloves and heavy clothing. Three-shot groups were fired in diffidence to the light sporter barrel and my quickly-dwindling supply of primers due the current panic hoarding.
Experiences with Hornady’s 100-grain Short Jacket (from my Thompson/Center Contender handgun chambered for .30-30 Winchester and with 10-inch barrel) haven’t been entirely encouraging. But I like the idea of this bullet for plinking and small-game hunting. IMR-4227 and Accurate A-5744 were chosen to create mild, reduced loads, as this bullet wasn’t designed for high velocities. I shot all Short Jacket loads at 75 yards. Maybe I should have shown more faith and tested these bullets at 100 yards, as 29 to 31 grains of IMR-4227 printed .57 to 1.01 inches, while the best group was .55 inch at 2,368 feet per second (fps) with 30 grains of powder. A-5744 did its best work with 26.5 grains of powder, assembling a .75-inch group at 2,066 fps. From this rifle, these loads are obviously accurate enough for 100-yard shots. I’d love to be turned loose on a pasture tenanted by a bevy of desert jackrabbits and a pocket full of these loads!
The 100-grain Cutting Edge Bullets ESP Raptor is a monolithic slug milled from brass and holding an exaggerated polymer tip. The bullet is designed to shed several petals from the hollow nose after impact, with the solid base driving through. A long-for-weight, boat-tail profile lends its excellent ballistics due to a stature matching an old style, 150-grain .308 softpoint bullet. Note that California doesn’t consider this a true nontoxic bullet, as the smallest traces of lead contained in the brass make it illegal for use. Powders were chosen to impart maximum velocity, as this sturdy bullet is certainly up for it. This included maximum charges of Vihtavuori N540, Accurate A-2460 and proven Hodgdon H-4895, which is part of the temperature stable Extreme Series. Vihtavuori N540 produced its best group – 1.13 inches – with 37 grains of powder at 3,653 fps. A 58.5-grain charge of Accurate A-2460 resulted in a 1.08-inch group at 3,608 fps. Hodgdon’s H-4895 proved the best match, 57, 58 and a compressed load of 59 grains printed 1.15, 1.06 and 1.03 inches respectively, which was the last of the best group with this bullet.
Nosler’s Tipped Varmageddon varmint bullet proved less costly than premier polymer-tipped options, but it generally relinquishes similar accuracy and explosive terminal performance. This bullet was paired with Alliant Reloder 15, Hodgdon CFE-223 (the original copper erasing powder) and IMR-4166 Enduron (also with copper-erasing agents). All are temperature stable. Fifty-eight grains of Alliant Reloder 15 produced a 1.22-inches group at 3,402 fps, 58.5 grains of Hodgdon CFE 223 a 1.18-inches cluster at 3,305 fps. The most accurate powder with this bullet proved to be IMR-4166 Enduron (54 grains at 3,107 fps). IMR-4166 averaged the best groups overall, but with slightly slower velocities, so perhaps the slower pace served to tame the long jump into the lands required of this stubby slug.
The V-MAX from Hornady is a firebrand varmint bullet, the 110-grain/.308-caliber version includes a super-accurate flat-base, thin jacket and polymer tip to assure dismantling impacts on small varmints. Ramshot TAC, Vihtavuori N140 and Hodgdon Benchmark were chosen for this bullet. Interestingly, this bullet hit about 8 inches lower than the similar Nosler bullet with the same zero. TAC showed unusually high velocity swings, though it did turn in a 1.34-inches group at 3,160 fps with 54 grains of powder. Benchmark turned in some decently-low extreme velocity spreads, but its best group measured only 1.52 inches at 3,192. Vihtavuori N140 proved the best match, producing a 1.15-inches group at 3,176 fps with 56.5 grains of powder and decent extreme velocity spreads.
Barnes’ 110-grain M/LE TAC-TX FB certainly isn’t a varmint bullet, but it does offer a true lead-free design ideal for pelt shooting, as the .300 Blackout-inspired bullet won’t shred hides. From my .30-30 T/C pistol the TAC-TX has also proven a capable wild boar option. This one is California compliant and holds an exaggerated polymer tip to lengthen its profile. Accurate A-2520, Vihtavuori N133 and Accurate A-4064 served to maximize velocities with this rugged bullet. Western Powders Handloading Guide Edition 1 lists 60.6 grains of A-4064 as maximum, a charge filling a .30-06 case to the brim with a few kernels left over. Seating this long bullet would require severely crushing powder, so maximum loads were reduced to 59.5 grains. Vihtavuori N133 produced top velocities, but its best group measured only 1.77 inches at 3,311 fps with 52.5 grains of powder. Accurate A-2520 did a little better accuracy-wise, printed 1.45-inch at 3,264 fps with a maximum load of 56 grains of powder. I’d have to wait until the very last shot string to produce this bullet’s best group – .97 inch at a zippy 3,371 fps with 59.5 grains of powder. This load also showed single-digit extreme velocity spreads, making this load the clear winner.
Berger’s 115-grain Flat Base Target was designed for top-notch accuracy, and if the many .224- and .243-caliber Berger target bullets I’ve tested are any indication, they should open aggressively on small varmints. The Flat Base design includes especially sharp rear edges, requiring a generous chamfer to avoid neck creases. Powder choices included Alliant Power Pro Varmint and Reloder 10x, and IMR-8208 XBR. Up front, IMR-8208 XBR displayed wild velocity spreads, which showed in accuracy, the best group (51.5 grains of powder at 2,977 fps) printed only 1.78 inches. Velocities were also lower than other powders tested. Alliant Power Pro Varmint also proved a poor choice for this bullet as the best group printed 2.04 inches at 3,113 fps. Alliant Reloder 10x was the undisputed star, 49.5 grains of powder at 3,178 fps producing a .77-inch group with decently low extreme velocity spreads, and 51.5 grains printed .62 inch at 3,231 fps, this bullet’s best group.
Aside from the reduced Short Jacket loads, I admit I wouldn’t care to invest in a full day of shooting with most of these loads. Recoil was manageable, but is considerably more robust than typical varmint rounds in the .22-250 Remington class. For the casual varmint shooter, most loads show promising accuracy – especially considering the older, factory-original test rifle. In fact, many of these loads shot as well as this rifle is capable with tailored big-game loads. Finally, in the case of the monolithic Cutting Edge and Barnes bullets, I wouldn’t hesitate to hunt deer or wild hogs with any of the loads listed.