Top 10 Reloaded Rifle Cartridges #4: .30-06 Springfield
Date: Oct 15 2021
For the last century, the .30-06 has been front and center as a hunting cartridge, and predictions are it is staying there. Sure, some cartridges shoot bullets that beat the .30-06’s trajectory, some hit harder, and still others produce less recoil, but the ’06 is a total package of proficiency.
There are many reasons why the .30-06 has been continually found in the hands of shooters and hunters since the year the Wright brothers were granted a patent for their “flying machine.” Its position as a U.S. military cartridge for nearly 50 years cemented its acceptance.
The initial military version of the .30-06 was not much of an improvement over the .30-40 Krag it replaced. The rimless cartridge was called the Caliber .30, Model 1903, or “.30-03.” It fired a 220-grain roundnose at 2,200 fps, providing a gain of only 200 fps over the Krag load.
The new cartridge was obsolete the day it was adopted by the U.S. military. However, the German military had not been sitting on its heels. It had been busy developing the Model 1905 version of the Model 88 8x57 cartridge. Germany retained the same cartridge case but discarded the cartridge’s .318-inch diameter 226-grain roundnose bullet that had a muzzle velocity of 2,200 fps. The Germans substituted a .323-inch bullet diameter that weighed 154 grains and had a spitzer point. The bullet had a startling velocity of 2,800 fps.
The U.S. pretty much responded by copying the new German cartridge by shortening the case neck of the 1903 .30-caliber cartridge .070 inch and loaded a lighter bullet. The Bull’s-Eye Score Book for the United States Rifle, Model of 1903 published in 1915 by E.N. Johnston, states “The caliber .30 Ball Cartridge has a smooth shell loaded with smokeless powder and a pointed bullet with a lead core and a cupro-nickel jacket weighing 150 grains.” Velocity of the new bullet was 2,700 fps.
Further small arms development in Europe resulted in bullets with a boat-tail that increased effective range. The U.S. again responded in 1926 by switching to a 172-grain bullet with a boat-tail and a velocity of 2,640 fps. The new Garand rifle had difficulty reliably cycling the load, and the 150-grain load was readapted and used throughout World War II.
Many millions of surplus military rifles and commercial rifles chambered for the cartridge would guarantee the popularity of the .30-06, even if another rifle was never made.
When I was a boy, two of my uncles hunted with surplus Springfields, and another hunted with a surplus Enfield. All three rifles had the original aperture sights. Another uncle was a rifle buff, and he had a slew of surplus Springfields and Rock Island 1903 rifles.
One time when I was nine years old I went deer hunting with Bob. He asked me if I had a rifle. “No,” I replied. “Here, take this,” he said, and handed me a Springfield. That rifle was a heavy load to carry, but I never walked taller.
The .30-06 is one of the first cartridges chambered in new rifles. The great number of factory loads make the cartridge a great choice for all manner of shooting. For instance, Hornady promotes its 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge, the current darling of the shooting world, by offering 10 different 6.5 loads. Yet Hornady offers three times as many loads for the .30-06. Those loads encompass 125-grain SST bullets loaded in Custom Lite ammunition, to a variety of 150-, 165-, 168-, 178- and 180-grain bullets, and even a 220-grain roundnose bullet.
The recommendation for the .30-06 has always been to shoot 150-grain bullets while hunting deer and antelope, and heavier 180-grain bullets when hunting larger game. For years, my oldest brother tied fishing flies for me, and in exchange I loaded shells for his .30-06. At first I loaded Billy’s cartridges with Sierra 150-grain bullets for deer and antelope hunting and Sierra 180-grain bullets for elk. Both these bullets have an ordinary lead core and a copper-alloy jacket. He did not like the 150s all that much because he said the bullets “blood-shot” too much shoulder meat.
Now you have to understand that when Billy finished butchering game, not so much as a scrap of meat remained, and magpies flew right over the bones without a second glance. One fall he shot two antelope with 180-grain bullets. He liked the neat in-and-out holes the bullets punched through the animals. Later that season he shot a bull elk with the 180s. The elk ran a short way through the timber and fell over. As expected, the bullet had expanded through the lungs and stopped on the far side under the hide. Ever since, I have only loaded the 180s for him.
The ballistic difference is not all that much between 150s starting out at 2,950 fps and 180s at 2,700 fps. At 250 yards the 150s drop about one inch less than 180s, 2 inches less at 300 and 3 inches less at 350 yards. The 180s carry about an additional 200 foot-pounds of energy over the 150s at 350 yards.
Those were numbers Billy never read or thought about. He never shot an antelope much past 225 yards, or an elk farther than 150 yards. He went to great lengths to sneak close, as that was the delight of his hunting. When someone said they had shot game at 400 or 500 yards he looked on in disbelief, wondering why they would deny themselves the excitement of a stalk. Billy passed on sometime back, but if he had the chance to shoot some of today’s premium bullets, he might have changed his mind.
My son Brian took right to the .30-06 when he was 15 years old. During his first summer practicing with the Ruger M77 Mark II rifle, he shot about 450 light-recoiling cast bullet loads. For hunting, I loaded cartridges with Barnes 150-grain Triple-Shock X Bullets to keep recoil mild against his skinny shoulder.
Brian shot a pronghorn and a whitetail buck with Barnes bullets during each of his first few seasons with the Ruger. The bullets plowed completely through the animals with a minimum of damage to the shoulder meat.
A few seasons later he spotted a band of elk running across a sagebrush flat. He took off running across a bench above the elk to intercept them. The elk crossed 200-some yards below him, and a good bull at the back of the bunch stopped to swap directions. The boom of Brian’s first shot was followed by a crack of the bullet hitting the elk in the shoulder. The second shot also hit the bull in the shoulder, and it fell.
Two Barnes 150-grain Triple-Shock bullets had punched through both shoulder bones and stopped under the hide on the far side of the elk. Few barriers to a bullet are harder than elk bones. Both recovered bullets weighed 128 grains with two of their four petals sheared off, and they expanded to twice their original diameter.
The .30-06 is all about versatility. Norm Lauri has hunted hunt elk ever since I rode a tricycle. Norm has always hunted lodgepole thickets with a Remington Model 760 pump .30-06. Sometimes his shots are at an elk standing less than perfectly broadside. For that he prefers factory-loaded Remington 220-grain Core-Lokt bullets. The bullets come out the barrel at about 2,400 fps. Still, the large nose of exposed lead helps them expand, and their long length keeps them intact. The cartridges are relatively inexpensive, something still important to people who grew up during the Depression.
Factory-produced .30-06 ammunition is rather sedate. The cartridge’s maximum average pressure is 60,000 psi, and it’s doubtful any factory loads crowd that pressure. Rifles with 21- to 24-inch barrels have been used to shoot various factory-loaded 150-grain bullets at 2,700 to 2,900 fps, 165-grain bullets up to 2,700 fps and 180s at about 2,600 fps.
Handloads increase those velocities. I am satisfied when the chronograph screen reads 3,000 fps while shooting 150-grain bullets, 2,850 fps with 165s and 2,750 fps when using 180s.
The .30-06 was the first rifle cartridge I handloaded when I started reloading as a teenager. Back then, IMR-4350 was the powder for the cartridge. While it’s still a good powder for 150-grain and heavier bullets, quite a few other powders produce good velocities and accuracy in the versatile ’06. Hodgdon’s 2018 Annual Manual lists 21 powders for reloading 180-grain bullets. I’ve had good results loading Alliant Reloder 17, 19 and 22, Hodgdon H-4350 and SUPERFORMANCE, Norma URP and Ramshot Hunter and Big Game. I was surprised when 59.0 grains of Hunter launched Swift 180-grain A-Frame bullets at 2,868 fps, and 56.0 grains of powder shot Norma 200-grain Oryx bullets at 2,707 fps from a 24-inch barrel. A check of the Western Powders Handloading Guide, Edition 1 showed those powder weights were appropriate and in line with velocities listed in the guide.
Over the years, I’ve shot 25 or 30 different .30-06 rifles. They ranged from a military Springfield and Rock Island Model 1903 to a Model 1917 Enfield, a Winchester Model 1895 lever action, a Remington 760 pump and Ruger No. 1 single-shot, a Merkel double rifle and a bunch of commercial bolt-actions to include Winchester Model 54s and 70s, CZs and Rugers.
One of the Rugers was an M77 I carried for years. One November morning before first light, a hard wind blew out of the north carrying snow. I headed up the mountain to a park of bunchgrass, peeked over the lip of the ridge and found 30 elk spread out across the park. I propped my rifle across the roots of an ancient Douglas fir. In my excitement, I breathed on my scope and fogged the lens. While wiping the lens clear with a scarf, a bull stepped out from behind a line of cows. The bullet hit the bull hard, and it stumbled forward. It stopped with its head down, then fell just as I shot a second time.
To show how time gets behind us, 30 years later my youngest son hunted above the same park while carrying a .30-06 Ruger American. He saw a herd of elk spread out across a bowl cut in the side of the ridge, crawled through the timber and fired a moment after a bull stepped into the open. The .30-06 just keeps working.