Right now, the 6.5 Creedmoor is gathering all the headlines and glory. Fifty years ago, the 7mm Remington Magnum was America’s darling, for some years the world’s most popular cartridge to carry a “magnum” suffix. Both, to me, are anomalies. America is .30-caliber country!
It started in 1892 with the .30-40 Krag, and continued in 1895 with the .30-30, now 125 years old and still selling well. Introduced in 1906, the powerful .30-06 became the American standard. Introduced in 1963, the .300 Winchester Magnum was at first reviled: Too short in the neck, caught up in Winchester’s catastrophic pre-’64/post-’64 shift, and designed to replace the revered .300 H&H. The .300 Winchester Magnum did not take off well. However, the sun, moon, and stars realigned. Over time the .300 Winchester Magnum, a proper American .30-caliber, booted the 7mm Remington Magnum as the most popular magnum cartridge.
It remains to be seen if the 6.5mm Creedmoor will retain its current popularity, but I believe order will return to the universe and we will again become a .30-caliber nation, as we have been since the dawn of smokeless powder. However this plays out, two great and versatile .30-caliber cartridges will remain among our most popular choices. They are, of course, the .308 Winchester (aka 7.62×51 NATO) and the .30-06 Springfield (aka .30 U.S. Government, Model of 1906).
The .308 is based on a .30-06 case shortened from 63mm (2.494 inches) to 51mm (2.015 inches). It was introduced in 1952, the year of my birth so, like me, it’s no spring chicken. We must never forget that the .30-06 is the most powerful cartridge ever adopted by a major military power. The .30-06 and its 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle defined what we think of as “standard” action length. In part this was its undoing; its later Garand rifle was long and heavy; we wanted a shorter and more efficient self-loading action.
Well into the Fifties the .30-06 was not only America’s service cartridge, but also our most popular sporting round. Unabashedly, I am a .30-06 guy. As such, I have huge experience with the .30-06…and not nearly as much with the .308. In performance on game, the .308 and .30-06 are similar. Always it depends on who is doing the loading but, with greater case capacity, with bullets up to 180 grains the .30-06 averages about 150 fps faster than the .308. Game animals are unlikely to discern the difference; there’s really nothing you can (or should) do with a .30-06 that you can’t (or shouldn’t) do with a .308. The gap widens with heavier bullets. These days few of us actually use heavier bullets, but with 200-grain bullets the .30-06 is about 200 fps faster…and with 220-grain slugs the .30-06 is nearly 300 fps faster than the .308.
So, the .30-06 is a bit more powerful and shoots flatter than the .308, and does better with extra-heavy bullets. Personally, I like the .30-06 better, but I grudgingly admit the .308 offers significant advantages. The shorter case is more efficient. Efficiency is conducive to accuracy, so, on average, a .308 is likely to be more accurate than a similar .30-06. That said, in my experience quality of barrel and ammo are more important to accuracy than case design. I’ve never had a problem with .30-06 accuracy, certainly not for hunting…but it depends on what you want to do. The .308 has been used for bench-rest competition; the .30-06 rarely. Also, because it’s slightly less powerful, the .308 kicks less than the .30-06.
The greater advantage to the .308 is its suitability to shorter actions…and various action types. My Dad did virtually all his hunting with a Model 70 Featherweight in .308, a shorter and lighter bolt-action than was possible with a .30-06. The .308 has been chambered to several lever-actions, including the Savage 99, Winchester 88, and Browning’s short-action BLR. In lever-actions, only the long-action BLR and the 1895 Winchester have been chambered to .30-06. Semi-auto .30-06 sporters aren’t as scarce: Remington’s Woodsmaster series; Browning’s BAR; H&K M940; and Sauer 303. Self-loaders in .308 are common, including Browning, Remington, and of course, the M14/M1A series and the full gamut of AR10-based rifles.
Today not as many shooters handload as we did a while back. To handloaders this doesn’t matter, but for shooters of factory ammo there’s a huge advantage to choosing popular cartridges because, in both variety and availability, there’s lots of ammo. Everybody loads both .308 and .30-06, with hundreds of factory loads to choose from, featuring just about any bullet. Popular cartridges also benefit first from emerging technology. Hornady’s Superformance line uses blended propellants that increase velocity without increasing pressure. When Superformance was introduced in 2009 the first load was a 165-grain .30-06. In the test rifle we used, this load clocked over 3000 fps, which is creeping into .300 magnum territory.
It is unlikely that a .308 load with a 165-grain bullet can ever be that fast. However, today the .308 is more popular than the .30-06, profiting equally from ongoing load development. Because the .308 case is more efficient and propellants continue to advance, the velocity gap between the .308 and .30-06 is narrower than it used to be. For example, that same Superformance .30-06 load with 165-grain SST is currently rated at 2960 fps in a 24-inch barrel. The .308 Superformance load with the same bullet and barrel length is rated at 2840 fps. That is a very fast .308 load, just 120 fps difference from the .30-06 load with the same bullet.
There is a difference: The faster .30-06 will deliver more energy and shoot a bit flatter. No matter what loads are used, the .308 is not quite a .30-06. However, one thing the growing long-range crowd is teaching us: Trajectory, meaning bullet drop at a certain distance, is just a number. Know the number, know the range, know your equipment, and the solution is just a matter of dialing the range or holding the correct stadia line.
I have more confidence in the .30-06 because I’ve used it much more, and I like its higher velocity and increased energy. Fans of the .308 probably like its legendary accuracy, its ability to be housed in shorter actions, and its lighter recoil. All arguments are valid, and we’re really splitting hairs. Although decisively effective, both cartridges are needlessly powerful for deer. Despite what I just said about trajectory, neither shoot as flat as I like for mountain hunting or serious long-range pursuits. However, the two are close enough in power to be redundantly effective on game larger than deer: Elk, moose, black bear, larger African plains game.
Oddly, I’ve never hunted elk or moose with a .308, although my Dad’s .308 accounted for both species. I’ve taken several elk with the .30-06 out to about 350 yards. The .30-06 is still, always, and forever a great elk rifle…but at reasonable range, so is the .308. In Africa I’ve used the .308 a bit. Like I said, of the two cartridges, I’m mostly a .30-06 guy, so I’ve used the .30-06 a whole lot more. Both are extremely and identically effective on tough animals such as 500-pound wildebeest and 800-pound zebras…at normal African ranges.
The long-distance shooting that we bandy about as if routine is rare in Africa. Over there, one drop of blood is considered a wounded animal, counted against the license with all fees payable. African hunting teams work hard to secure close, near-certain shots; anything much over 200 yards is considered “far,” and shots beyond 300 yards are rare. At these distances, both the .308 and .30-06 are powerful and effective for almost all non-dangerous species. The 2000-pound eland is an exception…but I’ve seen eland bulls taken cleanly with both cartridges.
The .308 and .30-06 have also been used effectively for all thick-skinned African game. The .30-06 with 220-grain solids was once considered acceptable for elephant, and expert wildlife officers often use 7.62×51 NATO rifles and ammo for elephant control. To me there are much better tools, but the power of these versatile .30-calibers should not be underestimated. When I hunted in the Philippines, we couldn’t bring in firearms, so we borrowed a vintage M14 in 7.62×51 and some military ball ammo from the local garrison. My partner and I each shot multiple water buffaloes Jungle shooting at close range is not something I’d like to make a habit of, but we had no problems and the “little” .308 was impressive.
Take your pick: Both the .308 and .30-06 are useful and effective cartridges. If you place a premium on accuracy and want a bit less recoil, you’ll probably prefer the .308. The .30-06, with more velocity and energy, and better able to handle heavier bullets, is slightly more versatile. Both are excellent choices, two classic all-American .30-caliber cartridges, almost certain to remain popular and available for many years to come.