By Ron Spomer via Sporting Classics Daily
The world’s most successful, popular and versatile hunting cartridge was officially born 100 years ago today. Happy birthday, old timer . . .
A century is but one exceptional human lifetime, yet 1906 was a long, long time ago. The Wright brothers had gotten off the ground just three years before. Peary had yet to reach the North Pole. Most Americans stored their milk in an ice box and drove to work by horse. Henry Ford’s Model T wouldn’t come along for another two years and the first commercial radio broadcast for another fourteen years. Yet there sat the .30-06, bottling up enough energy to flatten everything from rabbits to rhinos.
Not only is the venerable .30-06 Springfield still kicking, it’s kicking the butts of more modern, efficient and powerful rounds. It’s a perennial leader in ammunition sales and rifle reloading die sales. It’s the first cartridge chambered in virtually every new bolt-action big game rifle released.
Technically, the ought-six wasn’t born in 1906 so much as “christened” after a rapid evolution inspired by the deadly performance of Paul Mauser’s 7x57mm, which took the world stage in 1892 and stole the spotlight when Spanish troops roughed up Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba six years later. It wasn’t the cartridge alone, but the rapid-fire bolt-action that impressed the Americans.
By 1903 the U.S. military had designed not only the Springfield bolt-action rifle, but a new high-energy round, the rimless (for smoother function in a stacked magazine) .30-03, which fired a 220-grain .308 bullet. No sooner was it adopted than authorities recognized the advantages of flatter trajectory and less carry-weight, the search for which led to a spitzer shaped, 150-grain bullet mounted in a .30-03 case shortened just enough to earn a new title: Ball Cartridge, Caliber 30, Model of 1906. At 2,700 fps, it was quite a phenomenon.
The ought-six went on to serve the military with distinction until 1954, but military service does not equate to sport-hunting popularity. It certainly helped that millions of farm boys met the .30-06 at the expense of Uncle Sam, but credit Teddy Roosevelt, Stewart Edward White and other famous big game hunters for tempering the cartridge in the gamefields.
Teddy, the youngest, most energetic and most popular president America had embraced to that time, took the first sporterized Springfield on Safari in East Africa in 1909, shortly after leaving office. With his bad left eye, he misjudged range badly and shot worse, but had enough sense to not blame the rifle or cartridge. He sang its virtues so loudly that his friend, novelist and adventurer Stewart Edward White, ordered a customized Springfield of his own for a 1911 Safari.
Seymour Griffin, later of Griffin and Howe, began selling limited numbers of Springfields on his own sporter stocks in 1910 after reading Roosevelt’s African Game Trails. Nevertheless, it was a lever-action, Winchester’s beefy M1895, that first digested the .30-06 in a mass-produced sport-hunting rifle. Alas, the cartridge was too long and too powerful to fit the smaller, lighter, handier Winchester M94 and Marlin 1894 lever-actions, the favorite rifles of that era. No one knew it at the time, but the Springfield .30-06 was the beginning of the end for the lever-action, though it would take several decades for the average hunter to get wind of this.
The initial trickle of sporterized Springfields soon went into full flood. Remington chambered its first M30 for the .30-06 Springfield in 1921, Winchester its M54 in 1925. This was four years before the first commercial AM radio was mounted in an automobile. During its 28-year production history, Winchester’s pre-64 Model 70 was chambered for 18 standard cartridges from .22 Hornet to .458 Win. Mag., yet nearly 80 percent of production was .30-06.
If the Model 70 was “The Rifleman’s Rifle,” the .30-06 was The Rifleman’s Cartridge. Col. Townsend Whelen praised the .30-06 in his magazine writings and books. A young college professor in West Texas, named O’Connor, took to hunting everything from desert sheep to jackrabbits with a.30-06, though he later came to prefer its trimmer offspring, the .270 Winchester. Ernest Hemingway employed a Springfield ought-six to shoot not only lion but also buffalo and rhino on a 1936 safari, tumbling at least one of the latter at long range as it steamed away. You can read all about it in the Green Hills of Africa. Not to be outdone, popular columnist, reporter and novelist Robert Ruark in the 1950s literally learned to shoot with a .30-06 under the tutelage of Harry Selby. It was enough gun, and Ruark’s Horn of the Hunter kept its stock soaring.
Ultimately the .30-06 succeeded not because it was exceptional but because it was versatile. Like the average Joe, this was a Blue Collar, Jack-of-All-Trades, work-a-day round that would handle any job assignment, bunnies to bears.
Not too big, not too small. Not too heavy, not too light. Not too much recoil, but just enough power for nearly anything the average hunter was likely to tackle. For the most common species—whitetails, mule deer, pronghorns—it was pure poison with a 150-grain bullet at 2,800 fps, shooting flat enough to easily reach 300, 350 yards—farther than most shooters could match without excessive ballistic calculations. An 180-grain bullet packed 3,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, enough wallop for elk and moose. While a bit excessive for the available powder space, the big 220-grain, round-nose slugs, at a modest 2,300 fps, pushed their mushroomed tips deep into the biggest bears. Thin-skinned, hollow-point pills of 125- or 130-grains could be flushed from a 24-inch barrel at 3,000 fps, converting the big game rifle into an acceptable varmint rig. Even lighter bullets, 115 to 110 grains, could be loaded light for practice and training rounds, or as small game getters. The .30-06 truly was the one-rifle, do-it-all, multi-purpose tool of the age, and that mattered a great deal during the Depression.
Perhaps most interesting is how nearly perfect the .30-06 has proven, how “just right” the designers and engineers got it. And this was the Federal Government. Of course, wildcatters have converted the .30-06 case into just about every permutation imaginable, from .224 through .375. Many, beginning with the .270 Winchester, have become standardized, yet none have bumped the original as King of the Hill. For the record, the legitimate family includes the .25-06 Rem., .270 Win., .280 Rem., .338-06 and .35 Whelen.
Despite its versatility, or because of it, could the .30-06 be on its last legs? Ours is the age of specialization, the perfect gun for every game. For elk, moose, kudu and eland we have a half-dozen short and long .308 magnums that leave the -06 in the dust. Close on their heels are an equal number of 7mm magnums perfect for long-range deer, sheep, goats and antelope. On the lighter end, we have numerous 6.5mm, .257 and .243 cartridges that shoot flatter and recoil softer than the old Springfield classic. Serious varminters, of course, trick out hot .224s. With such choices, why would anyone settle for the run-of-the-mill .30-06? Probably because new powders and bullets make it more effective than ever.
One of the reasons the -06 won so many hearts and minds early on was bullet performance. At .30-06 velocities, most common, jacketed bullets of the day mushroomed dramatically and penetrated reasonably without coming apart. Pushing them to magnum velocities for increased killing power on elk and larger game sounded good on paper, but translated poorly on the shoulders of moose and bears. Increased velocity also ruined more meat, which never sits well with meat hunters, who are the bulk of big game ammunition buyers. Tough, controlled-expansion, premium bullets have solved the fragmenting problem in magnums while simultaneously improving the reach and punch of the .30-06.
Bullets such as the Barnes X, Winchester Fail Safe (and now XP3) and Swift A-Frame stick together so well that they penetrate more efficiently than traditional slugs. This means a lighter bullet can do what a heavier one used to do. Instead of pushing a jacketed, soft-lead 180-grain 2,700 fps for a 300-yard trajectory of minus 14 inches, an elk hunter can spit a more ballistically efficient 165-grain Triple Shock X bullet 2,900 fps for a 11.4-inch drop at 300 yards.
Improved powders have nudged ought-six velocities steadily upward until today’s standard for 150-grain bullets is 200 fps faster than the original. Handloaders using the latest Hodgdon, IMR, Ramshot, Alliant and Winchester powders routinely get 3,000 fps from 150-grain pills at safe pressures. Hornady and Federal squeeze .300 Win. Mag. velocities from the -06 in their high-energy factory loads.
Certainly, these same advances make magnums that much faster, too, but when the average hunter discovers Dad’s old ought-six is shooting like a .300 Winchester Magnum, he’s pretty tickled and less likely to jilt Old Death Wind for an unproven, hard-kicking newcomer.
Perhaps after a century the .30-06 should bow out gracefully. Virtually everything else from that era has. Only six other cartridges of that age are still produced, most in token quantities. But the -06 can still blow out all its candles in one blast. Hunters the world over still respect it. I doubt it will expire until the last rifle is pried from someone’s cold, dead fingers. So happy birthday, old timer, and many happy returns.
Sporting Classics Rifles columnist Ron Spomer is producer of the comprehensive mobile app Everything Whitetail which includes extensive details on guns, ammo, bullets, ballistics, recoil, hunting tactics, whitetail behavior and much more. Record and share your experience with the built in Hunt Report feature. Everything Whitetail is available for both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android platforms.
Also, visit www.RonSpomerOutdoors.com and www.EverythingWhitetail.com; On Youtube, visit https://www.youtube.com/user/ronspomeroutdoors; and on Facebook, visit https://www.facebook.com/ronspomer.