When people ask me about hunting cartridges and cartridges for general use, I seem to always gravitate towards two of the most popular rifle rounds ever: the .30-06 and the .308 Winchester. These two rounds have a long and intertwined history, with the .30-06 being sort of like the .308’s father, in a manner of speaking. In this article we will take a look at the two cartridges, head-to-head, and talk about what each offers independently.
The .30-06 is probably the most successful and popular centerfire rifle round that has a military past. The cartridge has a history dating back before the First World War and has been used to hunt virtually every game animal alive today. There will be people who fervently deny this, but in my opinion there isn’t a better general use cartridge than the .30-06. There is nothing it can’t do, from setting records at Camp Perry to fighting wars to dropping an animal on that once-in-a-lifetime hunt.
The .308 Winchester isn’t far behind in usefulness and success. It’s a much longer story than I care to tell here, but the .308 is essentially the same as the 7.62x51mm NATO, which was the result of the efforts to arm all the post-WWII allied countries with a standard set of cartridges. The .30-06 M1 Garand was used as the basis of the M14 rifle and the 7.62 NATO was designed to take advantage of new propellants, thus allowing a smaller case. The .308 went on to become one of the most popular post-war cartridges for hunting and target shooting.
When looked at side-by-side, the two rounds are quite similar, but occupy slightly different spaces in the shooting world. The .30-06 is, marginally, a better hunting cartridge when firing the same weight bullets as the .308. For years, the 150gr soft point was considered the standard for both, and their performance was nearly identical. The advantage went to the .308 because the rifles made for it were slightly smaller and had somewhat shorter barrels, thus making them lighter and handier.
The performance gap begins to widen when heavier and more aerodynamic bullets are considered. The .308 has enjoyed excellent match-quality ammo in 168 and 175gr varieties for decades. These have not only seen service in sniper rifles, but also on the line at prestigious matches. The 175gr .308 was, and still is, the bar for all precision rifle rounds. As weight begins to further increase, the .308 begins to lose case capacity and speed. The separation, at least in my mind, occurs after bullets reach 180gr.
When looking at these heavy bullets, the .30-06 can take advantage of the heaviest available in the .30 caliber family, often between 220 and 240gr. The generous case capacity and long case neck allows the use of these bullets. The .308 can’t really take advantage of these because of available case volume and overall cartridge length.
The .30-06 can push a big Hornady 208gr ELD bullets at about 200fps faster than the .308 can. In fact, the .30-06 can fire bullets as large as 225gr at the same speed that the .308 can launch a 190gr projectile. When it comes to light bullets, the .30-06 takes advantage again. The large case capacity of the .30-06 and typical barrel length of 24” allows 110gr bullets to be loaded at 3700fps, which makes it devastating on varmints.
This article isn’t intended to be critical of the .308. The .308 gets enough hate these days because of its “rivalry” with 6.5 Creedmoor, so now we’ll talk about the major disadvantage of the .30-06 — modern rifles. The .308 has enjoyed a substantial following in terms of innovative rifles. Today we have rifles the world over that chamber the round, from excellent AR-10-style rifles to the new bullpup IWI Tavor 7. The number of available systems that chamber the .308 makes it a serious contender for today’s gun owner.
Despite the hype of the 6.5 Creedmoor, the .308 is still a world standard and is logistically superior in that regard, even over .30-06. The worldwide span of the .308/7.62 NATO means that inexpensive rifles and ammunition are available nearly everywhere. It is the choice cartridge of preppers because it is powerful enough for most all game and available in quantity for stockpiling.
When looking at the availability of rifles, there’s simply no question that the .308 takes the lead. In a bolt action rifle, the cartridge is wasted, at least to me, unless there are other semiautomatic rifles available. The .30-06 is, for the most part, a better round in a bolt gun and is able to be loaded with ammunition that is more powerful across the board than .308. If I were to have to pick based solely on the merits of the round, I would pick the .30-06. If it was a matter of choosing based on available rifles, I’d go with the .308. It truly depends on your needs and what you’re getting out of the deal in the end.
So there you have it. The .308 and the .30-06 are two classic cartridges that have maintained their relevance after so many other rounds have come and gone. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, but at the end of the day they are more similar than they are different. You really can’t go wrong with either and, seeing as how I own rifles chambered in both, I can attest to their utility. If I had to choose, I’d look at the fact that I’m a hunter, competitor, and handloader. I would probably pick my all-original 1943-dated M1903A3 in .30-06 if I had to pick just one.
Don’t agree with me on this or have your own observation? Let me know what you think about these two titans of the cartridge world below and state your own case.