A whole swag of big-game cartridges have come and gone since the .30-06 began life in 1903 as the .30-03 Springfield, but only a few ever gained as much popularity as this grand old warhorse. The .30-06 became an all-time great, and now sees widespread use among not only American hunters, but among hunters worldwide. One of the reasons for its success is its relatively mild recoil that the majority of hunters can handle without developing a flinch. Due to its status as a big-game cartridge, the .30-06 is offered in every type of sporting rifle made - single-shot, bolt-action, lever-action, pump-action and autoloader - and ammunition manufacturers all over the world offer a wide variety of loads for it. There’s also an immense range of different types of bullets in weights ranging from 110 all the way to 250 grains available in .30 calibre for the handloader.
In the RCBS list of calibre popularity, as judged by worldwide reloading die sales, the .30-06 has always ranked at or near the top. The .30-06 case is 2.494 inches long and bottlenecked in form. It has a 17-degree 30-minute shoulder angle and neck length of .383, body taper is .029. Maximum overall loaded cartridge length is 3.34 inches. Barrel specs for the .30-06 list a bore diameter of .300, a groove diameter of .308, and standard rifling twist of 1:10, but some European rifles have a 1:11 or 1:12 twist. My custom Mauser has the 1:12 twist, which will stabilize 180gn bullets, which is the heaviest I want to use.
Cases can vary in weight from 191 grains to over 200 grains, which means capacities will vary between different makes. When the .30-06 case is filled to the base of the bullet with water, usable case capacity averages 62.5 grains of water, or about 22 per cent more useful powder capacity than the .308 Winchester. SAAMI Specifications call for the .30-06 to work at 50,000 CUP (Copper Units of Pressure).
The Do-All .30-06 may be a real jack-of-all-trades, but it’s probably not ideal for any single purpose. It’s not best for varmints and many hunters even say it’s too powerful for feral pigs and goats. But loaded with the right bullet, the cartridge can handle just about everything from mice to moose. There are a dozen different ways to load the ’06 to perform a wide variety of tasks: accurate small game loads for providing camp meat, and mild informal plinking fun; fast varmint loads; feral pig and goat loads; deer loads; and big-game elk, moose and big bear loads.
The cartridge is not finicky to load for, nor hard on barrels, and produces relatively high velocities. It enjoys such big reputation that no one dares bad mouth it. Sure, it isn’t an exciting round because it’s been around almost forever and is an unimpressive performer when compared to the more powerful .30 magnums. Nevertheless, while “Old Faithful” may be a bit of a plodder, it gets the job done even in the hands of an average hunter.
If you’re camped out and want to knock over a rabbit for the pot, there’s no flies on the Speer 100gn Plinker or Hornady 110gn .30-calibre bullet at .22 Long Rifle velocity. The bugaboo that accompanied squib loads with powders like SR4759 in past years has been squashed thanks to Hodgdon’s Trail Boss, which fills the case to 100 per cent density and needs no filler. The best accuracy will come at somewhere between 70 and 100 per cent load density.
Long range varmint recipes for the .30-06 use the Sierra 110gn hollow-point, 110gn Hornady V-Max or the Lapua 100gn bullet. The latter scoots out of the muzzle at 3552 fps ahead of 59gn of AR2208. A .30 calibre 100-grainer may be low on the totem pole in terms of sectional density and ballistic coefficient, but it shoots suprisingly flat, and packs more than enough energy way out yonder to flatten a dingo at 300 metres or so. Sighted in to strike 58mm high at 100 metres, the little 100gn Lapua zeroes at 225 metres, drops 190mm and has 734 ft/lb of energy at 300.
Don’t let anyone tell you the .30-06 won’t shoot these light bullets and shoot them well. Even these dumpy numbers at high velocity are deadly on predators if everything else is right with the gun/load combination.
Not long ago I discovered the effectiveness of the Nosler 125gn Ballistic Tip (and Hornady 130gn spire -point) on feral goats and pigs. A charge of 57gn of AR2208 has the 125gn Nosler exiting the muzzle at 3300fps and sighted in 38mm high at 100 metres it zeros at 200 and drops only 15mm more than the 110- grainer at 300. But the 125gn bullet delivers 200 ft/lb more energy at 300 metres than a 110gn bullet, making it devastatingly effective on feral animals.
Almost any 150gn bullet will reach out and cleanly drop a deer when launched at over 3000fps. My chronograph showed the 150gn Woodleigh and the 150gn Barnes TSX bullets leaving the muzzle at over 3000fps while the 155gn Dyer HPBT racked up 2939 fps with a compressed charge of 61gn of AR2209. But I’ve concluded that for our mid-sized deer species the 165gn bullet is a better match, especially for those angling shots. The 165gn Woodleigh pushed by 60gn of AR2209 clocked a strong 2830fps fps out of my gun, and 62gn of Re-22 drives the 167gn Lapua Scenar at 2871 fps.
Most hunters in the US favour a stout 180gn bullet for elk and moose, considering it the most deadly for all-around big-game hunting. Most factory cartridges list a 180gn bullet at 2700fps, but this is old hat these days. Federal’s Vital Shok lists this weight at 2880fps with Hornady’s SuperFormance clocking just over 3000fps. The handloader can hardly duplicate these ballistics, especially with the Barnes Triple Shock Bullet, an all-copper bullet with three grooves in the shank to reduce bore friction. I experienced no pressure problems when loading 62gn of AR2213sc with the 180gn Woodleigh, which yielded 2820fps in my rifle. Obviously then, there’d be no trick to take any big game from fallow deer to sambar with a 165-180gn bullet loaded in the .30- 06, provided the missile is strongly structured.
Some hunters prefer to go with a good 200gn bullet for the big stuff. With 58gn of Reloder 22 my gun delivers a strong 2680 fps with the Sierra 200gn MatchKing bullet. This is fine for competitive shooting, because this slim longster holds up and bucks wind well, but I find a tough, all-around 180-grainer like the Federal Bear Claw or Barnes TSX better for big game.
Inevitably, some hunters are going to compare the .30-06 with the newer, more glamourous .300 WSM. It is a well-known fact that short, compact cartridges are more efficient than longer cartridges. That is, they produce more velocity per grain of powder used. This is partly due to being loaded with Winchester ball powders, like 760 and 780, but also because they operate at much higher chamber pressures, averaging 63,000 psi.
Of course, faster powders can be used in the .30-06 with lighter bullets in the 125 to 165gn range to produce fairly high velocities. But because of their burning rate the volume used results in low loading density, which leaves a lot of air space in the case. In many instances this can result in less than optimum accuracy and considerable velocity variation because the powder charge will be in vastly different positions in relation to the primer flash for each shot.
The criterion I have for a good load is that the powder fills the cartridge case for 85 per cent or better loading density. Using a propellant that fills the case precludes variation resulting from changes in powder position, making velocities more uniform. Variables like bullet weight and the capacity of the case determine the optimum powder burning rate or propellant. While AR2209 has proved to be a universally excellent powder in the .30-06, a heavier charge weight at equal pressure indicates a slower burning powder, which generally means there will be more area under the pressure curve. The area under the curve indicates the total amount of “push” behind the bullet prior to muzzle exit.
In the .30-06, good loading density and safe pressure is usually gained with slower powders. With light 125 and 130gn bullet AR2208 is capable of delivering good velocities, but with bullets weighing from 150 to 180gn it is hard to go past Re-22 and AR2213sc, which wring out the highest possible velocities. Ball powders like 760 and Supreme 780 are helpful, but even they fail to produce the best loading density. Given the propensity for ball powders to be difficult to ignite, the problem is further exacerbated by their having a low loading density. This is why most .30-06 handloaders get the best results with bulky, slow-burning powders that take up more room.
While a case full of powder eliminates air space and produces high performance, this is not to say that other powders such as AR2208 - which do not fill the case completely with heavy bullets - are lacking in accuracy. Magnum primers aren’t necessary with slow powders in the .30-06 and I use the Winchester 120 with both ball powders and extruded propellants slower burning than AR2209.
As to the best handloading practices with the .30-06. Neck- sizing only, is adequate where cases are to be used in the same rifle, if a bolt-action. But for a rifle like the slide-action Remington 7600, full-length sizing is a must to guarantee ease of chambering. For my own part, these days I prefer to full-length size my brass for hunting, even with a bolt-action.
To make sizing cases easier, I lubricate case bodies by rolling them on a pad, and use Imperial Dry Neck Lube to ease passage of the expander plug through case necks for less tension and easier operation of the press handle. This product doesn’t have to be wiped out after sizing and is less messy than powdered graphite.
Bullet seating depth is another variable. Seating a bullet deeper with a given powder charge increases loading density and reduces effective case capacity. I like to be able to make full use of the length of the magazine by seating bullets out as far as is practicable. But bullet seating depth also bears a relationship to the individual rifle and its throat length. If it turns out that your rifle has too short a throat to allow bullets to be seated out in the magazine, it can be lengthened to suit.
Over the years I’ve measured the throats in a number of .30- 06 rifles and found they were all different, and not by just a little bit. Consequently, a given load with a specific bullet seating depth might shoot well in some rifles and poorly in others.
Some guns, even seemingly identical models, will shoot some loads better than others. Thus it behooves the reloader to start by determining the correct overall cartridge length. SAAMI specs list O.A.L as running from 2.940 to 3.340 inches. This is for factory loads to ensure that any .30-06 ammo will function through any .30-06 rifle. For example, choose a bullet, say the popular 168gn Ballistic Silvertip and a uniform load, preferably with a powder charge which fills the case. Once this is accomplished, you can fire each of those loads in your rifle to determine how accurate they are.
Let’s refer to the Nosler Reloading guide No. 6, which is the only manual I know of that lists load density volume. We want to seat the 168gn bullet for an overall length of 3.30 inches. This should bring the base of the bullet approximately to the base of the neck. Now we check which powder gives the highest velocity. The heaviest powder charge is compressed - 63gn of Re- 22. All powders in the Nosler manual give loading densities from 88 to 114 per cent. Starting out, I had no idea whether my rifle would handle 63gn, so I worked up in increments of one grain from 59gn of Re-22, which generates a modest 2812 fps in the hope of attaining 3002 fps with normal pressure. I finally settled for 62gn, which was mild and turned up an average 2871 fps. Naturally, I fired each load for group size in my rifle, and the 62gn charge put 5 shots into an average 1.25 MoA. My loads are all listed in the table.
I’ve found the .30-06 to be more finickey than the .308 Win. It often requires a lot of experimenting to find just the right combination of powder and bullet to produce the best balance of accuracy and performance. It’s been said that the .30-06 will deliver around 100fps more velocity than the .308 with any bullet weight. With bullets up to 168gn it may come close, but with bullets up through 180gn the difference is usually closer to 200 fps with the heaviest weights.
The .30-06 can give good game accuracy with just about any recipe, and bullets in weights ranging from 100 to 240 grains. Long live the .30-06 Springfield, I predict it will be seeing widespread use for another 100 years.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, April 2012