April 01, 2019
Although it Is the single most successful hunting cartridge in history, the .30-06 was actually designed as a military round 112 long years ago. As popular as it is, the aging .30-06 was designed in a different era, for a different set of needs. It’s long and distinctly tapered to enable it to flow smoothly into chambers and to reliably extract, even when barrels heated to palm-scorching temperatures and early gunpowders pressure-spiked. It has a mild-angle shoulder that feeds extremely reliably but doesn’t help powder burn efficiently. And it has a long, robust neck to resist case distortion when slammed into the feedramp and battered into the chamber of hard-used battle rifles and machine guns.
Cartridge design concepts have changed dramatically over the last century. Case walls have gradually become more parallel, shoulders steeper, and necks shorter. Without doubt, modern cartridges, such as the 6.5 Creedmoor, are the most efficient and inherently accurate rounds ever designed. But that doesn’t mean your old .30-06 is obsolete, incapable, or useless. As a matter of history-making fact, the .30-06 is now better than ever, courtesy of the space-age engineering designed into modern bullets.
You might not think diving into the current world of enhanced-performance projectiles is worth the effort. After all, your ’06 likely has been taking down deer, elk, and black bears for decades with plain old softpoint, flatbase bullets. And it probably shoots them well, without any fuss. But you’d be wrong.
Let’s examine just how much performance you can gain by switching to low-drag hunting bullets. To foment interest, let me make a brash statement: At 400 yards, the .30-06 loaded with one of today’s superb high-performance bullets actually outperforms the .300 Winchester Magnum loaded with a traditional flatbase, softpoint bullet. Past 400, it positively shames it.
Here’s how. When a bullet exits the muzzle, it encounters a veritable wall of friction. Sure, it’s just air, but it’s compacted by 2,700 fps or more of velocity, turning those little air molecules into first-class speed thieves. A traditional .30-06 180-grain hunting bullet loses around two-thirds of its velocity in less than three seconds of flight time.
Just as a long, sleek speedboat flows through water with far less resistance than a blunt-prowed scow, a modern boattail bullet with a long, fine entry and sharp tip flows through air with far less resistance than a flatbase traditional hunting bullet.
Let’s compare the practical ballistics of a traditional flatbase bullet with a modern high-ballistic coefficient bullet when both are zeroed at 200 yards and fired in standard sea-level conditions.
A traditional Remington 180-grain Core-Lokt exiting the muzzle at 2,700 fps drops 8.8 inches at 300 yards and 26 inches at 400 yards, where it has slowed so much it’s dawdling along at just 1,840 fps. That’s actually below the threshold for reliable expansion with many bullet designs.
A Nosler 190-grain AccuBond Long Range (ABLR) fired at the same speed (which minimal shank bearing surface and careful handloading makes easy) drops 7.7 inches at 300 yards and 22 inches at 400 yards, where it’s still cooking along at 2,160 fps, which is plenty enough velocity to reliably expand even the most stubborn hunting bullet. In fact, the ABLR holds as much speed (1,840 fps) at 660 yards as the Core-Lokt does at 400 yards.
Considered from another angle, the Core-Lokt bullet goes subsonic at 900 yards, while the ABLR stays supersonic clear out to 1,350 yards—exactly half again as far. Why is that important? Because when a bullet passes through the sound barrier it encounters all manner of buffeting forces that effectively destroy accuracy.
So back to my brash claim that the .30-06 can outpace the .300 Win. Mag. when the former is loaded with a modern high-BC bullet and the latter a traditional flatbase bullet. When the pertinent numbers are crunched in a ballistic calculator, they show that a 180-grain Core-Lokt bullet (and others of similar flatbase, Spitzer design) exiting the muzzle of a .300 Win. Mag. rifle at 2,940 fps drops 7.2 inches at 300 yards and 21.4 inches at 400 yards. Yes, that’s fractionally less than the .30-06 with the ABLR bullet. However, it’s within a half-inch, and the retained velocities are just 2,034 fps for the .300 Win. Mag. versus 2,160 fps for the .30-06.
Energy comparison is vital, too. In this scenario, the magnum cartridge is down to 1,654 ft-lbs, while the .30-06 carries 1,968 ft-lbs.
Let’s push the range farther. At 500 yards the traditional Core-Lokt bullet from the .300 Win. Mag. is down to 1,836 fps and 1,347 ft-lbs of energy, while the modern ABLR from the .30-06 zips along at 2,035 fps and packs 1,746 ft-lbs of wallop. That’s fully as much speed and considerably more authority than the magnum-fired Core-Lokt bullet had at just 400 yards. Clearly, modern bullets trounce traditional designs.
It goes without saying that if you put a modern bullet into the .300 Win. Mag., the .30-06’s advantage vanishes. However, this little comparison is revealing and can be particularly fun for .30-06 lovers heckled by magnum-toting pals.
Just to prevent anybody’s knickers from getting into a wad, let me state for the record that I love the Core-Lokt bullet. Candidly, I think it’s the best of all the traditional cup-and-core flatbase, lead-nose hunting bullets. Inside 300 yards it’s fantastic. It’s just not designed for killing game at extended distances. Additionally, I hold the .300 Win. Mag. in tremendous regard.
That said, here are the super bullets that are best suited to the .30-06.
Long, heavy-for-caliber bullets possess the highest BCs. However, the .30-06 does not have the cavernous powder capacity to drive the very heaviest .30-caliber projectiles to effective velocities. So choosing optimal modern hunting bullets is a balancing act to get usable velocity with as heavy and sleek a projectile as possible.
Arguably, the best weigh at least 175 grains but not more than 200 grains. These can be driven from about 2,800 fps for the lighter range down to about 2,650 fps for the heavier bullets. Here are several of my favorites, many of which are available in factory-loaded ammunition from major ammomakers.
Probably the most accurate of all those listed here, Berger’s 180-grain Elite Hunter (G1 BC: 0.576) is extremely easy to handload for precision but is extremely soft. It’s ideal for deer-size game, but there are better options for bigger, tougher animals.
The Barnes 175-grain LRX (G1 BC: 0.508) has the lowest BC of those included, but it’s extremely tough and exceedingly accurate. It’s one of the two best bullets listed for bison, moose, elk, and big black bears as well as all deer-size game.
Federal’s 175-grain EDGE TLR (G1 BC: 0.536) is undoubtedly the most consistent in terminal performance and will produce perfect expansion and deep penetration from the muzzle to way, way out there. It’s ideal for moose, bison, and elk as well as deer-size game.
Hornady’s 178- and 200-grain ELD-X (G1 BC: 0.552 and 0.597) exhibit reliable, explosive expansion and excellent accuracy. Particularly versatile, they kill quickly and cleanly but aren’t known for pass-through penetration.
Nosler’s 190-grain AccuBond Long Range (G1 BC: 0.597) tends to combine massive expansion with decent weight retention. It can be picky about accuracy, so experimenting with various powders, charge weights, and seating depth is in order. I like this bullet for elk-size and smaller game.
Nosler’s 200-grain AccuBond (G1 BC: 0.588) is not billed as a long-range projectile, but this heavyweight has a very good BC and is more forgiving when loading for accuracy than its super-sleek ABLR sibling. Plus, it’s tougher, making it better suited for moose and bison-size game.
Though Sierra’s 175-grain Tipped Match-King (G1 BC: 0.545) isn’t technically a hunting bullet, it performs dramatically on light, thin-skinned game, such as pronghorn and deer, and is tremendously accurate.
Swift’s 180-grain Scirocco II (G1 BC: 0.520) is not billed as a long-range bullet, but it was one of the first extended-range high performers. In rifles that like it, it produces superb accuracy. On-game performance is consistent and excellent, and I like it best for elk and smaller game.
Just to throw an entirely different angle on above-par .30-06 performance, I’m including the monumental Cutting Edge 210-grain Safari Solid for times when up-close penetration trumps all else. Its bore-riding design; pressure-decreasing driving bands; and large, flat nose make this bullet accurate and give it unparalleled deep, straight-penetrating characteristics.
Handloading for Top Performance
To get the best out of high-BC bullets, handload your .30-06 rounds for precision and velocity. Using modern temperature-stable powders, you can achieve 2,700 fps (the gold standard for factory-loaded 180-grain projectiles) with 190- to 200-grain bullets and push 175- to 180-grain versions to between 2,750 and 2,800 fps from a 24-inch barrel.
If I were forced to choose just one propellant for heavy-bullet, high-performance loads in the .30-06, I’d pick Hodgdon’s H4831SC. It’s incredibly temp stable, and it provides good velocities. However, several of Alliant’s newer powders, such as Reloder 16 and Reloder 23, will likely provide higher velocities and admirable temperature stability, too. As you can see by the accompanying chart, I get great results from the older Reloder 19 and Reloder 22, but they aren’t quite as temp stable, which matters if you’re shooting past 400 yards or so.
A wide spectrum of brass is available for the .30-06, and a lot of it is just decent in quality and some is what I would call poor quality. I just cut to the chase and use Lapua, Norma, and Nosler brass, which are extremely consistent and easy to work with. For best accuracy, frequently trim to consistent length on a premium trimmer and chamfer inside case mouths carefully.
You might not need match-grade primers, but I’m a bit OCD, so I always opt for premium primers just for the peace of mind. My favorites for the .30-06 are Federal’s 210 Gold Medal Match and CCI’s BR-2.
I recommend you use top-shelf match-grade dies, such as those by Hornady, Forster, and Redding. Tweaking seating depth can produce significant results, so be sure your seating die is equipped with a micrometer-type dial.
Because .30-06 chamber dimensions vary tremendously, be careful. Achieving better-than-spec velocities is typically both possible and safe, but approach maximum charges cautiously. If you experience diminishing accuracy, back off. Trading accuracy for speed never pays off.
High-Performance Factory Ammo
If you don’t handload, no sweat. Several ammo companies offer high-BC super-bullets in factory ammo. I’ve used factory ammo loaded with modern projectiles from Federal, Hornady, Nosler, and Winchester, and I have it on good authority that Barnes will add the .30-06 to its VOR-TX Long Range line in 2019.
Naturally, accuracy results will vary depending on your rifle’s preference. My go-to .30-06 averages close to one MOA or better with all of them—which says a lot about the quality of today’s premium factory-made hunting ammo.
Rifle Setup for Best Results
At this point it’s important to emphasize the fact that premium bullets alone won’t make your .30-06 a long-range rifle. Your rifle has to be accurate, and it has to have some bells and whistles that enable long-range precision.
Many traditional .30-06 rifles by Winchester, Remington, Ruger, Savage, and the like will shoot sub-MOA groups with good ammo.
If not, some accuracy work is necessary because one-MOA accuracy is on the outside of usable for long-range precision work.
Bedding the action, cleaning up the crown, and tuning the trigger will bring many stubborn rifles into line. However, for really top accuracy with the side benefit of easy cleaning, a fresh, match-grade barrel beats all else. Have it properly mounted to your trued-up action and carefully chambered.
To prevent the possibility of point-of-impact shift during humidity changes, I like to replace wood stocks with a quality hand-laid composite stock of graphite, carbon fiber, fiberglass, aramid fibers, or the like (no injection-molded plastic stocks).
Finally, mount a good scope in premium rings and bases. I am a big fan of Leupold’s 3-18X 44mm VX-6HD and 3-15X 44mm VX-5HD. They offer every necessary feature for precise long-range shooting yet weigh nearly a pound less than most competing models.
My all-time favorite .30-06 rifle is a Winchester Model 70 Classic that’s been customized by Hill Country Rifles. The gunsmiths squared and tuned the action to perfection, installed a premium Lilja barrel cut to 23 inches, and added an NECG barrel-band front sight. The stock is a McMillan with lightweight EDGE fill, cut to my specific length of pull and pillar bedded to the action. Talley scope bases provide strength and QD repeatability, and Jim Brockman’s pop-up peep sight hides in the rear scope base.
While the rifle isn’t a quarter-inch tackdriver, it’s forgivingly accurate, shooting almost everything into less than one MOA. Favorite loads average about half that. I am confident in its capability to dependably down elk out to 600 yards or so when charged with any one of the premium high-BC bullets detailed earlier.
Being an experimenter torn between the space-age modern and the classic vintage, I tend to spend more time with cartridges such as the 6.5 PRC, .280 Ackley Improved, and .300 H&H. But if I were forced by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to choose one firearm with which to hunt anything from Coues deer to moose—with the occasional zombie thrown in—this .30-06 is my rifle.
Thanks to modern bullet design, the good old .30-06 is better than ever.