The .30-06 Springfield is 107 years old this year and by rights should be antiquated, outdated and a back-shelf history lesson. Instead it remains the number one best selling big game cartridge listed in the catalog of every major ammo maker. The .30-06 Springfield was so far ahead of its time that it may still have not peaked.
Spawned as a military cartridge, the .30-06 Springfield served well through two world wars and its military record is distinguished and above reproach. But, for more than half a century this cartridge has been pretty much retired from military duty and earns its stripes primarily in the hunting fields. Different rifles, different bullets, but the same cartridge. Everything the .30-06 accomplished as a fighting cartridge; and make no mistake; it was one of the all time greatest, pales in comparison to its accomplishments in the hunting world.
The .30-06 Springfield was actually a result of a failure of sorts. During the Spanish American War in 1898 most United States troops were armed with Krag Jorgensen rifles in .30-40 Krag if they were lucky, or with black powder, single shot, trapdoor Springfields in .45-70 if they were not.
The “other guys” had the new Mauser rifles chambered for 7X57 Mauser and they gave our troops a tough go of it as a result. That inspired the war department to look for a cartridge upgrade.
As might be expected when government and the military are involved, it took a while and they made a few wrong turns, but on October 15, 1906 a new cartridge was approved by the Secretary of War. It was called Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model 1906. It used a pointed spitzer type 150-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps.
With that a King was born. Like many true and worthy Kings, the .30-06 Springfield first proved itself on the battlefield and then later won the hearts and minds of the masses, including me.
As soon as I graduated high school and got a “real” job, I decided to buy a rifle dedicated to whitetail hunting. There was never any doubt about the cartridge, because the .30-06 Springfield had attained almost legendary status in my gun-addicted mind. The .30-06 had it all; modern design, power to spare and it was available in a lot of interesting rifle designs. The one I coveted was the Remington Model 760 Pump Action. It took a while with a two-dollar an hour job, but by October I had saved enough money to buy the rifle and a Weaver K-4 Scope.
For more than a decade it was my primary deer hunting rifle. Back then I thought factory loads would pollute a rifle barrel and I worked up a handload using a Speer 165-grain Hot Cor bullet and 58 grains of IMR 4350 Powder. Over the years I experimented with most of the other bullet weights, but when hunting deer I always went back to the 165-grain bullets. In my mind that bullet weight created a perfect trilogy when matched with whitetail deer and the .30-06 Springfield. I still believe that to be true.
I still have that first rifle, but I have owned a couple of dozen other .30-06 rifles in those passing decades. With that many options it’s inevitable that some important events happened while using .30-06 rifles and it’s these that help form our opinions about rifle cartridges, both pro and con.
Twenty-nine years ago I had an opportunity to finally hunt outside of New England for something other than whitetails or black bears. When I traveled to Northern Quebec to hunt caribou in 1984, it was the first time I used an airplane to reach a hunting destination and it was the first time I hunted any animal called a “bull.” Like any gun guy, I used the trip as an excuse for a new rifle. I took the new Thompson Center TCR 83 single shot rifle with me, chambered in .30-06 Springfield, of course.
I shot a very nice bull on that trip and it changed my life. That caribou hunt was a catalyst that led to me eventually switching careers and working full time in the as a gun and hunting writer. As Robert Frost said so well, “And that has made all the difference.”
The .30-06 is important, and probably successful, because it brought hunters into the modern world. When it was introduced in 1906, big game hunting was still dominated by lever action rifles shooting cartridges that were throwbacks to the black powder era. The first successful “modern” smokeless powder, high velocity hunting cartridge was the .30-30 Winchester and in 1906 it was still considered one of the cutting edge designs. But, the .30-06 blew it so far out of the water it couldn’t look back and see the lake. With velocity approaching 3,000 fps and pointed aerodynamic bullets, the ‘06 launched a revolution. The bolt action rifle design was inherently more accurate than any lever action and far easier to equip with a scope. When that accuracy combined with the incredible ballistic performance of this new cartridge, the world of big game hunting changed forever. Suddenly calling the .30-30 Winchester “a modern, high-velocity cartridge” seemed a bit silly.
These days I don’t think there is a single hunting rifle design that’s not offered in .30-06 Springfield. I also don’t think there is a single cartridge logging more time in the North American hunting fields than the .30-06 Springfield. That one point alone is a durable tribute to the legacy of the single greatest hunting cartridge of our time.
Long live the King.