GunShop: Battle of the 30-Caliber Deer Rifles

Gunshop RifleIt’s one of the oldest rivalries in ballistics — the venerable .30-06 Sprg. versus the oh-so-popular .308 Win.

Which is better for deer hunting?

By Dave Henderson

Quite honestly, it’s the same argument as Coke versus Pepsi, Ford versus Chevrolet or wood stocks versus synthetic. The difference in performance is negligible and although both options possess distinct qualities, it pretty much comes down to a matter of personal choice.

Believe me, there are constant arguments over which of the .30 bores is better, and ballistic points can be skewed to prove each. Both use the same 0.308- inch diameter bullet, and in a truly fair comparison — using the best ballistic coefficients and highest velocities in each bullet weight — you’ll find them to be virtual ballistic twins when the bullet weights are in the 130-, 150- and 165-grain area. The .308 might enjoy a miniscule (so small as to be meaningless) ballistic advantage in those bullet weights, which are ideal for whitetails.

But the .30-06 gains a tiny advantage when the bullet weight increases to 180 grains and above, primarily because it uses a 10 percent larger case. Believe me, a deer standing in the way of either will not recognize a difference.

The .30-06 started life as a military cartridge in 1906, designed as a slight enhancement of the .30 Model 1903 cartridge that had replaced the .30-40 Krag three years earlier.

The ’06 case loaded a 150-grain spitzer bullet at 2,800 feet per second muzzle velocity in the same 2.49-inch case as the 1903 model — which had used the 220-grain round nosed bullet from the .30-40.

With literally millions of American men exposed to the .30-06 in the mili- tary during two World Wars and Korea, it logically became the most popular American hunting round — supplanting the venerable .30-30 Win. — when those men returned to home soil.

Meanwhile, the .308 (7.762x51mm NATO) ostensibly replaced the .30-06 as the primary American military rifle load when the semi-automatic M14 rifle was introduced in 1954. The .308’s original load was a 149-grain spitzer at 2,800 fps.

The basic advantage was size. The half-inch shorter .308 was simply designed as a short-action alternative to the .30-06.

In Use
Today the .30-06 is the nation’s most popular centerfire cartridge, and the .308 the biggest selling short-action cartridge used for hunting and shooting. Barrels for the .30-06 are typically rifled with a 1-turn-in-10-inches twist rate while the .308 barrels are more commonly 1-12.

A short-action rifle is typically shorter and lighter than a long-action, and in general terms the .308 recoil is only around 14.7 foot pounds in the typical hunting bullet weights. The .30-06 recoil is estimated at more than 25 foot pounds with the same bullets.

While the ’06 has been documented as having downed every big game species in North America, that is largely due to its widespread use rather than any ballistic advantage.

You’ll find that .30-06 and .308 loads will be available in virtually any store that sells ammunition, although those stores may stock more bullet weight choices in .30-06, simply because of the larger demand.

Really, you can’t go wrong with either caliber. One caution, however: If your choice is .308, don’t buy a ton of military surplus ammo. Contrary to popular belief, military .308 and commercial .308 are not identical. There is a slight (.004) difference in the cases. Some production rifles will cycle and fire military .308 ammo fine. Some will not.

Again, it’s a matter of choice. Just pick one and enjoy shooting it.


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