There’s never been a better time to be in the market for a hunting rifle. Today’s guns—thanks, in large part, to advancements in machining and metallurgy—are more accurate and affordable than ever before. Sub-MOA accuracy, once the “holy grail” of rifledom, has now become such an achievable goal that many hunters are unhappy when their budget guns don’t shoot under an inch with factory ammo.
Better triggers have helped with accuracy, and new powders have allowed ammo manufacturers and hand-loaders to wring the most velocity out of all loads. Perhaps most importantly, there are many superb hunting bullets capable of producing consistent results, even at very high velocities.
The challenge is that all the options available today make selecting the right rifle/load/optic combo something of a conundrum.
Begin by looking at the .30 calibers. I’m not discounting the 6.5s, the .270s and the .338s, so if your license plate reads 7MM4LFE, just hear me out. The various .30s—from the milds to the wilds—will cover about 90 percent of all hunting anywhere on the globe. Sure, you can fill your rifle rack with a bunch of different guns in a bunch of different calibers for hunting anything in the world, but if you had just one gun, which one would it be?
Discounting the rarified world of dangerous-game hunting, I know that my do-all cartridge would be some flavor of .30 caliber. But even within this family, there are a lot of great options.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF THE .30S IN THE UNITED STATES
In the 1890s, when the U.S. Army decided to ditch the .4570 in favor of something lighter, it choose the .30-40 Krag. It worked well in bolt-action rifles and quickly caught on as a hunting cartridge, too. More than a few record-book whitetails, muleys, elk and moose fell to the .30-40.
The 1890s also produced another great .30-caliber round: the venerable .30-30 Winchester, which is still a popular choice for hunters. As the black powder cartridge era ended and smokeless propellants became commonplace, smaller, faster bullets become standard; and, in 1906, the United States military adopted the cartridge we know today as the .30-06.
Like so many other cartridges that began life as military rounds, the .30-06 became a popular sporting round. It could drive a 150-grain bullet from the barrel at 2,900 feet per second, a 165-grain projectile at 2,800 feet per second and a 180-grain pill at around 2,700 feet per second. Compared to the loads that were popular just two decades before the ’06’s debut, this new round was blisteringly fast, and making shots at game at 200 and even 300 yards became common.
IN PRAISE OF THE ’06
The .30-06 was a very versatile hunting round when it debuted, and it remains so today. There’s little question that our nationwide love affair with the .30-caliber hunting rounds stems from the popularity of this cartridge; and the fact that it remains so lauded a century after its inception speaks to the staying power and functionality of this round.
I also think the .30-06’s position in the middle of the class makes it a logical choice for those who want the ultimate do-all hunting cartridge. If you are looking for one gun that will allow you to hunt just about any game anywhere in the world with supreme confidence, look to the .30-06.
What makes the .30-06 so great? For starters, it combines a flat trajectory with moderate recoil. The .30-06, when sighted in a couple inches high at 100 yards will, with most loads, hit dead-on at 200 yards and will shoot about 8 inches low at 300 yards. That’s not extremely flat by today’s standards, but it’s within a couple of inches. When you stretch things out farther, faster loads have an advantage.
The .30-06 produces a level of recoil that is manageable for most shooters. If you don’t think that’s a critical factor, you haven’t shot a lot of magnums. I know several people who own faster .30s and .33s who have never achieved full accuracy potential from their guns because they get beaten up every time they pull the trigger. The .30-06 generates about 20 foot-pounds of recoil in an 8-pound rifle, which is more or less the threshold for average shooters.
Ammo is available just about anywhere, and there are so many factory loads to choose from that you’ll have no trouble finding a load that works for any non-dangerous big game. And because the .30-06 doesn’t produce extremely high velocities, bullets perform predictably.
IT’S GOT GAME
There are volumes written about the .30-06’s performance on game, so I won’t go into great detail—other than to say it has performed extremely well for me on multiple continents and on game ranging in size from small deer to 1,000-pound-plus antelope in Africa.
My African experience with the .30-06 was quite telling. In our camp were two hunters—one with .30-06s and one with a .338. It would make sense that the chap shooting the .338 would have had less cleanup work to do in regard to followups and the like, but the reality was that the exact opposite was true: Those of us shooting ’06s never had a game animal go out of sight. The guy with the .338 had two long, hard tracking jobs that took up a couple of days of safari. I’m not knocking the .338 Winchester Mag, which is a great cartridge … if you can handle the abuse it generates.
THE MILDER .30S
I classify the .30-06 as the “do-all .30”—a classic, middle-of-the-road round. But there are plenty of versatile .30s on both sides of the ’06’s power curve.
Many of the milder .30s are over a century old—rounds such as the aforementioned .30-40 Krag and the .303 British. There are still a few .30-40s in service, and I’ve seen a handful of .303s in Africa, but the old .30-30, which started life as a black powder round almost 125 years ago, is certainly the most popular and most available of the mild, old .30s.
Think the .30-30 is a relic that has largely been replaced by newer, faster rounds? Think again. One of the nation’s largest ammo manufacturers says the .30-30 is still one of its 10 most popular offerings!
The .30-30 is largely a lever gun round due to its rimmed design, but I hunted with a Thompson/Center G2 Contender in .30-30 in Texas a few years ago, and it was a wonderful rifle—light and compact, with very minimal recoil. It’s a great option, even today, with many great models to choose from.
The .30 T/C cartridge is another impressive, mild .30 that never got the attention it deserved. It was a short-action cartridge that could fit in light, compact bolt guns and had great ballistics. Sadly, the .30 T/C is languishing, but it is the parent of one of today’s most popular cartridges—the 6.5 Creedmoor.
If we’re talking about mild .30s, it would be a shame to overlook the AR-friendly 300 Blackout. This mild cartridge is effective on deer, hogs and the like at moderate ranges. With the right load, and in an AR, it generates very, very little recoil. Plus, the .300 Blackout fits in AR-15 rifles, so you don’t have to step up to the larger, heavier AR-10.
Speaking of the AR-10: The .308 Winchester/7.62×51 NATO cartridge for which it was designed is one of the all-time great mild .30s, challenging the .30-06 in popularity. The .308 is a shortaction cartridge; therefore, it fits in light, compact mountain rifles. But no cartridge has been used in more platforms than the .308.
Whether you like semiautos, slide-actions, bolt guns or lever guns, there’s a .308 offering for you. The cartridge also has ballistics that nip the heels of the .30-06, and there is a wide selection of affordable hunting ammo. I used a Mossberg MVP rifle in .308 Winchester to take a Montana elk and was very impressed with how quickly this relatively mild .30 put the bull down. (When I told Mossberg’s Linda Powell, who was in the same camp, about my experience, she wasn’t surprised: She has hunted game all over the globe and is a firm believer in the .308.)
On the other side of the .30-06 bookmark are the magnum .30s—a list that includes the .300 Winchester Short Magnum, the .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Remington Ultra Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, the new 30 Nosler, the .30-378 Weatherby Magnum and several more. The average hunter who targets medium-sized game at moderate distances won’t benefit from having a .30 magnum over, say, a .308 or .30-06. But when the game is large and the ranges are great, the .30s come into their own.
For African game on one of my safaris, I carried a Sako in .300 Winchester Magnum, and the results were excellent on small game (springbok up to heavy antelopes such as kudu). I’ve also used the .300 Win Mag here, in the States, most recently on mule deer in Wyoming—where there was a chance shots would be long—and the rifle worked flawlessly.
The .300 Weatherby offers more power still, as does the .300 Remington Ultra Mag. These two rounds really flatten trajectories, and although I have no personal experience, I hear nothing but good things about the 30 Nosler—which is no surprise.
The .30 magnums have their place. Sure, recoil is higher (and approaching ferocious when you get to the really hot .30s), and ammo is more expensive. But if you need a cartridge that shoots flat and carries a lot of retained energy at long ranges, these loads will do it. The .300 Weatherby Magnum, for instance, can produce more than 4,000 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle; and at 300 yards, it’s carrying about as much energy as a .30-06 does at the muzzle. That extra energy is a product of higher velocities, and that equates to flatter trajectories. If you can shoot them well, the fast .30s are very impressive on any non-dangerous game.
I don’t think any .30 is ideal for really large bears or Africa’s dangerous game, but if I were in the Great North and facing down a bear, the extra punch generated by one of the .300 magnums offers peace of mind. When you step up to these hot .30s, though, bullet selection becomes more critical. A bullet that might expand reliably at .30-06 velocities might not offer proper penetration in a really-fast .30-caliber magnum, so take the time to select tough bullets that are up to the task.
I believe the discussion of the most versatile family of big-game hunting cartridges begins and ends with the various .30s. I’ve use many of them, and when I did my part, they worked well.
Which one is best for you depends on your budget, your experience and the game you plan to pursue. But for the vast majority of hunts anywhere in the world, you’ll be well served with a “.30-something” cartridge.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2017 print issue of Gun World.