The rifle cartridgeused by generations of hunters and shooters celebrates its centennial
The .30/06 is 100years old. That’s right, the sweetheart of generations of American hunters hasbeen around for a century, but don’t dare call her old.
Her exact birthdayis October 15, the date the “Model of 1906” became the officialdesignation of the U.S. .30-caliber service cartridge and Frankfort Arsenalgeared up for production. That was also the year that the Chicago White Sox wontheir first World Series. A Ford auto cost $500, and another horselesscarriage, the Locomobile, reached the breathtaking velocity of 110 miles perhour. President Roosevelt proclaimed Devil’s Tower our first National Monument,San Francisco was shattered by the most devastating earthquake in U.S. Historyand OUTDOOR LIFE was in its eighth year of publication. In December of 1906 theOrdnance Office ordered 15 million rounds of the new cartridge, the first ofuntold millions made since.
As a militarycartridge, the ’06 was our longest-running caliber, serving for nearly a halfcentury until it was replaced in 1954 by the 7.62×57 NATO (also known as the.308 Winchester), and was the predominanat U.S. cartridge in both of the 20thcentury’s world wars and the Korean War. Its battle record is the mostdistinguished of any American service round, ranking it on a worldwide par withthe .303 British and 8×57 German Mauser. Its enduring popularity, though, isdue to its successes not on the battlefields but on the hunting fields.
In terms ofpopularity and widespread appreciation, no other caliber comes close. In aperiod when dozens of calibers have blossomed only to fade into obscuritywithin a few years, the .30/06 has not just survived but actually increased inpopularity. If all other calibers were abolished tomorrow, there would be nogreat wringing of hands. The .30/06 is the American hunter’s sweetheart, applepie and first kiss all in one. It does it all.
In terms ofnumbers, there isn’t even a second place to the .30/06. Name your category:ammo, rifles, reloading dies or bullets. The .30/06 is at the top of the list.Open the pages of any ammomaker’s catalog and there will be more load andbullet options for the .30/06 than for any other caliber. There have been timeswhen the only caliber available in some makes and models of rifles has been the.30/06.
As an Americanstandard, the .30/06 is the centerfire rifle caliber to which all othercalibers are compared. There is probably no huntable game on Earth that has notfallen to the .30/06. When good folks like us gather around the campfire andstart swapping tales about the .30/06, one question that never gets asked ishow or why it got to be .30 caliber to begin with. Why not .29 or .32 or 8mm?Ask your hunting and shooting pals about this and you’ll likely get a short andvery positive response: “Why that’s easy, it’s because thutty is theall-American caliber. Anybody who knows anything knows that for afact.”
Well, no one woulddare deny that .30 is indeed the all-American caliber, with bullets of thatdiameter being loaded in an array of case configurations, from relativepipsqueaks to blazing magnums. No question, the .30 was born, bred andnourished in America, and no fewer than five different .30-caliber cartridgeshave been adapted by the U.S. military. But for the real reason the .30/06 is a.30 we need to look further.
If we searchAmerican cartridge catalogs back before 1890, we discover a dismal paucity of.30-caliber rounds: a couple of rimfire pistol calibers and a .30-30 Wesson (nokin to the .30-30 WCF), all long forgotten. Americans’ taste in calibers waseither for smaller bores, such as the .25s, or for .32s and larger. However,when Springfield Armory began experimenting with a new cartridge in 1889 (aconsequence of France’s 8mm Lebel, the first smokeless powder militarycartridge) it hit on the .30-caliber. When the chief of ordnance requested thecommanding officer at Springfield to explain his choice, the C.O. reported itwas completely arbitrary and, in his words, “not from any special principleinvolved,” just an “even” number to work with. Thus, simply for theconvenience of tool makers at Springfield Armory, the .30 was destined tobecome the all-American caliber–which, when you think about it, makes moresense than whatever impulse may have been the justification for several othercalibers.
The .30-caliberdesignation–30/100 of an inch–is an antiquated reference to the rifle’s boresize, the diameter of the hole bored in the barrel before rifling grooves arecut. With each rifling groove cut to a nominal 0.004-inch depth (depending onthe maker) the groove diameter of a .30/06 rifle’s barrel becomes 0.308 inches.This, of course, is why .30/06 bullets are 0.308 inches in diameter, or prettyclose to it. But there are no such limitations on the weights and shapes ofbullets loaded in the .30/06, which over the past century have beenmanufactured in varieties that defy description. At one extreme is thesabot-encased, 55-grain Remington load with a muzzle velocity of 4,080 feet persecond for plugging varmints. At the other are slugs of 220 grains or heavierthat have been applied to everything from pachyderms to fish. (In a stretch ofVirginia water where the “shooting” of fish is practiced, the localsmaintain that 220-grain bullets from the .30/06 create the best concussiveeffect.)
THE THREE”LOST” YEARS
Though the .30/06cartridge and the 1903 Springfield rifle are so intertwined in shooting lorethat it is virtually impossible to speak of one without the other coming tomind, there is the curious matter of the missing three years between theadoption of the rifle and its soul mate. It’s a common question and requires abit of explaining, going back to 1892 and the unrelenting stodginess of theU.S. War Department.
Unlike theirEuropean counterparts, who went to war with each other on a regular basis andwere thus inclined to equip their forces with the latest in rapid-fireweaponry, Americans were still of a mind-set left over from the Civil War.Repeating rifles led to wasted ammo, they reasoned, and the concept ofsmall-caliber bullets driven to high velocities by the new smokeless powder wasat odds with their certain knowledge that an enemy was killed deadest whendrilled with heavy, large-caliber bullets like the 410-grain .45-caliber slugsfrom the .45/70 U.S. service rifle.
But since a smallercaliber seemed unavoidable in the army’s near future, it remained steadfastlydetermined at least to make the bullets as heavy as practicable. Thus, when theKrag-style rifle was adopted in 1892 (a first-class example of a mediocredesign beautifully built), .30-40 Krag ammo was loaded with a rather cumbersomeand ballistically inefficient roundnose 220-grain bullet.
This officialpolicy favoring the heaviest possible .30-caliber bullets continued for thenext decade, and when the new Mauser-style Springfield rifle was adopted in1903, its companion cartridge–the .30/1903–was loaded with the heavy, roundnose.30-40-style bullet. About the same time, the U.S. War Department was beginningto pay attention to what was going on in the rest of the world, and somethingit noticed in particular was the pointy “S” (Spitzer) bullets ofGermany’s 8mm Mauser round. The ballistically superior pointed bullets, thoughcomparatively lightweight, yielded flatter trajectories and greater downrangeenergy than heavier roundnose bullets, not to mention being lighter to carryand cheaper to make. Accordingly, our guys at Frankfort Arsenal went back totheir drawing boards and came up with a pointed bullet weighing only 150 grainsand having a muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps (compared to about 2,300 fps for the220-grain bullet). Since the lighter bullet had a shorter bearing surface, theneck length of the .30/03 case was shortened by a tenth of an inch. This”new” cartridge was ordered by the Ordnance Department late in 1906,and that’s how the .30/03 became the .30/06 and explains those missing threeyears.
Though the .30/03round is long obsolete and all but forgotten, it had its moments of glory,particularly in the specially built ’03 Springfield (Serial No. 6000) andWinchester M95 Lever rifle that Teddy Roosevelt took on his famous Africansafari.
ON THE TARGETRANGE
An oft-repeatedsentiment regarding World War I infantry weapons is that the British went towar with a good battle rifle, the Lee Enfield; Germany with a good huntingrifle, the M98 Mauser; and America with a good target rifle, the 1903Springfield. There is more than a modicum of truth in this sentiment. The U.S.military has a tradition of fine marksmanship and has long encouraged shootingexcellence, especially with target competitions. These competitions range fromsemiformal post matches all the way up to highly trained teams and individualsintensely competing at national championships. No wonder the designers anddevelopers of the 1903 Springfield had an eye on its accuracy and how well itwould perform on the target range: They were target shooters themselves, withroots reaching back to “Berdan’s Sharpshooters” of Civil Warlegend.
By 1910 speciallyfitted and highly tuned National Match rifles were being built, virtually byhand, at Springfield Armory. Naturally, the accuracy of these rifles wascomplemented by specially loaded target-grade ammo, with commercialmanufacturers–Remington and Winchester–vying with Frankfort Arsenal to producethe most accurate .30/06 ammo.
It is not mere hypeto say that for many years the .30/06 ruled the target ranges. The fact of thematter is that shooters had no other choice. The rules governing the standardHigh Power Rifle National Match Course specified using the service cartridge,which, until the army switched to the 7.62 NATO in the 1950s, assured thatshooters would use the .30/06. Nowadays, despite a preference for smallercalibers such as the .260 Remington for long-range target shooting, the .30/06is still seen on the range and is even mandated for certain tournamentsrequiring M1 Garand or ’03 Springfield rifles.
Considering itsunequaled approval rating, it’s hard to imagine a time when the .30/06 was outof favor, but there have been at least a few moments when it slipped inpopularity polls (see “The Man Who Saved the .30/06,” above). In his1940 book The Hunting Rifle, Col. Townsend Whelen states that from 1920 to 1930the .30/06 enjoyed great popularity as a hunting cartridge, largely because”many articles extolling its virtues appeared on the sporting press, andnaturally cartridge makers profited by this free publicity.” (Soundfamiliar?) Whelen then goes on to say, “Since 1930 a number of newcartridges have appeared which are now enjoying a high degree of popularity andconsequent review in print, and the cartridge companies are naturally payingthe most attention to them. I presume that the reason why we do not hear moreabout the .30/06 these days is because we are supposed to know all about them,as if to say, ‘They have been adequately covered in the past, and there islittle more to tell.'”
No one championedthe .30/06 more, or tested it more thoroughly, than Whelen–who had been thecommanding officer at Frankfort Arsenal–and his words reflected probably allthe sarcasm of which his polite nature was capable. For he was lamenting thedecline in performance of .30/06 ammo as then loaded by sporting ammomakers.”I surmise,” he wrote, “that the reason for this falling off inaccuracy of .30/06 sporting ammunition is because little attention is beingpaid to the cartridge in print just now, and as a consequence the cartridgecompanies have, to some extent, neglected it, no longer paying attention to theniceties of the manufacture of bullets. Anyhow, with such ammunition, a fine.30/06 is no longer a 350-yard rifle, but rather a 225-yard rifle for surehits.”
Those are powerfuland convincing words, and upon reading them one has to wonder if the neglectand downward spiral of quality might have led to the obsolescence of the.30/06. But within months of their being written, the great watershed event ofthe 20th century occurred–World War II–and the cartridge that had been rescuedfrom oblivion by Gen. Douglas MacArthur went to war.
THE REBIRTH OF THE.30/06
G.I.s returninghome seemed to have two main ambitions: starting a family and hunting. Theycame home with great respect for the cartridge they had fired by the millionson the world’s battlefields. Hunting trips that had been nothing but a dreamfor men burrowed in foxholes became a reality. The Depression of the 1930s waspast and gunmakers geared up for an unprecedented demand for sporting arms.Surplus Springfield ’03 rifles could be bought for 20 bucks by NRA members, andsalvage ’06 ammo was cheaply available by the tons. The country was awash inthe .30/06, and even spent ’06 cases gave life to new calibers and an endlessparade of wildcat reincarnations like the .25/06.
Too much exposurecan cause a popular backlash, a desire for something better or different. Overand over we’ve seen this happen when new cartridges are introduced that offerno advantage over the .30/06. Through all these recurring shifts in caliberpopularity, however, the .30/06 has not only survived but become an icon andour steadfast gauge of performance of newly introduced calibers. In moments oflucid reflection we remind ourselves that there are so few ways to improve onthe ’06. Like Baby Bear’s bed, the .30/06 is “just right” for almostevery use to which we could put it.
The .30/06 conjuresmany images: men at war, an elk’s bugle, old pals contemplating the wisdom of acampfire. For these memories and so much more, happy birthday, .30/06. May yourtrajectory curve far into your second century.
In 1921 no less a rifleman than OUTDOOR LIFE ShootingEditor Col. Townsend Whelen, a major in the Ordnance Department, used the.30/06 to set a new world accuracy record at 600 yards with a 7-shot group–thestandard in England–measuring only 2.24 inches. Firing was done from a machinerest. Whelen later said he regretted not putting three more shots into thegroup for a 10-shot score.
Accuracy testing of the .30/06 at 600 yards, conductedat Quantico, Va., about that time, recorded 150 consecutive shots hittingwithin just a 12-inch circle. And in 1925, .30/06 ammo loaded for the U.S.Olympic rifle team put 10 shots into a 1 5/8-inch group at 300 meters (328yards). This was during an era when other hunting calibers and rifles thatcould group within 3 inches at 100 yards were considered jewels, so littlewonder that the .30/06 was widely considered the most accurate cartridge in theworld.
[The Man Who Saved the .30/06]
Though it is little known and seldom mentioned, therewas a time when the future of the .30/06 was seriously in doubt. That wasduring the late 1920s and early 1930s, when the Frankfort Arsenal and theSpringfield Armory carried out extensive testing with a .276-caliber cartridge.This was done in conjunction with development of a semi-automatic rifle, withthe intent of replacing both the ’03 Springfield rifle and the .30/06 servicecartridge.
At the 11th hour of the .276 program, word came downfrom the army’s chief of staff that he didn’t want a new service round of lessthan .30 caliber. His name was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and his decision savedthe .30/06. Work at Springfield Armory continued on an autoloading rifle,however, resulting in the M1 Garand, but chambered for the faithful .30/06.
It’s interesting to speculate on whether by the 1930sthe .30/06 had gained enough momentum as a hunting cartridge for its growingpopularity to continue, or whether it would now be another largely forgottencartridge from another era had General MacArthur authorized itsreplacement.
ATimeless Wonder – Even in our fastpaced, modern world, the venerable .30/06 hasthe ability to evoke scenes like this, from a time when life–and hunting–wasquite a bit simpler. From Warto Woods – The .30/06 was used by American soldiers in three wars over thecourse of nearly half a century–World Wars I and II and the Korean War.American soldiers became so attached to the caliber during wartime, theyadopted it as their preferred hunting cartridge upon returning home. The roundhas remained popular ever since. SellingPower – During the middle part of the 20th century, you couldn’t open asporting journal without flipping pasts a handful of ads for the various .30/06cartridges in production at the time, whether the manufacturer was Peters(touted here by a happy hunter), Western or Winchester.