The .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester are two of the most popular hunting cartridges in America. Both have similar backstories. But is one better than the other?
Why .30-06 vs .308?
The .308 and .30-06 share a striking number of similarities. Their origins and uses seem to mirror each other pretty closely. Even the popularity of these two rounds are difficult to distinguish because each has sort of been the king of the hill in its day, albeit in in different eras. The .308 is sometimes referred to as simply a “shortened .30-06” and while that is practically true, it’s not totally accurate.
In this article we will look into the history and use of each cartridge. We also want to examine the physical and ballistic differences between these two cartridges, as well as some other, less directly measurable differences. Is one substantively better than the other, and if so, how?
.30-06 Springfield 7.62x63mm
.308 Winchester 7.62x51mm NATO
.30-06 Springfield History & Purpose
The .30-06 Springfield was developed as a military cartridge, largely as a correction to the problems of the ever-so-slightly older .30-03. Adopted in 1906 (hence the “-06” designation) it replaced an assortment of piece-meal military cartridges in U.S. inventory including the .30-40 Krag.
The .30-06 served admirably for several decades, perhaps most notably in the 1903/03A3 Springfield and the “finest battle implement ever devised,” the M1 Garand. Even after the M1 Garand was retired, the .30-06 stuck around as a machine gun cartridge all the way up into the Vietnam era.
Following its military service (heck, concurrent with it) the .30-06’s sporting potential was quickly realized. Hunters long flocked to the .30-06 and along with the .30-30 Winchester, it was one of two of the most popular deer cartridges in the U.S. for most of the 1900s. Judging by gun rag coverage, the .30-06 seems mostly forgotten today.
Don’t be fooled, though.
Countless thousands of these rifles are out there, from dusty, worn ‘03A3s to gorgeous, deeply-blued Remington 700s, to brand new, plastic-stocked Ruger Americans.
Supporting all these rifles, just about every ammunition manufacturer under the sun produces ammo for them. And while we’re at it, the .30-06 has served as the parent case for a number of notable hunting cartridges including the neat little .25-06, the enormously popular .270 Winchester, and one of my favorites, the little-known .35 Whelen.
Best Ammo for the .30-06
Rifle cartridges in general aren’t the cheapest ammunition available. And that’s why it’s imperative that you divide your ammo into two distinct groups: hunting and practice. Your practice ammo is going to be much cheaper and isn’t going to eat as big a hole in your wallet when burning through shots at the range.
.308 Winchester History & Purpose:
As mentioned earlier, the .308 Winchester shares a very similar arc with the longer (and longer-in-the-tooth) .30-06. While many consider it merely a shortened .30-06, the .308 was purpose-built as a military cartridge. Thanks to advances in gunpowder in the years between their development, the .308 is nearly identical in power to the .30-06, but in a shorter package.
Like the .30-06, the .308 (more technically the 7.62x51mm NATO) has enjoyed an incredibly successful run. It has powered many a military arm from the M14 to the FN SCAR, from M40 sniper rifles to Mk48 machine guns. The .308’s military variant is as well-represented on the battlefield as any cartridge out there.
It is also extremely well-represented at home. The .308 Winchester introduced in 1952 and has been a runaway hit ever since. Like its military variant, roles for the .308 are extremely varied. The .308 is an extremely capable hunter and one could responsibly use it for all but the largest game on North America.
Thanks to immense inputs from the long-range and sniping communities, and the lowly .308 will drop rounds in at 1,000 all day long if the shooter is up to the task. Though its popularity is lagging behind some recently popular rounds (6.5 Creedmoor et. al) the .308 is still extremely popular for long range work.
The .308 has also ventured into platforms that really make the .30-06 show its age: the updated battle rifle. The .308 is chambered in exciting AR10-style rifles, as well as outliers like Kel-Tec’s RFB and the civilian version of the FN SCAR. This introduces a bit more flexibility, letting the .308 serve more adequately in defensive roles.
Again, like its ancestor before it, the .308 has spawned many offspring as a result of necking down and up. These include the ever-popular .243 Winchester, the 7mm-08 Remington, and my favorite, the .338 Federal.
Best Ammo for the .308
Like the .30-06, this ammunition is not cheap. But if you purchase two sets of ammo like we recommend, you’ll keep your budget happy. Here are our recommendations for both hunting and practice ammunition in .308 Win.
.30-06 vs .308 Ballistics Comparison
Quite obviously the .30-06 has a larger case capacity than the comparably stubby .308 Winchester. The difference is visible, and can be quantified by case capacity: 68 grains of H2O versus 56. How much does that difference contribute to a power differential between these two cartridges?
Because the pressure of the two cartridges is limited by SAAMI specifications, a lot of that extra space in the .30-06 is of little benefit.
Both operate with maximum pressures that are within 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) of each other: 61,900 for the .30-06 and 62,000 for the .308. That’s really, really close.
The .30-06’s extra capacity is of minor benefit here because it does manage to – all other things being equal – push bullets roughly 100 feet per second (FPS) faster than the .308 does.
When dealing the respective ranges of these cartridges, 100 FPS isn’t nothing. With both running nominally in the 2,500-2,700 FPS range, it’s also nothing special. So, while the .30-06 does have a slight ballistic edge it’s pretty thin.
The .30-06’s larger capacity is also beneficial in another, less obvious way. The .30-06 has room for longer and thus heavier bullets. The .30-06 tops out at 220-grain bullets, while 180 grains is pretty much the high end for the .308.
Though these longer, heavier bullets start out a bit slower, both have both a higher ballistic coefficient and retain more energy at distance. The difference between a 180-grain bullet from a .308 and a 220-grainer from a .30-06 is still pretty small…but it is there.
Let’s look at some charts of bullet comparisons between these two 30 caliber cartridges.
Here’s the warning: caliber comparisons are ripe for frustrating readers (as can usaully be seen in the comments). It seems that no matter which loads we choose to cmpare, someone is unhappy. If we choose the heaviest bullet, someone will complain that we didn’t use the same bullet in each. Of course, there are pros and cons to each.
The same bullet seems to be a more equal comparison, however, the heaviest bullet can show the difference of the true capabilities. So, in an effort to paint the best picture (and save the bickering) we’ll try both.
308 vs 30-06 – Heaviest Bullets
For a good comparison of the reasonable heaviest bullet for each 30-06 and 308, we decided to compare the Remington core-lokt options for each. Save the compaining, we aren’t saying these are the best – just an interesting comparison.
The 30-06 Sprg load from Remington has a 220 gr core-lokt bullet and is represented by the red lines in the graph below.
The 308 Win load is a 180 grain bullet and is represented by the blue lines below.
Note how the 30-06 Sprg (red) has less drop from 300 yards on out and more energy from 100 yards on out.
Because a comparison of different bullets showing the unique capabilites of each load is my favorite, here are the ballistics of the two loads compared:
|Distance (yards)||308 Drop (in.)||308 Energy (ft/lbs)||30-06 Drop (in.)||30-06 Energy (ft/lbs)|
308 Win vs 30-06 Sprg – Same Bullets
Now, for comparisons with the same bullets.
In the below graph we compare an affordable/economy load (but an GREAT performer for the price) the Federal Fusion 150 gr loads for each cartridge. Unfortunately, and sorry for the confusion, both of these same bullet graphs switch colors from above: the 30-06 is in blue and the 308 is in red.
As you can see, the 30-06 has an edge when using the same 150gr Fusion bullet, but VERY slightly.
Now, we compare a premium bullet option, the Hornady 178gr ELD-X bullet.
As with the graph above, the 30-06 Sprg has a slight edge ove the 308 Win, but it is very slight.
If You Have to Choose Between .30-06 or .308: Our Take
First of all, I hate to cop out but I have to say it: if you’re format-agnostic, I don’t think you could go wrong with either of these cartridges. The external and terminal ballistic differences between the two are extremely subtle. Neither does a whole lot that the other one won’t, and either will serve you well. But we do have an opinion.
The major benefit of the 30-06 is the plentiful availability of ammunition during ammunition shortages. Its purely sporting nature sort of keeps it sort of off the radar. During this review it was one of the few chamberings (along with some of its offspring) that was well-represented on the shelves of my local gun shop. That alone may be a reason to keep a .30-06 in the back of the safe.
On the other hand, it’s really hard to find those really cheap, bulk cases of .30-06 ammo even in the best of times, while surplus 7.62×51 is usually easy to come by.
On an emotional level we see the appeal of the .30-06. Our dads hunted with them, and we admit still feeling an irrational pull to this old warhorse; toting a .30-ought-six into the woods on opening day of deer season just appeals to nostalgic sensibilities. But if we had to choose it would be an easy choice: the .30-06 wouldn’t get a second look.
The .308 is indisputably, hands-down our preference.
As a military cartridge the 7.62×51 NATO is still going strong and probably will be for decades to come. That means guns will continue to be developed in this chambering, and popularity will likely remain high.
Ammunition development will also continue for many more decades to come, and it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine a day when .308 ammo isn’t cheap and readily available.
The shorter .308 also is also accommodated by a shorter action. This is kind of cool in bolt guns, because you can use a short action lug a slightly lighter rifle. It’s really cool in gas guns because you can build AR-10 and analogous semi-auto platforms around it. Platforms are plentiful, magazines are readily available…it’s the clear choice for those with future-proofing in mind.
The .30-06 is cool, and we like it. If you already own one, be proud of it. The differences mostly come down to logistical concerns between the rifles that chamber them and availability of ammunition.
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