In a sense, the old warhorse has come full circle, if I can mix my metaphors. If you read the issues of Field & Stream that were published between the War to End All Wars and the Last Real War We Won, the .30/06 was regarded as a veritable cannon. This was caused, at least in part, by the fact that millions of young men who had never fired a rifle before were introduced to firearms courtesy of the ’03 Springfield or the M-1 Garand, and as far as they were concerned, those rifles kicked.
Then came the post-WWII magnum boom, and anything that didn’t detach your retinas and burn 80 grains of powder was considered effete. The ’06 was regarded by many as outdated, and underpowered; the tool of the unsophisticated and simple-minded.
(Perhaps the apogee of this thinking was the late gun writer Bob Hagel, who regarded using a non-magnum cartridge as one would the molesting of domestic livestock. Hagel was the real deal; he had done a ton of North American hunting, but all in the West, and Alaska. And, of course, there was Elmer Keith.)
Now, we’ve apparently come full circle again, courtesy of the .223 and the wonder child of the 21st century, the 6.5 Creedmoor, both of which are small and modest. I suspect that Snowflakes and Millennials of all stripe regard the ’06 as something horrific.
They’re probably right. Great as it is as an all-around hunting load, the ’06 is just too much for most game. I think the last time I shot a deer with an ’06 was in Montana in the 1990s. Since then it’s all been done with a 6.5 Swede, 7mm/08, .25/06, or 6.5/284. The last elk I killed was with a 6.5/284, which had I done it a couple of decades earlier, I would have laughed at.
I think this great sea change has been brought about by the enormous improvement in game bullets, and in powders. Both are force multipliers that turn your ’06 into the very near equal of a .300 Win Mag. Except the ’06 does its job with a lot less recoil, and who in their right mind wants to get kicked?
If I were going to Africa again, I’d take, as my medium rifle, a .30/06 handloaded with 200-grain Swift A-Frame bullets at 2,600 fps. The A-Frame is the apogee of controlled-expanding bullets. At that speed, it will expand to .60-plus and retain something like 95 percent of its weight. It can shoot through two okapis, a dik-dik, and kill a blue wildebeest on the far side.
It reminds me of a great deal of the .318 Westley Richards, now almost forgotten, but once a standard of African hunting. The .318 was introduced in 1908, and fired a 250-grain bullet at 2,400 fps. It could be chambered in inexpensive rifles like the Model 98 Mauser and the P-14 Enfield. It was inexpensive compared to the .375 H&H, kicked far less, and had a reputation for exceptional penetration, which is what African hunters value above all else. If you read Robert Ruark’s novel Something of Value, the McKenzie family is forever grabbing .318s and bashing something, and Ruark was an accurate observer.
Loaded with that A-Frame, the .30/06 can do the same thing. I took an ’06 to Namibia in 2000, loaded with the fearsome Winchester Fail-Safes (180-grain) and could see no difference between what it would do and what a .338 would do. Dead is dead.
The .30/06 is still one of our great all-around calibers. But I think its true place now is as a round for those who want to take genuinely big animals without going to see an orthopedic surgeon afterward.