The average successful rifle shot at big-game critters no more than 100 yards (probably less). At that distance, your typical 150-grain .308 Winchester hunting bullet penetrates about 19 inches and deforms to a frontal diameter of around 0.55 inch. The same conventionally designed but heavier 180-grain bullet from a .30/06 will push to around 22 inches and expand a little wider, to about .6 of an inch.
But there’s a better .30-caliber option. There is a 150-grain hunting bullet that at 100 yards will penetrate at least 23 inches and expand as much or more than either with similar bullets. Not only that, but it will do so while producing just 13 foot-pounds of recoil energy when fired from a 7-pound rifle. That’s 6 and 11 foot-pounds less than the .308 and .30/06, respectively.
What is miracle cartridge? It’s the .30/30 Winchester.
Killing Power Is More About Penetration Than Velocity
How could the ancient .30/30 possibly outperform two 30-caliber cartridges that are considered by many to be the best big-game cartridges of all time? The answer is simpler than you might think. With conventional bullets, the higher velocities of the .308 and .30/06 cause more bullet erosion, which reduces weight, and in turn, penetration.
You might argue that the higher impact velocities of the latter tend to create more tissue damage. That’s true, and if sufficient penetration is reached by all three of these, the ones fired from the .308 and .30/06 might in fact put an animal down faster. But not any deader, and none of that is quantifiable. What really counts is penetration, something former African professional hunter and gun writer Finn Aagaard recognized this years ago when he made two very astute observations:
1. “Given sufficient penetration, what does any additional bullet weight add to killing power? Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
2. “Proper bullet placement + sufficient penetration = quick clean kill. That, really, is all one needs to know about killing power.”
The simplest proof of this is that all the big-game animals of North America have been taken with a bow and arrow, with the latter traveling well under 300 fps in most cases. It isn’t speed that makes that arrow deadly; it’s penetration. You may think that arrows and broadheads kill differently than bullets. But they don’t. Aagaard explained this to us more than two decades ago as well. “Actually, arrows incapacitate by either taking out a vital part of the central nervous system or by causing sufficient bleeding to shut the brain down from lack of oxygen, which is exactly how rifle bullets kill also.”
The .30/30 Is As Proven As Any Big-Game Cartridge
In his 1970s book, The Hunting Rifle, Jack O’Connor talked about an old hand he’d encountered who’d hunted Wyoming, Montana, and the Yukon, and typically took 17 or 18 elk with a single box (20 rounds) of .30/30 ammo. He told O’Connor that a moose, lung shot with a .30/30, would run about 75 to 100 yards and die. Well before that, African professional hunter Wally Johnson took a .30/30 Winchester to Africa and used it to kill lions. The effectiveness of the .30/30 Winchester on big game should never be questioned; it has more than a century of proof sanctioning it.
So, why is it these days that the .30/30 is seen mainly as a “woods” rifle or a starter gun? Nothing about it has changed. In fact, modern ammunition loaded with solid copper bullets from Barnes and Hornady or with bonded bullets like the Fusion and HammerDown loads from Federal, the .30/30 is the best it’s ever been. It will anchor most anything a North American hunter needs anchored, out to about 175 yards or so.
And there’s the rub for modern hunters. The main reason the .30/30 has lost its big-game luster is because higher-velocity cartridges extend range, and with extended range comes extended opportunity. The second reason is that it’s easier to learn how to shoot than to hunt. Across the board, hunter skill is far less than it was a hundred years ago—and 50 years ago and 25 years ago.
Long-Range Shooting Isn’t a Good Stand-In for Hunting Skill
I like shooting more than most. But reading sign, finding game, getting close, and then shooting is even more fun. As David E. Petzal says: It’s called hunting. You might like it.
Plus, shooting at long distances is a poor stand-in for hunting skill–one that often doesn’t work out well for the shooter or the shot-at. Well, what about hunting the West, some will say? You wouldn’t take a .30/30 on a pronghorn hunt, right? Well, why not? People shoot pronghorns with bows. I’ve hunted the West plenty, and as long as I do my part as a hunter, I would never feel under-gunned there with a .30/30. In fact, a lever-gun goat hunt sounds like a blast to me.
Spend enough time hunting game all over the world with a wide range of guns and cartridges and, though it takes a while, you learn things. Like, there are no magic rifles, cartridges, or bullets. You don’t go shooting at things you’re not sure you can hit. There’s no good that comes from a hard-kicking rifle. And if you can hunt, all you need is a .30/30.