Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Good Enough to Not Fade Away

I‘ve been tending other concerns during our busy summer construction season and I realize I haven’t posted anything in a while so I’ll offer up something I’ve had percolating in draft for a good long while now. I’m not totally happy with it but I doubt I ever will be so I’ll fling it out there "as- is". It may be a "clunker" but those are worth cash these days...

Let me know what you think.

Looking back over some older posts and recalling some conversations I’ve had with fellow hunters over the last few years, I’ve come to notice I appear to be a huge fan of the 30-06 and given my record on game with it I really should be. I’ve used the .30-06 in some form or another for about 20 years and I’ve always been perfectly happy with the results as well as recommending it to others.

In truth however, the .30-06 is not really one of my favorite cartridges.

Now that I’ve identified myself as one of the unwashed infidels I’ll explain why. I’ve always been curious as to why the .30-06 has taken on near mythical status in the minds of hunters, particularly in the light of the excellent cartridges the .30-06 has outsold or doomed from the start over the years. It’s been equally recommended as suitable for such diverse species as coyote and brown bears and I just can’t see how that should work out right.
I won’t bother disputing the track record of the .30-06 on game. That would be foolish- it’s been used successfully on all kinds of game to the far reaches of the earth for over 100 years. It’s taken just about one of everything on every continent and that’s including some stuff that you’d think was entirely out of its league. For an account, read Hemmingway’s Green Hills of Africa where he abandons the large double in favor of the Springfield and knocks some pretty big critters spinning. A pile of brown bears have also fallen to the .30 caliber 220gr. RN over the years, including some real monsters.
I’ve also said in print that I don’t think cartridge selection is terribly critical when it comes to hunting most of the deer family and shot placement has much more to do with harvesting game than the cartridge used. I’ve also said in print that I prefer the .308 Winchester over the .30-06 because I tend to like a lighter rifle and a shorter action. I also have a definite preference for a heavier rifle for game bigger than whitetails or caribou. No one really took me to task over any of those statements either.

I also made the comment that I think the .30-06 became as popular as it did based on things other than its technical merit; and that friend brought in some hate mail. I’ll explain further. When the US Army adopted the .30-06 and World War I broke out, thousands of young men from all over the nation went to fight and were equipped with a bolt action rifle in .30-06 Springfield. Until that time, the sporting arm of choice was the lever action rifle and while today only the Marlin remains (since the demise of Winchester’s 1894) in those years there were lots of variations of lever gun floating around. Most were chambered in .30-30, 32 Special, or something of equivalent ballistics. Pressures were low due to the lever action’s weak primary extraction ability and velocities were relatively low (at least by modern standards). I can only imagine the first experience with a Springfield’06 on a 300 yard range to a kid used to a ’94 in .30 WCF.

There were other high velocity cartridges around in those days. The .30 Adolph Express (aka .30 Newton) as well as 7x57 and 8x57 Mausers from Europe and some dandy rounds from Britain like the .303 and .318 Westley Richards. Even the Canadians produced the 280 Ross and it was a legitimate hot number for its day. The .30 Newton died during the Depression and neither the metric nor the British numbers became all that popular over here and God only knows what happened to the Ross. But the folks hunting post World War I latched on the .30-06 Springfield with a passion and began knocking down game from coast to coast. It’s my contention that you could have chambered the Springfield rifle in any number of rounds and we’d be talking about that cartridge today instead of the .30-06.

None of those statements should be construed as criticism of the .30-06. It’s a fine hunting cartridge and a world standard for almost a century. I’ve killed a pile of stuff with the several I’ve owned as have many folks I’ve known. I’ll probably own another one eventually since my taste in rifles seems to be cyclical. I’m just saying that it’s good but not good enough that if it were introduced today we’d be all that excited about it. It’s not that much better than the .270, 280 or 7mm Magnum and for certain (big) things it’s certainly slightly inferior to the .35 Whelen. A lot of guys wax poetic about the .338-06 these days and they should; it’s a great cartridge. The 6.5-06 and .25-06 are both excellent in their respected category.
None of them beat the .30-06 to the punch though.

To get to the crux of this post I’ll confess- I really wanted figure out what makes a cartridge popular and a commercial success and what dooms one to obscurity. I wish I could determine that, because I could make a pile of dough working for Winchester or Remington. We compare everything to the .30-06 because, well, it got there first. Take for instance the .280 Remington- a fine all around cartridge in all respects and a lot of knowledgeable gun cranks pick this one over the Springfield cartridge every day. Commercially though, it’s a disaster. It’s been through two name changes (the brief 7mm-06 and the 7mm Remington Express) and its just sort of sitting there today relatively unnoticed.

The .270 Winchester made a serious dent in ’06 sales largely due to Jack O’Connor using a tanker of ink extolling its virtue from various magazines on a monthly basis. Interestingly, since O’Connor’s passing the .270 has been steadily slipping in sales. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe it will ever fade away but for the only cartridge that ever gave the ’06 a serious run for its money it’s starting to wane a bit. As good as the .270 is; it would appear that its sales depended on a guru to some degree. I can’t figure that one out either.

If we look at cartridges that appear stillborn you can find some interesting numbers. We’ve already discussed the 280 Remington/7mm Express thing but the greatest cartridge flop of the 70’s is without a doubt the 8mm Remington Magnum. Even its parent company has given up on it and makes a single load (plus one seasonal) and only chambers a rifle through the custom shop. An 8mm bullet perched on a voluminous case that really never took advantage of the cartridge’s powder capacity was something the market ignored profoundly. The dimensionally much smaller .325 WSM will match its ballistics without breaking a sweat. It also suffered from bad bullets- made for 8x57 Mauser velocities not 8mm Remington Magnum ones and component bullets suffered as well. Today we have such good 8mm bullets but it’s too late- the toe tag is already on the 8mm Remington Magnum. It’s a pity; we could have had an American version of the European 8x68S. Most folks that used one said it killed game like a freight train; there just weren’t many of them apparently.

We have with us now a plethora of “short magnum”, “super short magnums” and a host of boutique cartridges that seem to have little commercial merit other than a rifle maker’s name on a head stamp. That’s not generally a bad thing mind you although a lot of traditionalists will cry out that each is inferior to something created prior to World War II. There only partially right but still somewhat right nonetheless. I’ve played a bit with the .300 WSM and the .375 Ruger- two cartridges I like very much indeed although I’ve given up on the Ruger as too much trouble in my location. I’m still working with the .300 WSM and although it’s a hot number it follows the tradition of not delivering quite up to the hype it’s sold under. Whether a cartridge fires a 180grain at 3010 or a more realistic 2900 feet per second matters little to the caribou whose lung you’ve just blown out. But I guess it makes us feel better thinking we own a real .300 and not just a hot- rodded 30-06 (which is pretty much what a .300 magnum is…).

I view most of these creations as stillborn and give the .300WSM and .270 WSM some chance of commercial survival based on sheer numbers out there. The .375 Ruger is selling beyond their expectations and the case is spawning equally boutique offspring of its own but the lack of genuine need for a .375 in North America will (unfortunately) eventually doom this one to failure. Let’s face it- we like the ’06 so much because it’s so completely adequate for most everything we hunt on this continent and most stuff other places as well.

A couple of unfortunate casualties of this decade long hoopla of ballistic creation are some genuinely good cartridges. The .338 Federal comes to mind and seems like an updated .338x57 that O’Connor bantered about some 50 years ago. Mild recoil, good velocities and good bullet weight on a short action case make this one a real winner and loved by most who’ve tried it. Commercially I don’t think this one will make it and that’s sad. Another is the .370 Sako Magnum as marketed in this country by Federal. In Europe it’s the 9.3x66 Sako Magnum but whatever you call it- it’s good. The ’06 case blown out to take 9.3mm bullets, loaded to the gills with miracle powder and the ballistics are off the chart for a standard length and case diameter. You get full magazine capacity (4 or 5 in most rifles) and a standard action rifle. Unfortunately the public couldn’t seem to care less and it’s just kind of lost in the shuffle. That’s a real pity because this one really has some potential if it were to become successful.

All this talk about various cartridges is making my head hurt. Maybe I should just take a .30-06 and go hunting instead. It may not have been the best of its era or even our present age but at least it was good enough not to fade away on us.


tom said...

Friend from gunsmith college and I, sitting around an evening fire with a few beers, came to the conclusion that not much significant other than better powders and projectiles have been developed since WW II.

As to the older cartridges doing things better than their new "whiz-bang futuristic short magnums" (people forget there were short magnums BEFORE WW II, just not popular), I must say, the older but still popular cartridges, most especially for African/DG hunting, handle being loaded over a wider range maintaining consistent velocities over wide temperature and humidity conditions as well as altitudes. that can not be said about some of the new magazine favorites.

As to why some things succeed and fail, I think most of that is marketing. I could write an add saying ".375 Ruger, doing what the .375 H&H has been doing since 1912 with possibly lesser versatility" and I LIKE a full length action for .375s (of course I also like them out of my Encore Pistol barrels but that's my own personal perversion :-)

.338-.378 WBY wildcat developed a good reputation and beame a estblished round that you can even get headstamped from factory brass for. My business partner developed the .35-378GR based on the .378WBY ~20 years ago and JGS still probably has prints for it to make another reamer, but he's the only person that's ever built them that I know of and it has better ballistics than the .338-378. It's kinda like how the .338 version would have been done if Ackley or Bellm had designed it. .35 caliber bullets work well (specially with that big .378WBY gas tank) but you don't see much .35 cal anything except wildcats and you see a lot of .338s ( I have a few myself ). Why? Dunno. Just is. I gave up on trying to figure peoples motives beyond whether or not something was heavily marketed like the new Rugers are being done.

Why is .458 WinMag more popular than .458 Lott. Bellm and I have tolerable PISTOL load data for .458 Lott loadings that are one handable with proper porting and/or braking and they also are one of the best elephant killers in the world with 500 or 55 Grainers you wouldn't want to shoot in a pistol. It's what the .458WinMag should have been in the first place. .450 Ackley is slightly lesser because of cartridge dimensions that leave you less barrel metal around the chamber, which could be a problem depending on the strength of the barrel you're rechambering and action receiver ring strength so that's why the Lott beat the Ack even though they are shoot alikes ballistically speaking...Sometimes you can see why one cart wins over the other.

As to short action light rifles, Friend of mine was shooting a .30-06 Featherweight, not even short action, and he found it a bit uncomfortable. I was shooting unbraked .458s and .577s that day and neither bugged me a bit. Recoil sensitivity varies a LOT.

All of this combines to often make it anybody's guess as to why one wins and the other doesn't. This is speaking as one who's had an AR gone 6.5 Grendel and the rest of the world outside of us wee band of merry Grendlers seems to have gone 6.8SPC even if it's ballistically inferior except at close range. Want a guess as to why? Remington brought out the 6.8SPC! Back to marketing again and industry connections, aren't we?

Albert A Rasch said...


Great writing and fantastic commentaries.

I shot that 370 Sako at the SHOT show, and when it was handed to me I understood 308 Winchester.

Scope busted the bridge of my nose but good! LOL!


tom said...

War surplused rifles and surplussed ammo also factored a LOT into the popularity of .30-06. Forgot to mention that last night. And a lot of hunters we're experienced with the round and rifles that were surplussed because they had served. Racking up considerable hunting success with them. Then you get to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" unless you are people pushing 204 Rugers and .300WSMs :-)

Most ex-military probably stayed in the "if it ain't broke don't fix it". Like me with my H&H rifles.

mdmnm said...

The 30-'06 hits the sweet spot for most hunters of being big enough to put down game, even big game, really well out to fairly long distance while not being too much recoil. The 308 Winchester is a little more efficient with less recoil. Like you mention, the .300 Winmag just a bit faster and flatter in trajectory for quite a bit more recoil (and powder- frugal reloaders take note of how many rounds they're getting from a can).

I think it's a bit much for a lot of deer hunting, but not for elk. Don't know about caribou or moose, but being familiar with the trajectory and wind drift of 180s out of my '06, I know what I'd take and be most confident in if I were to hunt either. I think the problem a lot of new rounds designed as all-around big game cartridges have is that they just don't deliver that much more in the way at bullet weight and velocity until they really start to add some recoil.

I think the 338 Federal, the 358 Winchester, and the 35 Whelen are all really interesting to me, too. I'll probably get one (likely a Whelen, just resize '06 brass) one day and give it a try. Won't sell the '06, though.

hodgeman said...

I think the one thing the 300 magnums give you is range. Not necessarily more effective range but more practical range.

For instance hunting game of variable size (like carribou) over unfamiliar terrain (like tundra) where getting good range estimation without a rangefinder is difficult.

That's the one place I've found them really useful- reducing the error in unknown ranges in open country or mountainous terrain.

How much value? Jury is still out for me on that one...

mdmnm said...


That's true. Once you start dealing with distances over 350 yards range estimation becomes really important and every little bit of flatness in the trajectory helps.

I shot a 7mmRemmag for quite a few years, but always used 175s so it didn't offer much better trajectory than the '06. Then again, I only shot 1 elk over 100 yards with it out of half a dozen.

tom said...

I'm tinkering with how -06 does as a pistol cartridge. Results will be on my page eventually if the project shows merit. 20" Bergara rifle barrel, properly throated, and chopped and recrowned to a nice 11 degree target spec. Won't lose velocity much from the original 24" and add some weight as no ports or brake to be easier on the ears than the .300+ Magnum pistols I've done. Load development and woodworming to be sorted. Something to do and the price was right on some of the bits to do it.