While far more similar than they are different, the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester are two of the greatest cartridges ever made and two of the most popular hunting cartridges in the United States!
How do these two military giants stack up to each other? We’ll break them down and find out!
Both of these cartridges have a long and outstanding history to them, but we only have time for the highlight reel right now.
Developed in 1906, the ‘06 was actually an update of the .30-03 that came a few years before it. The .30-03 was an old-school round-nose bullet, where the .30-06 was one of those newfangled pointed bullets that took the world by storm around the turn of the century.
Originally developed by Springfield Armory (the national armory, not the firearms manufacturer that uses the same name today), the .30-06 had several major iterations during its lifetime. While the chamber stayed the same, the ammo used by the military had some hiccups.
Early on, it was estimated that the .30-06 of 1906 using a 150gr bullet had a maximum range of over 4,400 yards. Turns out, it only had an effective range of 3,400 yards. It was tested to 1,800 yards, and the rest was an “estimate”. Clearly, someone over at Springfield was bad at math.
This caused problems during World War I.
Back then, doctrine included using machine guns yeeting rounds at their max range to barrage the enemy. Coming up 1,000 yards short was a problem, to say the least.
After the war, Springfield got to work, and in 1926 the M1 Ball Ammo came to the field. Loaded with a 174gr bullet that was heavier and more aerodynamic, the M1 Ball had a range of 5,500 yards.
And here is where a bit of history lore was born. You might have heard that the military had to download the .30-06 for safety reasons. As a result, it’s unsafe to shoot modern .30-06 ammo in a vintage M1 Garand unless you use a gas plug to regulate the gas.
It’s true. Turns out, 5,500 yards outpaced the safety limits of most US military base’s firing ranges.
Since, in most cases, you can’t just build a longer firing range, the ammo wasn’t safe to train with since any shots that missed might fly way past the safety zone and kill someone.
In 1938 the issue was solved with the introduction of the M2 Ball ammo (the same ammo that the M1 Garand was designed for). The M2 Ball basically took the ballistics of .30-06 back down to the 1906 loading, but with a new powder and slightly better 152gr bullet.
Almost 50 years after Springfield Armory developed the .30-06, Frankford Arsenal (again, the national armory -- not the modern brand) started playing with the .300 Savage as a base cartridge for testing. For their experiments, it was named simply the T65 series of cartridges.
Frankford quickly saw that with some minor modifications and using newer powders, they could almost perfectly replicate M2 Ball ammo ballistics but with a cartridge that was smaller and lighter than the .30-06.
After a few years of testing, Winchester decided that the cartridge Frankford was working on would be a great cartridge for civilian use. Winchester introduced the .308 Winchester in 1952, two years before the T65E5 would be adopted by NATO as the 7.62x51.
The rest, as they say, is history. Practically speaking, .308 Win was designed to be and is .30-06 but smaller and lighter while keeping the same ballistics.
Both cartridges are great for hunting. Being .30cal, they each have a good weight for penetration, good velocity, and more than enough range for the average hunter.
Depending on the load you use, both .308 and .30-06 are good for at least 400 yards.
For anything in North America, from deer to moose, you won’t go wrong with either choice. If you’re planning on larger game as your main harvest, then .30-06 will give you a bit more energy and range.
Long Range Precision
308 Winchester isn’t the best these days, but it still holds its own very well in the long range department. Consistent hits to 800 yards are mostly where this cartridge lives, but if you develop a good load using some of the newer, better bullets, pushing .308 Win to 1,200 yards is a good challenge that won’t drive you insane.
.30-06, on the other hand, really isn’t a great choice but is at least doable. More recoil, higher cost, match ammo is almost impossible to find even during the best of times and doesn’t really offer anything over .308 Win for long range shooting. All-in-all, .30-06 just isn’t a great choice for long range.
Talking about ballistics for these two cartridges is a little hard since there are SO MANY choices when it comes to ammo for both of them. Normally, I try to compare match ammo Vs. match ammo -- but since .30-06 match ammo is rarer than hen’s teeth, that’s not a fair comparison in this case.
When it comes to hunting ammo, you can find basically the same options for both calibers, from the lightest options to the heaviest, although .30-06 ammo does tend to go a little higher in weight.
Bottom line: unless you want to use the heaviest options for .30-06, you can find -- there isn’t enough difference between the two to really make a difference.
However, anything .308 can do, .30-06 can do it slightly heavier. While .308 Win tops out at around 185gr bullet weights, .30-06 can go as high as 210gr. Both cartridges can be found using bullets as light as 110gr.
A 168gr SMK from a .308 moves around 2750 FPS whereas a .30-06 will sling a 180gr SMK at about the same speed.
They have the same drop within 5 inches past 600 yards and the same windage within 2 inches past 700 yards.
The only real difference is that .30-06 is carrying more energy since it’s heavier, roughly 300 ft.lbf more at the muzzle and 100 ft.lbf more at 600-ish yards.
Is that really going to matter? Not really, not when you’re already working with over 2,700 ft.lbf to start with.
In most practical manners, .308 Win is simply a better version of the .30-06. That’s why the military adopted it, and it’s still true today.
AR-10 or Bigger
If you want to sling .308 Win from an AR, you’ll need an AR-10/AR-308. The cartridge is too large to fit in an AR-15 magazine well so you need to step up to the larger frame size.
I always recommend either buying a complete .308 rifle or at least building it using parts from the same manufacturer. Large frame ARs are much less standardized than AR-15s are so it’s good to stick to one brand if you can.
However, Bear Creek Arsenal is coming out with their all-new HuntMaster 30-06 semi-auto rifle that looks pretty slick! Check out the teaser here.
Which is Better?
If I had to pick one, .308 wins my vote. Unless you’re looking to shoot an older rifle that only comes in .30-06, there really isn’t much reason to choose it over modern options.
.308 Win was designed to be a smaller version of the same thing, and that is exactly what it is. If you really need more energy than what .308 Win can bring to the table, it might be worth looking at a more modern cartridge than .30-06 Springfield -- .300 Win Mag, .300 Norma, and .300 PRC all come to mind.
While the .30-06 will live on for decades simply because of the M1 Garands that are in the world, its days as being America’s favorite cartridge are long over.