With seven hundred dollars and a thirty ought six."
Sunday, October 02, 2016
ODE TO THE OUGHT SIX
“But there ain't many troubles that a man caint fix
With seven hundred dollars and a thirty ought six."
With seven hundred dollars and a thirty ought six."
Lindy Cooper Wisdom
Brought rather arbitrarily to life by US Army Ordnance officers who were seeking a nice round number, the Caliber .30, U.S., Model of 1906 cartridge, more commonly known as the .30-06 Springfield, came into being over 110 years ago. During all that time it has remained one of the most popular hunting calibers in the world even long after its demise as a military round and few people have had anything bad to say about the venerable old “ought six.”
Colonel Townsend Whelen, of course, told us, “The .30-06 is never a mistake.” He also wrote, “A properly constructed .30-caliber bullet of 180 grains at M.V. 2,700 f.s. is adequate for any American big game if properly directed at the chest cavity.” Jeff Cooper made similar observations.
Even Jack O’Connor, who adored the .270 Winchester for deer, antelope, and sheep, admitted that he owned three .270s and three .30-06s and gave the nod to the ought six when it came to larger game.
“I doubt that anything that can be put through a .270 would be quite as effective on the heavier stuff as a good 180-grain bullet in the .30/06. And when a man is hunting really heavy and potentially dangerous game I don’t think any .270 load is as effective as a good 220-grain bullet in the .30/06, as these babies play for keeps and the bullet must drive into the vitals at all costs.”
Only Elmer Keith, with his affinity for “punkin’ chunkin’” big hunks of lead so heavy that gravity alone would render them lethal, felt the .30-06 was a bit of a pipsqueak and inadequate for elk.
Militarily, the Caliber .30 U.S. gave yeoman service through two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, and even soldiered on in the early days of the Vietnam War. It was fired from some of the most famous US military small arms; the Model 1903 Springfield, the Model 1917 Enfield, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the Browning water and air-cooled medium machine guns, and George Patton’s “finest battle implement ever devised”, the M1 Garand.
In WWI, doughboys like Sergeant Alvin York and Captain Samuel Woodfill showed that a single expert rifleman with a .30-06 could change the tide of battle. Likewise, the US Marines stunned and staggered the Germans with accurate long-range rifle fire when they arrived “Over There.” My favorite description of this comes from the book Fix Bayonets! “The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him, and he came again. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine guns scourged the place, but he could not make head against the rifle. Guns he could understand; he knew all about bombs and auto-rifles and machine guns and trench-mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle fire, that comes from nowhere in particular and picks off men—it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him.”
The ought six could indeed reach way out there “past Fort Mudge” and still deliver a decisive blow; at 600 yards the 150-grain ball round fired from a Springfield or Garand still retains considerably more foot-pounds of striking energy than the M16A1 rifle of my day could deliver at the muzzle!
The Caliber .30, U.S. would serve as the American military’s standard cartridge from 1906 until 1957. This lengthy military service also led to some pretty cool ammunition being developed for the .30-06, such as the black-tipped Armor Piercing, the silver-tipped Armor Piercing Incendiary and the orange-tipped tracer bullets. GIs in WWII found the M2 AP sufficiently powerful to penetrate the side armor of German halftracks, and even the ball (FMJ) projectile was able to turn good-sized tree trunks an enemy might shelter behind from cover into mere concealment. When John Moses Browning was designing the world’s best heavy machine gun, the Browning .50-caliber Ma Deuce, he simply multiplied the dimensions of the standard .30-06 cartridge to create the .50 BMG round. From the standpoint of a United States Marine Corps officer in WWII, the late, great Colonel Jeff Cooper noted, “Bushido is all very well in its way, but it is no match for a .30-06.”
In the hunting field, the .30-06 went to Africa with Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Ernest Hemingway used a .30-06 on safari in 1934 and Robert Ruark pronounced it “enough gun” in 1952. The lever-action Winchester in calibers like the venerable .30-30 had reigned supreme in America for decades, but returning veterans of the First World War brought the .30-06 cartridge and the bolt-action rifle into the hunting mainstream to stay. In Alaska, against their giant brown bears, one study conducted in the 1980’s concluded that the .30-06 with 220-grain bullets was the minimum acceptable defensible caliber, and the same load works well for moose, North America’s largest game animal. As Jeff Cooper succinctly put it, “I have satisfied myself completely over the years that the .30-06 will do anything that needs doing in North America.”
The .30-06 has also been touted at one time or another for its sheer versatility; it can be used for anything from “mouse to moose.” Factory ammunition has run the gamut from 100-grain to 220-grain bullets, and reloaders have taken things all the way up to 250 grains.
Back in the old days, wilderness hunting trips could last for weeks or even months and “pothunting” for wild game helped to keep the larders full hundreds of miles from the nearest store. For more than forty years, Townsend Whelen used his .30-06 with a light load consisting of a 150-grain FMJ military bullet propelled by only 18 grains of 4759 powder to harvest small game and upland birds without blowing them to bits.
Decades later, Remington made an attempt to turn the .30-06 into a varmint rifle with the introduction of their special Accelerator ammunition. This fired a 55-grain .224-caliber Pointed Soft Point bullet encased in a plastic sabot to fit a .30-caliber bore at an impressive muzzle velocity of 4,080 feet per second. Expense and, in some rifles, indifferent-at-best accuracy kept the idea from becoming very successful.
But when push comes to shove the .30-06 is really a big game cartridge and at that job it is superb. In the old days, the standard recipe called for 150-grain bullets with a muzzle velocity of 2,900 fps for deer, 180-grain bullets at 2,700 fps for elk, and the big 220-grain round nose slugs for dangerous game like grizzly and Alaskan brown bear. Today, the choices can be narrowed down if desired. For many, the 165-grain bullet seems the best all-round compromise when it comes to hunting since it shoots flatter than the 180-grain yet packs more punch than the 150s. While none of the numbers produced by these loads are very sexy or spectacular when compared to the various .30-caliber Magnums, they have still been simply getting the job done for more than a century.
The 180/2,700 mentioned by Whelen is still a very viable and fairly long range load perfect for deer and elk. With a 270 yard zero, you’re still shooting flat to 330 yards before you even need to start worrying about trajectory. The vast majority of hunters really don’t possess the marksmanship skills to take game much beyond 300 yards anyway, but the .30-06 is certainly capable of reaching out there to make 400 and even 500 yards shots in really good hands.
My wife “adopted” my Model 1903A3 Springfield. It was originally a WWII-vintage Remington-made 03A3 that had been sporterized long before I bought it. I turned it into a Cooper-style Scout Rifle with a 19-inch barrel, lightweight synthetic Choate Mauser stock, and a home-made scout scope mount which now wears a Leatherwood Hi-Lux 2-7x32mm long eye relief scope. Most importantly, an old retired USMC gunnery sergeant turned gunsmith did an amazing trigger job on the Springfield. That alone was enough for my wife to choose that particular rifle as her own hunting arm.
I’ve hunted a great deal with the .308 Winchester, sometimes for no better reason than to prove that a semi-automatic military-style “evil black rifle” does indeed have a “legitimate sporting purpose.” For pronghorn antelope and deer, I had a fling with the 6.5x55mm Swede for a couple of years. Yet I always wound up coming back to the .30-06 in the end. Now I generally hunt with an FN-made Model ’98 Mauser action with a 24-inch military contour barrel, Timney trigger, and Model 70-style wing safety wearing a Leupold Rifleman 3-9x40mm scope.
Both of us also reload our own ammunition. After playing around with various loads, bullet weights and powders, we both settled on 180-grain bullets as standard. The older rifles just seemed to greatly prefer heavier as opposed to lighter bullets. Olivia’s Springfield, in particular, was basically indifferent to 150-grain loads and tossed 125-grain bullets all over the paper, but she found that a combination for the 180-grain that yields 3-shot groups that can be covered with a dime at 100 yards. My Mauser never shot quite so well but I was finally able to at least achieve the magical 1 MOA with 180-grain loads.
More years ago than I care to recount, a friend of mine who was small of stature had hunted with the same .30-06 his entire life, but one year he decided to upgrade to a .300 Winchester Magnum in a lightweight “Mountain Rifle”. He came out to our place to sight it in at 100 yards. His first 3-shot group you could have covered with a dime. By the time he was “zeroed”, his fourth group had opened up to damn near as big as a dinner plate as he flinched in anticipation of the recoil. He hunted just one year with the .300 Win Mag and then went right back to the good old ought six ever since.
I myself once fell prey to the siren’s song of the .300 Win Mag even though I knew deep in my heart that all it really did was push the exact same .308-inch bullets that the ought six spits out to higher velocities. That .300 on a P-17 Enfield action was the first rifle to ever give me a case of half moon disease as the rim of the scope cut a semi-circle into my eyebrow. I felt the most pain, however, at the reloading bench, where I had to use a scoop shovel instead of powder measure. To get the same 180-grain .308 Sierra GameKing moving 200 feet per second faster than the .30-06 required around 75 grains of powder versus the ought six’s more reasonable appetite of roughly 50 grains. I never did hunt with the .300, mainly because, despite the tonnage of powder devoted to finding the best “cherry” load, I never could get a 3-shot group to squeeze into even 2 inches at 100 yards. And all this to achieve a maximum point blank range 20 yards more than the .30-06 delivered.
As for the bullets themselves, we also experimented with not only different weights but various types to include the “new & improved” premium technology such as the Nosler Partition and Hornady InterBond. In the end, however, we worked our way right back to our starting point: the good old cup-and-core Sierra GameKing soft points. Like the .30-06 cartridge itself, they just plain get the job done.
If it ain't broke....30-06, '98 Mauser, Sierra GameKing.
Another old Marine, Guns & Ammo’s Craig Boddington once wrote, “…if you are going to own just one centerfire hunting rifle, make it a .30-06.”
On the ought six’s 100th birthday, Outdoor Life’s Jim Carmichel noted, “In terms of popularity and widespread appreciation, no other caliber comes close…The .30/06 is the American hunter’s sweetheart, apple pie and first kiss all in one. It does it all.”