This could be the most frequently debated rifle cartridge matchup on the planet.
Both conceived in the early 20th century, the .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield are ballistically similar, easy to find, and chambered in a wide variety of rifles. If you own a .270, your buddy probably owns a .30-06. If he doesn’t, his old man did, and he still has strong opinions about which cartridge performs better in the field.
I won’t pretend to solve this debate in the next 800 words. As Frank C. Barnes points out in “Cartridges of the World,” “Anyone trying to make a big case for one against the other is beating a pretty dead horse.”
I’ll let that horse lie, but I can provide some information to help you make your decision—if your old man hasn’t decided for you already.
.270 Win. Ballistics vs. .30-06 Springfield Ballistics Usually, .270 Win. is loaded with bullets ranging between 130 and 150 grains with velocities between 2,900 and 3,100 feet per second. The .30-06 uses heavier bullets moving slower, most commonly in the 150- to 180-grain range that reach velocities between 2,800 and 3,000 fps.
Federal’s Trophy Copper options are good examples. The 130-grain .270 Win. travels 3,060 fps at the muzzle, which results in 1,745 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at 300 yards and 1,273 ft.-lbs. of energy at 500 yards. The 165-grain .30-06 moves 2,800 fps at the muzzle and hits with 1,901 ft.-lbs. of energy at 300 yards and 1,412 ft.-lbs. of energy at 500 yards.
The .30-06 wins the bullet energy category. It hits harder even at extended ranges, and it can be loaded using bullets as heavy as 220 grains.
However, since Trophy Copper bullets reliably expand only at velocities above 1,800 fps, the .270 Win. has a greater maximum effective range. The .30-06 dips below 1,800 fps around 580 yards while the .270 speeds along above 1,800 fps until about 680 yards.
That added velocity also means the .270 Win. shoots “flatter" in that it doesn’t drop as much at extended ranges. At 500 yards, the Trophy Copper .270 Win. drops about 37 inches while the .30-06 drops 44 inches using the same bullet.
You can see why this debate rages on. I only considered Federal’s Trophy Copper line, but these differences extend to other loads as well. The “best cartridge” depends a lot on your environment. For long-range work, the .270 Win. is a little better. For very large game, the .30-06 hits a little harder. At the same time, most hunters will notice exactly zero difference between these two cartridges. They’re both great for any North American big game animal, and these small ballistic differences only show up at very long ranges.
I don’t often do this, but this one’s a draw.
.270 Win. Shootability vs. .30-06 Springfield Shootability Neither of these large cartridges are known for being particularly comfortable to shoot. As with ballistics, minute differences aren’t likely to be noticed by most hunters.
With an eight-pound rifle, the .270 Win. hits with about 10 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy with a 120-grain bullet travelling 2,675 fps and 17 ft.-lbs. of energy with a 150-grain bullet travelling 2,900 fps. The .30-06 has a similar floor but a higher ceiling. Using an eight-pound rifle, recoil energy is 10 ft.-lbs. with a 125-grain bullet travelling 2,660 fps and 20 ft.-lbs. with a 180-grain bullet travelling 2,700 fps.
That’s a lot of numbers, so let me summarize: they’re the same. The .30-06 is more commonly loaded with heavier bullets, which in this case translates to more recoil energy. But with bullets of the same weight, recoil energy evens out, and your shoulder hurts just as much (or just as little, depending on your perspective).
In terms of cartridge cost and availability, the .30-06’s military history gives it a slight advantage. The large online ammunition dealer, Midway USA, offers 114 .30-06 products ranging from $1.15 per round to $5.15 per round. For the .270 Win., Midway “only” offers 65 products ranging from $1.15 per round to $5 per round.
Prices are similar, but availability isn’t. Midway only has two .270 Win. options in stock right now while the .30-06 has seven. This gives the .30-06 the slight edge in this category.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
.270 Win. Versatility vs. .30-06 Springfield Versatility Common wisdom says that the .270 Win. is a better varmint round (given its lighter, flatter-shooting bullets), and the .30-06 is better for very large game (given is heavier bullets and greater energy). In general, that’s true, and it’s another reason this debate is so difficult to conclude.
Barnes lists bullets ranging from 90 grains to 180 grains for the .270 Win. and 100 grains to 220 grains for the .30-06. But are these loads actually available to purchase? For the .270, the lightest bullet sold at Midway USA in a complete cartridge is a 127-grain round while the heaviest are 150-grain pills in a wide variety of styles. For the .30-06, you can find a 125-grain hunting rounds all the way up to 220-grain.
So, while the .30-06 is known for its heavier bullets, it can also play the varmint game with light, 125-grain projectiles. This, combined with the fact that all major rifle manufacturers chamber hunting rifles in both cartridges, gives the edge to the .30-06.
But in all honesty, either is a great choice for everything from antelope to elk.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
And the Winner Is… As the winner of two of three categories, the .30-06 Springfield deserves the nod. It’s more widely available and somewhat more versatile, which makes it a better choice if you’re forced to decide.
But you probably noticed that these advantages are only at the margins of the .30-06’s capabilities. If you’re talking about the most common loads in each cartridge, it’s still a ridiculously close call. The .270 is probably better in open country while the .30-06 shines on large game, but at the end of the day, both cartridges will serve you well on virtually any large North American game animal.
Overall Winner: .30-06 Springfield