No two cartridges embody the old school vs. new school debate better than the .30-06 Springfield and the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The former got its start in 2007 as a bougie, long-range cartridge more at home on a competition course than in a deer blind. The latter is a World War I and II vet known worldwide for its hunting capabilities and “knock down power.”
The 6.5, in other words, is like the know-it-all nephew while the .30-06 is his grumpy old uncle. If you’ve ever been to a family gathering, you know that those two won’t leave Thanksgiving dinner seeing eye-to-eye. But this Caliber Battle will give you the info you need to pick a side before Christmas rolls around.
Prospective gun owners should keep in mind that, ballistically speaking, these two cartridges are in different categories. The .30-06 shoots heavier bullets than the 6.5 Creedmoor, but those bullets travel just as fast. This allows it to hit harder at virtually any range.
To compare apples to apples, let’s look at Federal’s Trophy Copper line. The 6.5 Creedmoor launches a 120-grain bullet 2,875 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle for an energy output of 2,202 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). The .30-06, on the other hand, launches a 165-grain bullet 2,800 fps at the muzzle for an energy output about 30% higher—2,872 ft.-lbs.
Creedmoor fanboys like to point out that the 6.5 can be loaded with bullets that feature a high ballistic coefficient. In some cases, this aerodynamic ability allows it to catch up to hotter cartridges at longer ranges.
Even putting aside the fact that taking a shot on an animal at 800 yards is almost never a good idea, that argument doesn’t carry water in this example. The Creedmoor’s 75 fps advantage at the muzzle has shrunk to 52 fps at 500 yards, and it’s only dropped 2.4 fewer inches than the .30-06 (44 inches vs. 41.6 inches with a 200 yard zero). At 800 yards, the 6.5 has maintained that slight velocity advantage and has dropped nine fewer inches, but both bullets are traveling below the minimum required velocity for expansion.
You can play with different bullet weights and styles, but at the end of the day, the 6.5 can’t beat the .30-06’s greater case capacity. That extra powder allows it to push heavier bullets faster, which results in more energy transfer and (hopefully) a better chance of hydrostatic shock. In the examples above, the 165-grain .30-06 bullet imparts about 25% more energy at each range.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
The old guy is in the lead, but the young buck is about to make up some ground. The .30-06 hits harder, but that ballistic advantage comes at a cost—namely, the structural integrity of your shoulder.
Anyone who has shot both cartridges knows that the .30-06 kicks harder than the 6.5 Creedmoor. How much harder depends on a host of factors, including the rifle weight, bullet weight, and powder charge. You could find a sissy .30-06 that feels like shooting a 6.5, or you could shoot a Creedmoor in a featherweight gun that feels closer to a .30-06.
With that caveat out of the way, Chuck Hawks reports that with an eight-pound rifle, a 165-grain .30-06 traveling 2,900 fps will hit with about 20 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy. That level of recoil energy is liable to induce flinching, which isn’t what you want with a trophy buck in your sights.
Federal doesn’t publish recoil data on the 120-grain 6.5 Creedmoor load, but most manufacturers report 140-grain rounds hitting with between 12 to 15 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy. It’s a safe bet that the 120-grain offering is even lighter.
How much this matters to you depends on whether or not you’re a masochist. Like shoulder pain? Go with a heavy-recoiling rifle. Would rather skip the bruises and flinching? The 6.5 might be for you.
Flinching, it turns out, is the worst thing that can happen to a rifle hunter. It’s easy to hold a scope’s reticle on target. It’s more difficult to maintain that steady aim when pulling the trigger means a shot to the shoulder. This is where the 6.5 Creedmoor shines, and why it’s worth a look even when stacked up against bigger, more powerful cartridges.
Ammo availability favors the .30-06. Federal offers 35 .30-06 varieties but only 18 in 6.5. That trend is borne out among other manufacturers, which means the .30-06 will probably be a little easier to find on the shelves. The 6.5’s popularity, however, means that most gun stores do their best to stock the Creedmoor, so you shouldn’t have much trouble with either cartridge.
The older military cartridge also edges out the 6.5 in terms of cost. The cheapest .30-06 options are cheaper than the cheapest 6.5 Creedmoor options by about 10%, and of the two Trophy Copper options listed in the previous section, the .30-06 is slightly cheaper ($55.99 vs. $58.99 for a box of 20).
But a sore shoulder hurts worse than spending a few extra bucks, which is why this round goes to the 6.5 Creedmoor.
Winner: 6.5 Creedmoor
By “versatility,” we mean the range of animals each cartridge can reasonably target and the range of firearms that can be used to target those animals.
Frank C. Barnes opines in “Cartridges of the World” that with proper bullet selection, the .30-06 can be used in any game or hunting situation in North or South America, whether in the mountains, plains, woods, or jungles. “Few other cartridges can claim equal versatility,” he concludes.
He’s got a point. Federal offers the .30-06 in a huge range of bullet weights: from 125-grain pills good for varmints or medium-sized game all the way up to 200- and 220-grain loads for big game like bears and moose. This is a fantastic range for any cartridge, and the .30-06 has proven itself in the field for years.
But don’t sleep on the 6.5 Creedmoor. Its stunning popularity has spurred an appetite for innovation, and Federal offers 6.5 loads in the varmint, medium game, and big game classes using bullets ranging from 95 to 140 grains. It might not be capable of punching as high as the .30-06, but those 95-grain bullets paired with the 6.5’s long-range prowess might give it the edge in the varmint category. It’ll almost certainly be more comfortable to use on an all-day prairie dog hunt than its older uncle.
That contest is a close call, but rifle availability is a check in the win column for the 6.5 Creedmoor. Weatherby chambers 12 of their rifles in .30-06, but a whopping 38 models in 6.5 Creedmoor. The same holds true for other manufacturers when considering both bolt-action, semi-auto, and other types of rifles.
This ratio will look different at the used gun counter, of course. The .30-06 has a 100-year head start on the 6.5, so you’re likely to find lots of old deer rifles chambered in the .30-caliber cartridge. But if you’re looking for a new rifle, especially if you’re looking for something other than bolt-action, the 6.5 Creedmoor will give you more options.
This is a tough choice, but the .30-06’s ability to target very large game as well as varmints earns it the nod.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
The 6.5 Creedmoor has been edged out in every Caliber Battle so far, and for many of the same reasons it lost two out of three categories in this matchup. It doesn’t fly terribly fast or hit terribly hard, which means it’s a little underpowered for very large game (though it has successfully been used on pretty much everything in North America).
But there’s a reason it’s an uber-popular cartridge. It doesn’t take an Abrams tank to take down a whitetail or an elk, and most hunters would rather have a cartridge that’s easy to shoot than a cartridge that is theoretically better at dropping a grizzly bear. Power is great, but so is comfort. The 6.5 balances those two better than many other cartridges—including, in my opinion, the .30-06.
However, at the risk of mixing sports metaphors, I won’t move the goalposts so my favorite horse wins this race. The .30-06 is a true do-it-all cartridge, and as the winner of two out of three categories, I’d say the old guy deserves another day in the winner’s circle.
Overall Winner: .30-06 Springfield