In some ways, the United States military decided this Caliber Battle in 1957. In that year, the .308 Winchester replaced the .30-06 Springfield in American military arsenals, and the NATO version of the Winchester, the 7.62x51mm, is still in service around the world.
But what’s good for military purposes isn’t always ideal for the deer blind. The .308 Win. was adopted in part to increase magazine capacity and function in lighter semi-auto actions, two considerations that don’t apply to most hunters or hunting rifles. Despite its retirement from the military, the .30-06 remains one of the most popular and effective big game cartridges of all time.
Many hunters possess rifles in both cartridges, and I’d never suggest that one can have too many hunting rifles. Still, the .308 Win. and the .30-06 overlap in many ways, so it makes sense to only pick one. The question is, which one?
The .30-06 and the .308 Win. are usually loaded with bullets in the 150- to 180-grain range. Given the larger case capacity of the .30-06, it’s safe to assume that the old Springfield cartridge will usually produce more velocity and energy at the muzzle.
To compare apples to apples, let’s look at the 165-grain Trophy Copper options for each cartridge. The .308 Win. pushes that 165-grain projectile about 2,700 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle to produce 2,671 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy. The .30-06, on the other hand, propels that same bullet 2,800 fps to produce 2,872 ft.-lbs.
That slight edge holds true among other bullet weights as well: these 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip .308 Win. bullets leave the barrel at 2,620 fps while these 180-grain Trophy Bonded .30-06 bullets fly at 2,700 fps.
The .30-06 produces more energy and velocity than the .308 Win., and it’s also more commonly loaded with heavier, harder-hitting bullets. Midway USA, one of the nation’s largest ammunition dealers, offers 36 varieties of .30-06 cartridges loaded with 180-grain bullets but only 16 options for .308 Win.
If a hunter is looking to step up to 220 grains, which is often recommended for extra-large or dangerous game, the .30-06 is the only option. Federal offers zero .308 Win. cartridges with bullets weighing over 180 grains, and Midway’s only 220-grain options are two .30-06 hunting loads.
One might argue that advances in bullet design have all but eliminated the advantage of heavier bullets, and that’s a fair point. Still, it’s clear that the .30-06 is capable of hitting harder than its younger brother.
That added velocity also translates to a slightly flatter trajectory. Returning to the Trophy Bonded examples above, the .30-06 drops about 3.5 inches less at 500 yards than the .308 Win. with a 200-yard zero. The difference is minuscule at 300 yards, but at extreme ranges the .30-06 holds a slight edge.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
Muzzle energy produces recoil energy, and while the .30-06 has won two world wars, it can’t escape the laws of physics. Both cartridges produce a fair amount of recoil, but the .30-06 will hit your shoulder a little harder.
With the 165-grain loads mentioned above, the .308 Win. will produce about 17 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy while the .30-06 will produce about 20 ft.-lbs., according to Chuck Hawks’ recoil table. In other words, the Springfield’s 7% extra muzzle energy translates to about 18% more recoil energy with a 165-grain bullet. The same holds true for loads with 180-grain bullets.
These numbers should be washed down with a large grain of salt since recoil energy is highly dependent on rifle weight. Cartridges using the same bullet can also be hotter or colder, which will significantly affect recoil impulse. All that being said, it’s safe to say that the .30-06 is a little snappier than the .308.
Whether you notice a three-pound difference in recoil impulse is another question entirely. If you blindfolded the average hunter (Editor’s Note: DO NOT SHOOT BLINDFOLDED) and asked him to shoot both cartridges, I doubt he’d be able to tell the difference judging by recoil alone.
Incidentally, he also wouldn’t notice much difference in his wallet. The Trophy Copper and Trophy Bonded options mentioned above are exactly the same price from Federal. Both cartridges can be had from most manufacturers for between $1 and $4 per round, though you’re more likely to find cheap bulk ammo in .308 Win.
The Winchester is also available in a wider variety of configurations. Almost every major ammo maker offers quality hunting options in both cartridges, but the .308’s popularity in AR-platform rifles has generated more bulk and plinking varieties.
The “shootability” category usually covers recoil impulse and ammo availability, but action length and rifle weight are two additional variables that are relevant to this Caliber Battle. The U.S. military adopted the .308 in part because they wanted a short-action cartridge, and they made the .308 Win. about 20% shorter than its predecessor.
Short-action rifles can be shorter and lighter, which is a major benefit for hunters. For example, the Weatherby Vanguard Badlands rifle chambered in .308 Win. weighs 7.25 pounds while the .30-06 rifle weighs 7.5 pounds. The Vanguard First Lite in .30-06 weighs an extra tenth of a pound, and Vanguard Multicam weighs an extra quarter pound.
These fractions of a pound may not matter to you, and it’s important to note that not all .30-06 rifles weigh more than their .308 counterparts. But rifle weight is a big deal on western mountain hunts, and this is yet another area where the Winchester is slightly more “shootable” than the Springfield.
Winner: .308 Winchester
Both cartridges have remained popular because both are incredibly versatile. If you can only afford one hunting rifle, you won’t go wrong with either the .308 Win. or the .30-06. They can be loaded with 110- or 125-grain bullets that do a serious number on varmints and predators, but they can also step up to any North American big game animal, including grizzly bears.
As covered in the Ballistics category, the .30-06 boasts more power and can be loaded with heavier bullets. This gives it a slight edge on game like moose and grizzlies, but the .308 Win. can still punch up to that level.
However, when it comes to rifle versatility, the .308 Win. holds the clear advantage. The AR-10 platform has become ubiquitous, and while you can find AR-type rifles chambered in .30-06, the standard .308 Win. is infinitely more common. For example, Sportsman’s Guide offers 78 semi-automatic rifles chambered in .308 Win. and an additional 19 chambered in 7.62x51mm. There are only two options for .30-06.
The cartridges achieve more parity among bolt-action rifles, but even in this category, Sportsman’s Guide offers twice as many .308’s as .30-06’s.
If you’re looking for a bolt-action deer rifle, you won’t have much trouble finding one in either cartridge. But if you’d like a semi-auto rifle for plinking, varmint hunting, or something else, the .308 is the way to go.
Winner: .308 Winchester
More hairs were split in this Caliber Battle than usual. These cartridges are evenly matched, so differentiating between the two requires getting into the nitty gritty.
If you care about all the nitty gritty, I think you have to give this one to the .308 Win. With modern hunting bullets, I don’t think an extra 100 fps is going to make a lick of difference. Given the Winchester’s superior shootability and rifle versatility, the .308 gets the overall nod.
However, returning to our blindfolded hunter (Editor’s Note: DO NOT HUNT BLINDFOLDED), he’s not going to notice any difference between these cartridges in 99% of hunting scenarios. They both hit hard. They can both take down the majority of big game animals, and they’re both readily available and relatively easy to shoot.
Bottom line? Pick on and get out there.
Overall Winner: .308 Winchester