Which cartridge comes out on top in a 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 comparison? For starters, if you can find two closer competitors, I don’t know what they might be. In just about every popularity survey I’ve read, these two are within a single place of each other: If the ’06 ranks #3, then the magnum comes in at #4. And vice-versa on the next survey.
The 30-06 was created by the U.S. Army, and has been with us since 1906. The 300 Win Mag was dreamed up by Winchester, and first saw the light of day in 1963. The ’06 is a good candidate for Best Cartridge Ever Made. No one has been able to improve on it. It has succeeded at every use to which it has been put. It’s probably the most-produced and widely-used cartridge in history. The 300 Win Mag, which was designed strictly for hunting, has found a new lease on life as a sniper cartridge. It kicks a lot more than the 30-06, and has a short neck which gives some people fits, but it’s more accurate than the old-timer, and far better at long range. In other words, it’s a very close race, and let us see who wins in a head-to-head 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 shootout.
30-06 Springfield, the Standard Bearer
Let’s start this off with mountains. Mount Everest is the most famous mountain in the world. Despite the number of people who die on it each year, your chances of getting killed trying to summit are only about 4 percent. The real killers are two Himalayan peaks called Annapurna and K-2, both of which offer a 30 percent chance of cashing in. But who’s heard of them? Everest remains the mountain against which all others are measured.
Thus it is with the 30-06. It’s the Mount Everest of cartridges. It’s been around so long and has achieved such vast success on so many fronts, that about the only thing you can compare it to is the .22 Long Rifle. But, as the British say, we must carry on regardless.
The 30-06 began in 1903, as the U.S. Cartridge Model of 1903. It was developed by the U.S. Army, but the Army quickly realized that it was not as good as the 8mm Mauser cartridge the Germans had developed, so it was redesigned, loaded for much higher velocity, and redesignated as U.S. Cartridge Model of 1906, or 30-06. It had the great good luck to be chambered in two iconic rifles, the Model 1903 Springfield and, later, in the M-1 Garand.
Almost immediately, the ’06 caught on as a sporting cartridge as well. Teddy Roosevelt took a Model 1895 Winchester lever-action 30-06 with him to Africa in 1909, where he shot almost everything with it and missed almost everything as well. One of the first hunters to take all the Boone and Crockett trophies was Grancel Fitz, who did it in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s with a 30-06. You name it, and the ’06 has excelled at it.
Since time out of mind, the ’06 had been loaded with what is probably the widest range of bullet weights of any cartridge, starting with the absurd 110-grain slug and ending with the highly useful 220-grain. The most popular loadings are in 150-, 165-, and 180-grain weights. Velocities range from very close to 3000 fps to 2700, and if you include the 220, 2500. A 30-06 can function very nicely with a 22-inch barrel or a 24-inch. This, to me, is a selling point.
Read Next: Are You Ignoring This .30/06 Bullet?
History of the 300 Winchester Magnum
This 300 Win Mag is the most popular .30 magnum of all, and it hit the market in 1963. It was Winchester’s .30-caliber contribution to the magnum craze, which was then what long range is today. Very sensibly, Winchester did not attempt to compete with the far more powerful and much harder-kicking 300 Weatherby Magnum. They necked down a .338 case to .308, pushed the shoulder forward, and shortened the neck. This created lots of powder space, in a case that was short enough to work through a standard-length action.
The 300 Win Mag was a success from the get-go, both for hunting and in long-range target shooting. Bullet weights range from 165 grains to 220, and velocities from 3300 to 2850. A 300 Win Mag must have a 24-inch barrel. Shorter than that and you have a 30-06 that wastes powder. To me this is not a selling point.
Which is Better: Head-to-Head Comparison
To pick a winner in the 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 matchup, you need to take a close look at all the factors that might make one cartridge better than another. So, here’s the breakdown:
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Recoil
This one is a no-brainer. On the average, an 8-pound 30-06 produces around 20-foot pounds of recoil, which is well within the tolerance of most shooters. You don’t need a heavy rifle, and you don’t need a muzzle brake unless there’s something the matter with you.
The 300 Win Mag, on the other hand, kicks. The recoil calculator says it turns out around 26 foot-pounds, which I think is a lowball figure, because the round will give you a rap. I would not be happy with a gun of less than 9 pounds, or if lighter, if there was something the matter with me, a muzzle brake.
Winner: The 30-06.
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Accuracy
Here, the 30-06 operates under a handicap. There have been so many rifles chambered for it over so many years, and so much ammo of wildly differing quality produced, that it’s impossible to make any kind of general rule. I’ve shot lots and lots of 06’s and probably the most intelligent thing I can say is that a good ’06, fed good ammunition, can shoot about as well as any other hunting rifle.
The 300 Win Mag, according to theory, should not shoot as accurately as the 30-06 because it burns considerably more powder, and it’s provable that as the powder charge increases, accuracy decreases. More powder produces more recoil, which has a definite effect on groups; it also increases the rifle’s vibration, which also influences where the bullets go.
And yet the 300 Win Mag has had a deserved reputation for being exceedingly accurate from the beginning. This was best summed up by South Carolina’s legendary custom-gun builder Kenney Jarrett. The first two rifles he made for me were 338s. When he delivered the second, he said, “Now, if you’d like something that really shoots, let me make you a 300 Win Mag.” He did, and it did.
In 2010, in light of our experience in Afghanistan, the Amy decided we needed a sniper rifle with more reach than the 308 Model 24, which was good to about 800 meters. The boys in camo went immediately to the 300 Win Mag, loaded with 190-grain bullets at 2,800 fps, and ended up with the M2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle, which is effective to 1300 meters.
So accurate is the 300 Win Mag that it seems to group well even when it shouldn’t. A former Shooting Editor of Field & Stream had, as a favorite hunting rifle, a crude and horribly ugly 300 Win Mag whose barrel was obviously screwed into the receiver crooked. When he confronted the gunsmith who built the rifle about this, the gunsmith admitted that he did the work when he was drunk. The rifle was highly accurate nonetheless.
Winner: When it comes to accuracy, the 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 matchup has a clear winner. It’s the 300 Win Mag, by quite a margin.
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Price, Variety, and Availability of Ammo
Somewhere there must be an ammo maker who doesn’t load for the ’06, but I don’t know who that might be. It is very likely the most widely distributed cartridge in the world, and has been for many years. Ought-six ammo comes in all price ranges and degrees of quality, some of which I would not shoot on a bet.
Clear Winner: The 30-06.
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Effectiveness on Game
The 30-06 has probably killed the entire population of Noah’s Ark, excepting a few species that have become extinct since Old Testament times. It will drop anything. Yet this versatility can be a handicap, because there is so much different ammo loaded for it that confusion reigns, and inexperienced shooters come to grief thereby. At the bottom of the list is the 110-grain loading which, I believe, is intended for varmint shooting. Get real.
Once click above are the 125- and 130-grain loadings, which are intended for deer and antelope. I’ve never used them, and don’t know anyone who has. If you want to shoot bullets this light, get a smaller cartridge that kicks less. Then comes the 150-grain, which is the first loading that makes sense so far. It’s for deer, and it travels at close to 3,000 fps. If you use quick-expanding bullets such as Nosler Ballistic Tips or Sierra Pro Hunters, they kill like electrocution.
The 165-grain 30-06 is sometimes touted as the ideal all-around weight. It’s good, but the best it ain’t. The late Tom McIntyre, I recall, used 165s a lot and thought very highly of them. The true all-around best bullet is the 180. The traditional factory load is still, I think, 2,700 fps, which will do OK, but if you handload you can get 2,850. With strong bullets, such as the Swift A-Frames or Sciroccos or the Nosler Protected Point, there is hardly anything you can’t take on.
For really big game, the factories have loaded 220-grain bullets, which are handicapped by low velocities and rainbow trajectories. Much better is the 200-grainer, and the champion in that weight class is the Swift A-Frame. When I went to Namibia in 2000, I took a 30-06 loaded with 180-grain Winchester Fail-Safes, which was a very good bullet. So many animals went down with one shot that when I finally did miss something, the PH accused me of screwing around with him. That’s how good the 30-06 is.
The .300 Win Mag is for big game at long range, period. It’s way, way too much for anything less. If you use a bullet lighter than 180 grains, you’re probably brain-damaged, and the best bullets are in the 200-grain class. The longer the range, the heavier your slug should be.
Winner: A tie when it comes to knocking things flat. What one will do, the other will do. If you want to factor in versatility, the 30-06 has a clear edge.
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Barrel Life
When it comes to barrel life, 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 is pretty much a moot point for most hunters. The generally accepted figure for the 30-06 is 3,000 to 4,000 rounds of first-class accuracy, depending on how it’s shot. Since the 300 Win Mag has the same bore diameter but holds substantially more powder, I’d say it’s good for 2,500 to 3,000 rounds. Either way, that’s a lot of shooting, and very few hunters will burn out a barrel for either cartridge. An ’06 barrel will indeed last longer, but I wouldn’t let that keep you from buying a 300 Win Mag.
Winner: The 30-06.
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Ease of Handloading
There are no quirks, tricks, or peculiarities to either round. I have heard much made of the 300’s short neck, and the problems it can present, such as bullet intrusion into the powder space, but in real life I’ve found no difficulties. The 30-06 works well with medium-slow and slow powders, while the magnum is slow powders only.
Winner: Very narrowly, the 30-06
300 Win Mag vs. 30-06: Performance at Long Range
Probably this category should not be in here, but what the hell. The 300 Win Mag was designed as a long-range cartridge, and the 30-06 was designed for an infantry rifle whose maximum effective range for aimed fire was 460 yards, which today is not terribly long.
Winner: The 300 Win Mag. However, it’s more complicated than that. Because of such wonders as laser rangefinders and drop-compensating scopes and ballistic calculators and factory drop tables, you can greatly extend the range of a 30-06. People do it all the time with far less powerful cartridges.
And the winner is…
The 30-06. How could I possibly pick anything else in a 300 Win Mag vs. 30-06 comparison? I’d have to go into hiding. The 300 Win Mag is a superb cartridge on all counts, but it’s a specialized long-range round, which, unless you’re going to use it at long range, is going to work against you.