If rifle, cartridge, and reloading die sales, along with hunter opinion mean anything, the .30-06 is still the most popular big game cartridge in the world. Which is saying a lot when we consider that even after close to a century of trying, we still haven't come up with a cartridge that comes close to threatening it popularity.
Developed and introduced by Springfield Armory in 1906, the .30-06 is a slightly shorter version of the earlier .30-03 cartridge. Its development as a U.S. military cartridge was inspired by Germany's development of the 7 x 57mm and 8 x 57mm Mauser cartridges. In addition to serving as the primary U.S. battle cartridge until 1952, the .30-06 has established a track record on target ranges and in the game fields that has yet to be equaled by any other cartridge. Other cartridges have now set more accuracy records and many hunters now choose more powerful cartridges for big game, but no cartridge has served both roles better than the .30-06.
When one takes a close look at the .30-06, the reasons behind its success become quite clear. To begin with, the .30-06 is about the most powerful cartridge the average shooter can handle without suffering discomfort. To end with, the .30-06 shoots flat enough for long range shooting of deer and pronghorn and it hits hard enough for most of the world's big game. As a bonus, a good bolt action rifle in .30-06 is accurate enough for varmint shooting even though it is far too much cartridge for such a task.
Hunter opinion on the best bullet weights for the .30-06 differ, but the 150 grain for deer size game and the 180 grain for everything else still makes a lot of sense. When all is said and done, the handloader with IMR-4350, IMR-4064, H4350, H414, and W-760 sitting on his powder shelf needs to look no farther.
In 1903 the United States government adopted a new military loading to replace the 30 Army (30-40 Krag), which had been adopted in 1892. Like the 30-40 Krag, this new (30-Caliber, Model of 1903) cartridge featured a 220 grain round nosed full metal jacket bullet. However, the '03 increased muzzle velocity by about 100 fps, even though the M1903 rifle featured a significantly shorter barrel. The rimless cartridge design, generously borrowed from Mauser, was also an improvement as it featured superior feeding from a box magazine. Nevertheless, as seems to have been typical of that era, the U.S. Army was slow to the task of modernizing. As the 30-03 was standardized, all other world powers were in the process of adopting spitzer bulleted military loadings. The brand new 30-03 became instantly obsolescent. A crash program was instituted and in 1906 a modified version of this basic cartridge was adopted as the 30 Caliber, Model of 1906. That loading featured a lighter spitzer bullet and a shorter case neck. The spitzer bullets had a much shorter bearing surface so the existing rifles were modified by turning back the barrels two threads and recutting the chambers.
The 30-06 Springfield is a United States military cartridge adopted in 1906 for the Model 1903 Springfield service rifle, which was based on the Mauser bolt action system. The 30-06 is actually a slightly modified version of the original 1903 cartridge, which was loaded with a 220-grain round noseded bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2300fps. Because of cartridge developments in Europe, it was considered advisable to change to a lighter weight, pointed 150-grain bullet at an increased velocity of 2700 fps. At the same time the case neck was shortened by .07". This improved round was designated the "Ball Cartridge, caliber 30, Model of 1906," but in practice, the nomenclature was shortened to 30-06. The 30-06 version can be chambered and fired in any rifle made for the original 1903 round, but the reverse is not true because of the difference in case length. For many years both the 1903 and 1906 configurations were loaded by sporting ammunition manufacturers. Shooting the '06 in the '03 chamber reportedly gave poor accuracy. Old catalogs list both rounds. Occasionally the 1903 version is called the 30-45 because original loading used 45 grains of smokeless powder.
Again, because of military developments in Europe, the Army switched to a 172-grain bullet with a 9-degree boattail in 1926, the new round being designated the "Ball, caliber 30,M1." Muzzle velocity, originally the same as the 150-grain load of 2700 fps, was later reduced to 2640 fps because of difficulty maintaining pressure specifications at the higher velocity. In 1940, the 150-grain flat base bullet was re-adopted as the "Cartridge, Ball, caliber 30, M2" and that was the load used in WWII. The return to the lighter bullet came about, at least in part, because of difficulties adapting the new Garand semi-automatic rifle to handle the 172-grain load. The heavier boattail bullet was superior for machine gun use because of its greater maximum range of nearly 6000 yards, compared to about 3500 yards for the 150-grain loading.
The rimless 30-03 and 30-06 replaced the older rimmed 30-40 Krag as the official U.S. military round. The 30-06 has, in turn, been superseded by the 7.62x51mm, also known as the 7.62mm NATO or, in its commercial version, the .308 Winchester. In Europe, the 30-06 is known as the 7.62x63mm.
During WWII, the U.S. government supplied arms and ammunition in 30-06 caliber to many Allied nations including Great Britain, Netherlands, France, China, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. To maintain their inventory of weapons, many countries undertook manufacture of 30-06 ammunition after the war.
In the 1950's and 1960's, vast quantities of surplus 30-06 ammunition was sold on the U.S. market. Shooters will often encounter Ball, armor piercing and tracer types. Ammunition loaded before and during WWII is corrosively primed. Practically all U.S. military ammunition loaded after 1952 has non-corrosive primers. The principal exception is Frankford Arsenal Match ammunition marked FA53, 54, or 56, which has the old style corrosive priming.