Should You be Using the .30-06 For Elk?

The venerable .30-06 cartridge is probably the most popular hunting rifle caliber in the United States. This popular rifle cartridge was born during the first World War.

After the war in Europe, veterans returning home translated the .30-06 rifle cartridge into a successful hunting caliber in civilian life.

Over 100 years, the .30-06 cartridge remains a go to choice for many hunters. The question remains is the .30-06 suitable for elk hunting?

The .30-06 round is technically known as .30-06 Springfield. The cartridge, in metric terms, is a 7.62 x .63.

The .30-06 was used by the US Army as its primary cartridge for both rifles and machine guns for almost 50 years before being replaced. In civilian uses, there continue to be a wide range of choices with varying weights and styles of bullets.

The .30-06 cartridge is a versatile rifle cartridge that can, when properly paired with the right bullet and under the right conditions, be one of the most effective hunting cartridges available.

Successfully hunting elk with a .30-06 demands the right bullet choice, understanding the ballistic characteristics, and making good hunting decisions. Read on to learn more about the .30-06 Springfield and North American Elk hunting.

.30-06 Springfield – Born Out of Conflict

Like many great cartridges, the .30-06 finds its roots in war. Before the outbreak of World War One in Europe,  the US Army had no real standardized cartridges or rifles.

At the time,  one of three rifle cartridges and an associated rifle for that cartridge were in the hands of US Army troops. The three most commonly issued rifle cartridges were the .30-03, 6mm Lee Navy, and .30-40 Krag cartridges

European countries were modernizing their armaments. Across Europe, the militaries were adopting rifles that could effectively shoot the new cartridges with lighter and faster bullets.

The German Imperial Army began issuing a new rifle chambered for the 8 mm bullets that were lighter and had a pointed tip (Spitzer bullets).

The overall effect was to put the US Army at a disadvantage. The new rifles and cartridges being used in Europe effectively outranged the cartridges being used by troops in the US Army. In 1905, the US Army officially adopted the .30-06 Springfield to address this disadvantage.

Coming Home With The Troops

As the first world war began to wind down and US troops began returning home, they returned to their civilian pursuits. 

For many of these men, hunting had been a part of their lives before their army duty and they were eager to return to those pursuits. 

Their experience with the .30-06 cartridge and rifles inspired many to adopt the military cartridge for hunting and sports shooting.  

Gun and ammunition manufacturers quickly recognized this growing popularity, and a wide range of rifles soon hit the market. Ammunition manufacturers understood the needs of hunters and followed suit with various loads. The growth of the .30-06 as a civilian sports shooting icon has begun

Is the .30-06 A Viable Cartridge for Elk?

Go to the gun store and look at the variety of rifles and cartridges, and you will be quickly overwhelmed.

Ask the salespeople and any other bystanders their thoughts on shooting elk, and you will get almost as many answers as there are .30-06 loads. 

What I can tell you, in my opinion, there have been more elk taken in the United States with a .30-06 rifle and cartridge than any other commercial round available. 

That begs the question of why do so many shooters shy away from the .30-06 when hunting the larger game species in North America?

The first argument that comes to mind is the ballistics of the .30-06 and its delivered energy. Is the .30-06 as underpowered as many shooters proclaim? A look at the ballistics data should answer that question.

.30-06 Ballistics Compared

The majority of hunters estimate that their average distance to take a bull elk in North America successfully is between 250 and 400 yards. 

The ballistics for a .30-06 in at this distance can vary considerably depending on the bullet and the load. I calculated the ballistics on a .30-06 out to 1,000 yards shooting a 165-grain Accupoint boattailed bullet. 

This particular bullet has a ballistic coefficient of .447 and is a popular choice among hunters for the .30-06.

Range in YardsDrop in InchesVelocity in feet per secondEnergy in foot-poundsElapsed time downrange

Even a quick glance at this ballistics chart should be enough to convince anyone that the .30-06 cartridge is not a spectacular 1,000 yard choice. 

However, looking at the ballistic data between the 200 and 400 yards ranges tells a different tale. Up to 400 yards, the .30-06 is relatively flat shooting and continues to deliver enough energy to take down even the largest bull elk.

How Does the .30-06 Stack Up with Other Popular Calibers?

To get an idea of how a .30-06 compares to some popular calibers used in the US to hunt elk. This table shows the data for easy comparison. I chose ammunition as close to a common load and bullet weight as possible to make this comparison.

Range.30-06 Hornady BTSP 165 gr7mm Mag Hornady BTSP 162 gr.300 Win Mag Hornady BTSP 165 gr.270 Winchester Hornady 150 gr SP
100 Yards
Bullet Drop
-0.0025 inches
2796 FPS
2864 ft-lbs
0.0034 inches
2758 FPS
2736 ft-lbs
-0.0001 inches
2877 FPS
3032 ft-lbs
-0.0001 inches
2640 FPS
2321 ft-lbs
200 Yards
Bullet Drop
-2.96 inches
2589 FPS
2455 ft-lbs
-3.08 inches
2583 FPS
2736 ft-lbs
-2.71 inches
2666 FPS
2604 ft-lbs
-3.5 inches
2448 FPS
1996 ft-lbs
300 Yards
Bullet Drop
-11.13 inches
2390 FPS
2092 ft-lbs
-11.38 inches
2415 FPS
2098 ft-lbs
-10.33 inches
2464 FPS
2224 ft-lbs
-12.82 inches
2265 FPS
1708 ft-lbs
400 Yards
Bullet Drop
-25.40 inches
2200 FPS
1773 ft-lbs
-25.69 inches
2253 FPS
1826 ft-lbs
-23.69 inches
2271 FPS
1889 ft-lbs
-28.94 inches
2089 FPS
1453 ft-lbs
500 Yards
Bullet Drop
-46.87 inches
2019 FPS
1493 ft-lbs
-46.78 inches
2097 FPS
1582 ft-lbs
-43.82 inches
2086 FPS
1594 ft-lbs 
-53.04 inches
1922 FPS
1230 ft-lbs

This chart clearly shows that there isn’t much difference between three popular calibers. The .30-06 holds its own compared to the 7mm Mag and the .300 Win Mag. 

The .270 Winchester comes up a bit shy in the comparison. I know many elk that have been taken cleanly with the .270 Winchester, but I believe it takes more skill and doesn’t go out to extreme ranges well.

Why Do Some Shooters Play Down the .30-06 for Elk?

A lot of the negative feelings about the .30-06 are, I believe, directly related to its age. This cartridge is well over 100 years old, and I think that is a negative in the eyes of many long-range shooters or big game hunters. 

Most of these types of shooters are opting for the newer magnum or ultra-magnum cartridges, hoping to gain more speed and delivered energy.

I think in some instances, a prevalent view that “bigger is better” is common among large-caliber shooters. This “my gun is bigger than your gun” often plays a part in the race upwards in caliber and loads. 

However, there are plenty of good arguments for going with the granddaddy of many modern calibers. When you are ready to make that decision, you should consider some of these factors.

New Powders and New Bullets Can Change the Game

However, with new powders and new bullets, the .30-06 continues to be a viable rifle cartridge for almost any big game animal on the North American Continent. 

If you choose the right ammunition and you are reasonably skillful with your rifle, there is no reason that you can successfully bag a big bull elk on your hunt.

Reduced Recoil Can Change Minds

You will also enjoy a considerably more comfortable shooting experience. I typically use a Savage rifle chambered for .270 as my main hunting rifle.

It is effective and efficient at what I want it to do. On the other hand, it kicks like a mule, and I rarely want to take more than one or two shots. Comparing the recoil of my shooting buddy’s Remington 700 BDL chambered in .30-06 is like night and day.

When a Pound is More than a Pound

One great advantage of a .30-06 rifle is a difference that most people don’t consider. A top-of-the-line bolt-action rifle chambered for .30-06 rarely exceeds 8 lbs. 

The larger calibers such as the .338 and 300 Remington Ultra Mag top in at over nine pounds. There are several reasons these larger caliber rifles are heftier.

  • The more powerful cartridges require heavier actions to withstand the pressures. This extra strength can extend to barrels as well. More metal means more weight.
  • The cartridges themselves are heavier. Even a few ounces difference in a loaded magazine can add up
  • Extra weight can help mitigate felt recoil. Putting another pound on the rifle can help reduce the felt recoil behind the rifle.

The difference in my mind between 8 lbs and 9 lbs is considerable. If you are humping your rifle and other gear over mountain ridges and down steep valleys, that extra pound may more than negate any advantage you get in that magnum rifle.

A good bolt action rifle with a 22-inch barrel, the proper scope and chambered in .30-06 is, in my mind, an almost perfect combination for elk hunting in rugged terrain.

Can you Bag an Elk With a .30-06?

Yes. The .30-06 cartridge and rifle in the hands of a reasonably skilled shooter is quite up to the job of taking a bull elk. It also won’t set you back an arm and leg buying ammunition, and there are tons of gun choices in this reliable cartridge. 

I have made such a good argument for the .30-06, I am almost tempted to give up my .270 Winchester and trade it in for something chambered in .30-06.

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