If you had to choose just one caliber… .308 Win or .30-06…which would you choose?
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From hunting purposes to self defense to competition the merits of both have been argued by many gun owners. But at the end of the day, which one is better?
We’re going to talk about our opinion on the matter as we first dive into the history of these two rounds then some of their unique characteristics.
Of course, we’ll touch on things like velocity, energy, and bullet drop as well as which round does better with hunting, competition and even home-defense.
So keep reading!
Table of Contents
.30-06: Where It Began
To start our journey, we must go back to over a hundred years ago, when the .30-06 first began.
Nobody likes to show up to a fight feeling under matched. Imagine stepping onto a battlefield with a weapon you know isn’t anywhere near as effective as your enemy’s.
Aside from being disheartening to troops, this also has the very practical consequence of not killing the bad guys.
Such was the case during the Spanish-American War when the 7x57mm Mausers of the enemy outmatched American soldiers.
And so, we threw back our heads, laughed, and developed an even bigger, badder cartridge: the .30-06.
(Before that, we used the very smoky .30 Army cartridge.)
The .30-06 proved to be an instant success and rapidly gained ground throughout the military and civilian markets.
WWI saw the .30-06 put to use with the 1903 Springfield, while the M1 Garand was the lead deliveryman during WWII.
.30-06 Ammo in Stock
.308 Win: Where It Started
By the time 1953 came around, the .30-06 had seen heavy use for over half a century. But the Winchester was looking to shake things up a bit.
In a quest to create a cartridge with similar ballistics to a .30-06 but in a lighter round with less recoil, Winchester created the .308.
The cartridge was an instant success within the civilian world, and only two years later, it was rapidly adopted by military units worldwide. The shorter cartridge of a .308 meant that a shorter action could be used, which made for a more reliable, fully automatic weapon.
Soldiers really like reliable rifles, and the cartridge rapidly gained ground from there.
.308 Ammo In Stock
So the .30-06 was created to give the U.S. greater range and oomph on the battlefield, while the .308 gave us better semi-auto reliability.
But what are the main differences we see here, and are there significant differences between the two?
Let’s take a look…
.308 vs. .30-06
At first glance, it’s easy to see that the .308 is shorter than the .30-06.
While a .308 has an overall length of 2.8 inches, the .30-06 comes in at 3.4 inches. That’s quite a bit more space, and most of it is filled up with extra propellant.
A .308 case can hold up to 56 grains of propellant. A .30-06 case? It can hold up to 68 grains of such.
The bullets are the same diameter (.308 inches), but a .30-06 can handle heavier bullets than a .308, thanks to the increased case size for extra propellant.
But how do they shoot?
Comparing cartridges can sometimes feel like an apples-to-oranges comparison, but we’re going to do the best we can here with what we have.
For our comparison, we’ll look at a 165-grain AccuTip Boat Tail .30-06 (sighted at 100 yards) against a 150-grain FMJ boat tail .308.
Neither round will experience any significant level of bullet drop within the first 100 yards, so for the average shooter, it’s really not even worth bringing that up.
But at 300 yards, differences start appearing. Once we start aiming for targets at that distance, we will see an average bullet drop of around 13 inches for both cartridges.
So far, pretty similar, right? But let’s look further…
If we take things out to 500 yards, we’ll see a 55.3-inch drop for the .30-06, while the .308 will see a drop of right around 56 inches. That’s still not bad, and both are fairly comparable.
I would argue that most shooters rarely take shots over 500 yards — though I can see an exception for you Montana folks. You don’t have any trees…
If we start by looking at 100 yards, we find that both cartridges are virtually the same. The .30-06 will fly at 2,597 fps, while the .308 will be at 2,598 fps.
At 300 yards?
We see 2,218 fps for the .30-06 and 2,185 fps for the .308. Not a huge gap between the two, but we’re starting to see one of the differences between these cartridges.
If we bump things back to 500 yards, you’ll see that the .30-06 has slowed to comparable speeds as the .308. The .30-06 is now flying at 1,872 fps, while the .308 is at 1,812 fps.
Still fairly comparable, right?
But what about how much force each bullet hits with? Here is where you’ll see some fairly drastic differences between the two.
At 100 yards, the .30-06 hits with 2,471 ft-lbs, while the .308 hits with 2,248 ft-lbs. At 300 yards, we see the .30-06 with 1,802 ft-lbs and the .308 with 1,590 ft-lbs.
And at 500 yards?
Here we discover the .30-06 hitting with 1,284 ft-lbs and the .308 hitting at 1,093 ft-lbs. That’s still relatively comparable, but you can see where .30-06 has a bit of an advantage.
Now that we’ve seen a little bit about how these two cartridges behave out on the range, though, how do they compare for the practicalities of the big, wide world? What do we see them being used for?
What .308 & .30-06 Are Used For
There are two predominant reasons people choose a .30-06 or a .308 — hunting and self-defense.
Competitions are an afterthought with these two calibers unless you’re talking about PRS.
When choosing one of these two cartridges for hunting, I would argue it really just depends on what you’re hunting.
If you live in the bitter winds of the North, you have really big animals like moose hanging around.
Out West, brown bears, bison, and grizzlies roam about. If you’re going on a hunt for any of these large animals, you would be much better served with a .30-06 at your side than a .308.
Yeah, guys have bagged all of these with .308 before, but you’ll likely see a quicker fall with .30-06 unless Annie Oakley’s precision shooting blood flows through your veins.
For everything else you’ll find in America, a .308 will serve you splendidly…deer, hogs, rams – whatever – a .308 can get it.
Let’s start with this…if you shoot a bad guy with either of these rounds, they’re going to drop. Period. You’re talking about exit wounds well over the size of an orange.
However, we’ll add that one also needs to consider that there’s quite a difference between a soldier defending himself from an enemy 300 yards away and a stay-at-home mom defending herself against an aggressor just down the hallway.
Let’s look at the entire gamut, though – anything from straight-up war to home defense.
Personally, I much prefer the 5.56 of the AR-15 platform over the .308 of the AR-10 (yeah, yeah, call me a sissy) or a .30-06, but any weapon can be used in self-defense.
Shoot, people have defended themselves with crocodiles before. If an aggressor is attacking you and what you have at hand is your granddaddy’s M1 Garand, that’s what you use.
That said, if I had to choose between the two calibers for self-defense purposes, I would pick the .308.
Keep in mind that both .308 and .30-06 have been extensively used in defense situations for over 100 years for the latter and over 50 for the former, so they both are tried and tested in combat.
A lot of SWAT and police snipers still use rifles chambered in .308, and though I’ve not heard of any of these guys using .30-06, I suppose the possibility still exists.
I’d be concerned about over-penetration with that, though, and that’s likely why you don’t hear of these guys using .30-06. (If you know of different, let me know in the comments below.)
It’s largely because of the risk of overpenetration that I would prefer the .308.
Self-Defense: Running from Zombies
Let’s say you’re concerned about evil zombie mutants headed your way, are interested in bugging out, want to carry 200 rounds, and are debating whether .308 or .30-06 is the better choice.
One thing you would have to consider in this question is the weight.
One round of .308 weighs approximately 0.85 oz, while one round of .30-06 weighs around 0.96. This means 200 rounds of .308 would be 10.6 pounds, whereas 200 rounds of .30-06 would be 12 pounds.
And keep in mind that’s without magazines.
For an all-day trek, that extra pound and a half can very well make a big difference.
There’s a reason that ultralight backpackers cut off most of the handle to their toothbrush. They know that every ounce matters. The same principle applies to trekking with ammunition.
A Note on Competition
It should be pointed out that there are tactical competitions via PRS that involve the .308 caliber.
PRS bans .30-06 as a cartridge of choice throughout their competitions, though. So, if you’re a competitive shooter – or are looking to become one – a .308 is going to be a much better choice than a .30-06.
That said, there are way more non-tactical competitions out there, and for these, even .308 isn’t allowed.
Most people at PRS events are going to be shooting some variant of 6mm.
There may be some .30-06 competitions out there, but they’re going to be few and far between.
So, which is the best of the two cartridges?
Though this will make me sound like a modern-day elementary soccer coach, they’re both winners. You’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with either one; they’re both readily available, time-tested, and they can perform.
Perhaps the most versatile for hunting would be the .30-06, as different bullet/powder recipes can allow you to harvest anything from deer to moose. That’s something the .308 can’t handle as well.
For self-defense? Well, they’ve both been tested for these types of scenarios extensively in the past, and they both work just fine there as well.
The bottom line is that either are fantastic choices. It’s simply a matter of considering which works best for you and what the job is at hand.
What‘s your favorite round? Let us know in the comments below. Want more battle of the bullets? Check out our article on the 5.56 vs. 7.62.