As well as legions of happy users both cartridges have groups of diehard fans who’ll insist that their favorite is far better than the other.
Neither should be used for smaller game like coyotes, and because everyone has their own opinion, it can be pretty hard to get at the truth. Below we get into the gritty details of the 308 vs 30-06 battle and give you our opinions on each.
The 308 and 30-06: A Brief History
The first key to disentangling the mess is that .308 and .30-06 are actually very closely related. In fact one was developed from the other. This goes back to the early 1950s, when NATO was trying to agree a standard service rifle for all its troops.
At the time NATO members used a pretty wide array of calibers, with the main ones being .30-06 and .303. That ruled out a standard rifle right away, and often meant neighboring units couldn’t even resupply each other with rifle ammunition. To improve the situation the alliance’s all members agreed to choose a standard cartridge, then a standard rifle to fire it.
1. The 30-06:
The US Army insisted that the new cartridge had to be full power, either the .30-06 or something equivalent to it. The British disagreed. Based on wartime experience and the new assault rifle concept, which originated in the German Sturmgewehr 44 (7.92x33mm) and had already been developed into the AK-47 (7.62x39mm) they argued that traditional rifle rounds were overpowered for the average infantryman and an intermediate one should be adopted.
The War Office was determined to phase out their obsolete, rimmed .303. They’d already developed an intermediate round and a rifle to fire it. The .280 British was an excellent round that was light, low in recoil, flat-shooting and very accurate. Thanks to its long bullet it retained more energy than the .30-06 at ranges beyond 800 yards. In fact, ballistically, it was almost identical to the much newer 6.5mm Grendel. Fired from the bullpup Enfield EM2 assault rifle it was an impressive package.
Unfortunately, traditionalist generals didn’t like it. The .280 wasn’t a “proper” rifle round like their beloved .30-06, so they refused to accept it. As a compromise the .30 Light Rifle cartridge was developed. This was basically a .30-06 with the case shortened by half an inch, from 63mm to 51mm. The case head and bullet were identical, and modern propellant gave it exactly the same performance, so it satisfied the traditionalists while being slightly lighter and shorter than its parent. The reduced length meant a shorter bolt stroke, too, so the size and weight of weapons could also be reduced.
2. The .308 Winchester:
At this point politics took over. Winston Churchill reached a deal with the USA – he’d agree to scrap the .280 EM2 and support the .30 Light Rifle as the new bullet, if the USA would agree to the FN FAL as the standard NATO rifle. The USA later went back on that and updated the M1 Garand instead, but the cartridge survived and became 7.62mm NATO. The familiar .308 Winchester is simply the civilian version of that, and the rounds are pretty much interchangeable – much more so than 5.56mm NATO and .223.
So does this mean the rounds are identical for hunting? Well, not quite. The military versions have theoretically identical performance, but civilian manufacturers – and shooters – are free to play with loadings a lot more. There are some differences between them as hunting rounds and it is possible to come up with a clear winner. Let’s look at the various factors involved.
Accuracy and Ballistic Differences:
Despite the identical theoretical ballistics of military 7.62mm NATO and .30-06, when the new cartridge started to come into widespread use something quickly became clear. It was more accurate than the old .30 round. The difference wasn’t massive. It was however enough to make a difference. In fact, it was enough that the NRA eventually reduced the size of the inner bull on their long-range targets.
Modern loads have reduced the .308’s edge slightly, especially at extreme ranges, but in general it is a slightly more precise round than .30-06. The difference is marked enough that you rarely see a .30-06 in rifle competitions now unless the rules specify it. For hunters it’s less important. Accurate shot placement is vital of course, but either caliber is easily accurate enough to get clean kills out to 600 yards or more. That means neither of them has a clear edge in this area.
Power: Which one packs a bigger punch?
Modern propellant allowed the .30 Light Rifle to generate .30-06 power in a shorter case. But what happens if you put the same propellant in the original case? You can fit in more of it, and that should give you more power. In fact yes, it does.
There are limits to how much extra power you can get out of the cartridge. Both .308 and .30-06 having the same maximum case pressure of 62,000 psi, but overall it’s possible to get close to 150 fps more out of the older round. This can be done without creating an unsafe load.
With most bullets in the 150 to 180 grain range that’s a significant amount of energy . Again, in practical terms it doesn’t matter much. Either round will deliver plenty energy, out to maximum hunting ranges, to bring down any American animal except maybe the larger bears. The extra power of the .30-06 really just translates to extra recoil and heavier ammunition.
Practicality: Which one is more available and used?
Comparing the .308 and .30-06 is a long way from comparing either of them to .223. There’s no getting away from the fact that, physically, they’re both big heavy rounds. Yes, .308 weighs a bit less, but with the amount of ammunition the average hunter carries it doesn’t matter a lot.
Where the difference does become significant is in length. The 30-06’s longer case means a longer bolt stroke. In turn that means a longer bolt, a longer receiver and a heavier weapon. The difference can be a few ounces, and that does start to matter.
More importantly, if you’re a serious hunter using a bolt action rifle, the longer stroke slows you down a fraction of a second when it comes to chambering a new round. The difference isn’t huge but it’s there, and there isn’t any way to get round it. Ergonomically the .308 edges into the lead slightly here. Many .308 rifles are also being updated to lighter stocks and firearm materials, making it a better chocie if you carry other hunting gear like walkie-talkies or game cameras on your hunting trip.
Winner: .308 Winchester
Price: Which one is cheaper?
Finally, there’s one category where a real gap opens out – .308 ammo is usually cheaper. It uses less brass for a basically equivalent round, and its popularity means bigger production runs and lower price. The difference isn’t huge, but if you shoot a lot it adds up.
Not to mention that from a survival perspective, the .308 is mass produced for many different types of sporting rifles. As a result, the .308 Win will be easier to find and use in the event of some type of catastrophic event that requires you to hunt your own food or survive in the wilderness.
Winner: .308 Winchester
Feel Free to Disagree: Our Favorite Pick:
Overall its slightly better accuracy and shorter case give the .308 a slight, but real, advantage as a hunting round. It will always hit harder than any type of crossbow hunting you may do. Both of them deliver all the power you could need for medium-large game (like deer) unless you’re hunting truly big game. The .30-06’s slightly higher energy potential doesn’t really give it any edge.
The accuracy difference does put the .308 slightly ahead, although not by much. The fact it cuts half an inch off the bolt stroke is enough to put it just a little in front. If you’re buying a new hunting rifle it makes sense to opt for the NATO round.
For a contrasting look and main benefits of the 30-06 as a survival cartridge, check out the video below by Langley Firearms Academy for a different vantage point.
If you already have a .30-06, and you’re happy with it, however, there isn’t any compelling reason to swap. Both rounds are similar enough that personal preference is more important than anything. You should shoot both to see which one you prefer, but we have our preference as indicated below.
Our Overall Winner: .308 Winchester for those starting from scratch, 30-06 if you have some ammo or a hand me down rifle you don’t have to buy new.