Comparing two tried-and-true big-game cartridges.
The two most popular big-game cartridges among American hunters remain the .270 and .30-06. Neither are exactly new; the .270 was introduced clear back in 1925, while the .30-06 passed its centennial seven years ago (wow!). Both cartridges have seen their ups and downs. Their popularity, at least in new rifle sales, slipped a bit during the first magnum craze of the late 1950s and 1960s…and slipped again around the turn of the millennium with the introduction of an amazing array of new unbelted magnums.
The 7mm Remington Magnum and .300 Winchester Magnum, both introduced in the early Sixties, have made their bones and probably still stand as the world’s most popular magnum cartridges. Some of the new magnums have gathered significant followings, while others introduced barely a decade ago have nearly died away. But from what I see in correspondence and talking to hunters at conventions—and what I actually see in hunting camps—it appears to me that those two old warhorses, the .270 and .30-06, have won through and remain top choices among American hunters.
Well they should. Both are wonderfully versatile cartridges that do their work with little fuss. Thanks to their long popularity the load selection is vast, and most factory rifles are so chambered. Both cartridges are superb for the big game most Americans hunt—deer—and both are adequately powerful for elk, black bear, and even moose. Neither is perfect for everything. Hunters in search of our biggest bears are better served with more powerful tools, and for serious long-range work in big country something that carries more energy farther downrange might be appropriate. For big bears, I prefer a fast .33-caliber with a heavy bullet; for larger sheep and goats in big mountains I usually select a fast .30-caliber (my preference is the .300 Weatherby Magnum).
I used the new Kimber Mountain Ascent in .270 to take this chamois in France. The load was Hornady’s new American whitetail 130-grain load and the distance was 400 yards. Jack O’Connor was right about the .270’s virtues as a mountain rifle.
However, I use both the .270 and .30-06 quite a bit, and during the fall hunting seasons just past I used both cartridges. It was a busy season; game taken with these two cartridges included both whitetail and mule deer, caribou, and elk here in North America; and a chamois in Europe. Unless one has very specialized needs either cartridge will do pretty much anything an American hunter needs to do…as they have, collectively, for darn near 200 years. But, just supposing you’re in the market for a versatile hunting rifle, which of the two cartridges should you select?
If, like the majority of American hunters, you’re primarily a deer hunter, I don’t think it makes much difference. Both are adequately powerful enough for any deer that walks! The .270 produces less recoil and definitely has a flatter trajectory, so purely as a deer cartridge I’d lean toward the .270. Because of its better ranging abilities it’s a better pronghorn cartridge, and its long-time champion, Jack O’Connor, swore by it for the mountain sheep he loved to hunt.
In October 2012 I used a Savage .30-06 to take this Columbian whitetail in Oregon. Considering a small deer in open country the .270 probably would have been a better choice, but there are few situations in North America that either cartridge can’t handle.
The older I get the more I have to concede that Professor O’Connor was dead right. The .270 is not only a great deer cartridge. It really is truly excellent for mountain game, and it’s perfectly adequate for game at least up to elk. However, although O’Connor never exactly said this in an article, he did concede privately that the .30-06 was more versatile!
With a good 150-grain bullet at around 3000 feet per second the .30-06 gives up relatively little ground to the .270 over normal game ranges. With its heavier 165 or 180-grain bullets of larger diameter the .30-06 definitely hits harder. I do tend to lean toward larger calibers, and I must admit that I was long skeptical of the .270s adequacy for elk. So skeptical that I was well into my 40s before I ever tried that cartridge on elk! Uh, I was wrong. Especially with the great bullets we have available today the .270 is just fine for elk…but I remain convinced that the .30-06 is better for elk, and certainly better for moose and bear. The .30-06 isn’t fancy or flashy, but with a 180-grain bullet it’s a real thumper.
I have used both cartridges quite a bit in Africa, and both are excellent for a wide range of plains game. That said, I do think the .30-06 is much the better African cartridge. The flatter trajectory of the .270 is rarely needed over there, but because of the tremendous variety of game—and the fact that you really don’t know what you might encounter in a given day—the awesome versatility of the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet becomes a clear favorite. On the other hand, it does generate a fair amount more recoil, especially with the heavier bullets. Most people can learn to shoot it well, but the .270 is a good choice for beginners and shooters of smaller stature, while the .30-06 may not.
So, which one for you? Both are versatile and powerful cartridges, and both shoot plenty flat enough for most purposes. If you hunt in mountains or more open country the .270 is probably the better choice; if you mix a fair amount of larger game with your deer, or you’re thinking of African plains game down the road, then the .30-06 might be better for you. The good news: Both cartridges are winners, and you can’t go wrong with either of them…as millions of American hunters have known for generations.