Lately, it seems like hunting rounds and hunting rifles have been changing faster than clothing fashion trends. Rounds that were once less popular are now gaining in popularity and a round that used to be a ubiquitous choice may now have fallen out of favor. It’s part of what keeps the hunting and firearms community exciting.
With the recent innovations in intermediate and longer-range cartridges (e.g. 6.5 Creedmoor) that can be used to full advantage on the AR-15 platform, it’s getting harder to advocate for anything else for hunting – they cover a huge range of the North American game spectrum with their approachable, highly performant loads.
But is there still a reason to consider a .308 Winchester AR build when you can just purchase an AR upper kit and slap it onto our trusty AR lower and hunt 85%+ of all the game you ever dreamed of with a single caliber?
There is an argument to be made for the .30-06, the 270, and other more traditional hunting cartridges, but there is also a very good argument to be made for the .308 over the .30-06 Springfield – one of the most storied and capable rounds in all modern hunting history. Part of that is due to the AR factor.
So how much do you lose by not bringing the .30-06 into the field? Let’s explore whether you can make up the difference in a highly versatile, multi-disciplinary AR build for hunting.
How much are you missing? Spoiler alert: Not much with the improvements in powder, projectiles, and engineering over the past 25 years
There’s no hate here regarding the .30-06 Springfield. It’s a timeless, fantastic cartridge that is hard to beat, given its variability of loads, the powerful terminal ballistics and the availability of components and load styles.
However, with the improvements in ballistic engineering and the natural progression of market available hardware and weapon systems platforms, the “Ought Six” is not the tool it once was and has become more of a “Jack of all trades” rather than the go-to cartridge.
Again, there is nothing wrong with a cartridge that does a lot of things and gives a lot of coverage. There’s no reason to knock this classic. But the newest range of cartridges can do some very cool things. And, with all these innovations and incremental improvements in ballistics the. 308 Winchester has reemerged as a competitive (slightly less potent) option alongside the Springfield.
And that’s the point of this article: a contemporary comparison between the two in the wake of a wave of new specialty cartridges built on the back of the AR’s popularity.
The .308 looks pretty good right now, with the huge amount of AR hardware; the ability to customize the gun to benefit from the versatility of the cartridge.
Additionally, there is the fact that you can stretch the usability of the cartridge across basically 90% of the spectrum of game animals in North America, so you don’t need to invest in a whole different platform to do things like 2-3 hunts a year, in addition to what you’re already doing with your rifle day-to-day.
Let’s get into the numbers to set the stage though:
For a premium hunting cartridge, you would be likely to find relative comparisons on the market that look like this:
.308 Winchester – @ 100 yards 2437 fps velocity with 2348 ft. lbs. energy; and @ 400 yards 1984 fps velocity with 1556 ft. lbs. energy; with a 25.5 inch drop
.30-06 Springfield – @ 100 yards 2582 fps velocity with 2635 ft. lbs. energy; and @ 400 yards 2114 fps velocity with 1766 ft. lbs. energy with a 22.2 inch drop
The drop can be compensated for with some math, or some glass in the field; while the slight variations in performance may turn out to be negligible, considering the value you get from the benefit of being on the AR platform, which the .30-06 is not.
If you’re worried about the 200 or so extra ft. lbs. of energy or velocity, there are cartridges that can do better for your needs depending on the game target, range needs or environment, which can be achieved on the AR with another option.
What’s the point? The .308 Winchester is so close in performance to the .30-06 that the benefit of being on the AR platform for hunters can really be a game-changer. It’s not JUST about ballistics anymore.
Bullet design metrics
In the example given above, the ELD by Hornady is a highly efficient projectile and the ballistic coefficient is the same, since it’s a same-size, same-shape, same-weight comparison.
The difference on the market will be that you can upload and download the .308 within reason as a handloader or find interesting custom loads from the factory in the .308 that may not be available in the .30-06 anymore, or at all. All this, probably since the .308 integrates directly into the black rifle of choice.
So, it’s not like you’re going to be hurting for options. Again, the game changing landscape here is the fact that it plays well with an AR in a hunting scenario, versus the .30-06 which doesn’t. Over the past 30 years, the argument could easily be made that the .308 is every bit as “purist” a choice for the big hunt as the .30-06 was for your father and grandfather. It may very well be a “generational thing”.
Bullet choice, cartridge matching and game targets as well as environment and conditions will still be the driving force behind the baseline decision you have to make. E.g., If you’re the hunter shooting the .270 Winchester because it makes more sense for the specific hunt, you weren’t comparing the .308 to the .30-06 in the first place for that same hunt.
You’re a purist that wants the extra 300 fps of velocity or the slightly flatter trajectory and doesn’t need the heft in the projectile because you’re going after a game animal that can be dispatched with the 145 grain bullet, and doesn’t need that extra 30 grains +.
Because of the similarity of the bullets, you are going to get nearly exact bullet coefficient numbers; nearly exact grain weight options and nearly exact performance if you are even out the standard deviations and factor in the environmental variables between the .308 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield.
It’s not about trying to convince anyone – the numbers have always been close – it’s about showing the enhanced versatility and availability and the mainstream adoption enjoyed by the .308 upon the backdrop of the great black rifle market revolution. We want our modularity, our customization and our choices. Finally, hunters are truly benefiting from the market available options instead of being relegated to a simple bolt action or a drop block.
A clarification: The bolt action and the drop block, etc., are incredible, timeless, and can be made to offer some things that an AR will never be able to do, but they are a purist’s platform and they are not as versatile, regardless of how well they can be made.
Other enhancements that bring the gap between the 30.06 Springfield and the .308 Winchester closer
Optics seem to jump out here as the elephant in the room. By the time the .30-06 Springfield was being cemented as the traditional hunting round in America, it was being phased out as a military option entirely, in favor of the .308 Winchester.
That wasn’t a death knell for the beloved round, and in some form or another, the .30-06 will likely be around forever. But, like the .30-06, the .308 is also going nowhere for a long time – it’s too performant, too versatile, and too plentiful. The AR adoption doesn’t hurt either.
In the case of optics, you can get bullet drop compensating reticles and platform specific optics that enhance the “on-the-fly” capabilities of the .308 hunter over the .30-06 hunter for quick changes in the field. That can be the difference between getting the trophy target, much more than 200 fps velocity or on-target retained energy would ever be.
Why the .308 is likely to be preferable to the .30-06 anyways in many cases
The shorter, easier recoiling, and easier to find in bulk, .308 cartridge is pretty compelling. If for nothing else than the load variability. It’s hard to justify grabbing that extra energy and velocity when you also have to take the baggage that comes along with it: namely the OAL of the cartridges and the heft and bulk of the rounds.
In a hunting situation it’s not going to matter much, admittedly, because you’re carrying at most a box of ammunition, generally. And in the field, you might have 10 rounds max, with 2-3 in the rifle. The difference in case length from 2.81” for the .308 versus the 3.34” for the .30-06 won’t be a game changing variable there, in the hunt scenario.
But for everything else, including lugging your already heavy bag to the range, it’s going to have an incremental impact.
Most of the readership can probably appreciate that the subtle differences may not be huge as standalone line items, but that when added up, they can be overwhelmingly pushing favorability towards the .308.
Cost of ammunition
In total transparency, the premium hunting rounds may not show a definitive pricing difference between the two rounds, as many substantially similar loadouts are price leveled by the manufacturers to improve overall bottom line and avoid drama on the customer service side from complaining customers. However, it’s not lost on astute observers that the sheer material costs are heavily in favor of the .308 Winchester, considering it costs less from a “net-net” perspective, to produce the round. It’s a shorter case, less powder and the same bullet (in many cases) incremental costs will catch up to the market, eventually.
If it doesn’t, and the price differences only manifest at the handloading table, then it still exists. Pick your poison.
The biggest determining factor: What is the landscape and what game target are you going after?
The most important thing is this: can the .308 take the target you are after, and can it do so in variable conditions that can change a hunt in the blink of an eye?
And the truth is, whether you are a die-hard .30-06 supporter or not: if you’re at the edge of performance versus ethics when it comes to making the shot when the target is in your sights, you shouldn’t be shooting either of these rounds – bring a bigger gun.
There is no manufacturer of ammunition that is going to lump a set of game animals outside of the capabilities of the .308 Winchester, but then say that the .30-06 Springfield can handle it.
It’s going to come down to other, more nuanced concepts to help you determine whether the .308 could be for you. It follows.
At first glance, unless you are a spartan builder and generally don’t accessorize a lot, the AR build is going to eventually get heavier, despite the aluminum structure of the platform. The weight does add up. You can still buy sub 8 lb. bolt action .30-06’s and .308’s all day long. You’d be hard pressed to be under 11 lbs. with glass on an AR build. And even then, you will be spending a bit more money for the AR than the bolt gun.
It is what it is.
A Ruger American in .308 with a 22” barrel, for example, is just a touch over 6 lbs. A Daniel Defense DD5v4 Hunter Rifle in .308 with an 18” barrel weighs about 8 and a quarter lbs. That is with a 4” barrel length difference too.
Can you build an ultralight AR .308? Yes, you certainly can. But having a thoroughbred is different from having a Warmblood riding horse. Sometimes raw horsepower and lithe “muscle” builds are still not as interesting as having an easy to carry, simple to operate gun like a skinny, strong bolt gun can be. Also, if recoil isn’t a problem for you on a bolt gun, it may be slightly less tolerable, even with the additional weight of the AR, when built on the different platform.
Recoil for the .308 is right at the cusp of where mainstream shooters begin to say the recoil is “uncomfortable”. Compared to the .30-06 that’s another win in the .308 column, but it’s not necessarily a win for everyone just based on the recoil factor.
You’ll have to dive into the details of your own build or factory rifle to compare exact specifications.
One comparison doesn’t tell the tale per se, but the ballistics are vastly similar between the .308 and the .30-06.
Here is another load comparison just to solidify the concept:
Example: Federal Power-Shok with Jacketed Soft Point 150 grain bullet
.308 Winchester – @ 100 yards 2532 fps velocity with 2134 ft. lbs. energy; and @ 400 yards 1771 fps velocity with 1044 ft. lbs. energy; with a 26.3 inch drop
.30-06 Springfield – @ 100 yards 2616 fps velocity with 2279 ft. lbs. energy; and @ 400 yards 1839 fps velocity with 1126 ft. lbs. energy with a 24.4 inch drop
Yes, there are outliers, but the comparative ballistics really shouldn’t be a factor when choosing between the two cartridges – and that’s the main point. How much are you missing by not bringing a .30-06? Not much.
Beyond the Hunting Grounds
Save money when target shooting. Save time when outfitting your firearm. Save your shoulder a bit with the slightly lessened recoil.
The .308 is a fun target shooting option. And it can generally shoot mil-surp ammunition (remember the .308 Winchester is the more powerful round when compared to the 7.62x51mm – and you CAN generally fire a .308 and a 7.62x51mm out of a .308 marked barrel with negligible performance degradation – and safely); even if the military marked barrels are not considered robust enough to fire the .308 load. *Shoot .308 out of a barrel marked to handle it.
For home defense, the .308 is a no brainer, if you choose to go that heavy in your ballistic preference for defensive use. There will still be some background dangers affiliated with such a powerful cartridge, but that’s something you’ll need to consider as you choose your optimal defensive loadout. Maybe the .308 makes sense out of a short, stocky AR for you and your home layout and friendly fire conditions.
The benefits don’t stop there though, and surely you can imagine some additional synergies provided by the AR and the .308 cartridge. There are at least half a dozen real world benefits not even mentioned in this article in order to keep it focused.
The benefits of the AR platform for sporting uses
Having the ability to buy a .308 AR rifle and then slap a 6.5 Creedmoor upper kit onto the platform is a complete game changer. Sure, you can buy a couple of base model bolt guns and still be under $1500-$1800 for both, but you won’t have the variability of use cases, the accessory mix and the overall design value of the AR as a platform. It WILL cost you more “all-in” to outfit a base rifle in .308 and then add the upper-end capability of the 6.5 Creedmoor for the AR, but it will introduce a plethora of other options.
Furthermore, the bolt guns will be base models, and the AR will compete well with their accuracy. To get those same inexpensive bolt guns into the sub MOA realm reliably, it’s going to take some money, work and time.
Again, there is a time and a place for bolt guns, and they can be a thing of beauty, simplicity, and tradition, and that is important. But it’s not everything to many modern hunters. Hence the popularity of the AR platform.
In the end, you’re going to have to decide if the benefits like the accessorizing, the modularity and ease of implementation along with the semi-auto format and the availability to optics that can play so well with the gun and cartridge means you are a candidate for using an AR in the field. And then, if it makes sense to replace the trusty .30-06 in favor of a more modern round, a more modern gun, and a more versatile experience.
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