No two cartridges better represent the old school versus new school debate than the .30-06 Springfield and the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The latter began in 2007 as a long-range bougie cartridge more at home on a competition course than a blind deer. The former is a World War I and World War II veteran known throughout the world for his hunting abilities and “knocking power” of him.
The 6.5, in other words, is like the know-it-all nephew, while the .30-06 is his grumpy old uncle. If you’ve ever been to a family gathering, you know those two won’t leave Thanksgiving dinner face to face. But this caliber battle will give you the information you need to choose a side before Christmas comes around.
Prospective gun owners should note that ballistically speaking, these two cartridges fall into different categories. The .30-06 fires heavier bullets than the 6.5 Creedmoor, but those bullets travel just as fast. This allows you to hit harder at virtually any range.
To compare apples to apples, let’s look at Federal’s Trophy Copper line. The 6.5 Creedmoor fires a 120-grain bullet at 2,875 feet per second (fps) into the muzzle for an energy output of 2,202 foot-pounds (ft-pounds). The .30-06, on the other hand, fires a 165-grain bullet at 2,800 fps into the muzzle for roughly 30% higher energy output: 2,872 ft-lbs.
Creedmoor fans like to point out that the 6.5 can be loaded with bullets that feature a high ballistic coefficient. In some cases, this aerodynamic ability allows you to hit hotter cartridges at longer ranges.
Even setting aside the fact that shooting an animal at 800 yards is almost never a good idea, that argument doesn’t make sense in this example. The Creedmoor’s 75 fps advantage at the muzzle has dropped to 52 fps at 500 yards, and it’s only dropped 2.4 inches less than the .30-06 (44 inches vs. 41.6 inches with a 200-yard zero ). At 800 yards, the 6.5 has maintained that slight speed advantage and dropped nine inches less, but both bullets are traveling below the minimum velocity required for expansion.
You can play around with different bullet weights and styles, but at the end of the day, the 6.5 can’t beat the higher case capacity of the .30-06. That extra powder allows you to push heavier bullets faster, resulting in more energy transfer and (hopefully) a better chance of hydrostatic shock. In the examples above, the .30-06 165-grain bullet imparts about 25% more energy at each range.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
The old man is in the lead, but the young man is about to make up some ground. The .30-06 hits harder, but that ballistic advantage comes at a cost, namely the structural integrity of its shoulder.
Anyone who has fired both cartridges knows that the .30-06 kicks harder than the 6.5 Creedmoor. The difficulty depends on a number of factors, including the weight of the rifle, the weight of the bullet, and the powder charge. You can find a .30-06 sissy that feels like shooting a 6.5, or you can shoot a Creedmoor in a featherweight pistol that feels closer to a .30-06.
With that caveat out of the way, Chuck Hawks reports that with an eight-pounder rifle, a 165-grain .30-06 traveling at 2900 fps will hit about 20 foot-pounds. recoil energy. That level of recoil energy can cause a flinch, which is not what you want with a trophy in your sights.
Federal does not publish recoil data on the 120-grain 6.5 Creedmoor load, but most manufacturers report that 140-grain rounds hit between 12 and 15 foot-pounds. recoil energy. It’s a safe bet that the 120-grain offering is even lighter.
How important this is to you depends on whether you are a masochist or not. Like shoulder pain? Go with a heavy blowback rifle. Would you rather skip the bruises and shakes? The 6.5 might be for you.
Turns out flinching is the worst thing that can happen to a rifle hunter. It is easy to hold a scope reticle on the target. It’s harder to keep that aim steady when pulling the trigger means a shot to the shoulder. This is where the 6.5 Creedmoor shines, and why it’s worth a look even when compared to bigger, more powerful cartridges.
Ammo availability favors the .30-06. Federal offers 35 .30-06 varieties but only 18 in 6.5. That trend is confirmed among other manufacturers, meaning the .30-06 will likely be a bit easier to find on shelves. However, the popularity of the 6.5 means that most gun shops go out of their way to stock the Creedmoor, so you shouldn’t have much trouble with either cartridge.
The older military cartridge also beats the 6.5 in terms of cost. The cheapest .30-06 options are cheaper than the cheapest 6.5 Creedmoor options by about 10%, and of the two Trophy Copper options listed in the previous section, the .30-06 is slightly cheaper ($55.99 vs. $58.99 for a case of 20).
But a sore shoulder hurts more than spending a few extra bucks, which is why this round is for the 6.5 Creedmoor.
By “versatility” we mean the variety of animals each cartridge can reasonably target and the variety of firearms that can be used to target those animals.
Frank C. Barnes opines in “Cartridges of the World” that with the proper selection of bullets, the .30-06 can be used in any game or hunting situation in North or South America, whether in the mountains, plains, forests or jungles. “Few other cartridges can claim the same versatility,” he concludes.
It has a point. Federal offers the .30-06 in a wide range of bullet weights: from 125-grain pellets good for vermin or medium game to 200- and 220-grain loads for big game like bear and elk. This is a fantastic range for any cartridge, and the .30-06 has proven itself in the field for years.
But don’t sleep on the 6.5 Creedmoor. Its staggering popularity has whetted an appetite for innovation, and Federal offers 6.5 loads in vermin, medium game and big game classes using bullets ranging from 95 to 140 grains. It may not be able to hit as high as the .30-06, but those 95-grain bullets combined with the 6.5’s long-range prowess could give it the edge in the vermin category. He’ll almost certainly be more comfortable to wear on an all-day prairie dog hunt than his older uncle.
That contest is close, but the availability of the rifle is a check in the win column for the 6.5 Creedmoor. Weatherby chambered 12 of his rifles in .30-06, but a whopping 38 models in 6.5 Creedmoor. The same is true for other manufacturers when considering bolt-action, semi-automatic, and other types of rifles.
This ratio will look different on the weapon used counter, of course. The .30-06 has a 100-year advantage over the 6.5, so you’ll likely find plenty of old deer rifles in .30-caliber cartridges. But if you’re looking for a new rifle, especially if you’re looking for something other than bolt action, the 6.5 Creedmoor will give you more options.
This is a tough pick, but the .30-06’s ability to target very big game, as well as vermin, gives it a thumbs up.
Winner: .30-06 Springfield
And the winner is…
The 6.5 Creedmoor has been outclassed in every Caliber battle thus far and, for many of the same reasons, lost two out of three categories in this matchup. It doesn’t fly terribly fast or hit terribly hard, which means it’s underpowered for very big game (although it has been used successfully on just about everything in North America).
But there is a reason why it is a super popular cartridge. It doesn’t take an Abrams tank to take down a whitetail or a moose, and most hunters would rather have a cartridge that’s easy to shoot than a cartridge that’s theoretically better at dropping a grizzly. Power is great, but so is comfort. The 6.5 balances those two better than many other cartridges, including, in my opinion, the .30-06.
However, at the risk of mixing sports metaphors, I will not move the goal posts for my favorite horse to win this race. The .30-06 is a true do-it-all cartridge, and as the winner of two out of three categories, I’d say the old man deserves another day in the winner’s circle.
Overall Winner: .30-06 Springfield