LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Best 6.5 Cartridge
Almost overnight, American hunters rediscovered 6.5mm bullets. Interest in long range hunting launched a search for efficient, accurate rifle cartridges and the 6.5s are just that. America has not always been dominated by the ubiquitous .30 caliber. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people appreciated the 6.5mm bore size. It served the U.S. Navy for a time and surplus Swedish Mauser rifles chambered in 6.5x55mm were prized finds on the used gun market, but the bore size’s popularity waned after World War Two.
What Makes the 6.5mm So Good?
Why all the fuss? Simple, 6.5mm bullets are long and narrow so they punch a smaller hole in the air, retain velocity down range better, and drift less in crosswinds. Engineers would say they have high Ballistic Coefficients or BCs. The 6.5mm has another advantage, one hunters are interested in: 6.5mm bullets also have high Sectional Density (SD), the ratio between their diameter and weight. High SD bullets penetrate deep into game animals, even large, tough ones. They are lethal beyond what their size would indicate. Also, those bullets don’t need ultra-high velocity to do their job, which means less recoil, and less recoil improves a shooter’s accuracy.
A Better Way to Test
There are many 6.5mm cartridges on the market today, both old veterans and young upstarts. Which is best for hunting? Rather than shoot round after round, a comparison test using shooterscalculator.com’s free web-based software allows one to remove the variables inherent to testing on the target range: shooter fatigue, weather, as well as ammunition and firearm production tolerances.
In this shootout, the author selected the Nosler 140 grain AccuBond™ bullet (.509 BC, .287 SD) to level the playing field. While Nosler offers a 142 grain AccuBond Long Range™ bullet, the standard AccuBond™ better represents the results most hunters can expect. All calculations were based on international standard atmospheric conditions: 59F (15C) and 29.92 inHg at sea level. Muzzle velocities are nominal industry values for commercially loaded ammunition in each cartridge as fired through a 24 inch barrel, except where noted.
Cartridges are measured for the range at which they provide the minimum impact energy needed for a humane kill on medium game, such as deer and antelope (1200 ft-lbs), and large game, such as elk and moose (1500 ft-lbs), and the range at which they decelerate to 1800 feet per second, Nosler’s recommended minimum velocity for reliable bullet expansion. The test also reveals the maximum point blank range (MPBR) uncorrected for minute of angle (MOA) accuracy. MPBR is the range at which a bullet rises three inches above line of sight and then drops three inches below line of sight, ie. hits within a six-inch kill box.
Recoil values are based on an 8.5 pound (3.9 kg.) rifle weight and an average powder charge obtained from Nosler’s reloading data. Recoil is expressed in foot-pounds of free energy (ft-lbsf).
Rankings are calculated as follows:
- One point for every fifty yards beyond 200 yards for medium game effective range and large game effective range, respectively.
- One point for every ten yards beyond a 200 yard MPBR.
- One point added for every ft-lbsf of recoil below 15 ft-lbsf, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf over. 15 ft-lbsf is considered the maximum recoil most shooters can tolerate before it negatively affects accuracy.
Let the games begin.
8th Place. 6.5x55mm Swedish: 12.1 Points
This grizzled veteran, and Scandinavian hunters’ favorite, sent its slug out the barrel at 2600 fps. MPBR: 260 yards (with a 221 yard zero). Minimum expansion occurs at 500 yards. Medium game effective range: 375 yards. Large game effective range: 225 yards. Recoil: 12.9 ft-lbsf.
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7th Place. 6.5 Grendel: 13.9 Points
The Grendel is designed to give standard size AR-style rifles more punch than the ubiquitous .223 Remington (5.56x45mm). Due to its short case, it cannot accommodate a 140 grain bullet so the author substituted a 120 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip™ (.458 BC, .246 SD). Muzzle velocity is 2600 fps.
MPBR: 258 yards (219 yard zero). Minimum expansion: 450 yards. Medium game range: 250 yards. Large game range: 125 yards. Recoil: 7.9 ft-lbsf.
6th Place. 6.5 Creedmoor: 14.9 Points
The Creedmoor is the current darling among 6.5mm cartridges and has gained an enviable reputation for accuracy since its introduction in 2007. For this test, it propelled a 140 grain AccuBond™ at 2700 fps.
MPBR: 260 yards (229 yard zero). Min. expansion: 550 yards. Medium game range: 450 yards. Large game range: 300 yards. Recoil: 13.1 ft-lbsf.
5th Place. .26 Nosler: 16.3 Points
Introduced in 2014, the .26 Nosler provides Ultra-Mag-like performance in a standard length action. Muzzle velocity: 3300 fps.
MPBR: 326 yards (277 yard zero). Min. expansion: 875 yards. Medium game range: 750 yards. Large game range: 600 yards. Recoil: 30.3 ft-lbsf.
4th Place. .260 Remington: 17 Points
The versatile .260 Remington’s mission is to provide 6.5x55mm Swedish ballistics, or better, in a short-action length cartridge. Muzzle velocity: 2750 fps.
MPBR: 274 yards (233 yard zero). Min. expansion: 575 yards. Medium game range: 475 yards. Large game range: 325 yards. Recoil: 13.4 ft-lbsf.
3rd Place. 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum: 17.5 Points
Weatherby claims this is the fastest 6.5 cartridge in the world. Muzzle velocity: 3395 fps (26 inch barrel).
MPBR: 334 yards (285 yard zero). Min. expansion: 925 yards! Medium game range: 800 yards. Large game range: 650 yards. Recoil: 31.9 ft-lbsf (estimated).
2nd Place. 6.5-284 Norma: 18 Points
Like the 6.5 Creedmoor, this cartridge began as a precision target cartridge. Hunters soon discovered its effectiveness and it has grown in popularity since. Muzzle velocity: 2850 fps.
MPBR: 284 yards (241 yard zero). Min. expansion: 650 yards. Medium game range: 525 yards. Large game range: 375 yards. Recoil: 15.4 ft-lbsf.
1st Place. .264 Winchester Magnum: 19 Points
This particular Winchester magnum never gained a large following due in part to a reputation for premature barrel wear, but those who use it swear by it. Muzzle velocity: 3000 fps.
MPBR: 298 yards (253 yard zero). Min. expansion: 725 yards. Medium game range: 600 yards. Large game range: 450 yards. Recoil: 18.8 ft-lbsf.
The law of diminishing returns determined the winner here. Huge velocity numbers are not the full story when it comes to hunting cartridge performance. As power and speed increase, so does recoil, and recoil affects the most important factor in hunting: accuracy.
The most powerful cartridges in this test, the .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby, are great rounds, but they have a narrowly defined mission which is to put the same hurt on an animal beyond 500 yards as the 6.5x55 Swedish at 200 - 400 yards. However, the shooter pays for such performance in bruised shoulders, short barrel life, and expensive gun powder. Plus, ammunition and reloading components are scarce and expensive not to mention cases will likely wear out in short order due to high operating pressures.
The 6.5x55 Swedish, 6.5 Grendel, and 6.5 Creedmoor scored low because they don’t hit large animals hard enough at longer ranges, but used inside their envelope, they would make up for the deficit with mild manners and superb accuracy.
Although the .264 Win Mag took first place, in the author’s opinion, the average hunter is better served with the fourth place .260 Remington or runner up, 6.5-284 Norma, due to the “winner’s” high barrel wear rate and copious powder appetite. Number’s aside, the timeless, low-pressure Swede is still the best all-rounder in this group when worldwide ammunition availability, low recoil, and gun life expectancy are taken into consideration. When it comes to 6.5mm hunting cartridges, less is often more.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: If you had included the 6.5-06 into your comparison, how would it have fared?
Answer: I'd surmise it would fall between the 6.5-284 Norma and .264 Winchester Magnum. A hand-loaded 6.5x55 Swedish would also give it a run for its money, but in factory form would lag behind a bit. Except for recoil, the 6.5 Creedmoor likely couldn't touch it. I left it out because it's just not popular enough to interest a larger audience, but it is a good round, none the less.
Question: Where do you think the 6.5 PRC would fall on this list?
Answer: This round looks like a winner. It has better down range power than the 6.5 Creedmoor (uh-oh, here come the 6.5 CM fan boys) and is just as accurate with just a bit more recoil. That said, I still like the 6.5-284 Norma and 6.5x55 Swede a bit better, overall, because they will handle the heaviest bullets without losing powder capacity..
Question: Do you count muzzle blast as recoil?
Answer: Muzzle blast is not recoil. Recoil is the computed free force which thrusts a gun rearward into the shooter's body when the gun is fired. It is expressed as foot-pounds (free) or ft-lbsf. Muzzle blast is both sound and visible flash, and while it is probably quantifiable, it does not factor into the free recoil equation. Muzzle brakes reduce recoil a bit by redirecting the escaping gasses which are ejected out a gun's muzzle during firing reward which moves the gun forward away from the shooter thus reducing the free recoil felt by the shooter. (All my recoil computations are for unbraked rifles.) This is accomplished at the cost of excessive--read deafening--noise directed at the shooter and anyone next to the shooter. Thus, many guides and professional hunters prohibit their clients from bringing braked rifles with them on a hunt. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Question: As one of the few shooters out there still using the 6.5 Remington Magnum, I am surprised it didn't make the list- though it is close to the same specs as the .264 Winchester Magnum. A touch more speed and a shorter case, but sadly another obsolete round. I'm sure it would rank around the top range by comparison, but the .264 with larger case capacity may be able to be run a bit hotter to exceed factory specs. What is your view?
Answer: You hit the nail on the head. I did not include the 6.5 Remington Magnum because it is, for all intents and purposes, dead in the market place. The article dealt with the 6.5s in common use, and the 6.5 Rem. Mag, though quite good, has so limited a following, it would not have appealed to a wider audience. Remington seems to have a knack for developing marvelous cartridges and then dropping the marketing ball to let them wither away. Witness the magnificent .280 Remington.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
River K. on April 11, 2020:
Since I started using my 264 Win Mag I've taken 2 moose, 3 Caribou, and 2 bears. I'm never going back. The bears... Took more than 1 shot... But they were also getting shot multiple times by 300 Win Mag as well. Everything else was one shot.
caveman on November 24, 2019:
I know I am a day late and a dollar short. I have two comments . #1 I ejoy'd the artical and I think the Auther probably figure he would ruffle featers, Embrace one another this is why the anti-gunners and hunters get the attention , they know we as humans ar to bias. If or what ever you shoot just enjoy it. If you hunt with it just remember the limitations. for God sake light'n up people. I have killed alot of elk with a 120 grn. spizter bullet and the only elk that did not drop in there tracks were two with premium bullets that I won't mention the names of and a 140 grn bullet , However they didn't go far and I have never lost one. No I won't humar you and tell you witch .264 dia. weapon I have used . Just keep it real .shoot straight fella's and gals.
James K on September 06, 2019:
As much as I liked your article and the fact I think you did try to do a good thing here, the whole idea I think doesn't work. The grendel should not have been included in this test. The only way it should have according to the parameters you stated would be to drop all the weights to 120. I think had you done that this list would look a bit different. It is sad that ammo manufactorers do handicap the swede because of the supposed older firearms. Funny how they don't treat the 45-70 in the same manner. Either way I do enjoy your articles and can appreciate the time you take to write them. God bless to you and yours.
BJ Kerns on June 18, 2019:
I spent a hefty sum construction a 6.5 Grendel. It is a real beauty and has l1/2 inch MOA at 150 yds. Did I waste my money on a Grendel?
Johnny B. on April 10, 2019:
If you read this and thought it was anything more than a sales pitch for the 6.5 Creedmoor and .260 then you completely missed the point. The author either hasn't done his homework (unlikely), is biased (probably), or is on the dole (most likely). To put this debate to bed, all that you have to do is visit the Nosler reloading page and compare the data. It speaks for itself. The author based results off of nominal 6.5 Swede, hot 6.5 Grendel/Creedmoor, and extreme .260 loads. Lets compare horsepower, but I get to limit your car to 6 cylinders because my car doesn't have 8...smh.
A 6.5x55 Swede pushes a 140gr Accubond 2730fps with 43.0gr of IMR 4350 while still allowing 9% case capacity. The Creedmoor is at 2690fps with 41.0gr at 93% case capacity. The .260 needs 100%+ (compressed) loads to reach similar velocities of either of the aforementioned chamberings.
So, if all things are "equal" then a 6.5 Swede in a modern action has the capability to push a 140gr Accubond faster, farther, and flatter than the Creedmoor, Grendel, or .260. My results aren't based off of "my" tests, but those of the bullet manufacturer; Nosler. In fact, the .260 is the laggard of these 4 cartridges because it's performance is bottle-necked by case limitations.
So, if you want the latest/greatest then get yourself a Creedmoor. If you want short throw (the Swede likes 'em long and classy) then get a Creedmoor. If you want an AR-style 6.5 (yes...unless you compete then I am laughing at you) then get a Creedmoor. If you want better terminal performance and more versatility than the Creed/Grendel/.260 at a cost much cheaper than the boutique chamberings then you should get yourself a Swede and a Lee Classic loader for $30 and start thumping the "It's neeeewwwww...." shooters who paint their fingernails. Tired of the uneducated shooters deciding that a new chambering is better than an old one based on hand-selected "facts." We shoot. Better to hand load than talk ballistics over a big box store shelf.
Michael Summerfield on February 07, 2019:
No one seems to be familiar with one of the greatest 6.5s that has been around for a long time, namely the 6.5x68mm. The 6.5x57 is also overlooked and is pretty good but not quite up to 6.5 Swede performance.
Jim Duffy on January 07, 2019:
You youngster have forgotten all about the .256 Newton, and the 6.5 Gibbs. Both as good or better than The 264 Win Mag ! Neither have as much recoil or are nearly as bad at overbore, yet the velocity is right there!.....
Edward J. Palumbo on December 07, 2018:
I currently own a sporterweight 6.5x55mm and a heavy-barreled 6.5 Creedmoor. I enjoy handloading for both and both are good performers on the range and in the field. Though the 6.5x55 Swede is loaded more stoutly than the military rifles for which it was designed, it is solidly housed in a large ring M98 Mauser that I rebarreled. The 6.5 Creedmoor is a heavy-barreled Howa 1500 in a Boyd Brothers wood laminate stock. The rifles serve different purposes, but they serve them well. I do not ask more of them than one can reasonably expect. I have not chronographed my loads, but I carefully measure and record my 5-shot groups and the 6.5 Creedmoor (as it is set up) is very accurate. The 6.5x55mm, as it has been built, is all I require of a deer rifle. It is difficult to objectively compare the merits of these cartridges. Most shooters, like myself, are personally invested in one or more of the cartridges mentioned. A practiced shooter will experience remarkable results while others consider their rifles mediocre, at best. The current argumentative comparison between cartridges is an exercise that seems pointless. There are those who will swear by a cartridge and others who will swear at it. Not too long ago, the selection of 6.5mm bullets was limited but today's selection is much better and the product of improved bullet technology. I'm very happy with my 6.5mm rifles but I avoid argument; it's like debating which girl is prettier –– the issue is very subjective.
John on December 07, 2018:
More than three.
I'm getting 3100 fps with a 139 grain pill all into a Skoal box at 375 yds.
Deer just drop to the ground and give up when I uncase the Tikka.
R.P.Sharman II on December 07, 2018:
I didn't see anything in the criteria about felt recoil, barrel wear or muzzle blast. Taken strictly on the ballistics as your premise stated how can you not class the 26Nosler, Weatherby 6.5-300 and 6.5 -284 as anything but the winners!
Gord McKay on October 24, 2018:
Suggest you run the 6.5x 55 at modern pressures (58 -60K) and try this exercise again. Saddling a modern 6,5x55 with ancient pressures is hardly a fair comparison...
LJ Bonham (author) on May 16, 2018:
The velocities were those advertised by the manufacturers on their web sites. No reloading manual data was used. The test was as fair and unbiased as possible. If someone's favorite didn't score as high as they would have liked, it is not the data's (or the author's) fault. The math is the math.
Lefty on May 11, 2018:
Agree on the complaints about the Swede, but if you're limited to factory ammo, these results are accurate. Having said that, the comparison uses average velocities from reloading manuals, not actual velocities from factory loads, so it's easy to see where the results can be a little misleading.
Also, dropping the Grendel down to 120 gr really boosts it's score. I wouldn't consider it adequate for big game at any range with a 120 great pill any more than I would consider a 22 Rimfire adequate for medium size game. Just goes to show how important it is to keep everything as consistent as possible when making comparisons on paper.
Would be interested to see how the 6.5 A Square would fair in this test.
David on March 11, 2018:
What about the 6.5 Remington mag?
Pizzaman1 on November 11, 2017:
Using my Tikka T3 in 6.5x55 I am putting three in a dime at 100 yards using 46 gr of RE22 and a 140gr Nosler Partition
LJ Bonham (author) on August 18, 2017:
Re: the 6.5 Rem, see my other comment; it's not a current production cartridge, good though it may be. Re: 6.5x55. Those who read the article will note that all the cartridges tested were tested based on their factory loaded standard velocities. I clearly stated hand loaders can do much better with all the cartridges. No favoritism was directed toward or against any cartridge; the factory ballistics are the factory ballistics. If one has a problem with that, contact the ammo companies.
LJ Bonham (author) on August 15, 2017:
Not a current, mass production cartridge. Correct me if I'm wrong, but none of the big rifle companies chamber it any more, despite it's merits. The .264 Win. Mag. barely made the list as it looks on its way out, too. Look on the bright side, now that America has rediscovered 6.5mm bullets, maybe the 6.5 Rem will make a come back.
mocap on August 15, 2017:
Why didn't you enter 6.5 rem mag? Been shooting one since 1966. Currently using a Tikka T3 with schelen 25" bbl. 140 gr vld hunting @ 3130 fps. . .35 MOA. Using 23gr RL 23 and love it!
gpo1956 on August 15, 2017:
Why even include the 6.5x55 if you're restricting it to M96 pressures and all the others are loaded to modern pressures? In a Tikka, Remington, Winchester or Ruger rifle, the Swede will out- perform 3 of the cartridges listed ahead of it. Why bother?