Best 6.5mm Cartridge (Virtual Shootout)
Almost overnight, American hunters rediscovered 6.5mm bullets. Interest in long range hunting launched a search for efficient, accurate rifle cartridges and the 6.5’s 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 cross winds. 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 commercial 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.
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 world-wide ammunition availability, low recoil, and gun life expectancy are taken into consideration. When it comes to 6.5mm hunting cartridges, less is often more.
Bullet placement is everything. Elk are bullet sponges, but a 6.5mm bullet in the right spot does the trick.
Old veteran. The 6.5x55 Swedish in action.
A bit outside the 6.5-284 Norma's recommended range envelope on a large animal, but still fit for moose!
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
If you had included the 6.5-06 into your comparison, how would it have fared?
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.Helpful 32
Where do you think the 6.5 PRC would fall on this list?
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..Helpful 24
Do you count muzzle blast as recoil?
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.Helpful 9
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?
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.Helpful 9
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