LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Right now, 6.5mm rifles are hotter than illicit yellow cake Uranium on a Phoenix sidewalk in July. Driven by the long-range shooting cult, American hunters have discovered there are indeed other bore sizes beyond .30 caliber. Never mind European shooters shrug and say, “What took you so long?”
The 6.5s have been around since the late 19th century. Sweden, Norway, Italy, Japan, and Austria, among others, armed their soldiers with this bore size for decades, and for a brief time prior to World War Two, many American shooters understood and loved this caliber’s efficiency. After the war, magnums became all the rage, and along with the ubiquitous .30-06, dominated American hunters’ attention.
New Century, New Thinking
When the 21st century dawned, America had a new war on its hands. A vicious, multi-front affair which continues today across Western Asia, the Middle-East, and now Africa. The longest war in our history has generated a new hero archetype, the long-range sniper.
American hunters and shooters have been inspired by tales from far-off battle fields about one-shot kills at over a mile. The major motion picture, American Sniper, which chronicled Chris Kyle’s exploits and tragic death, sealed the deal, and now more people than ever are on the range with sophisticated rifles, optics, and ballistic computers in an effort to emulate such warriors.
The new movement (some say fad) began with the standard, reach out and touch someone cartridges such as the .308, .30-06, 7mm Remington Magnum, and .300 Winchester Magnum. In short order, people took an interest in what the precision match community had up their sleeves. These shooters had abandoned the .30 calibers for the most part and moved to the much more aerodynamic 6mm and 6.5mm bores with cartridges designed to do just one thing—punch tight groups into paper at extreme ranges.
Soon hunters took notice. A 6.5mm bullet with the right properties could prove just as lethal as a heavier .30 caliber one, and shoot flatter. The smaller, lighter bullets also meant reduced recoil which often translates into better shooter performance. A recoil induced flinch will not win match trophies, or drop game animals.
The 6.5 Space Race
Gun and ammunition makers took notice, as well. They tripped over each other in the rush to bring the latest and greatest 6.5 to a hungry market—not unlike the magnum gold rush during the 1950s and 60s.
Within a few short years, the 6.5x55mm Swedish, .260 Remington, and .264 Winchester Magnum had company. The 6.5-284 Norma, 6.5 Creedmoor, 26 Nosler, and 6.5-300 Weatherby. Those who haven’t been in a coma since 2006 will note the Creedmoor is the undisputed darling among these NextGen rounds. It seemed the market had become saturated with great 6.5s. Who could ask for more?
There's an old joke,. “How many Marines can you fit into an elevator?” Answer, “One more.” Hornady, the ammunition maker, thinks this applies to 6.5mm cartridges. In 2017 they announced their latest foray into this crowded arena, the 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge, or 6.5 PRC.
Since Hornady had also introduced the fan boy favorite, 6.5 Creedmoor, many gun writers wondered if the crew in Nebraska hadn’t been hit on the head—hard.
One Was Too Big, One Was Too Small, and One Was Just Right
Both Hornady and Goldilocks may have found what Aristotle would call the Golden Mean. The 6.5 PRC is based on the company’s less than successful .300 Ruger Compact Magnum case, necked and massaged for 6.5mm bullets. This gives the 6.5 PRC around a twenty-eight percent boost in powder capacity over the 6.5 Creedmoor. This translates into almost 300 feet per second faster velocities for equal bullet weights over the class darling. Magnum territory, almost.
At first, Hornady’s newest 6.5 brain child didn’t have a home in a production rifle. Shooters who wanted this latest hot number had to go to custom gun makers. Now several gun makers such as Ruger and Christensen Arms have models chambered in 6.5 PRC, and more join the parade every day.
Test, Test, Test…
Once shooters who don’t live in gated communities can get their hands on a rifle in 6.5 PRC, they will want to know if it is as good as its press. The good news is they don’t have to wait to find out. With the mathematical modeling capabilities offered by ballistic software, it is not difficult to test all the NextGen 6.5s and determine which should perform the best as a hunting round.
I put the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, 6.5-284 Norma, 26 Nosler, and 6.5-300 Weatherby through their virtual paces see which is the NextGen 6.5mm king.
To make things as fair as possible, I chose what would seem the best factory load now on the market for each contestant. Since these cartridges are marketed as long-range prodigies, I selected only high-ballistic coefficient hunting bullets. In the 6.5s case, all the ammo makers have settled on 140 -143 grain bullets for their long-range hunting loads, despite the fact this bore size is at its best with bullets heavier than these. Ours is not to reason why, they would say, ours is but to buy and buy—and buy. This test measured each cartridge’s trajectory, effective range, and recoil.
Note: Hand loaders can develop loads which outperform factory ammunition by a significant margin.
Trajectory in this test is defined as Maximum Point Blank Range (MPBR), uncorrected for accuracy (MOA). MPBR is the distance over which a bullet rises three inches above sight line and then drops three inches below to hit within a six-inch kill box. Imagine a bullet arcing through a six-inch diameter pipe for a certain distance.
Effective range in this test is the minimum impact energy recommended for a humane kill on medium game (1200 ft-lbs.) and large game (1500 ft-lbs), and the minimum velocity these specialized bullets require for reliable expansion (1300 fps, according to the various manufacturers). If the minimum energy range exceeds the minimum expansion range, the minimum expansion range becomes the maximum effective range since unexpanded bullets are much less effective regardless how much energy they possess.
While most long-range match rifles weigh anywhere from eleven pounds on up, hunting rifles over the past decade have become lighter and lighter. Whereas the average hunting rifle used to weigh nine to ten pounds scoped and loaded, this test’s recoil calculations were based on an 8.0 pound rifle weight. As a general rule, more than 15 ft-lbsf free recoil is considered enough to affect most shooters’ accuracy. The less recoil, the more accurate the shooter, and hence, the more effective the cartridge.
All categories were corrected to standard atmosphere at sea level (59F/15C and 29.92 inHg/1013 mbar)
Points were awarded as follows:
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for maximum effective range on medium and large game, respectively, and one point deducted for every 25 yards less than 200 yards.
- One point for every 25 yards beyond 200 yards for minimum expansion velocity, one point deducted for every 25 yards less. If the minimum expansion range exceeds the farthest minimum energy range, points for expansion are set equal to the farthest energy range.
- One point for every 10 yards MPBR beyond 200 yards and one point deducted for every 10 yards less.
- One point for each ft-lbsf recoil less than 15, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf greater than 15.
Here’s how each cartridge ranked. Detailed performance figures are summarized in the table at the article’s end.
First Place: 26 Nosler, 79.1 Points
Nosler Trophy Grade, 142 grain AccuBond Long Range (ABLR), 3300 fps, .625 G1 BC/.291 SD
Introduced in 2014, the .26 Nosler provides Ultra-Mag-like performance in a standard length action. Few ammo companies have jumped onto the 26 Nosler express as yet, so you’ll have to go to Nosler for fodder, for the most part.
Second Place: 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum, 75.5 Points
Weatherby Select Plus, 140 gr. Berger VLD, 3315 fps, .612 G1 BC/.287 SD
Weatherby claims this is the fastest 6.5 cartridge in the world. Although, it runs neck and neck with the 26 Nosler, so the distinction is notional at best, and smells more akin to marketing hype than reality. At present, Weatherby is the only ammunition supplier for this small-bore hot rod.
Third Place: 6.5-284 Norma, 64.9 Points
HSM Trophy Gold, 140 gr. Berger VLD, 3016 fps, .612 G1 BC/.287 SD
Like the 6.5 Creedmoor, this cartridge began as a precision target round. Hunters soon discovered its effectiveness and it has grown in popularity since. It has one distinct advantage: its case is longer than either the 6.5 Creedmoor or 6.5 PRC so it can use the longest and heaviest 6.5mm bullets. Loaded with a 156 or 160 grain slug, it becomes a reasonable round for the largest, non-dangerous game, save for American bison.
Fourth Place: 6.5 PRC, 63.0 Points
Hornady Precision Hunter, 143 gr. ELD-X, 2960 fps, .620 G1 BC, .293 SD
Hornady appears to have a real winner on its hands with this round. It gives shooters what the 6.5 Creedmoor lacks, credible power for elk and moose out to 500 yards with a modest increase in recoil.
Fifth Place: 6.5 Creedmoor, 39.6 Points
Hornady Precision Hunter, 143 gr. ELD-X, 2700 fps, .620 G1 BC/.293 SD
The 6.5 Creedmoor originated as a precision target cartridge designed to beat rounds such as the 6.5 x 47mm and 6mm PPC in shooting matches. The target shooting fraternity and the long-range hunting world feed off each other for the simple reason many match shooters are also hunters. It’s natural they would try to make a target cartridge into a hunting cartridge. The Creedmoor has just enough power to kill big game with the least recoil possible. On large game, it has little energy to spare for anything other than textbook perfect shot presentations.
The Final Analysis
What did we learn in this test? We already knew the 6.5mm class is an effective game getter. We did learn the 6.5 world is diverging into two, distinct universes: efficient grace and power at any price.
The 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and 6.5-284 Norma continue the tradition started by the venerable, and still effective, 6.5x55 Swedish. They are efficient, reliable killers, but hunters who use them must never over estimate these cartridges’ capabilities. Used inside their respective envelopes, and with spot on placement, they will drop animals far larger than one might expect.
The other newcomers, the 26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby, are true magnums, even if Nosler eschews the word “magnum.” They pick up where the .264 Winchester Magnum left off, and like their predecessor, they kick almost as hard as a .300 Winchester Magnum, use copious powder, and will wear a barrel smooth in about a thousand rounds.
The bare truth is, the NextGens don’t cover much new ground. Although, both the 6.5-284 and 6.5 PRC offer the best compromise between effectiveness, bore wear, and shooting manners. Their recoil is similar to the .270 Winchester. Like the Swede before them, they are designed by people who understand the Golden Mean inherent in the 6.5mm bore size. With the PRC’s advent, the 6.5 Creedmoor may now assume its rightful place; a nice niche cartridge for people who are oversensitive to recoil, yet want more power than the .223 Remington and .243 Winchester.
I have always sided with the 6.5x55 when push came to shove in this bore size. While the Creedmoor has merits, I still shy from it because it lacks heavy for caliber bullet capability and just doesn’t fit my recipe for an elk gun. If I did want more reach than the Swede, I would choose either the 6.5-284 Norma or the 6.5 PRC. Ammunition variety and availability would make the final determination between the two for me. I’ve always thought the 6.5 magnums were a bit unnecessary, and I don’t like planned obsolescence guns, so both the Nosler and Weatherby don’t make my short list in this test because they answer a question I’ve never asked.
Properly applied, the tried and true 6.5x55 Swede is all most hunters will ever need. (Fast forward to 17:00 on video)
NextGen 6.5mm Cartridge Fight Test Results
|Cartridge||Med Game (yds)||Large Game (yds)||Expansion (yds)||MPBR (yds)||Recoil (ft-lbsf)|
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: How good is the 6.5 Grendel as a hunting caliber?
Answer: It depends on what you want to hunt. Inside 200 yards with a good bullet and proper placement, it should suffice for deer and antelope sized critters. I wouldn't use it on larger beasts such as elk or moose, though.
© 2018 LJ Bonham
John B on September 11, 2020:
Stefan, my guess as to the author's Swede comment is because the Swede (with European or SE loads) performs identical to the Creed based on ammo selection.
However, it also can shoot up to 160gr projectiles at 2500+ at the muzzle making it hit harder on large game, and a good handload can get +200fps on the Creed and real danged close to the PRC velocities.
The Creed is just a Swede designed for paper punching instead of combat.
Winkmeister on August 26, 2020:
Why is your threshold for Medium game set so high at 1,200 ft-lbs.?-- when the most common standard is 1,000 and for deer specifically one even finds mention of 800 as acceptable.
Stefan on August 12, 2020:
If the 6.5x55 is all you need, then you just shot your argument on the 6.5 creedmoor not being a good hunting cartridge for big game in the foot. Based on the criteria above the creedmoor out performs the x55. In South Africa an Eland (1500lbs+) antelope was brought down with a single shot at 220 yrds and a 120gmx hornady round. Taking shots past 500 yrds is risky at best no matter what the caliber.
DOUG on February 01, 2020:
the old 6.5x55 is all you need ,,,, But lets all listen to all the internet WHO AHHH