Is the 6.5 Creedmoor Best for Elk?
There’s No question about it. The 6.5 Creedmoor is the hottest-selling cartridge I’ve seen in my career. Suddenly, almost everybody has at least one rifle chambered in it, and those who don’t, want one. Apparently, it’s a magic cartridge: “Dead-flat to 400 yards. Knock an elk down at a half-mile.”
For sure, the 6.5 Creedmoor is an awesome little cartridge, but it does not defy the laws of physics. The 6.5 Creedmoor, with its .264-inch bullet, was designed as a long-range target cartridge because at modest velocity with low recoil, it could take advantage of the 6.5’s heavy-for-caliber bullets, and with a short case designed for accuracy, it could handle long bullets in a short bolt action. It shoots flat as 2,700 fps cartridges go—because of its aerodynamics—but in the grand scheme of hunting cartridges, it isn’t fast enough to be considered a flat-shooting cartridge.
To shoot beyond perhaps 250 yards you must know athe trajectory and start to adjust. With a good 140-grain bullet it is certainly elk-capable, but that’s not a heavy bullet for elk-sized game. At Creedmoor velocity, it’s also not generous in the energy department. Suitable for elk, sure, but not at long range. My thinking is that same 250 yards is a sensible limit. You can stretch that a bit if conditions are good, but the 6.5 Creedmoor is not a 400-yard elk cartridge. And it’s definitely not adequate at the ranges some folks are shooting today.
This is not the first time the 6.5mm has been “hot.” These things circle back around, so it’s probably not the last time. At the dawn of smokeless powder, the 6.5mm, 7mm, and 8mm were used as bullet diameters for early military cartridges. Several 6.5s from the 1890s quickly became popular sporting cartridges: the rimmed 6.5x53R, the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer, and the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. Hunters were euphoric about the brand-new smokeless-powder velocity —and the equally new penetrating qualities of jacketed bullets.
In the early years of the 20th century, hunters used early 6.5mms for all manner of extremely large beasts. Chauncey Hugh Stigand (author of Hunting the Elephant in Africa) and Denis Lyell were outspoken in support of the 6.5mm for elephant. At least two of the Kenya hunters who hosted the Roosevelt party in 1909, Leslie Tarlton and Philip Percival, swore by the 6.5x53R for lion. In North America it was used for Alaskan brown bear and grizzly.
In any country the official military cartridge usually acquires a civilian following. Thus, it isn’t surprising that Swedish moose hunters quickly gravitated to the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. This cartridge is the only early 6.5mm that retains a current following.
American factory loads for the 6.5x55 are mild. However, with Norma ammo or handloads, the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, adopted in 1894, has almost identical ballistics to today’s superstar 6.5 Creedmoor and its less glamorous ballistic twin, the .260 Remington: All propel a 140-grain bullet at about 2,700 fps. So 6.5mm performance at this level is not exactly new!
Today, almost no one would consider using any 6.5mm for big bears, lions, or elephants. In most African jurisdictions, its use on dangerous game would be illegal and, by today’s standards, foolhardy. However, thousands of moose hunters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden continue to use their 6.5x55s.
I hope most of us can agree that the 6.5s aren’t ideal for the world’s largest and most dangerous game, but if the 6.5x55 is good enough for European moose, why shouldn’t it be equally good for American elk and moose? I have readily conceded that the 6.5 Creedmoor is adequate for elk. Moose are bigger than elk but not as tough, so be my guest.
However, there are two things about early use of the 6.5s that must be understood. First, nobody used 140-grain bullets. The old standard for 6.5mm hunting bullets was 156 or 160 grains. These were usually roundnose bullets, non-expanding solids for the big stuff. Long and heavy-for-caliber, they penetrated like crazy (and still do). In expanding bullet form, it’s these heavy 6.5mm bullets that our European counterparts use for moose.
Second, nobody shot at long range. The argument about using 6.5mms and other “small bores” for dangerous game ended (in favor of larger calibers) before telescopic sights were common. European hunters have long adopted scopes, just as we have. However, in the dense forests of northern Europe, there’s little opportunity for shooting at distance. Also, most European moose are taken in organized drives, and shots are close. They are not hampered by the poor ballistics of roundnose bullets, but they want the deep penetration of the heavier bullets.
Bullet Weight & Caliber
So why not stick heavier bullets in the Creedmoor case? Two reasons. First: action length. Both the Creedmoor and .260 Remington were developed for short bolt actions. You quickly run into Cartridge Overall Length (COL) issues when you try to load extra-heavy bullets. Part of the design rationale behind Hornady’s PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge) line was to use longer actions so that long, heavy-for-caliber, and extremely aerodynamic bullets could be used. The 6.5x55 was developed when heavy bullets were standard. Its original Mauser action was (and is) plenty long enough to handle such bullets.
Of course, you could always take a standard (.30-06-length) action and rebarrel it to 6.5mm Creedmoor, solve that problem, and use heavy bullets. However, you’d bump right into the second reason: velocity. The short, efficient 6.5 Creedmoor case doesn’t have enough capacity to propel extremely heavy bullets at meaningful velocities. We crave velocity, but we don’t crave recoil. An extremely aerodynamic 140-grain 6.5mm bullet at 2,700 fps remains supersonic to about 1,200 yards. With light recoil this makes it a superb long-range target cartridge—which is the role it was designed for. However, the 6.5 Creedmoor doesn’t do anything the .260 Remington or the 6.5x55 can’t do.
It’s great fun to run a little Creedmoor out to 1,000 yards, and it’s amazing how well it holds up. My youngest daughter, Caroline, was still a teenager when she did this with a Creedmoor, the first time she’d ever shot at such distance. It gets the job done without beating you up—but that doesn’t mean it’s a long-range hunting cartridge.
Bigger Is Better?
Ultimately, the Creedmoor is at its best with a bullet of around 140 grains. In 6.5mm this is a fairly heavy-for-caliber bullet that will penetrate well on game, but it’s still 140 grains. Step up .013 inch and you have .277 inch, the bullet diameter of the .270 Winchester (and .270 WSM and Weatherby Magnum). In the .270 a 140-grain bullet is a credible and standard choice. The 140-grain 6.5mm has slightly higher Sectional Density (SD), the relationship of weight to diameter. The .270 has slightly greater frontal area, which probably transfers more energy upon impact, but .013 inch isn’t enough to fight over.
The biggest difference is velocity. The .270 Winchester develops 3,000 fps with a 140-grain bullet. Creedmoor and company cannot compete, but, of course, the .270 kicks more. Oddly, no .270 has been considered a target cartridge, so super-aerodynamic .277-inch bullets have never been developed. The Creedmoor is definitely a better long-range target cartridge than any .270, but it’s not a superior hunting cartridge at any sensible range.
Step up another .007 inch and you have .284-inch bullet diameter: the 7mm. The same 140-grain bullet weight remains popular and credible in 7mm. I happen to love mild 7mm cartridges like the old 7x57 Mauser and the more recent 7mm-08 Remington. Velocity of both cartridges with a 140-grain bullet is very similar to the 6.5 Creedmoor/.260 Remington/6.5x55. Bullet energy is about the same, as is recoil.
Of course, there are much heavier 7mm bullets, up to 175 grains is standard. Also, unlike the .270, there are heavier, longer 7mm bullets with off-the-charts Ballistic Coefficients (BC). Again, because of action length, the 7mm-08 is rarely loaded with bullets above 150 grains. The 7x57, usually mated to a standard action, made its bones with its original 173-grain FMJ military roundnose, and 175-grain bullets are still commonly loaded.
Much larger-cased cartridges exist in 7mm (as they do in 6.5mm and .270), but when you increase bullet weight, velocity, or both, then recoil goes up.
For most of the hunting I do with a 7mm-08 or 7x57—always at reasonable ranges —I’m pretty happy with how modern 140-grain hunting bullets perform, including on elk and on the general run of African plains game.
Obviously, it depends on what you want to do. On deer-sized animals it probably doesn’t matter, but I’m also convinced that, with larger game, frontal area becomes more important. The mild 6.5mms are awesome for long-range target work and much better now than ever because of fantastic bullet development. But on game—especially on larger game—they are not magic.
What’s Old Is New Again
I don’t know how long our current infatuation with the 6.5mm will last. Perhaps, forever. In the 1920s and ’30s, the .25 calibers and .270 Winchester became more popular in the United States, but the 6.5mm pretty much stayed in Europe, despite a few notable efforts. Charles Newton’s .256 Newton (a 6.5mm) had a following, and might have made it if Newton’s rifles had succeeded. They didn’t. The 6.5-06 was, and is, a fast and effective wildcat. Exactly why, in 1925, Winchester chose the unknown and oddball .277-inch bullet instead of just going with the 6.5-06 is unknown. If they had, the few cartridges using the .277-inch bullet might not exist, and the 6.5mm might have been popular all along. Who knows?
In 1958 Winchester tried hard with the .264 Winchester Magnum. It did well for a short time, but it was pretty much blown off the market by the 7mm Remington Magnum in 1962. The .264 is better than ever because of the great 6.5mm bullets we now have, but the fast 7mms are seen as more versatile. Remington tried in 1966 with the short 6.5mm Remington Magnum, actually a very good 6.5mm cartridge, but it went nowhere. Likewise, the .260 Remington, which was introduced in 1997 and based on the .308 Winchester case necked down.
Introduced in 2008, the 6.5 Creedmoor languished for several years and seemed destined to the great 6.5mm dustbin. Somehow it caught the public’s eye and suddenly became one of the most popular rifle cartridges in recent history. With its shorter case, the 6.5 Creedmoor does have the advantage of using today’s long, super-high-BC bullet in short actions. It also tends to be very accurate. However, barrels, ammo, and actions (probably in that order) are more important to rifle accuracy than case design. It is not true that the 6.5 Creedmoor is consistently more accurate than the .260 Remington or the 125-year-old 6.5x55. And, again, the ballistics of these three cartridges are essentially identical!
Speeding Things Up
The aerodynamics of the 6.5mm bullets offer real advantages for ringing steel or punching paper at long range, but for shooting game larger than deer—especially at longer ranges—I believe you need a bit more bullet weight, more velocity and energy, and, for me, more frontal area. However, if you’re enamored of the 6.5mm’s flight characteristics, the simple answer is to speed it up. You can go whole hog to the super-fast 6.5mms: the 26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum. Both propel 140-grain bullets to around 3,500 fps. You will notice the bullets get there very fast. And the great bullets we have today will perform when they get there.
However, at such velocities barrel life is reduced, and recoil and muzzle blast increase. There is a middle ground. For hunting, not necessarily long-range target shooting, around 3,000 fps is an extremely useful velocity for a 140-grain 6.5mm bullet. The 6.5-284 Norma is right there and so is the old .264 Winchester Magnum. The wildcat 6.5-06 and the almost-for-gotten 6.5mm Remington Magnum also reach about 3,000 fps with a 140-grain bullet. A 10 percent velocity increase over the 6.5 Creedmoor doesn’t sound like much, but it’s significant in flattening trajectory at normal hunting ranges. And since the formula to derive kinetic energy (foot-pounds) uses the square of velocity, energy yields are much higher. At 3,000 fps with a 140-grain bullet recoil is about the same as the .270 Winchester. In fact, performance is also about the same, but with the advantage of 6.5mm bullet aerodynamics. That’s why I still use the near-obsolete .264. The 6.5-284 Norma has a strong following. At a recent Houston Safari Club meeting, my old friend Ron Mostyn, extremely knowledgeable and experienced, waxed eloquent on his 6.5-284 for mule deer and whitetails at longer ranges.
Cartridge choices are limited, but development continues. I’m just starting to mess with an Axial Precision rifle chambered to the 6.5mm SST (Sherman Short Tactical), a 7mm RSAUM case necked down to 6.5mm. Let’s see: Short, fat, and unbelted, and it propels a 140- grain 6.5mm bullet at 3,000 fps. So far, my groups are averaging about a half-inch, so this rifle will probably see some use this fall. I am not anti-6.5mm and certainly not anti-6.5 Creedmoor and other mild 6.5mm cartridges. But for hunting I like to put round pegs into round holes, and I’m tired of the wild claims bandied about.