June 05, 2023
In 1925, the .270 Winchester was the fastest and flattest-shooting cartridge, with mild recoil. We attribute the .270’s popularity to Jack O’Connor’s writing. There’s truth in this, but 20 years would pass before Professor O’Connor adopted it and made it his. Plenty of hunters had already discovered that the .270 shot flat, kicked little and hit hard.
As O’Connor taught us, the .270 is near-perfect for the sheep he loved to hunt. It’s equally perfect for all open-country deer hunting. Many Westerners swear by it for elk, while others damn it as too light. O’Connor had no qualms about using it for elk. He also used his .270 for grizzly. His .270s went to Africa, but not as the only rifle. O’Connor never suggested that a .270 was ideal for big bears, nor for African game.
Privately O’Connor conceded the .30-06 was more versatile, and described the .30-06 as ideal for African plains game. He disparaged the 7mm Rem. Mag. as not being able to do anything his .270 couldn’t do, but (according to a letter I have) in 1964 he owned one, along with two .300 Weatherby Magnums and three .30-06s. I can’t imagine he thought of them as completely useless.
I’ve hunted elk and much African game with .270s and encountered no problems. However, I believe that bullet weight matters on larger game. There’s no way a .270 with 130- to 150-grain slugs stacks up against a 7mm carrying 160 to 175 grains, or against a .30 caliber with 165 to 200 grainers. It seems simple. With today’s technology, why didn’t someone just develop heavier .277-inch bullets? They couldn’t because their hands were tied. Since 1925, the .270 Win. has been standard with 1:10 rifling twist. This twist cannot stabilize a .277 bullet heavier than 150-grains. The .270 Wby. Mag. and .270 WSM add velocity and energy—I can see increased impact on game—but they also are standard with 1:10 twists.
Thanks to interest in long-range shooting, current development is toward longer, heavier-for-caliber, low-drag projectiles. The .270 has been left out in the cold. For stabilization, it isn’t so much weight as length and bearing surface; a 150-grain spitzer is about it. Rebarreling to a faster twist is an option, but our (three) .270-chambered cartridges are pretty good rifles. I’ll think about it when a barrel is shot out. Right now, I’m not interested. In 2020, Nosler released the standard-length, unbelted, 27 Nosler, with heavy bullets. A year later, Winchester followed with the 6.8 Western designed to accommodate those bullets in a short action, specified with a 1:8 twist. Chambered in Browning and Winchester bolt-actions, initial factory loads run from a 162-grain copper alloy bullet to 175-grain projectiles.
A NEW FACE FOR .270
Some of us love .270s; others prefer 7mms (.284). I like ‘em both, and have long believed the .007-inch difference in diameter isn’t worth arguing about. However, I also concede that a 150-grain .270 cannot compete with heavier 7mm bullets. Provided you want the heavier bullet. And on larger game, I want heavier bullets (whether I really need them or not).
There are no absolutes when talking about how much gun or bullet is enough. Ideal shot placement combined with good bullet performance can cover inadequacy ( for years). Catch one failure, and we instantly blame the rifle, cartridge or bullet. However, I’ve always thought the .270’s bullets were on the light side for larger game. I feel the same way about the 6.5mms which, with modern loads, are similarly limited in bullet weight. Most of my life, I’ve forestalled potential problems (real or imagined) by using calibers and cartridges with heavier bullets: 160 and up in various 7mms; 180 and up in various .30s.
The 6.8 Western offers heavier bullets than have ever existed in .277 diameter. And propels them at meaningful velocity. It is based on the .270 WSM case, shortened to enable the long bullets in a short action. This makes it a stubby and efficient little fireplug. Over my chronograph, in a 24-inch barrel, Winchester’s 162-grain Copper Extreme Point clocked just shy of 3,000 fps. The 175-grain Sierra Long Range Pro load ran just under 2,900. The 7mm Rem. Mag. runs a bit faster, but these velocities are similar to the 7mm WSM.
So, for the first-time, we have 6.8mm (.277) cartridges that can compete head-to-head with 7mms. I don’t go ga-ga over every new cartridge, but the 6.8 Western—and its bullets—fascinated me. All my life I’ve had concerns over .270 bullet weight, and now there’s an answer. As soon the world opened back up, I got my hands on a 6.8 Western and took it to Africa.
Built by Trop Gun in Pennsylvania, the rifle is based on a Legendary Arms M704 action, in a Woox chassis with walnut stock and forend. At 8.5 pounds with scope, the rifle was heavy but, after all, Africa isn’t sheep hunting and the weight made it pleasant to shoot. Good thing, and something you should know: The 6.8 Western doesn’t kick like a .270 Win. More like a 7mm magnum, which it’s really more similar to.
A 6.8 WESTERN SAFARI
The extra power the 6.8 Western delivers makes sense in Africa. It isn’t that African game is tougher; some species are hardy, others are not. Rather, the variety: Small to large, near to far. You leave camp with a certain animal in mind, but you don’t know what you might run into. Versatility is the watchword: Powerful enough for the largest animal you might wish to take; accurate enough for a precise shot on a small, spooky antelope and flat-shooting enough to reach out across a wide-open plain. Dozens of cartridges fill the bill nicely. With a .270 Win. or a fast 6.5 like the PRC, I’ve always felt I was pushing my luck. With heavy bullets in a fast 7mm, or 180-grainers in a .30, I feel ready for anything short of buffalo. I felt this way with the 6.8 Western, and it came through.
These days ammo is a problem, but I managed to obtain several different loads—and found consistently good accuracy with all. The load I settled on was Winchester’s 162-grain Copper Impact, simply because it grouped the best in this rifle, though not by much. This was the lightest bullet, but I figured its homogenous-alloy construction would provide deep penetration. Boy, did it ever. Almost too deep because I never managed to recover one. All bullets exited and, to my knowledge, are still whizzing around in orbit.
I was hunting with Frederick Burchell at his family’s Frontier Safaris in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It’s big country that varies hugely from one vista to the next. I’ve been there several times. It’s a great place. There wasn’t any animal in particular I was looking for—just enjoying the country and interested to see how the 6.8 Western performed. The simple answer: Just like I thought it would. Impact was usually pronounced, and penetration was deep and straight-line. Exit wounds showed expansion, but not dramatic trauma, which I don’t expect from a homogenousalloy bullet. The petals peel back—but only so far—and the bullet does its work and keeps boring through.
We spent much of our time looking for an extra-good kudu, passed a bunch, but never quite found what we were looking for. Honestly I couldn’t have cared less; it was just good to be out. Along the way, we took eight animals. Several were culls, and others were outstanding. The most difficult shot was on an ancient hartebeest. He and another male were chasing cows along a brushy ridge a couple hundred yards above us, running back and forth like a shooting gallery. I was trying to get onto the correct bull, hoping he’d stop for a second. Finally, he did, just for an instant—the 6.8 pasted him. He took two downhill jumps and went down.
You never know what Africa might throw at you. We were stalking a big waterbuck bull, and then a gorgeous nyala stood up on the ridge above him, both about 300 yards. Now what? I shot the waterbuck and saw him go down hard. The nyala was still there, 50 yards above him. So, with Fred’s go-ahead, I swung on him. Weirdest “mixed double” in my life.
On the last day, a real double. I wanted an ostrich skin for boots, and the darned things were everywhere. Have you ever tried to catch an ostrich standing still? Best eyes in Africa and bad paranoia. Worse, have you tried to hit one running? Almost at sunset, a flock of black-and-white males were running up the far ridge straight away. The first one went down hard. Fred said, “Shoot another.” Damn! This one was angling steeply, past 350 yards. Sometimes you get lucky. Especially if you’re carrying a good rifle.