November 13, 2023
Imagine you’re sitting in Wyoming’s high country, glassing from the lip of a jagged cliff overhanging an alpine basin. Rutting elk move across a meadow 800 yards below, the deep, raspy bugle of the attending bull sounding bigger than his 5x5 antlers. You have an elk tag in your pocket, but aren’t interested in a semi-mature bull. You’re sweeping the slopes with your binocular in hopes of finding one of the giant mule deer Wyoming is famous for.
When a buck wavers into your field of view, it’s so unexpected and he’s so incredibly wide and heavy that you twitch and drop your granola bar into the brush below. The deer isn’t the gnarly non-typical buck you’ve pictured in your mind, but he’s deep-forked and boxy and wide and the mass is mind-blowing. Your brain short-circuits briefly; then you instinctively press the range button on your high-tech binocular. The display reads 580 yards, at a steep angle. A difficult shot, but not an impossible one. In fact, it’s a shot you’ve spent half your life practicing for.
Let’s put this story on pause, long enough to pose a crucial question: What cartridge do you want in this situation?
The past decade has seen the introduction of the best long-range precision hunting cartridges ever designed. There are far too many suitable options to discuss them all here, so my editors asked me to narrow it down. Included are three modern cartridges with adequate authority for deer and elk. All three push highly aerodynamic, heavy-for-caliber bullets. Two of the three are particularly easy to shoot well, thanks to moderate recoil. None are what the uninformed may call “overkill.” (There’s no such thing; you can’t kill something too dead!)
In chronological order, they are the 28 Nosler, the 6.8 Western, and the 7mm PRC. My assignment for this column is to toss them into the Coliseum together and see which comes out alive.
To do this, we need to establish criterion by which they’ll be judged. Let’s go with ballistic performance, terminal impact potential, inherent accuracy, efficiency and barrel life, and amount of recoil.
Those are pure cartridge characteristics. For subjective good measure, we’ll also throw in comments on ammo and rifle availability, as well as consult our admittedly murky crystal ball on the future of each cartridge.
We’ll start with this one, because of these three modern ballistic marvels, it was born first. As such, it’s also sort of the monument of performance the others are assaulting.
Introduced in 2015, the 28 Nosler pushes heavy, high-BC bullets fast. Real fast. Light-ish 140-grain 7mm bullets can achieve 3,500 fps. Mid-weight 160-grain pills go 3,250 fps. Most usefully, heavy 175- to 180-grain projectiles can be pushed between 3,150 and 3,200 fps. These numbers are from a 26-inch barrel.
Assuming those bullets are of aerodynamic design, incredibly flat trajectories result, combined with lots of retained on-impact energy way out there. A 175-grain bullet exiting the muzzle at 3,200 fps carries 3,980 ft/lbs of kinetic energy. In this category, the 28 Nosler outclasses the others.
What are the downsides? Like a muscle car equipped with nitrous, the downsides are significant. The cartridge capacity is very overbored for the bullet diameter, resulting in considerable action/barrel vibration and oscillation. As a result, rifles chambered in 28 Nosler are often finicky and difficult to tune for accuracy.
Less tangibly, but perhaps more importantly, barrels burn out quickly, most showing significant wear by the 80-round mark and many losing accuracy by the 300-round mark.
Lastly, and probably most significantly to shooters, recoil is rather savage. An eight-pound rifle, loaded with that 175-grain bullet going 3,200 fps at the muzzle, slams into the shooter’s shoulder with nearly 40 ft/lbs of recoil energy. That’s as much as some dangerous-game big-bore cartridges—and unlike the slow, shove-like push applied by most big-bores, the 28 Nosler’s recoil impulse is shockingly fast and sharp.
Launched in 2021, during the upheaval caused by the COVID scare, the 6.8 Western is a short-action .270-caliber magnum done right. It’s got a fast-twist barrel and utilizes heavy-for-caliber, high-BC bullets. Ballistics more or less mirror the legendary 7mm Rem. Mag., with about 15 percent less recoil—and the 6.8 Western fits into proper short-action rifles.
In the 6.8 chambering, traditional-weight 130- to 150-grain .270 bullets go fast, approximately 3,250 fps and 3,000 fps respectively. This outclasses the fine old .270 Winchester, but that performance isn’t what the 6.8 Western was really built for. This new cartridge pushes 175-grain bullets at about 2,835 fps in 24-inch barrels. Interestingly, that’s about the same velocity achieved by 150-grain bullets in the old classic .270 Winchester.
Muzzle energy with that 175-grain bullet (for an apples-to-apples comparison) is about 3,125 ft/lbs. That’s nearly 25 percent less than the 28 Nosler produces.
What are the downsides? That, my friends, is it: Less impact energy than the other two cartridges the 6.8 Western is pitted against here. But need I point out that 3,000-plus ft/lbs of energy is still a lot?
Recoil, at about 25 ft/lbs, is downright mild; 38 percent less than the 28 Nosler and 16 percent less than the 7mm PRC. Barrel life is admirable and the cartridge is superbly accurate—both thanks to the well-balanced, efficient powder-to-bore capacity ratio of the cartridge.
This is the newest kid on the block, and yet already the clear favorite. It combines the best attributes of both the others.
Announced in the fall of 2022, this cartridge was brewed purely for accurate, potent, long-range capability. As such, it’s spec’d with a fast-twist 1:8 barrel and a relatively short body but lots of “head height” room for long, sleek bullets sticking out of the case mouth.
Case capacity is optimized for an ideal powder burn-rate balance for 7mm magnum bullets, as well as clean, efficient, consistent-burning characteristics. The chamber throat is endowed with the accuracy-enhancing tight tolerances and geometry that makes its ancestral 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5 PRC so inherently accurate.
Of great importance, particularly to modern shooters with a full understanding of the value of cartridge and projectile balance and efficiency, the 7mm PRC exemplifies those characteristics perfectly. Statistically and subjectively, it is the best of all the modern long-range factory-loaded cartridges.
In my experience, this cartridge is naturally accurate and easy to handload for accuracy. It’s also great with short barrels, making it an excellent choice for pairing with a suppressor in, say, a 20-inch barrel.
Although the 7mm PRC will comfortably push any and all 7mm bullets, it’s best with heavy, super-aerodynamic projectiles in that 160- to 180-grain range.
Sticking with the 175s for consistency in comparison, let’s look at some numbers: In 24-inch barrels, the 7mm PRC pushes 175-grain bullets about 3,000 fps. That’s only six percent less than the 28 Nosler—and remember, that’s with two inches less barrel length.
This velocity of 3,000 fps generates right at 3,500 ft/lbs of kinetic energy at the muzzle. That’s about halfway between the 6.8 Western and the 28 Nosler. Recoil energy is right around 30 ft/lbs, which calculates out to 25 percent less than the 28 Nosler.
Me, I’ll take 25 percent less recoil along with just 6 percent less velocity any day.
Ok folks, here’s the subjective part. I’ll try and keep it numbers-based and well-grounded in experience.
All three cartridges kill, and kill profoundly well as long as you pick a suitable bullet for the game you hunt. I’ve taken a lot of game in Alaska and multiple states in the Lower 48 with the 6.8 Western. It’s a terrific all-around cartridge for a variety of western big game. I’ve hunted with the 28 Nosler in Africa and America, with stellar results. Same with the 7mm PRC, plus my little girl was the first person to ever take a game animal with that cartridge (a 5.5-foot Idaho public-land black bear, which she absolutely clobbered from 301 yards). That makes it pretty special to me. Plus, with the 7mm PRC, I’ve made the most consistent mile-plus hits on targets of any cartridge I’ve ever used.
Before the 6.8 Western and 7mm PRC were born, I figured the 28 Nosler was the best thing going for extreme-range hunters. Now, I realize it was a bit too much of a good thing. Examination of simple recoil versus velocity and resulting energy shows how drastic the point of diminishing returns is when stepping from the short-action 6.8 Western and the efficient, balanced 7mm PRC up to the hot-rod 28 Nosler.
Now for that crystal ball: My forecast is that the 7mm PRC will slowly strangle the 28 Nosler. It has already emerged as the cartridge of choice for long-range shooters and hunters that want to ethically extend their lethal range.
As for the 6.8 Western, my prognosis is a bit hazier, but I believe it’s here to stay as well. It combines outstanding ballistic and terminal capability that very friendly to the shooter. It is inherently accurate. And for those that care, it’s a short-action cartridge that can be housed in a lovely, lively mountain rifle.
Back to the scenario at the beginning. It matters little which of these three cartridges your precision hunting rifle is chambered for; all are capable. Now, it’s a matter of skill, and you can’t buy that. All the obsessive rifle, load and scope tuning and the extensive in-the-field practice you’ve done are about to pay off. It’s time to get behind your rifle and close the deal on that big high-country mule deer.