December 26, 2023
The .260 Remington was standardized in 1997 and the premier gun writers of that era like Jim Carmichael, who also happened to be a world-record benchrest shooter, heaped more and more praise on the round with each passing day. But even that wasn’t enough to turn the .260 Rem. into a superstar. Sales were steady but disappointing, and the .260 Rem. never threatened the popularity of the .270, .30-06, .308, or 7mm Rem. Mag. Experts chalked it up to the American shooter’s stubborn refusal to warm up to any of the 6.5mm cartridges. If rounds like the .264 Win. Mag. and the .260 Rem. couldn’t win over American shooters, what chance did a 6.5 have in the States?
Ten years after the .260 Rem. arrived and the American 6.5 was declared dead, the engineering team at Hornady decided to challenge the notion that rifles firing .264-inch rounds don’t sell well domestically. The cartridge they launched in 1997—the 6.5 Creedmoor—wouldn’t just sell well, it would break records and outpace favorites such as the .270. The Creedmoor wasn’t an immediate success, but a decade after it was released there wasn’t a major bolt-action rifle manufacturer that wasn’t chambering their guns for the cartridge. Once the Creedmoor caught fire, other 6.5 rounds emerged including the 6.5 PRC, which is another Hornady creation, Weatherby’s 6.5-300 and 6.5 RPM, and Nosler’s 26.
The 6.5’s dramatic reversal of fortune is less about bullet diameter and more about bullet and cartridge design. With its short, efficient case and long, heavy-for-caliber bullets the Creedmoor looked different. Simultaneously, interest in long-range shooting and hunting were growing, and a new generation of shooters were pushing the boundaries of maximum effective range.
The 6.5 Creedmoor was a very good cartridge released at just the right time, but it would never have gotten the attention it deserves if it weren’t for that increased awareness—borne by the long-range shooting movement—of how heavy, high-BC bullets perform at distance. The Creedmoor, and the 6.5 and .300 PRCs and 6.8 Western that followed, among others, are popular today because they simply outperform older loads.
“One of the major improvements of the modern high-performance cartridges like 6.5 CM, 6.5 PRC, and .300 PRC is due to the cartridge and chamber design,” said Jayden Quinlan, Hornady ballistician. “Most legacy chamberings that are decades old were designed around bullets of the time, mainly traditional hunting projectiles. The modern cartridges are built to utilize these legacy bullets, as well as the latest projectile designs.”
Bullets with high BCs are, of course, much more efficient at long range than bullets with lower BCs. But how dramatic is the difference? Hornady’s .308 Win. Precision Hunter ELD-X load, with a G1 ballistic coefficient of .552 and a muzzle velocity of 2,600 feet-per-second, generates about 350 more foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle than the company’s 6.5 Creedmoor Precision Hunter load firing a 143-grain ELD-X bullet (G1 BC of .625) at 2,700. By 500 yards the Creedmoor has closed the gap to just 80 foot-pounds of energy, but the Creedmoor drifts about 3.5-inches less than the .308, which could be substantial to a hunter.
Even more dramatic is the disparity between the 6.5 PRC and the .30-06. At the muzzle the ’06 ELD-X load carries about 200 more foot-pounds of energy than the 6.5 PRC ELD-X, but by 500 yards the PRC carries almost 50 more foot-pounds of energy than the ’06, and the PRC drifts 3.5-inches less in a 10 mile-per-hour crosswind at that distance. Believe it or not, the 6.5 PRC passes the .375 H&H in terms of kinetic energy somewhere between 200 and 300 yards. The 6.8 Western cartridge from Winchester and Browning, which uses a high-BC, .277-inch bullet, carries 100 more foot-pounds of energy at 500 yards than a .300 Win. Mag. while producing far less recoil.
Today’s cartridges, then, are designed with efficient cases based around the use of high-BC bullets. But there’s more to what makes this new breed of cartridges so accurate: chamber design. More precise chamber dimensions result in improved consistency, and improved consistency leads to better accuracy.
“Specific dimensions are incorporated in these modern chambers that have proven to be critical when seeking consistency in velocity, pressure, and accuracy across a broad range of bullet types,” said Quinlan. “In simple terms, we know a lot more today about how to squeeze out every ounce of performance from a cartridge and chamber design standpoint compared to cartridges designed decades ago.”
FAST IS STILL IN FASHION
This doesn’t mean all long-range hunters have switched to cartridges utilizing ultra-high-BC bullets, though. Perhaps the most obvious family of fast-still-works cartridges to hit the market in recent years are the Noslers. With a lineage that traces back to the nonbelted .404 Jeffery, the 26, 27, 28, 30, and 33 Noslers will do downright impressive things with conventional-weight bullets. 28 Nosler factory ammo loaded with 160-grain .284-inch Accubonds at 3,300 feet per second shoots laser flat: zero it at 200 yards and this bullet drops just over five-inches at 300 yards. This load packs a wallop even at extended ranges, carrying nearly 2,100 foot-pounds of energy at 500 yards. Those are impressive numbers, so it’s not surprising that a handful of custom rifle builders, when asked about the most popular chamberings for last year, all mentioned the 28 Nosler.
The 28 Nosler, the .300 RUM., and the .30-378 Weatherby Mag. remain popular options for hunters, not because they’ve become the darlings of the target-shooting world but because they all burn a lot of powder and push conventional-weight bullets very, very fast. None of these cartridges are as pleasant to shoot as the 6.5 Creedmoor or 6.5 PRC, and all of them will burn barrels faster than their modern high-BC/lower-velocity counterparts, but fast is still in fashion—and fast rounds can be quite effective.
DOES IT MATTER?
One complaint that’s often levied against modern hunting bullets and cartridges is that they “won’t do anything my (fill in the blank with the legacy cartridge of choice) won’t do.” True, at ranges out to a couple hundred yards you won’t notice a major discrepancy in terminal performance between a 6.5 PRC or a 6.8 Western and your tried-and-true .308. But if you’re serious about shooting game at twice that distance, the .308 is at a notable ballistic disadvantage. Accurate, wind-bucking cartridges make sense when hunting at extended ranges because any human error will be compounded as distance increases. Should you accidentally range an object 50 yards behind your target or make an inaccurate wind call a high-BC bullet will be more forgiving than a less aerodynamic bullet. Long-range hunting can be challenging, but the goal should always be to quickly dispatch the animal and that begins with cartridge and bullet choice.
SO, WHAT BULLETS ARE BEST?
Long-range hunting demands a projectile that is accurate, aerodynamic, and performs at a wide variety of ranges and velocities. Here’s our pick for the six best long-range hunting bullets.
BERGER HYBRID HUNTER
Combining elements of both a tangent and secant ogive, the Hybrid Hunter bullet is extremely accurate and carries energy well even at extended distances thanks to its low-drag design. The thin jacket is designed to expand rapidly and shed a majority of their weight after entering the body cavity, creating a tremendous wound channel. They will also expand reliably at lower velocities.
FEDERAL TERMINAL ASCENT
This design traces its lineage back to Jack Carter’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw design, which Federal began using in the early 1990s. A lot has changed since then, and the new Terminal Ascent bullet combines rugged bonded construction with a low-drag profile. The Slipstream polymer tip initiates expansion at velocities below 1,500 feet per second, Federal says, and that makes this a versatile and effective all-range projectile.
Hornady’s Extremely Low Drag-eXpanding (ELD-X) bullet has set the standard for long-range performance. This bullet’s boat-tail profile offers class-leading BCs and the Heat Shield polymer tip results in consistent performance. The AMP copper jacket is extremely consistent, and that provides match-level accuracy from this hunting bullet. At high velocities and close range expect 50-60% weight retention, but the Heat Shield tip effectively initiates expansion at lower velocities and long ranges.
The Bondstrike makes a compelling case for being the best all-around hunting bullet since it combines a sleek, high-BC profile with a boat-tail and polymer tip with bonded-core technology. The jacket is thin at the nose of the bullet, allowing the polymer tip to initiate expansion at long range and low velocities. At higher velocities/closer ranges, the bonded design produces consistent, reliable results even on large, tough game. That’s the type of versatility we all want from our big-game bullet.
NOSLER ACCUBOND LR
The original Accubond was ahead of its time by offering a low-drag design coupled with consistent up-close performance on tough game. The new LR, or Long Range Accubond bullet, offers higher BCs than the traditional design, but still offers that same sleek boat-tail design combined with a bonded core. For long-range target shooting or hunting big game at extended distances the Accubond LR is one of your best options.
SWIFT SCIROCCO II
These bullets feature a tapered jacket that thickens at the base, an aerodynamic profile, and their signature black polymer tip. Sure, the Swift Scirocco II is great at long range, but it’s also a versatile hunting round for all distances. At a velocity of 3,325, Swift says you can expect roughly two-and-a-halftimes expansion and about 80% weight retention from the .30-caliber, 180-grain Scirocco II.