January 28, 2021
By David Draper
Does the world really need another new and different chambering when there are already too many options on the market? After carrying the new 6.8 Western from Browning and Winchester in the field, and spending some all-too-brief time on the range with it, the answer is yes. The 6.8 Western, a combined effort between two leading gun and ammunition manufacturers, gives hunters who hunt big game in big country, a one-gun solution for hunting nearly all North American game animals. And, long-range shooters will also find something to like in the .277-caliber chambering.
Let me start this off by telling you a little something about myself. I’m what people like to call a “late-adopter.” Rather than jump on the latest trends, I sit back and watch everyone else rack out the problems before I tip-toe into the shallow end of the pool. To give you an example: about the time everyone else was hyping the 6.5 Creedmoor as the next, best thing, I was still reaching for my trusty .25-06. I’ve since taken the 6.5 Creedmoor afield a few times and agree, it’s a great cartridge. But, it’s not a do-all round, as some marketers would have you believe.
So, when I got word Winchester and Browning were introducing a new cartridge, my eyes may have rolled a bit. But as I listened to the presentation, and started thinking what the 6.8 Western offers, my resolve, jaded by 20+ years in the hunting industry, may have cracked just a bit.
The 6.8 Western
If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends in ammunition development, you know that manufacturers and wildcatters are fond of stuffing long, heavy-for-caliber bullets into fat cases. Hornady’s 6.5 and .300 PRC are great examples of this, which is why both chamberings have gained loyal followings, particularly in the long-range shooting community. But there was still a hole in the market falling smack dab between the two, one that the 6.8 Western fills.
The 6.8 Western features a .277-caliber bullet loaded into a case that’s been optimized to fit longer, heavier bullets. Consider it a .270 on steroids, or more accurately, an improved version of the .270 Winchester Short Magnum, which never gained enough traction to make it mainstream. Currently, it’s available in three loads – Browning Long Range Pro Hunter with a 175-grain Sierra Game King bullet, and two Winchester offerings: Expedition Big Game Long Range tipped with 165-grain Accubond LR and 170-grain Ballistic Silvertip.
During the development process, the engineers pushed the shoulder back on the .270 WSM case to accommodate those long, heavy bullets. This does result in a bit less powder capacity, which tames recoil without sacrificing downrange energy too much. The marketing materials claim the 6.8 Western delivers less felt recoil than the .300 Win. Mag, .300 PRC and .300 WSM.
All this comes in a short-action package. While short-actions are generally touted for their ability to cycle the bolt faster, the real benefit in my eyes is overall reduction in rifle weight. Reduce weight in the action allows rifle makers to screw on heavier barrels, creating a mountain-worthy rifle that is still light enough for a comfortable carry, yet not whippy or shaky.
And speaking of barrels, bullets with higher ballistic coefficients typically require a higher rate of twist to stabilize the longer bullet design. To accommodate the 6.8 Western, Browning opted for a 1-in-7.5 twist in their X-Bolt offerings, while Winchester went with a 1-in-8 twist in the XPR line of rifles.
In the Field
As much as I would have liked the opportunity to really wring-out the 6.8 Western, my time with the cartridge has been a bit short-lived. Ammo shortages and a limited run of pre-production rifles meant I only had a few rounds to send downrange before taking the rifle hunting. The rifle in question was Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter – a gun I’ve since come to covet and have already added to my 2021 Christmas list. The X-Bolt was topped with Leupold VX-6HD 3-18 that had been fitted with a custom CDS dial, which in my experience turns a well-shot bullet into something akin to a guided laser. In other words, it’s hard to miss.
My ammo of choice was Browning’s Long Range Pro offering, which is advertised to deliver a muzzle velocity of 2,835. That’s fast, but not blisteringly so. Unlike some of the magnum 6.5s, don’t expect the 6.8 Western to burn out your barrel anytime soon. That speedy, yet tame muzzle velocity also contributes to the manageable recoil, while somehow maintaining enough downrange energy to effectively take down all but the most dangerous of North American big-game animals.
My first shots with the 6.8 Western were at steel plates ranging from 100 to 500 yards. After confirming zero, I worked my way out at 100-yard intervals, turning the Leupold’s CDS dial to the desired range and pulling the X-Bolt’s trigger. Each shot was rewarded with a satisfying ping and, in the case of the longer ranges, a sight picture of the steel swinging. The recoil, while noticeable, was manageable enough that I was able to get back on the scope quicker. Shooting prone, off both bags and my pack, the recoil was akin to a .30-06 or 7mm mag. It might bump you off the scope a bit, but not so much that it makes follow-up target acquisition difficult.
After shooting through a box of ammo on the range it was time to see what the 6.8 Western could do to a big, Nebraska mule deer. It took a while to find a buck worthy of the 6.8 Western, but finally on the second day of the hunt, right at last light, we caught a mature buck lured out of thick cover by a hot doe. I was able to get prone on my pack, and when my guide, Ryan Livingston of Prairie Rock Outfitters, called out the range of 356 yards, I dialed the Leupold in, took a deep breath and gradually pulled until the trigger broke.
While I didn’t get back on the scope quick enough to see the impact, I did catch the buck in the middle of a hard kick that signified a good hit. He bolted over a ridge, eliminating any chance of a follow-up. Turns out it wasn’t needed as the deer didn’t run 50 yards, dumping blood the whole way. We found him piled up in a yucca, shot through the heart and lungs.
Can you kill a big-bodied mule deer with a smaller caliber? Sure. I’ve done it, even taking a nice Wyoming buck last season with a 107-grain ELD-X shot out of a 6mm Creedmoor. But, I am of the opinion that bigger is always better, up to a point. For most western hunting, I’ve long thought the .300 Win. Mag. is the ultimate big-game cartridge, capable of killing most animals I find myself hunting. In many rifles, the recoil is tolerable, but not exactly pleasant. And definitely a hard kicker in many of the lighter rifles being made today.
Now that I’ve had a chance to hunt with the 6.8 Western, I’ve jumped on the bandwagon, as much as I hate to admit it. There’s nothing about the cartridge I don’t like, with the exception of maybe the Sierra GameKing loading, which hasn’t ever been my favorite bullet. Still, with the option of the Accubond in a Winchester loaded cartridge, and a bright future that will likely increase the available bullet options, I’m comfortable saying the 6.8 Western from Winchester and Browning might be the ultimate cartridge for hunting deer, elk, moose, black bears and other big-game animals anywhere west of the 100th Meridian.
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