August 18, 2023
Do we need new hunting cartridges? Not exactly. Are they selling like hotcakes anyway? Absolutely. So, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s abandon our fortress of .30-06 defense. Let’s take a want—not need—perspective on these spicy new cartridges. Although they rarely offer a singular huge advantage over our old-guard hunting cartridges, each of these cutting-edge new cartridges have several small advantages. Those add up to an impressive advantage.
Before listing the best of the best new cartridge, let’s touch on just a few of those minor, but key, features owned by new rounds.
For starters, the best modern cartridges have a lot of head height. That’s the distance from the case mouth to the end of the magazine. Cutting-edge high-BC bullets are long and sleek, with super long-entry noses. Modern cartridges are optimized for the best modern bullets, and that’s where the first advantage kicks in—those super-aerodynamic projectiles aren’t compatible with classic cartridges with traditionally short head height. Not unless you handload for a custom rifle with a longer-than spec magazine.
Next advantage: These modern cartridges are all spec’d with much tighter tolerances than traditional cartridges. Back in the day, rifle and ammo makers had to engineer in generous tolerances so as to ensure that all ammo would chamber and fire reliably. (Back in the day, ammo usually had a certain level of imperfection.)
Unfortunately, large tolerances have a detrimental effect on accuracy. Modern manufacturing machines and techniques enable rifle and ammo makers to hold tighter tolerances, ensuring reliable function. Tight tolerances also ensure much better bullet-to-bore alignment. In short, because they’re made more precisely, production-grade rifles and ammo for modern cartridges are generally more accurate than the same rifles and ammo built for classic cartridges.
Now let’s consider something I call “magic chamber geometrics.” Sound like science mixed with juju? It’s not. Or maybe it is. Whatever. It works. A ballistic mastermind in Hornady’s wizard catacombs created what may be the most perfect chamber and throat design in history. It was initially brought to the mortal world in the form of the 6.5 Creedmoor. (Whether you think it’s the Needmoor or the Bleedmoor, you must admit that the Creedmoor possesses next-level accuracy.) Most other modern cartridges have followed the new pattern, including the smaller-diameter 6mm Creedmoor and all of Hornady’s PRCs.
The next advantage is balanced powder-to-bore relationship. For too many years, bullet speed was king at all costs, including barrel life, easy accuracy and shootability. This self-destructive trend is thankfully fading away, and has been replaced by cartridges that efficiently burn propellant without excessive bore erosion, action vibration, barrel oscillation, and shooter punishment. None of the great modern rounds are over the cusp and into “overbore” territory, meaning the cartridge cases don’t hold more gunpowder than can be efficiently used with their specific bore size. This greatly benefits accuracy and barrel life.
Enough expounding on the gospel of modern cartridges. Let’s take a look at a lineup of the best of the best. One thing: Please don’t tar and feather me and ride me out of cyberspace on a rail just because I left out the 6.5 Creedmoor. Read on, and I’ll explain why.
Created by necking down the 6.5 Creedmoor case to hold 6mm bullets, this cartridge gained notoriety by winning most of the top 100 spots at the PRS championships the year it was introduced.
I like the 6.5 Creedmoor—don’t get me wrong—but I like the “Six Creed” better. Why? Because it’s poison on big-bodied, distant predators and, personally, because both my daughters shot their first deer with it. It kicks less and shoots flatter than the 6.5 Creedmoor. The 110-grain bullets exit the muzzle at around 2,900 fps. It’s the cartridge the .243 Winchester always wanted to be, and as such, is absolutely the ideal crossover cartridge for varmints, predators, deer and competitive shooting.
This cartridge is the answer to all the 6.5 Creedmoor’s weaknesses. The 6.5 PRC produces 200 to 300 fps more muzzle velocity with 6.5mm projectiles, and in so doing, gains entry into the realm of honestly effective big-game hunting cartridges. This is just the gospel of cartridges according to von Benedikt, but in my opinion, with a tough, controlled-expansion bullet, the 6.5 PRC is a fully adequate elk cartridge. And it’s positively terrific for deer, antelope, wild sheep and similar-size game.
Candidly, muzzle velocity is a bit too fast for light-jacketed hunting bullets on up-close deer. I’ve seen rapid-expansion 6.5mm bullets pancake or fragment on impact and fail to penetrate. Pick a bonded-core or monometal projectile, and the 6.5 PRC will kill like a precision hammer. Personal favorites: Federal 130-grain Terminal Ascent, Barnes 127-grain LRX and Hornady 130-grain CX at 3,000 fps or more. For reaching way out, consider the Berger 140-grain VLD Hunting bullet at about 2,900 fps.
Browning and Winchester co-engineered this cartridge and it turned out to mirror 7mm Rem. Mag. ballistic and terminal performance. Big deal, you say? Keep in mind that this is out of short-action rifles delivering around 15 percent less recoil.
Also cool is the fact that 6.8mm is the same diameter as the .270 Winchester. Jack O’Connor would have liked this cartridge.
For those scoffing that it doesn’t do anything your 6.5 PRC won’t, au contraire! The 6.8 Western shoots 165- to 175-grain bullets at 2,970 and 2,830 fps, respectively—about as fast as the 6.5 PRC shoots 130 to 150s. Plus, it has more frontal diameter. It is indeed a more authoritative cartridge. In my book this is one of just two modern contenders for the title of “most versatile one-gun-for-everything western hunting cartridge.” The other comes next.
This is the cartridge no one thought deserved to live, yet it’s made the biggest splash in modern cartridge-introduction history.
I confess I, too, rolled my eyes when I heard Hornady was about to introduce a 7mm PRC. “Another 7mm,” I thought. “That’s the last thing we need.” I was wrong. So wrong. My crystal ball betrayed me completely on this one.
Assigned to cover it for various magazines, I began working with the cartridge six months before it officially launched. And became intrigued. My daughter Audrey killed the first big-game animal ever taken with the 7mm PRC—an Idaho black bear. I did the finest mile-plus shooting of my life with it—using a borrowed rifle and factory ammo. Against my will, I became a disciple.
I now firmly believe the 7mm PRC is the best 7mm magnum cartridge ever engineered. It fires best-in-class extreme-range bullets efficiently, accurately and at quite-high speeds, without excess barrel erosion. For example, 180-grain ELD Match projectiles at nearly 3,000 fps and top-notch monometal 160-grain CX bullets at 3,000 to 3,100 fps.
Recoil is tolerable, particularly with a suppressor or muzzle brake. I regularly see sub-MOA and often half-MOA turn-key accuracy from mass-produced $700 rifles and factory ammo.
There’s an inside joke amongst Hornady engineers that the 6.5 PRC and the .300 PRC are the “Little Prick” and the “Big Prick.” When the 7mm PRC was introduced, one of them told me, “Now there’s a ‘just right’ prick.” I agree. Want just one rifle to hunt and compete with? Let it be a 7mm PRC.
Sensing a PRC trend, here? No apologies; they simply are the best of the best. No, I don’t work for Hornady. The simple fact is that currently, the company is at the cutting-edge forefront of cartridge design, thanks to the groundwork laid by Dave Emery and developed fully by the corp of ballistic engineers he trained. The PRC pattern has proven to be the best in history. Study anything from ballistic tables to competition scores to market trends and you’ll arrive at the same conclusion.
The .300 PRC is the patriarchal sledgehammer of the family. Being a follower of Robert Ruark’s “Use Enough Gun” philosophy, I love this cartridge. Not surprisingly, it’s caught on powerfully amongst elk and black bear guides across Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, who often have to loan a rifle to a client in order to get the job done. It’s got reach and it’s got wallop.
Recoil is just a tad more than with the classic .300 Win. Mag., so it’s manageable by dedicated shooters. The .300 PRC is at its best with high-BC bullets of 190 grains or more. Factory ammo pushes 190-grain CX monometals at 3,000 fps, 212-grain ELD-X bullets at 2,860 fps and super-aerodynamic 225-grain ELD Match projectiles at 2,810 fps. All generate nearly 4,000 ft/lbs of energy.
If you’re not recoil sensitive, this is the most authoritative killer out of all the modern cartridges.