January 27, 2023
By Craig Boddington
A frequent question goes like this: “I’m in the market for a new rifle, mostly for deer, maybe for elk. I’m not a long-range shooter, and I don’t like magnum recoil. I was thinking about a 6.5 Creedmoor. What do you think?” First, elk are not deer. The outsize bull we hope to encounter is four times the size of most bucks, but that doesn’t mean we need four times more power. Most of us today are overgunned for deer, which isn’t terrible, but elk are big and tough and require more, whether measured in foot-pounds, bullet weight, or both. Sorry, but you can’t get either without more recoil.
Back to the question. Many of us, me included, already have a 6.5 Creedmoor. While it started out slow, the Creedmoor has become the biggest runaway best-seller in cartridge history. It was designed to be a great long-range target cartridge, and it is a wonderful deer cartridge to considerable distance. It is not an “elk cartridge,” though. It is elk-capable, yes, but it lacks bullet weight and energy for elk-size game at distance. Back to the question and my standard answer: “Sir, have you considered a .270 Win.?” Probably not. Doesn’t have the sizzle, right? The .270’s sizzle died with Jack O’Connor on January 20, 1978.
I had a .270 Win. a decade before Professor O’Connor passed, and I shot my first black bear and first whitetails with it. It’s an awesome cartridge, as the Professor taught us. However, as a wannabe gun writer, I had a problem. There was nothing to be said about the .270 Win. that O’Connor hadn’t already told us, so I avoided working with “Jack’s cartridge” for years. I learned to shoot in the 1960s, a child of the first magnum craze, and I was a magnum maniac clear into the 1980s. It wasn’t the .270 that showed me the error of my ways. It was the .270’s daddy, the .30-06. It got the job done with less blast and recoil than my 7mm Rem. Mags. and .300 Win. Mags. It shot surprisingly flat, too—especially in those innocent, pre-rangefinder days.
I became a staunch .30-06 guy. Unbeatable for African plains game, dramatically effective on elk. The .30-06 lost most of its sizzle when Col. Townsend Whelen left us in 1961. What’s not so well known is O’Connor was also a lifelong .30-06 fan and considered it more versatile than his beloved .270. As designed 99 years ago, the .270 Win. shoots flatter than the .30-06, with versatile hunting applications. It has less recoil—if we make a fair comparison. With near-identical case capacity, the velocity of the 150-grain .30-06 load is about the same as the 150-grain .270. Recoil of the two will also be about the same.
So in order to realize the .270’s lesser recoil, we must compare lighter .270 bullets against heavier .30 caliber bullets. Then the difference becomes noticeable, but gun weight matters. My wife’s pet MG Arms .270 weighs 5.7 pounds. It’s wonderful for her to carry, but that little gun bounces hard. My .270s are a couple of pounds heavier and are easier to shoot, but Donna shoots her rifle well and has taken three of North America’s sheep with Hornady’s 130-grain American Whitetail load. Exactly what Winchester’s engineers were thinking in 1925 when they necked down the .30-06 case to create the .270 Win. isn’t clear. Why the .277 bullet diameter? The 1920s cartridge landscape gives us some clues.
In 1915, Charles Newton’s .250-3000 (.250 Savage) was the first cartridge to hit 3,000 fps. A decade later, the .270 Win. was the second. The .25-06 was wildcatted in the early 1920s. Maybe Winchester considered a .25, but the .250 Savage was serious competition, and leadership might have been hesitant to use Arthur Savage’s bullet diameter. Also, with propellants of the day, the .25-06 was seriously over-bore. Hmm, why not a 7mm? The 7x57 was fairly popular and widely respected in 1920s America. A second 7mm choice could’ve been even more interesting. The U.S. military considered replacing the .30-06 because it kicked hard and had some design issues when it came to the semiautomatic, an action just coming into vogue. One candidate was the .276 Pedersen, which was developed in 1923 and used a 7mm/.284-inch bullet.
Winchester surely knew about the .276 Pedersen when it introduced the .270 in the Model 54, a Mauser-clone bolt action. And it definitely knew about the 7x57, since the Model 54 was also chambered to that cartridge. For whatever reason, the company settled on the .277/6.8mm diameter, and it worked. The initial loading was a 130-grain bullet at 3,140 fps, later downgraded to 3,060 fps. It was fast in its day, and it’s not so slow today. Later factory loads included a 100-grain varmint load at a screaming 3,480 fps and a 150-grain bullet at a credible 2,850 fps. The 140-grain load is more recent, but it’s not new. Factory 140-grain loads run 2,925 fps, and with careful hand-loading you can maybe get 3,000 fps. This is about the maximum downrange performance that can be wrung out of a .270 Win., and it’s considerable.
Let’s make a brief comparison with the .30-06. Most common .30-06 bullet weights today are 150, 165 and 180 grains. I think of 150 grains as the deer bullet, 180 grains is the elk bullet, and 165 grains is the compromise. In .270, the 130-grain load is the most popular and most commonly used for deer-size game, which includes sheep and goats. The 150-grain .270 is our primary elk medicine. Even Elmer Keith, who hated the .270 because he hated O’Connor, grudgingly conceded that with a 150-grain Partition—the only premium hunting bullet that existed in Elmer’s day—the .270 was adequate for elk.
Yes, it is. The longest shot I’ve made on an elk was at just over 400 yards on a snowy hillside with a Dakota .270 and a 150-grain Partition. I knew the hold and got it right. The bull took one step forward, then went over backwards. We have much better hunting bullets today than in O’Connor’s and Keith’s day, and I have taken elk with 130-grain bullets in the .270. Still, the 130-grain bullets are better choices for deer-size game. Like the 165-grain .30 caliber, the 140-grain bullets are a good compromise in the .270. Today, there are other weights as well. Sierra has a 135-grain hollowpoint boattail. Federal’s Terminal Ascent .270 load is 136 grains, and Hornady has a 145-grain ELD-X. We have plenty of .277 bullet weights and styles to pick from, choices depending on what you and your rifle prefer.
An American Phenomenon
The .277 diameter is an American phenomenon and almost always considered a hunting caliber—never target and rarely military. Three exceptions to the latter are: Remington’s 6.8 SPC, which was designed for the AR-15 platform; an obscure 6.8x57mm Mauser, believed to have been proposed to China but never produced; and the new 6.8x51 Common developed for the military’s Next Generation Squad Weapon. All other “.270s” are considered hunting cartridges, and they are few. Developed in 1945, the .270 Wby. Mag. was Roy Weatherby’s first commercial release. In 2002, Winchester introduced the .270 Win. Short Mag. Both are considerably faster than the .270 Win. and deliver more energy, and I’ve used both quite a bit. Today, heavier bullets and faster twists are in. The .27 Nosler and 6.8 Western feature faster twists and heavier bullets. I haven’t used a .27 Nosler, but I am using a 6.8 Western with 162- and 175-grain .277 bullets in a 1:8-twist barrel. Impressive, with performance much like a 7mm magnum.
With the .270 Win., there’s no point is discussing bullets heavier than 150 grains. In 1925, the long, heavy, “low drag” bullets we have today were unknown. I suspect designers wanted speed, thus limiting bullet weight. Winchester started the .270 with a 1:10 rifling twist and has never changed. Likewise, the .270 Wby. and .270 WSM are standard with the 1:10 twist. In a .270 bore, 1:10 is just able to stabilize a 150-grain bullet, which is why we don’t have .270 bullets like a 150-grain ELD-X or Terminal Ascent. Unlike traditional bullets, they’re just too long for the standard twist.
Can you rebarrel to a faster twist? Sure, but I don’t plan to. To me, the .270 Win. can do everything I want it to do, and I’d rather not jeopardize (possibly) the ability of my .270s to shoot the 130-grain bullet as accurately as they do with their current barrels. Critics of the .270 point out the advantage the 7mm offers with standard bullets up to 175 grains. Point conceded. The 7x57 originally had a 1:8.66-inch twist, which will stabilize even the longest 7mm bullets, which now go up to 195 grains.
Oddly, when Remington introduced the .280 in 1957, it used a 1:10 twist, which struggles for accuracy with some 175-grain bullets. Five years later, the company put a 1:9.25-inch twist in the 7mm Rem. Mag., which was later changed to 1:9. These will stabilize 175-grain bullets, maybe 180 grains, but they will not stabilize 195-grain bullets. Any way you look at it, existing .270s cannot compete with 7mm bullets above 150 grains. So I accept that my .270s—and most of yours—are limited to 150-grain bullets. Doesn’t much matter to me. That 400-yard elk was taken just before I left for the Persian Gulf in 2002. I think it’s the last 150-grain .270 bullet I’ve fired. I usually use the faster, lighter slugs.
There’s a longstanding question about .270 accuracy. Gun writer and friend Dave Petzal, whom I respect immensely, wrote that the .270 wasn’t especially accurate. Probably not—at least in terms of match-winning accuracy, mostly because target .277 bullets are rare. Hunting bullets rarely compete with match bullets, so it’s not a fair comparison. I’ve owned five .270s, but a slew of test rifles has passed through my hands. I haven’t seen a .270 sporting rifle that didn’t shoot well enough for hunting, and several were excellent. I mentioned my wife’s MG Arms .270. That rifle delivers close to m.o.a. accuracy with almost anything, and it has done so for 15 years. With some loads, on good days, groups can be half that.
We also have a .270 Win. barrel for a Blaser. I’ve never seen a bad Blaser barrel, and this one is no exception. It stays under an m.o.a. with most everything, and it consistently cuts that in half with certain loads. My Dakota .270 was finickier, but with certain loads it was exceptional. I had a Winchester O’Connor commemorative Model 70 Featherweight in my hands just long enough to write about. Right out of the box, it was a half-m.o.a. rifle. The Professor would have loved it. A couple of years back, custom maker Joe Balickie offered me a .270 on a left-hand Carl Gustav action, built 30-some years ago. I didn’t need another .270, but I had always wanted a Balickie rifle, so I couldn’t resist. It wore a vintage Leupold 2-7X Compact. I intended to update the scope but thought I should shoot it first. The first group was with Hornady Superformance GMX, and it was a third of an inch. I didn’t change the scope.
Once more we go back to the original question: 6.5 Creedmoor or .270 Win.? Or perhaps something else? Because readers like charts, I combined published factory load specs with attainable handload velocities, offering a thumbnail comparison for the .270’s three primary bullet weights, along with the 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5 PRC and the .280 Rem. and 7mm Rem. Mag. Clear to 600 yards, the .270 shoots flatter than the Creedmoor and, with 140- and 150-grain bullets, delivers more energy. You just can’t get past the velocity gap; the Creedmoor starts out too slow. At PRC velocity, which is similar to a .270 Win., energy yield from the aerodynamic 6.5mm bullet starts to tell, and the PRC looks pretty good.
Comparing apples to apples, despite much higher ballistic coefficients, neither the .280 Rem. nor the 7mm Rem. Mag. offer notable advantages in downrange energy or trajectory with 150-grain bullets. When we load up the two 7mms with aerodynamic 175-grain bullets, there still isn’t much difference in trajectory, but the higher retained energy is significant. O’Connor was occasionally curmudgeonly, dismissing the 7mm Rem. Mag. as “not being able to do anything his .270 couldn’t do.” For his purposes he was right, but he couldn’t have envisioned the optics and low-drag bullets we have today, or the distances some people are now shooting.
Always, it depends on what you intend to hunt and how far you are comfortable shooting. Neither the 6.5 Creedmoor nor the .270 Win. is ideal as a long-range elk cartridge. Better look elsewhere—and be willing to accept more recoil. But if you’re looking for a great deer-sheep-goat cartridge, with elk capability to reasonable range, why not a .270?
The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor Outdoor Sportsman Group assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. Shooting reloads may void any warranty on your firearm.