July 23, 2019
By John Barsness
The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is a competition designed to simulate field-shooting with long-range rifles. Targets are set at unknown distances from pretty close to very far, and participants shoot throughout the year for accumulated points. At a recent year-end shoot, ranges varied from 200 yards to 1,510 yards. PRS rules limit rifle caliber to .30 or less and muzzle velocity to 3,200 fps. The velocity of any shooter’s rifle can be chronographed during a match, with a possible disqualification if just one round exceeds 3,200 fps.
George Gardner’s G.A. Precision company produces superbly accurate rifles, and in 2012 he decided to develop a cartridge specifically for PRS shooting. Of course, it needed to be a short, fat, beltless cartridge, the long-term trend in accuracy rounds, but it also needed to feed well from magazines. Gardner considered the PRS rules and shooting requirements, and after some work with the QuickLOAD internal ballistics computer program, he thought the Ruger Compact Magnum (RCM) case necked to 6.5mm might offer the right compromise of long-range ballistics, barrel life, shape, and recoil.
Experimentation with what might be called a “real-life rifle” confirmed the computer predictions: 130-grain bullets could be safely started at 3,200 fps from the longer barrels used by PRS competitors, while heavier bullets started a little slower provided some safety room for chronograph tests. He named the new round the “6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge” (6.5 PRC), but he also knew it would work great for hunting, filling the commercial slot between smaller 6.5mm cartridges from the 6.5 Creedmoor through the 6.5-284 to big-boomers, including the 264 Winchester Magnum up to the 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum.
Hornady wanted to introduce the 6.5 PRC in 2012, but incredibly high demand during the “Great Obama Reelection Panic” kept the company too busy.
In early 2018 Hornady finally launched a pair of 6.5 PRC factory loads: the 143-grain ELD-X hunting bullet at 2,960 fps and the 147-grain ELD-X target bullet at 2,910 fps, chronographed in 24-inch barrels. Quite a few 6.5 fans got pretty excited—including me. I’d hunted with various 6.5 rifles for years before the present mania, from a 6.5x54mm Mannlicher-Schönauer carbine to an original Pre-’64 Model 70 “Westerner” in 264 Win. Mag. In fact, depending on the ebb and flow of my modest rifle collection, sometimes more 6.5s reside in the safe than .30 calibers, which might be considered almost un-American.
For several years the collection included a very accurate 6.5-06 with a 26-inch barrel that produced noticeably more velocity than the old “Swede” but far less recoil than the 264 Win. Mag. I’d also worked with the RCM case enough to know it held just about as much powder as the 30-06. This meant the 6.5 PRC would match the velocities of the 6.5-06 but in a case potentially providing finer accuracy, which kick-started the serious plotting that keeps rifle enthusiasts awake at night when they could be resting their trigger fingers.
In the middle of this plotting, Hodgdon asked me to review the 6.5 PRC for this edition of the Annual Manual. This tipped the balance, since it required actually acquiring a 6.5 PRC rifle instead of just thinking about it. But after emailing a few rifle companies and gunsmiths, it became obvious 6.5 PRC rifles were in short supply, both because the factory round was so new and because of the sudden demand.
Building a 6.5 PRC Rifle
Blaser USA said it might have some new Sauer 6.5 PRCs in two to three months, but then again, it might not. One gunsmith I’d worked with several times said he’d just ordered a 6.5 PRC reamer, so he could get me a test rifle eventually, but he couldn’t predict when.
After more thinking, I realized the ideal platform for the project already resided in my safe: a short-action magnum Remington Model 700 Kentucky gunsmith Charlie Sisk had rebarreled and restocked a decade earlier when we had co-created the 9.3mm Barsness-Sisk (B-S) cartridge by necking up the 350 Remington Magnum 0.008 inch. (Yet another relatively redundant wildcat, the 9.3 B-S essentially duplicates the ballistics of the 9.3x62 Mauser in a short action. In the years since, we’d taken big game up to grizzly bear and water buffalo with our round, but the same things could have been accomplished with the 350 Rem. Mag. or the 9.3x62.)
Charlie used a #4 contour Lilja barrel on my 9.3 B-S rifle, so I checked Lilja’s website, and lo and behold, their “In-Stock Barrels” list contained exactly one 6.5mm that just by chance was a stainless-steel #4 contour with a 1:8 rifling twist. It would fit the barrel channel of my rifle’s stock perfectly, and the 9.3 barrel could be kept in reserve if I ever decided to hunt a wood bison or a walrus with a wildcat.
I called Charlie with an offer: If he could talk somebody into quickly providing a 6.5 PRC reamer, I’d pay for it as the price for rebarreling the 9.3. (Obviously, he’d also make money building plenty of 6.5 PRCs because the round had created considerable buzz.) He called Pacific Tool & Gauge, and the firm delivered exactly the reamer he wanted in less than a month. All this isn’t just deep background information; it’s also an indication of how quickly the 6.5 PRC was taking off, plus it also has some bearing on handloading the round.
Another indication turned up when I contacted Hornady for some dies and brass. The company didn’t have any and didn’t know when it might because demand was so high. After searching the Internet, I ordered 50 Hornady cases directly from G.A. Precision, three boxes of Hornady 147-grain factory ammo from Graf & Sons, and dies from Redding Reloading (some of the very first off the assembly line).
After mounting a Nightforce 3-10X 42mm SHV scope, the rifle’s first range-test took place with the Hornady ammunition. I knew the rounds wouldn’t fit in the magazine since the S.A.A.M.I. maximum overall length for the 6.5 PRC is 2.95 inches, about 0.1 inch longer than the industry-standard “short” magazine in the Remington 700.
The first three-shot group at 100 yards measured over an inch because of the new, squeaky-clean bore. I adjusted the scope a little and then shot a five-round group, which measured 0.63 inch. The velocity turned out somewhat lower than the velocity listed by Hornady, but that’s not unusual in a new bore. It looked like the rifle might work pretty well.
Building 6.5 PRC Handloads
The fired factory brass allowed some accurate measurement of case capacity compared to other commercial 6.5mm rounds. The most accurate method involves weighing a fired case, filling it with water, then pushing a bullet into the neck to the standard overall case length. After carefully pulling the bullet out (and wiping any tiny drops from its surface into the case neck), the water-filled case is then weighed, and the weight of the empty case is subtracted. (Water is pretty close to the same weight of most smokeless rifle powders.)
With the Hornady 143-grain ELD-X bullet seated to an overall cartridge length of 2.95 inches, the water capacity was about 62 grains. Many shooters who’d never even seen a 6.5 PRC case had suggested somewhat scornfully that it probably held about as much powder as the 6.5-284, but with a 143-grain ELD-X at 2.95 inches, a Norma 6.5-284 case held about 56 grains.
Others suggested the 6.5 Remington Magnum case held about as much powder as the 6.5 PRC. They turned out to be right, but aside from being almost obsolete, the 6.5 Rem. Mag. has other problems, most importantly the belt. No modern long-range shooter is going to use a belted case, especially when it’s pretty much unobtainable.
The 6.5-06 held about 61 grains with the 143-grain bullet seated to the standard overall length of the 30-06. However, no self-respecting long-range shooter will use a long-action rifle when they can use a short action instead.
Gardner also considered the 6.5 Remington Short Action Ultra Mag (RSAUM), partly because of chambering a version he calls 6.5 GAP 4S. Hornady produces 6.5 GAP 4S brass just for G.A. Precision, and I happened to have some fired cases on hand from another project. Despite a case slightly larger in diameter than the 6.5 PRC’s, the GAP held just about exactly the same amount with a 143-grain bullet seated to 2.95 inches because the PRC case has a longer body. The fatter case can also cause magazine-feeding problems in some rifles.
The 6.5 Creedmoor, 260 Remington, and 6.5x55 all have about 50 grains of water capacity, give or take a couple grains. The next commercial 6.5mm cartridge up from the PRC is the 264 Win. Mag., with around 82 grains of water capacity, which is far more than desirable for PRS competition.
Hodgdon provided pressure-tested handload data listing six bullets: Barnes 120-grain Tipped TSX, Swift 130-grain Scirocco II, Nosler 140-grain Ballistic Tip, Hornady 143-grain ELD-X, Hornady 147-grain ELD-M, and Sierra 150-grain HPBT MatchKing. All except the MatchKing were already on my loading room shelves, but I absolutely could not locate any 150-grain MatchKings.
The data I received from Hodgdon Product Manager Ron Reiber included five powders for both the 147-grain ELD-M and 150-grain MatchKing, and all the maximum charges were within a few tenths of a grain from each other. Anybody actually possessing some 150-grain MatchKings would be on very safe ground using the 147-grain data.
Shooting 6.5 PRC Handloads
In his email Ron noted “IMR 8133 and Retumbo were stars in this critter.” I decided to try the powders listed as producing the highest velocities with each bullet, since one obvious point of the 6.5 PRC is to push the PRS maximum velocity as closely as possible. Often the zippiest powders were IMR 8133 and Retumbo, but US 869 also snuck in there with the 140-grain and 143-grain bullets.
All the bullets in the initial handloading sessions were seated to the same overall cartridge length listed in Hodgdon’s data. I started with three-shot groups, to provide an early indication of what combinations worked best, but the shooting also resulted in some anomalies, even though the powder charges were below maximum.
Most rounds gave no indications of high pressure, which was to be expected when using the same components used by Hodgdon, including Hornady brass and Federal 210 Match primers. But some rounds did show higher velocities on my Oehler 35P chronograph, accompanied by hard bolt lift and, sometimes, even an imprint of the bolt’s ejector hole on the case heads.
The Hornady cases all weighed within less than two grains of each other, and the necks all varied no more than 0.001 inch in thickness. I had lightly outside-turned the necks just enough to clean up any slight variation, and I also trimmed each case to 2.015 inches, which is Hornady’s suggested trim length.
After puzzling over this for a while, I utilized an old, relatively crude but effective test. I slid bullets into the mouths of the fired cases. Bullets should fit easily into fired necks, but some revealed a little tightness right at the mouth of the case, indicating the case mouths had probably been “crimped” slightly by the front end of the chamber. (Some of the fired cases from the factory ammo also showed a very slight tightness at the mouth, but not as much or as often as the empty cases.)
This isn’t unknown in minimum dimension custom chambers because tight chambers tend to result in finer accuracy. Plus, even though 6.5mm bullets supposedly all measure 0.264 inch in diameter, the five bullets I tried varied as much as 0.0005 inch from brand to brand, often because of a slightly larger driving band at the rear of the bullet shank. Trimming the tight case mouths slightly allowed all five bullets to slip easily into the necks. Experimentation eventually revealed a trim length of 2.010 inches solved the problem with all five bullets.
US 869 produced the finest accuracy in my 26 Nosler Model 48 Liberty rifle, so I gave it a whirl with 143-grain ELD-X bullets. While velocity turned out to be slightly greater than with IMR 8133 or Retumbo, the group measured slightly under an inch. However, US 869 is a spherical powder, and magnum primers often result in better accuracy with sphericals due to their deterrent coatings. So I tried CCI 250 primers and reducing the powder charge one grain because magnum primers normally result in higher pressures and velocity. This resulted in both accuracy and velocity almost identical to the first test.
After the best loads for each bullet were determined, I decided to do a little experimenting with seating depth and also added a couple other bullets.
While many handloaders firmly believe bullets must be seated close to the lands for the finest accuracy, that isn’t necessarily true, especially in rifles with custom chambers featuring throats just slightly larger than bullet diameter. Seating bullets close to the lands primarily prevents bullets from tipping slightly before entering the rifling, especially in the oversize throats often found on factory rifles, but a tighter throat keeps them pointed straight during the transition from case neck to rifling.
Also, some bullets tend to shoot better when seated deeper, especially monolithics like the Barnes TSX. Some lead-core bullets also often group more accurately when seated well off the lands, especially many of today’s high-BC bullets with long ogives. This happens to be typical of Nosler’s AccuBond Long Range (ABLR) bullets.
Since I planned to use my 6.5 PRC as a hunting rifle, the short magazine might not matter with two of my favorite 6.5mm hunting bullets: the Barnes 127-grain LRX and the Nosler 129-grain ABLR. The Barnes 127-grain LRX and the Nosler 129-grain ABLR were tested with the same 60.5-grain charge of Retumbo that shot best with the 130-grain Scirocco, and since the Remington 700 magazine proved able to handle rounds with an overall length of 2.860 inches, I seated both to that depth.
During the same range session, I also tried the other “best” loads at 2.860 inches overall length, but the two heavy Hornady bullets couldn’t be seated that deeply without so much powder compression that there was a risk of the bullets being pushed out a little. I did try the 130-grain Scirocco and 140-grain Ballistic Tip at 2.860 inches, and while the Ballistic Tip shot better, the Scirocco didn’t group as well as when seated to 2.930 inches, so I did not include that load in the chart.
Both the 127-grain LRX and the 129-grain ABLR shot very well, so I decided not to bother installing a slightly longer magazine. In fact, the 129-grain ABLR resulted in the smallest five-shot group of any bullet: 0.46 inch. Both bullets also shot to nearly the same point of impact, so they can be used interchangeably, depending on how much penetration is desired. ABLRs are designed to open up easily down to 1,300 fps and tend to open up even wider and retain less weight than regular AccuBonds. As a result, they don’t penetrate quite as deeply as regular AccuBonds and, of course, not as much as LRXs.
The same 30 neck-turned cases were used throughout my tests, annealing the necks after the first three firings. They ended up being fired at least five times each, and primers seated just as firmly as they had after the first firing, despite the high pressures sometimes encountered before the slight neck-crimping problem was solved. Due to the relatively steep 30-degree shoulder angle, almost standard on “accuracy” cartridges these days, the cases firmly resisted stretching during firing as well. Competitive shooters in particular value long-lasting brass, and the Hornady cases should hold up for quite a bit of shooting.
The 6.5 PRC was partly introduced as the 6.5 Creedmoor’s bigger brother, but despite its initial burst of popularity even before many rifles appeared, it might not achieve the same widespread acceptance. The Creedmoor is now a worldwide standard chambering in factory rifles, and in fact, my friend Rob Klemp, a South African professional hunter who also owns a large sporting goods store, reports the majority of the new rifles he sells these days are 6.5 Creedmoors.
Part of its popularity is due to filling a slot between two longtime bolt-action standards, the 243 and 270 Winchesters, but also the 6.5 Creedmoor was specifically designed to fit in the industry-standard 2.85-inch short magazine. The longer cartridge overall length of the 6.5 PRC, along with muzzle velocities directly competing with the 270 Winchester, might affect its long-term popularity, especially among hunters. (Most hunters still rate cartridges by muzzle velocity, not retained velocity or wind drift.)
On the other hand, due to the interest in longer, high-BC bullets, more rifle companies offer slightly longer “short magazines” these days, usually around three inches. If that trend continues, the 6.5 PRC will fit right in. Right now, however, my rifle has a firm date with an October pronghorn and maybe a November mule deer or elk.