December 07, 2021
By Craig Boddington
I’ve said so many times we have just about all the cartridges we need that folks must be getting tired of this grumpy litany. Probably isn’t true anyway. Combining platform niches with current trends and emerging bullet technology means there’s always room for innovation—and I’m excited about Winchester’s new 6.8 Western.
It’s nothing more and nothing less than a new “.270” cartridge, using 0.277-inch bullets. Although never as outspoken about the caliber as Jack O’Connor, I’ve been an off-and-on .270 fan for most of my career. I got my first .270 in 1970, and I’ve had at least one or another ever since.
In recent years, I’ve come to realize O’Connor was right all along. The .270 Win. is a marvelous mountain cartridge and equally useful in many hunting applications. I’ve also used both the .270 Wby. Mag. and .270 WSM quite a bit. They are faster and project more energy, and all three do their work with modest recoil considering their power levels. Although I’ve used lots of cartridges in various calibers, I’ve probably done more mountain hunting with .270s than anything else, and I’ve used .270s on all the continents.
My friend Dave Petzal, long a mainstay at Field & Stream, wrote that he had rarely found the .270 exceptionally accurate. Petzal is a helluva rifleman, so I hate to disagree, but I haven’t found this to be the case. However, his indictment that the cartridge suffered from a lack of bullets was correct.
The .270 has always been considered a “hunting caliber,” with a serious dearth of match bullets. And with today’s interest in long-range shooting and long, heavy-for-caliber aerodynamic bullets with off-the-chart ballistic coefficients, the 0.277-inch diameter has been left far behind.
By design and intent, the 6.8 Western fixes these problems. In addition to longer, low-drag bullets for extreme-range shooting, the current trend is toward short actions, which are lighter and more rigid, and toward house fat-cased cartridges that are more efficient and gain more energy per grain of propellant burned. The .270 Win. and .270 Wby. Mag. are and always will be great hunting cartridges, but they require .30-06-length actions. The .270 WSM is also a great cartridge and, with its 2.1-inch case, fits into a short action.
Introduced in 2001, I have described the .270 WSM as the best and most versatile of the 15 fat-cased unbelted magnums of various lengths introduced between 1998 and 2008. I don’t take that back, and after the .300 WSM, the .270 WSM is probably the second-most popular of that large group.
At the turn of the millennium, it appears the crystal balls of the Winchester engineers weren’t working any better than mine. We didn’t envision the tremendous upsurge in long-range shooting that has blossomed in the last 20 years or the long, high-BC bullets developed for this market. With maximum cartridge overall length of 2.860 inches, the .270 WSM can’t handle bullets much longer than a 150-grain spitzer in a short action. This hasn’t mattered much because longer, heavier 0.277-inch bullets hardly existed—until now.
The 6.8 Western has the advantage of new bullets that our older and still beloved .270s never enjoyed. Initial load offerings include the 165-grain Nosler AccuBond LR and the 175-grain Sierra Long Range Pro, with the Winchester 170-grain Ballistic Silvertip, the 170-grain Match and the 162-grain Copper Impact on the way. These are bullets O’Connor never envisioned, and other bullet makers will almost certainly respond quickly.
The 6.8 Western is based on the .270 WSM case shortened to 0.2020 inch, a difference of just .080 inch, with max overall length of 2.955. That makes it 0.095 inch longer overall than the .270 WSM. These are not extreme differences but enough to cram the extra-long bullets into a short bolt action.
There is a tradeoff in velocity. With standard .270 bullets, the .270 WSM is one of our fastest and flattest shooting hunting cartridges, although it’s bested by the .270 Wby. You can, of course, handload lighter bullets in the 6.8 Western and approach .270 WSM velocity. However, the heavier bullets the new cartridge is all about cannot achieve extreme velocity. With bullets in the 160s and 170s, velocity will be below 3,000 fps.
The race isn’t always to the swift. Downrange performance exceeds the 6.5mm PRC and with less recoil than the fast .30s. The .270s have long been standard with 1:10 rifling twist, and since there has been so little .270 bullet development, there’s been little need for faster-twist barrels.
Both Browning and Winchester 6.8 Western rifles are barreled with 1:8 twist. Historically, there have been a few extra-heavy 0.277-inch bullets, mostly intended for use on larger game, thus blunt-nosed and short—not with long-range performance in mind. An exception is Berger’s 170-grain Elite Hunter 0.277-inch bullet. It says right on the box “Optimal Twist Rate 1:8.” So even if they fit into our actions, we’re not going to house these extra-long bullets into our existing .270 rifles.
No matter. The needle-nose 6.8 Western is a brand-new look at and purpose for the .277 bore. Long-range competitors are already trying it out, and it saw quite a bit of use in the 2020 hunting season.
Right or wrong, some of us question the 6.5mm’s suitability for elk, especially with bullets less than 150 grains. The .270s, with a 150-grain practical limit, have also been questioned for elk-size game. There should be no controversy about a 160- to 175-grain .270.
So what’s in a name? The current trend appears to avoid the word “magnum,” which is a good thing because it was so overused that it came to have little meaning. I like the name “Western.” As a youngster, I had reservations about the .270 Win.’s adequacy for elk. I was wrong and have never had concerns with faster .270s. However, with milder recoil than a .30 and more bullet weight and frontal area than any 6.5mm, I see the .270 Western as a fine choice for elk and all other western big game.
Although the 6.8 Western is new, there’s good history with the name. The old Western Cartridge Company was founded in 1898 by Franklin Olin. Franklin’s son, John Olin, the great sportsman and industrialist, founded the Olin Corporation in 1944—with Western Cartridge at its center. The Olin Corporation still manufactures Winchester-brand ammunition, for many years marketed as “Winchester-Western.”
There’s more. In 1958, Winchester introduced the .264 Win. Mag. in a 26-inch barreled version of the Model 70 called the Westerner. When I was a kid, I had an early .264. I thought it was magic—but not as magic as the 6.8 Western is going to be.