September 05, 2022
This could have been a lively topic in 1900. When smokeless powder velocity was new, there were a bunch of early 6.5mm military cartridges, all using heavy round-nose bullets. In the euphoria over newfound speed and also-new jacketed bullet penetration, the early 6.5s were used for game up to elephant. Today, we don’t use 6.5s (.264 bullet diameter) for pachyderms, but thousands of Scandinavian hunters still use their 6.5x55s for their annual moose. Yes, but most of them use traditional heavy-for-caliber 156 or 160-grain bullets. Velocities are low, trajectories are arcing, but they keep ranges short and know those long, heavy bullets will penetrate.
We can still use those heavy bullets, but most of us don’t. In the 6.5s new popularity, we typically shoot aerodynamic 130 to 140-something grains, considering our 6.5s as medium to long-range tools. Awesome for ringing steel, but if our subject is 6.5s for big game, we need to think about this. If your big game is deer-sized, including hogs, sheep, and goats, you’re on the money. However, if your big game includes bears and elk, I submit that 140 grains isn’t much bullet weight for animals bigger and tougher than deer…no matter how fast it’s going. You can…but maybe not at the same ranges you can reliably ring steel.
For most of my career, this would have been a short story. The 6.5x55 always had an avid but limited following in America. The 1958’s .264 Winchester Magnum enjoyed a brilliant—but brief—surge of popularity. Introduced in 1965, the 6.5mm Remington Magnum went nowhere. Until recently, we’ve had few 6.5mm cartridges worth writing about. We talked about the “curse of the 6.5mm.” Starting with the .256 Newton in 1913, for 100 years no domestic 6.5mm achieved lasting popularity. 1997’s .260 Remington started slow. A decade later, so did Hornady’s 6.5 Creedmoor.
Wish I was smart enough to know. Accurate and efficient, the .260 Rem achieved some following in competition circles. With a shorter case designed for longer bullets in short actions, the 6.5 Creedmoor was designed as a light-kicking long-range competition cartridge. In 2007, Hornady admitted they had no expectations that it would be a huge seller. This was correct for several years. Then, in about 2012, it took off like a rocket…and still hasn’t looked back. For whatever reason, the easy-to-shoot Creedmoor caught on with hunters and target shooters in various disciplines. Suddenly, the .264-bore was “in.” Popularity means more rifles, and more and better bullets…which lead to more cartridges. Today we have new 6.5mm cartridges. The Creedmoor Craze has also dusted off old-timers. The 6.5x55 has seen a resurgence, the .260 Rem has gained ground, and even my long-unloved .264 gets a nod now and again. Amazingly, we can talk sensibly about “best” 6.5mms.
We now have three distinct levels of 6.5mm performance based on velocity. I’ll call them medium, fast, and extra-fast. The old heavy round-nose bullets are still with us, and still effective at close range. However, today’s rifleshooters want more velocity and flatter trajectories. So, virtually all “new” 6.5mm cartridges are designed around lighter, aerodynamic bullets. There are no “slow” 6.5mm rifle cartridges, but there is a notable exception to my three groupings. The little 6.5 Grendel was designed to fit into the AR-15 platform. As such, it cannot handle 140-grain bullets because of the AR’s action limitations. With max 130-grain bullets, I can’t consider it among the “best” 6.5mm hunting cartridges. That said, it shoots flat, hits hard, and I consider it the very best AR cartridge for deer-sized game!
My “medium” 6.5mms are comprised of the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, .260 Remington, and 6.5mm Creedmoor. Exact velocities depend on the loads…and who loaded them, and barrel length, but you can figure all three of these deliver a 140-grain bullet at around 2,700 fps. Current loads for the old 6.5x55 are conservative, and held to lower pressure standards. However, it has more case capacity, so theoretically could be loaded faster than the Creedmoor. The .260 Remington is also slightly faster than the Creedmoor, but this is splitting hairs. These three cartridges are ballistic triplets.
Because of light recoil and 6.5mm aerodynamics, all three are excellent long-range target cartridges. All three are also excellent hog-deer-sheep-goat cartridges, carrying adequate energy to significant range. All three are adequate for elk, but with caution. Bullet weight, velocity, and resultant energy are on the light side, so ranges should be kept to at least medium.
These are not giant-killers, but all are good, versatile cartridges, especially if your primary uses are punching paper, ringing steel, or hunting deer. I have soft spot for the 6.5x55 but have the least experience with it. I’ve had multiple .260 Rems, and both my daughters used them for their first game. However, to fairly pick the best of this group, it has to be the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The Creedmoor is not necessarily more accurate than the other two. This depends more on quality of barrels and ammo than cartridge design. However, the Creedmoor is far the most available, of great importance these days, and offered in the widest variety of loads, including the modern low-drag bullets. So, if you want a mild-kicking 6.5mm, the smart money is to follow the crowd and get a Creedmoor.
When you increase velocity you flatten trajectory and get more energy, but you can’t do this without increasing recoil. There’s a whole group of 6.5mm cartridges that are significantly faster than Creedmoor and kin, shoot flatter, hit noticeably harder on game, yet still don’t kick you into next week. In factory form, they are: .264 Winchester Magnum, 6.5-.284 Norma, 6.5 PRC and 6.5mm Weatherby RPM. Again, actual velocities vary depending on load and barrel length, but all four of these cartridges propel a 140-grain bullet at around 3000 fps.
For me, this is the 6.5mm sweet spot. Trajectory is significantly flatter. This doesn’t matter so much if you’re dialing the range but, as a hunter, I can see the energy increase on game. I’m not suggesting 300 extra fps (with 400-odd additional ft-lbs) turn these 6.5mms into ideal elk cartridges. I don’t think they are; their common 140-grain bullets are light for large game. However, they are more elk-capable, and can be effectively used at greater distances. On deer-sized game, wow, you will see the difference! These are the 6.5s I think about for mountain game and open country deer…and not bad for a wide range of African plains game.
Which one? That’s a toughie. My .264 has a great barrel, but the .264 isn’t chambered in new rifles, and factory loads are scarce. The Weatherby RPM (Rebated Precision Magnum) is almost the opposite: Almost too new to call. It’s a sound concept, sized for Weatherby’s compact six-lug action, but still a Weatherby exclusive. Based on the short, fat rebated-rim .284 Winchester, the 6.5-.284 Norma is a wonderfully compact little powerhouse. Though not exactly popular, it’s established and its fans rave about it. Still, I’m going out on a limb: In this group, the 6.5 PRC is the horse to ride. Only five years old, it has taken off nicely, with ammo from multiple sources, and rifle platforms increasing exponentially. The 6.5 PRC isn’t magic, no more than its little brother Creedmoor, but it’s a fully modern cartridge, usually delivering great accuracy.
There is one more level of 6.5mm performance, and some of us are still so velocity-centric that we gotta go there. The two extra-fast factory 6.5s are: 26 Nosler and 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum. Both have the disadvantage of being essentially proprietary to their respective firms, thus single-source for rifles and ammo…but they sure are speedy! As hunting cartridges, they shoot as flat as any cartridges “on the books.” The 26 Nosler pushes 140-grain bullets at about 3300 fps; the 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum is almost 100 fps faster. Therefore, they have the same 300 fps advantage over the “fast” 6.5s as between this group and the Creedmoor class.
I used a 26 Nosler in 2012 when it was new, impressive, and I have a 6.5-.300 Weatherby. At these extreme velocities, propellent selection is limited. Accuracy can be finicky, but the 26 Nosler I used drove tacks, and my 6.5-.300, in a Weatherby AccuMark, is spectacular. It’s heavy, and needs to be: This is a serious cartridge, with full-up magnum recoil and lots of blast. I still think the 6.5mm’s 140-grain bullet is on the light side for game larger than deer, but added energy is to the good.
So, if you’re looking for the flattest-shooting hunting cartridge out there, one of these extra-fast 6.5s might be for you. And, if you’re serious about a 6.5 for elk, especially at longer range, go for max velocity and energy. For an effective deer-sheep-goat cartridge, all the 6.5s fill the bill nicely. Just choose the velocity level that fits your range envelope, with recoil you’re comfortable with. However, if what you really need is a versatile, do-anything elk cartridge, then I suggest you bypass the 6.5s altogether, and step up to a 7mm or .30-caliber that will propel heavier bullets at similar velocities…and live with the increased recoil.