Producing consistent shot placement necessitates a relationship among several components. OEM barrelmaker Tactical Kinetics might be new, but they get it. We test TK barrels in both 6.5 Grendel and 6.5 Creedmoor.
I will never forget the first time I was called upon to accuracy-test equipment. Back in my early days of instruction, a new rifle shooter reached out to me for help with a Savage 110BA in 300 Win. Mag. that he just couldn’t get “on paper.” He explained to me that he had checked his scope mount, was shooting “the good stuff” and had an uber-expensive bipod.
When range day came, he further expressed his concerns. I listened to all the things he’d done to his rifle to get it to group, but never once did he mention the use of different ammo—and, of course, not a single reading or lesson on marksmanship.
Setting him up on the bench, I inserted a magazine incompletely without letting him know it wasn’t in all the way. I let him close a bolt (unbeknownst to him on an empty chamber) and told him to send one. Sitting back, I watched him yank the trigger and flinch so hard that his butt literally slipped off the stool. That day he learned more than just the core fundamentals of marksmanship; he learned that accuracy comes from a sum of many components.
There might be no other factor in the world of firearms to cause more confusion and frustration than accuracy. Lack of accuracy is often blamed on a multitude of factors, such as the quality of ammunition, the choice of projectile and the barrel. The truth is that it’s the relationship among all these things— and more—that will produce consistent shot placement.
MEET THE NEW GUYS
Nobody understands this more than Tactical Kinetics (TK). Hitting the firearms industry just five years ago, this company has found its way into making OEM barrels for many of the biggest names in the industry. We were lucky enough to get a little time with Vice President Jeff Kaplan at the Big 3 East Media Event of 2017. Sitting down, we asked him flat out, “What makes your product better?” His reply was detailed— but surprisingly simple:
“Great care is taken to ensure the stability in our manufacturing processes, such that the last barrel that comes off the line shoots as well as the first, and that the tolerances we use on all our barrels are fractions of industry standards. Certainly, we offer a premium barrel that is machine-lapped but have found our value proposition lies in producing a barrel that performs at an 80- to 90-percent performance accuracy to that of a cut-rifled and hand-lapped match-grade barrel, but at around 25 percent of the price of that same match barrel.”
We found this to be a perfectly plausible answer, because an experienced machine shop can get that right with little to no tweaking, thereby reducing waste and maximizing output. TK’s approach puts greater focus on making an overall higher-quality product rather than just reserving its best for a “signature series” line. As stated, its barrels are button rifled, as opposed to the more labor-intensive method of “cutting” or hammer forging. Naturally, our follow-up questions revolved around our concerns with using this process. Jeff assuaged our anxiety quickly with his explanation:
“As you will see from the accuracy of our Grendel and Creedmoor offerings, button rifling can produce a very accurate barrel. The bad reputation is created by manufacturers that do not follow the proper care in the rifling process. It is critical that manufacturers avoid using worn buttons and improper lubrication. Ideally, coated buttons with lower friction, proper stress-relieving after buttoning and a reaming process to control pre-button sizing are included in the production of these barrels that are superior to manufacturers that take shortcuts. Many low-end manufacturers remove the reaming process to reduce cost at the expense of accuracy.”
This was enough for me to get interested, so I inquired about some test products. I was informed that back at TK’s shop, both barrels in a 24-inch length were available and that they had a claim of inaccuracy floating around them. As you can imagine, the hair on the back of my neck stands up when I hear that word. That diagnosis is almost always the product of ignorance, poor marksmanship or, in most cases, a combination of both. I have yet to find a rifle that will fire all types of available ammunition to acceptable standards and have met few people capable of shooting to the accuracy potential of their firearms.
The 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5 Grendel have been making waves in the firearms community, mostly for their accuracy and ballistic superiority. However, utilizing these cartridges properly involves a lot more than just slapping on an upper and grabbing the first available round of ammunition off the shelf on the way to the range. With the wide array of options available, these cartridges are best suited for knowledgeable, skilled shooters willing to do the work of finding appropriately matched ammunition or building it themselves. In other words, it’s not a quick fix for bad shooting.
Tactical Kinetics graciously supplied me with the Grendel barrel already built into an upper and head-spaced with a BCG. I put it on my test lower that consists of a Tac-Star AMRS adjustable stock and a Geissele SSP trigger. I was on my own to get the Creedmoor built into a functioning firearm.
I live on Long Island and am just a stone’s throw away from Dark Storm Industries, a local AR-15 manufacturer. I turned the barrel over to them to get it ready for the “prom.” Utilizing a known accurate design, the DS-10, they replaced their barrel with the Tactical Kinetics barrel and sent me on my way (after an NICS check, of course). Back at my workshop, I decided it would now be a good time to utilize the Rise Armament RA-535 APT trigger I had just received.
With rifles in hand, all that was needed was optics and ammo. I fit the Creedmoor with the new TANGO6 5-30x56mm from SIG Sauer Optics and the Grendel with a Nikon Black X1000 6-24x55mm.
Although both of these cartridges were originally intended for a very specific firearm, their explosive popularity led to the development of many different length and twist rate barrels, not to mention altogether different platforms than those originally intended by their inventors. This, in turn, led to a multitude of different factory-loaded ammunition, as well as many new projectiles in 6.5mm.
Which components are the best? Who makes “the good stuff”? Well, that all depends, and answering these questions is exactly what I intend to do.
NEEDED: ALL THE AMMO!
I requested rounds from several manufactures and was sent the following for my experiment:
- Federal Gold Metal 130-grain Berger OTM 6.5 Grendel Federal American Eagle 120-grain OTM 6.5
- Grendel Federal American Eagle 90-grain TNT JHP 6.5 Grendel Hornady BLACK 123-grain ELD Match 6.5
- Grendel Hornady Custom 123-grain SST 6.5 Grendel
- Federal Trophy 120-grain Copper 6.5 Creedmoor
- Federal American Eagle 140-grain OTM 6.5 Creedmoor
- Hornady MATCH 147-grain ELD Match 6.5 Creedmoor
- Hornady MATCH 120-grain ELD Match 6.5 Creedmoor
- Copper Creek 140-grain Berger VLD Hunting 6.5 Creedmoor
- Copper Creek 142-grain Sierra
- Match King VLD Hunting 6.5 Creedmoor
- Copper Creek 123-grain ELD Match 6.5 Creedmoor
- SIG 140-grain OTM Match Rifle 6.5 Creedmoor
In addition, I built a set of handloads for both the Grendel and the Creedmoor, working through the entire powder scale in 0.3-grain increments. I do this to illustrate a point in matching ammo to a rifle. Here, we see that just one-third of a grain in charge weight can be the difference between a ¼-inch group and a 2-inch group. That being said, some factory ammo varies one full grain from round to round in the same box, so this would also act as a control in my experiment.
RANGE DAY #1: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
I packed up my gear, including 33 different rounds of ammo, and headed to the pinnacle of firearms freedom—eastern Long Island. Maybe not so much, but 100 miles away from New York City might as well be another country. I found a day when the wind was below 5 mph to avoid interference with bullet flight and went to work.
I cradled the rifles in a Caldwell rest supported with a rear bag. I alternated cleaning and shooting to break in the barrels for approximately 20 rounds each and then fired five three-shot groups with every single round listed on the facing page. In the process, I alternated rifles to ensure they didn’t get hot. However, on this 23-degree day, there was little chance of that happening.
Some produced amazing accuracy; some were worthless. Within the same brand, I found rounds that grouped so small, I could barely measure them, as well as some that couldn’t keep three on the paper. I found loads with heavier-grain bullets that showed no pressure signs and lighter-grain loads that actually pierced primers. Nothing spelled out certain accuracy—not brand, bullet weight or even dollar amount. Cheap ammo shot great, and expensive ammo shot poorly. Match ammo wouldn’t group, and hunting ammo could shoot the legs off a flea. It was pure chaos—and I loved every minute of it! My point was being proved on the biggest scale to date.
THE “GOOD STUFF”?
When you pick up factory ammo, there are many variables. Each brand and type has its own certain amount and type of powder, a certain primer, a certain case and a certain projectile seated into the case at a certain depth. Each one of these factors affects accuracy in any given firearm. So, does that mean factory ammo is junk? No!
From a production standpoint, factory ammo is amazing. It is built to be safe and more than reasonably accurate in an array of firearms. With the advancements in components and manufacturing processes, the accuracy gain from handloading is debatable; some even consider it negligible. There isn’t a solid criterion for the “good stuff.” There can only be the “right stuff.” So, if you are not the type to spend the time on the reloading bench building ammo, spend your time on the range with a box of every, single type of ammo you can find and conduct the same experiment to see what is missing from your accuracy equation.
Both Grendel and Creedmoor have a very small group of components that are frequently called upon for building an accurate round. I picked the most common and built some of my own ammo. For the Grendel, I selected IMR XBR 8208 powder and the Hornady 123-grain ELD MATCH. For the Creedmoor, the go-to powder is Hodgdon 4350, so that was an easy choice. The new 147-grain Hornady ELD MATCH is getting great reviews, so I went with those.
My wife and I prep our brass cases to be identical. We start with quality brass from the same manufacturer, cut primer pockets to be uniform, remove burrs from the flash hole to ensure there is the same flame transfer and trim each case to within .001 inch of each other. When it’s all done, we weigh each case and ensure they are no more than 1 grain apart from each other in weight. This process creates identical rounds, taking round-to-round deviation out of the accuracy equation. This just leaves the rifle and the shooter.
I fired all 20 of these different sets of ammo looking for one thing and one thing only: a node. A barrel is like a banjo string: It vibrates when plucked (fired), creating a node. Each round, with its different charge weight, creates a different harmonic, and one will simply produce better accuracy than the other. When going through an array of powder charges, a properly functioning barrel should see groups tighten up to a certain point and then start to open up again. The point at which the group is the tightest is a node. I hit a node with my Grendel at 24.6 grains, giving me a group measuring just .940 inch—not bad for a standard-grade barrel. The Creedmoor hit a node at 36.1 grains, giving me an amazing group, at just .156 inch. This is outstanding performance for the new guys and proves that the barrels function as expected.
RANGE DAY #2: STRETCH IT OUT
One hundred-yard testing doesn’t always tell the entire story, especially with long bullets, because they usually need some time to “go to sleep.” This phrase refers to the flight time a projectile needs to work off the pitch and yaw to completely stabilize and spin without wobbling. In addition, a lousy barrel might do well at close range but completely fall apart when used at traditional rifle distances.
I tested my best factory loads at 500 and 1,000 yards. I found great results with the rounds intended for long-range shooting: Hornady 147s and the SIG 140s. The SIG 140-grain OTM match ammo produced outstanding accuracy at long range with my best 500-yard group, measuring just 2.121 inches. However, the Hornady 147-grain ELD Match round produced very similar performance. At 1,000 yards, I noticed the Hornady 147s had about 40 inches less drop than the SIG 140s, largely due to flying close to 250 fps faster. Both rounds delivered outstanding accuracy at this distance as well.
WRAPPING IT UP
My work on these barrels was very conclusive. I found ammo that performed and ammo that didn’t, and it was completely independent of brand or even projectile weight. This is characteristic of every barrel on the market. In my opinion, the new guys at TK built some really nice “standard-grade” barrels, especially with the consistent sub-MOA groups out to 1,000 yards and the 100-yard “bug hole” I was able to produce with handloads.
The folks at Tactical Kinetics left us with these words of wisdom regarding that match-winning build: “Barrel accuracy and rifle accuracy are not synonymous. Proper care must be taken to ensure an accurate platform to mount a quality barrel to in order to realize the results. Barrel selection should be considered—keeping in mind vibration frequency, thermal properties and ideal chambering for the ammunition to be utilized—in order to best improve accuracy within a rifle. At TK, we are taking steps to look at all aspects of a rifle to find the largest influencers to overall accuracy. Look for more information about component/accuracy relationship in the future.“
I certainly agree with that statement and would highly recommend Tactical Kinetics to outfit any series of rifles you might be building for your team, department or unit.
CALIBER: 6.5 Creedmoor
MANUFACTURER: Tactical Kinetics
MODEL NUMBER: TK1598
LENGTH: 24 in.
MATERIAL: CrMoV (chromoly vanadium)
RIFLING PROCESS: Button
FINISH: Black nitride
CALIBER: 6.5 Grendel
MANUFACTURER: Tactical Kinetics
MODEL NUMBER: TK1597
LENGTH: 24 in.
MATERIAL: CrMoV (chromoly vanadium)
RIFLING PROCESS: Button
FINISH: Black nitride
- 5.56 NATO,
- .223 Wylde,
- 6.5 Grendel,
- 6.5 Creedmoor,
- 9mm Luger,
- .45 ACP,
- .458 SOCOM
- TACTICAL KINETICS TacticalKinetics.com
- COPPER CREEK CARTRIDGE CO. CopperCreekAmmo.com
- DARK STORM INDUSTRIES Dark-Storm.com
- FEDERAL PREMIUM AMMUNITION FederalPremium.com
- HARDENED ARMS HardenedArms.com
- HORNADY AMMUNITION Hornady.com
- NIKON SPORT OPTICS NikonSportsOptics.com
- RISE ARMAMENT RiseArmament.com
- SIG SAUER SIGSauer.com
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.