The 6.5 Creedmoor debuted as a dedicated target round in the late 2000s. Since then, it has become the most exciting new hunting cartridge to come along in decades. Here’s why.
The SHOT Show, which takes place in Las Vegas every January, is a barometer of what’s hot in the world of shooting and hunting.
A few years ago, it was everything AR—with dozens of manufacturers launching new black guns to meet the ever-growing market. More recently, long-range rifles have been the center of attention.
However, the primary theme of this year’s show didn’t seem to be a new rifle platform but rather the addition of a hot, new cartridge that has taken the shooting world by storm: the 6.5 Creedmoor.
… the shooting world found a round that could produce flat trajectories from a light, short-action rifle that wouldn’t beat the shooter into a flinching pulp, even after several dozen rounds.
Across-the-Board Target Cartridge
Developed by Hornady Senior Ballisticians Dave Emary and Dennis DeMille in 2007, the 6.5 Creedmoor was based on Hornady’s .30 T/C, an efficient, short-action rifle cartridge that performed at a much higher level than its small case would indicate. When the case was altered and necked down to accommodate a .264-inch bullet, a star was born.
The 6.5 Creedmoor was initially designed as an “across-the-board” target cartridge, because it combined mild recoil with high efficiency and excellent ballistics. The new load’s trajectory curve matched that of some magnum cartridges, and that long-for-caliber .264 bullet bucked the wind and clung to velocity to extreme ranges.
Suddenly, the shooting world found a round that could produce flat trajectories from a light, short-action rifle that wouldn’t beat the shooter into a flinching pulp, even after several dozen rounds.
“The 6.5 Creedmoor is a very unique cartridge because of the design and the caliber,” says Dave Emary, senior ballistician at Hornady. “The Creedmoor was designed from the get-go as a match cartridge and has definitely filled that requirement with unquestioned accuracy performance. The 6.5 caliber is really a sweet spot in bullet design, because it offers very high sectional bullets, along with very high BCs. The high sectional density ensures very effective terminal performance, and the high BC provides very good external ballistics. The Creedmoor offers the best of everything as a result of its low recoil, extreme accuracy, flat trajectory, low wind drift, high retained velocity and very effective terminal performance—all of this in a small, compact package!”
The People’s Cartridge
Any discussion about the 6.5 Creedmoor begins with the term, “efficiency.” The maximum overall length of the case is 1.92 inches, making it shorter than the .260 Remington, 6.5 Swede and 6.5×284. But since the neck design doesn’t require the bullet to be seated as deeply as in, say, the .260 Remington, the cartridge’s case capacity remains the same. And, as a very important added bonus, the 6.5 Creedmoor can use long, heavy-for-caliber bullets.
In terms of efficiency, the case design is almost without peer; the 6.5 Creedmoor achieves a velocity of 2,951 fps with 40 grains of Varget powder. With the same bullet and same powder charge, the .260 Remington reaches 2,870 fps. That means you can achieve more with the 6.5 using the same bullets and powder and spend less money in the process if you are a handloader.
There are a lot of great target rounds that haven’t achieved the 6.5’s rapid (and rabid) following among hunters. Over the past 20 years, hunters have gravitated toward more-efficient rounds—cartridges that could achieve everything they wanted from a magnum with reduced recoil and muzzle blast and while burning less powder. The recent renewed interest in the .280 Ackley proved it an example of this, but the .280 AI remains largely a handloader’s cartridge and the darling of gun writers. The 6.5 Creedmoor has broken into the mainstream.
I don’t recall a cartridge ever reaching the level of acceptance that the 6.5 has achieved so quickly. The love affair with the cartridge has prompted a number of rifle makers to add 6.5 offerings to their lineup. You can now buy an off-the-shelf rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor from Browning, Kimber, Mossberg, Savage and a host of other manufacturers. And, unlike some magnum cartridges that required an expensive gun with a long, heavy action, the Creedmoor is available in a number of affordable factory options. Mossberg’s excellent Patriot rifles are now chambered for the round, as are Savage’s Axis guns and Thompson/Center’s sleek Compass. These guns are real bargains, and the best part is that 6.5 Creedmoor factory ammo isn’t more expensive than more traditional loads. The Creedmoor is a cartridge of the people, and that’s part of the reason it’s so popular today.
I shy from the term, “inherent accuracy,” but the Creedmoor has a number of features that make it an easy rifle to shoot quite well. For starters, it utilizes bullets up to 160 grains, although 120 to 140 grain loads are more useful for most hunting situations.
Hornady’s Precision Hunter ELD-X factory load comes with a 143-grain, polymer-tipped bullet with a G1 ballistic coefficient of .623. That means the bullet is designed for long-range hunting and will retain velocity and buck wind at great distances. Best of all, you get that level of performance in a cartridge that can be housed in a short, light action, and recoil is very minimal.
Recoil sensitivity is one of the most common reasons shooters don’t get the type of accuracy from their fifth group as their first, and if you’re shooting on bags, the accumulated recoil from a couple of boxes of .30-caliber magnums can leave you jittery.
The answer to this has been to shoot off sleds or to buy a heavy rifle—or both—neither of which translates well to field shooting and long stalks in the mountains. Even the most recoil-sensitive shooters can handle the 6.5 Creedmoor’s setback, but there’s very little game the 6.5 Creedmoor won’t handle.
In terms of efficiency, the case design is almost without peer; the 6.5 Creedmoor achieves a velocity of 2,951 fps with 40 grains of Varget powder.
Love Is in the Air
As a gun writer, I’m not inclined to believe hype until I’ve had a chance to talk to several shooters who have extensive field experience with a cartridge. My own experience with the 6.5 Creedmoor is relatively limited, but I’ve fallen in love with just about every rifle so chambered that I have touched. I lean, instead, on the experience of those who have used the caliber a lot in the field—or have seen it used.
In addition, as I make my rounds, talking with guides (who see a lot more game killed in a single season than most of us will see dispatched in a lifetime), I always ask about the effects of cartridges on real game. And, from Alaska to Sonora, I’ve heard nothing but good accounts regarding the 6.5 Creedmoor.
On deer-sized game, it is an efficient killer—great for whitetails, black bear, hogs, antelope and sheep to long ranges. But I had my doubts regarding how this cartridge would work on the larger, tougher deer species, specifically elk. I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear from elk guides (who are notoriously tough critics on cartridges) that the 6.5 Creedmoor was a winner.
At a recent hunt in Texas with the Backcountry Hunts team, I asked Steve Jones and his guides what they thought of the 6.5 Creedmoor. They see a number of elk taken in New Mexico each year. The response from everyone across the board was universal: If you do your job, the 6.5 will take elk cleanly, including big bulls. One member of that group—guide Robert Curry—is an avid coyote caller, and one of his favorite rifles is (you guessed it) the 6.5 Creedmoor.
I don’t recall a cartridge ever reaching the level of acceptance that the 6.5 has achieved so quickly. The love affair with the cartridge has prompted a number of rifle makers to add 6.5 offerings to their lineup.
The Secrets of Its Success
One of the secrets to the 6.5’s success is true for all the .264-inch class of hunting cartridges is the fact that these bullets tend to be heavy-for-caliber. A 140-grain 6.5 bullet has a sectional density (the ratio of bullet weight to caliber) of .287. Higher sectional densities translate to deeper penetration. That’s better than a .30-06 with 180-grain bullets (.271) and a .270 Winchester with 140-grain bullets (.261) and equal to a 7mm Magnum with a 162-grain bullet. In addition, the 6.5 Creedmoor’s long bullet design shoots better in the wind and retains energy and velocity at extended ranges.
How does all this relate to trajectory?
Consider this comparison: A .308 Winchester firing 165-grain bullets (BC .435) at 2,700 fps must be sighted-in 2 inches high to be zeroed at 200. Thus zeroed, the bullet will be 8.6 inches low at 300 yards and 25.1 inches low at 400 yards.
The Creedmoor with a 143-grain ELD-X bullet (BC .623) leaving the muzzle at the same velocity will be almost equal at 100 yards for a 200-yard zero. At 300 yards, the bullet drops 7.9 inches; at 400 yards, it has fallen 22.4 inches. The trend continues as distances increase.
But even though the 6.5 Creedmoor shoots flatter and retains more velocity, the real difference appears when you compare energy levels. At the muzzle, the .308 produces about 300 foot-pounds more energy than the Creedmoor: 2,670 and 2,314, respectively. At 400 yards, however, the long, heavy 6.5 Creedmoor bullet maintains almost 100 foot-pounds more energy than the .308, all with less recoil and less powder.
Magnums have their place, and there’s no doubt that they will remain popular. But it’s impressive to see how quickly the mild-mannered 6.5 Creedmoor has won over both the competitive shooting and hunting crowd. This versatile round is perfect for everything from varmints to medium-sized game, and if you have the opportunity to hunt large deer, it will work well, too.
It’s too light, really, for dangerous game and the great bears, but those are highly specialized hunts. For most of us, the affable, affordable 6.5 Creedmoor is one of the best cartridges to come around in years.
Maybe you’re considering trying out the 6.5 Creedmoor but don’t want to spend a great deal of money. That’s not a problem. There are a number of really good 6.5 Creedmoor rifles priced under $500.
- Mossberg’s new Patriot Predator bolt action features a tan synthetic stock, top rail for optic mounting and a fluted barrel with threaded muzzle and cap ($441).
- Thompson/Center’s sleek, new Compass rifle, which has a three-lug safety for a short bolt lift, flush-fit rotary magazine, threaded barrel and MOA accuracy guarantee, carries an MSRP of $399.
The Axis XP package rifle from Savage features a synthetic stock, carbon steel barrel and tang safety. It comes with a mounted and bore-sighted 3-9×40 scope for $407.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.