Top 10 Reloaded Rifle Cartridges #3: 6.5 Creedmoor
Date: Oct 20 2021
The 6.5 Creedmoor was introduced by Hornady in 2008, and its case is based on the .30 Thompson/Center case, which is essentially a shortened .308 Winchester case. Nonetheless, the concept of the cartridge originated more than 100 years ago in the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser that used long bullets seated well out of the case body to provide maximum room for powder. Slightly shorten the 6.5x55’s case body and reduce its taper, cut neck length a smidgen and increase shoulder angle from 25 to 30 degrees, and the ancient 6.5x55 becomes the modern 6.5 Creedmoor that fits in a short-action rifle.
The Creedmoor has gathered a following among target competitors and a growing number of big-game hunters. The 6.5 is Hornady’s creation, and the company leads the pack in factory-produced cartridges loaded with 120-, 140- and 147-grain match bullets for target shooting, and 120-grain GMX, 129-grain InterBond, InterLock and SST bullets and 143-grain ELD-X bullets for hunting. Federal is close behind with eight loads, followed by Nosler, Winchester, Browning, Norma and Black Hills, Remington and Swift. There will probably be more by the time this is published.
Not that long ago there was a narrow selection of 6.5mm component bullets, but 6.5 cartridges have grown significantly in popularity in recent years. That has encouraged bullet companies to offer an assortment of bullets for target shooting and hunting.
Everyone touts the ballistic magic provided by .26-caliber bullets that are as long and pointy as a javelin. These bullets mostly weigh 140 grains and are constructed with a sloping boat-tail and an ogive as long as a church steeple culminating in a spiked plastic tip or hollow point.
Lightweight 120-grain target bullets fit perfectly with their base seated at the bottom of the Creedmoor’s case neck. The additional 200 fps that these lighter bullets can be fired over 140-grain bullets provides about 6 inches less bullet drop at 500 yards than the heavier bullets. However, the lighter bullets drift slightly more in the wind.
Bullets of standard construction are fine for hunting at the mild velocity the Creedmoor fires them. An elk hunter might want to shoot 140-grain bullets, like a Hornady InterLock, for the additional penetration required on a less-than-perfect broadside shot. Then again a hunter might want to shoot a Nosler 140-grain AccuBond or Swift 130-grain Scirocco II as insurance when a shoulder bone must be penetrated. Mono metal bullets much heavier than the Hornady 120-grain GMX and Barnes Tipped Triple-Shock would be too long for even 6.5 bullets. But that’s okay, because one of those bullets starting out at 2,900 fps from the Creedmoor provides plenty of penetration and a flat trajectory for shooting big game at any sane range.
The 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5x55 and .260 Remington have similar case volumes that are relatively modest compared to their bore diameter. The 6.5x55’s powder capacity is about 6 percent larger than the Creedmoor’s, but the two cartridges are neck and neck in velocity because the 6.5x55’s maximum average pressure is 51,000 psi while the Creedmoor’s is 62,000 psi. The .260’s case capacity is about 2 percent greater than that of the Creedmoor. The .260’s maximum average pressure is 60,000 psi.
Because bullets are not seated as deeply in the Creedmoor’s case, room for powder is only slightly more for the .260. However, various reloading manuals list maximum loads of 1.5 to 3.0 grains more for the .260 than for the Creedmoor with powders like H-4350 and W-760. The velocities of .260 loads I have recorded from a 22-inch barrel were, at most, 100 fps faster than velocities turned in by 22-inch barrels on the Bergara Premier Classic and Ruger American Predator 6.5 Creedmoor rifles used to shoot the loads in the table.
For the Bergara, Hornady 6.5 Creedmoor cases were loaded with 21 different powders and 11 bullets weighing 100 to 140 grains. Ramshot TAC was the fastest burning powder, with Ramshot Hunter on the slow end. Numerous powders produced good accuracy and uniform velocities. A few standouts included Hunter paired with Barnes 120-grain Triple-Shock bullets, Hornady 140-grain A-MAX and Nosler 120-grain Ballistic Tip bullets. Reloader 17 also provided constant velocities with Nosler 129-grain AccuBond Long Range and Hornady 140-grain A-MAX bullets. Accurate 4350, IMR-4166, IMR-4895, Reloder 19, Varget and W-760 also produced good accuracy and even velocities with a variety of bullets.
Ten different powders were used with bullets weighing from 120 to 142 grains in the Ruger Predator rifle. Hunter, Reloder 17 and Reloder 23 provided relatively narrow extreme velocity spreads, high overall velocities and good accuracy.
I traded an old 16-gauge shotgun with an aggravating 29⁄16-inch chamber, and $100, for the Ruger American Predator 6.5 Creedmoor. I was amazed at the rifle’s accuracy when I started shooting it. Several factory loads shot groups well under an inch at 100 yards. Many handloaded cartridges also shot groups measuring under an inch, and a few under .5 inch. Suddenly, though, accuracy turned sour. A couple of bullets would nearly touch while the next three landed here, there and everywhere. After a second session of poor shooting I picked the rifle up by its scope and heard a clink. The aluminum scope rail had come loose. I tightened the rail and the rifle went right back to shooting tight groups.
I eventually decided to load Nosler 120-grain E-Tip bullets for hunting season. I picked Varget powder to load with the bullets for no other reason than a can of it was sitting on the bench. The Ruger shot three bullets into .44 inch. Days later, I shot the load again and three bullets cut a ragged hole. I hesitated to shoot two more of the expensive E-Tips, but I had to know if the group was a coincidence. The next two bullets went right through the same hole.
That kind of accuracy from an inexpensive rifle like the Ruger American is not accidental. Being a fairly new cartridge, Creedmoor rifles – from one rifle to the next, and one brand to the next – have uniform chamber throats. Factory-loaded ammunition fits those chambers to position bullets close to the start of the rifling. Handloading data published from reliable sources also tends to be accurate in all 6.5 Creedmoor rifles.
The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) lists the Creedmoor’s maximum cartridge length as 2.825 inches. The Nosler and Berger reloading manuals also state that length as maximum. Hornady first listed 2.800 inches as maximum, and now it is 2.825. When first developing 6.5 Creedmoor handloads, I was surprised at the somewhat short cartridge lengths shown in the Hornady handbook. After all, the whole idea of the Creedmoor is to load bullets far out of the case to keep from using up powder capacity. Cartridge lengths were as short as 2.670 inches for 129-grain SST bullets. The handbook’s cartridge introduction states, “…bullets can be loaded longer to accommodate different throats and still fit in short action magazines.”
Even with cartridge lengths shorter than 2.800 inches, most of the bullets I used had their bases positioned even with the bottom of the case shoulder. Barnes 120-grain Triple-Shock bullets were the only ones that protruded noticeably below the case shoulder, and that was with a cartridge length of 2.700 inches. Out of all the loads used, there might have been one compressed powder charge. That was a pleasant change from loading .260 Remington cartridges that often required a lot of force on the loading press handle to seat a bullet and compress a powder charge.
I measured cartridge lengths with different bullets in light contact with the start of the rifling in the Bergara’s barrel. At least in the Bergara rifle, I would be leery of loading bullets with a cartridge length of 2.825 inches. Hornady 129-grain SST bullets stopped against the rifling with a cartridge length of 2.81 inches, Nosler 129-grain AccuBond Long Range bullets did the same at 2.805 inches, and somewhat blunt Norma 156-grain Vulcan bullets stopped at 2.695 inches.
The Creedmoor’s case tapers only .008 inch from its web to the shoulder. That is the least amount of reduction of about any cartridge. Its 30-degree shoulder is also fairly sharp. Together, they reduce case stretch during firing and resizing. Hornady Creedmoor cases from factory loads were trimmed after the first time they were fired. After those cases had been fired a third time, only a few in a batch were over the maximum length of 1.920 inches.
In addition to Bergara including the Creedmoor in its Classic and Tactical models on its Premier action, a fair number of other rifles are chambered for the cartridge. Browning includes the cartridge in nine versions of its X-Bolt, and Savage has several rifles. Cooper Firearms will chamber it in about any centerfire rifle it makes, and Ruger was the first to offer the 6.5 Creedmoor and expanded its line to include the American and American Predator, its Precision Rifle and heavier Hawkeye Predator and Varmint Target rifles. All manner of AR-10 autoloading rifles, such as the DPMS LR 6.5, are chambered for the 6.5.
Shooting from a bench quickly becomes boring. To liven up a couple of evenings, I shot the Bergara and Ruger rifles from different positions. When shooting offhand, most Sierra 120-grain bullets were kept in a five-inch spread at 100 yards. It was easy to keep bullets in a three-inch circle when sitting with the rifles supported on shooting sticks. I switched to the prone position to shoot a steel plate at 300 yards. I missed the plate a few times, mainly from stuttering on the trigger, but recoil was so light I saw the dirt kicked up by the bullets. When I hit the plate, the view returned through the scope before the plate had swung back from the smack of the bullet.
I watched through a spotting scope as my niece sat and shot the Bergara rifle supported on shooting sticks. Her first couple of shots hit below a steel plate at 300 yards. She raised the scope’s crosshairs a bit to compensate for bullet drop, and her next 10 shots punched the center of the plate.
Mikayla usually shoots a .308 Winchester for practice and hunting. While reloading the 6.5’s magazine, she commented several times on the light recoil. “I like this 6.5 a lot,” she said.
There is a lot to like about the 6.5 Creedmoor. It burns a miserly amount of powder in return for decent velocity. Reloading the cartridge is easy, and a bunch of powders and bullets make it suitable for shooting targets or big game. After all, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a well-conceived cartridge that traces its heritage back over a century ago to the 6.5x55.