We all know the 6.5mm Creedmoor is the hottest thing since sliced bread, right now, except the .223 Remington, our hottest-selling centerfire cartridge. And the greatest cartridge phenomenon I’ve seen in my career. The Creedmoor is different because its popularity isn’t based on marketing hype. Developed as a long-range target cartridge, its introduction was soft and its designer, Hornady, had limited expectations. The Creedmoor won matches right out of the starting gate, but it actually fizzled along for several years. Then, suddenly, it took off and, so far, hasn’t looked back. The 6.5mm Creedmoor is accurate, efficient, mild in recoil, and with its short case is able to utilize the long, aerodynamic bullets currently in fashion, from a short action.
The 6.5mm Creedmoor is a great cartridge…but it isn’t the only 6.5mm cartridge out there. Suddenly the .26-caliber (bullet diameter .264-inch) is in. This, in itself, is odd because this bullet diameter is hardly new. Back in the 1890s, at the dawn of smokeless powder, a number of 6.5mm cartridges were developed for military use, primarily for European powers. Several became popular sporting cartridges, not only in Europe but also over here. Some, such as the 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer and 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, are ballistic equals to the 6.5mm Creedmoor…especially if modern propellants and bullets are used. Up through the 1930s America’s sporting press was full of references to early 6.5mms, but their use dwindled and almost faded away.
Then passed a full generation when a 6.5mm cartridge seemed certain to fail in America. The.256 Newton (actually a 6.5mm) failed in the 1920s. The .264 Winchester Magnum started strong in the late 1950s but faded quickly. Remington’s 6.5mm Remington Magnum (1966) went nowhere. The message seemed clear: No 6.5mm cartridge could be marketed in the U.S. Remington tried again in 1997 with the .260 Remington, a fine cartridge that, like all American 6.5mms, achieved limited success. Introduced in 2008, the ballistically identical 6.5mm Creedmoor seemed destined for the same anonymity. Then it caught on, and today’s shooters have discovered the 6.5mm!
Odd, because it was always out there, with long, heavy-for-caliber bullets that carry well. Now it seems that the 6.5mm is America’s darling. The 6.5 Creedmoor is the most popular, but there are other choices. The faster 6.5-.284 has a following. Then came the very fast 26 Nosler, followed by the 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum, speediest of all 6.5mm cartridges. Then came Hornady’s 6.5mm PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge). The 6.5 PRC is not as fast as the 26 Nosler or 6.5-.300 Weatherby. In fact, it pretty much duplicates ballistics of the old (and still unloved) .264 Winchester Magnum—but it does it with a fatter, more efficient case, and is better able to handle today’s extra-long, super-aerodynamic bullets. Now that the American shooting public has (at long last) “discovered” the 6.5mm.There are numerous wildcats and proprietaries wringing just a bit more performance out of the 6.5mm bullet, and I’m fairly certain there’s at least one more factory 6.5mm cartridge coming soon.
I’ll be honest: I don’t have experience with all of them…and I probably won’t. I already have too many rifles chambered to too many cartridges. These days, performance has to be both excellent and unique before I further complicate ammo resupply. Case design can improve efficiency and promote accuracy and can certainly dictate choice of action. However, right now it seems to me we have three distinct levels of 6.5mm performance.
The lowest, or slowest, is typified by the 6.5mm Creedmoor, propelling a 140-grain bullet at about 2700 fps. The .260 Remington is ballistically identical and, with the right loads, so is the 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser. In this group, I’ve had several .260s and I have a serious yearning to own a good 6.5x55…but I have a Mossberg Patriot in 6.5 Creedmoor. Accurate and low in recoil, this group is awesome for shooting groups and ringing steel at long range, and, in my opinion, ideal for hunting deer-sized game at medium range.
It was a perfect setup for prairie dogs; we had a big shade tree to our left, three of us in line on portable benches, with a big colony stretching away before us. Stephen Shen was on the left, Gordon Marsh in the middle, me on the right. Interestingly, all three of us were shooting the .204 Ruger cartridge: Stephen a Savage 116, while both Gordon and I were shooting Ruger No. Ones, his in blue/walnut and mine stainless/laminate.
It wasn’t universal; Bill Green was off the right, popping away and having a ball with a semi-auto .17 HMR . This was Gordon and Bill’s annual prairie dog shoot out of Cheyenne, hunting with Craig Oceanak and Nick of Timberline Outfitters. It was my second shoot with them; for Stephen, CEO of Vector Optics, his first ever. We had other rifles, .223s and .22-250s. However, except for Bill, who clung to his .17 HMR and walked in some amazing shots, the .204s did the majority of the work. There are many excellent varmint cartridges, so it struck me as unusual that three among our foursome were shooting .204s…but I think we made good choices.
When I say “varmint cartridge” I’m thinking rodents that eat grass and dig burrows, and thus cause problems for farmers and ranchers. Woodchucks in the East; prairie dogs, rock-chucks, ground squirrels and gophers in the West. Developing cartridges and rifles for this class of pest is primarily an American phenomenon, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.
The requirements are simple: Accuracy, range, and minimal recoil. Accuracy because we’re dealing with small targets. A ‘chuck is comparatively large, but an upright prairie dog is only a couple inches across. A “one-MOA” rifle is thus a 200-yard prairie dog gun. One-half MOA is really the starting point. Ranging capability does depend on how you go about it. The rim-fires are great fun for short-range work…and stalking the edges and shooting from field positions with center-fires is excellent training. But if you set up from deliberate shooting positions and try to reach out several hundred yards, fast, flat-shooting cartridges are essential.
In a big ‘dog town you might shoot steadily all day, with numerous breaks to cool and clean barrels. When I was a kid, I did a lot of prairie-dogging with a .264 Winchester Magnum—but it’s silly to take that much pounding. The 6mms and .25s remain excellent crossover cartridges: Varmints with lighter bullets, big game with heavier bullets. Power is not an issue; at close range the .22 LR is plenty good for the job.
However, the biggest problem with cartridges above the .22 center-fires is even that modest amount of recoil makes it impossible to call shots through the scope. This is especially important in the windy West. As range and wind effect increase, not every shot will hit. The ideal situation is to observe the strike through the scope and correct. You can’t do this while you’re lost in recoil! I’ve often said that prairie dogs are great teachers, both for precise shot placement and for calling wind. The buddy system works, taking turns spotting and shooting—but you’ll learn more if you can call shots through the scope and make your own corrections.
We have multiple choices, and the arguments for one cartridge versus another are actually pretty thin. The little .22 Hornet, introduced in 1930, was probably the first center-fire intended for varminting. It retains a following and I love it—but with modest velocity it’s limited in range. Introduced in 1935, the .220 Swift was the first commercial cartridge to break 4000 fps—and it’s still among few that do. Accurate as well as fast, the Swift still has fans, but for many years the .22-250 has been the most popular fast .22 center fire.
In the 1930s there were several wildcats based on the .250 Savage case necked down to .224-inch. The most common was a 1937 version called “.22 Varminter,” legitimized by Remington in 1965 as the .22-250 Remington. The .22-250 isn’t as fast as the Swift, but close, and is very accurate. Other fast .22s have included the .224 Weatherby Magnum, .225 Winchester, and .223 WSSM, but the .22-250 is today’s preferred long-range varmint cartridge.
If there’s a problem with the .22-250, it’s simply that, unless gun weight is fairly extreme, there’s just too much recoil to call shots through the scope. So, over the years, many of us have consciously sacrificed velocity and range and used milder .22 center-fires. Developed by Remington’s Mike Walker as a bench-rest cartridge back in 1950, the mild and super-accurate .222 Remington filled this niche perfectly. Its lack of popularity today is coincidental. In the late 1950s the U.S. Army was looking for a smaller-caliber military cartridge. The .222 Remington didn’t have quite the velocity they wanted, so the .222 Remington Magnum was created with a longer case. It wasn’t popular as a civilian cartridge and wasn’t adopted by the military, losing out to the .223 Remington.
The .223 (5.56x45mm) is also based on the .222 Remington, with a lengthened case and shorter neck. We could argue that the .222 Remington is the more accurate cartridge, and the .222 Remington Magnum is faster. But what’s the point? As our military (and NATO) cartridge, the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm is today’s most popular center-fire cartridge, and it’s a marvelous varmint cartridge.
With a 55-grain bullet at about 3300 fps it’s effective on small varmints to at least 300 yards, and even in a fairly light-barreled rifle it’s mild enough to call shots through the scope. New contenders such as the .22 Nosler and Federal’s .224 Valkyrie will also run through the AR15 platform and offer more velocity. We could also argue that they are “better” cartridges…but it remains to be seen if they can approach the .223’s popularity.
Australian fox hunters created .17-caliber center-fires because the light bullet wouldn’t exit, thus minimizing pelt damage. In 1971 Remington necked down the .222 Remington Magnum to create the .17 Remington, a 4000 fps-cartridge with bullets up to 25 grains. The .17s are useful, and today we have choices, from rim-fires up through the .17 Hornet, .17 Remington Fireball, and the granddaddy .17 Remington. Accuracy can be astounding and there’s plenty of power for prairie dogs and such, although I question the milder .17s on coyotes. The big problem: The .17-caliber’s light bullets just don’t hold up in wind!
The .20-calibers, bullet diameter .204-inch, are a recent development, spawned by good old American wildcatters in the 1990s. There are a number of wildcat and proprietary .20-caliber cartridges, but the .204 Ruger is the only factory .20-caliber. Introduced in 2004 as a joint project between Hornady and Ruger, the .204 is based on the .222 Remington Magnum case.
The theory is to split the difference between the .17s and .22 center-fires…and the actual result, to me, offers the best of all worlds. Again, we’re talking the specialized world of varmint cartridges. The .20-caliber doesn’t offer the heavy-bullet flexibility of the .22 center-fires for larger game. They are certainly effective on fur-bearers up to coyotes, but don’t minimize pelt damage like the .17s. Also, the faster .17s are prone to rapid fouling; the .20s are not.
The .204 Ruger took off fast. All major manufacturers load it, with bullet weights from 24 to 45 grains. At about 34 grains and lighter the .204 Ruger reaches or exceeds 4000 fps. I’m not usually quick to pick up on a new cartridge—especially in an unfamiliar bullet diameter! My usual mantra is (grumble, grumble): “We’ve got enough calibers and cartridges!” A Ruger No. One in .204, stainless and laminate in heavy-barrel configuration, came in as a test rifle. I was impressed enough to buy it and, nearly 15 years later, it remains my go-to prairie dog rifle.
Here’s what I like about the .204: Accuracy is consistently good with all loads. My preference is the 40-grain load, not the fastest at 3900 fps, but with that heavier bullet it holds up in wind better than the faster, lighter bullets. More importantly, it seems to perform about as well as the .22-250 at similar velocities with varmint bullets from 50 to 55 grains. Most important: With the lighter bullet and heavier barrel (smaller bore equals more steel for equal barrel diameter) it has less recoil than a .22-250, so I can easily call shots through the scope.
Requirements for an ideal varmint cartridge are simple: Accuracy, velocity, shoot-ability. If I had to cut down to just one, it’s the .204 I’d hang onto!
I’m probably not the first person who came up with this, but I’ve long called it Boddington’s First Rule of Optics: You get what you pay for! Sport optics is a very competitive field; there are reasons why Optic A is priced twice (or three times!) as high as Optic B. These reasons include quality of glass, construction, and coatings; and customer service. Now, I’d be the first to say that not every person or application really needs the highest quality.
Also, and this is important, as you move up and down the scales in optical quality, the differences are subtle. No sales hype can possibly explain the value in the price differential. And, guess what, in a brick-and-mortar gun shop—you can pick up one optic after another and compare, but it’s difficult to really see the difference.
After a lifetime of messing with this stuff I’m convinced the differences are there. Now, there’s no question that, just like anything else, some prestigious brands command higher prices. Back to my First Rule, I believe there are sound reasons why those brands are considered “premium!” As to what are the “best” optics, I won’t take that bait! There are great optics, and a lot of really good middle-priced glass, so good that, again, it’s hard to tell the difference, and plenty good enough for most shooters in most applications. I think most of us could agree that top premium optics include classic European brands such as Leica, Swarovski, and Zeiss. In the way these things shift back and forth, all three have been sponsors of TV shows I’ve been involved in, so I’ve used them all a lot.
I’ve used a lot of other good optics as well. In the weird world of “outdoor TV” we are obligated to use our sponsors’ products, in my writing and on personal hunts; I try not to play favorites! So I have been perfectly satisfied with a wide array of optics. No one can possibly have even passing familiarity with all brands…but one name I’m extremely familiar with is Zeiss.
Carl Zeiss opened shop in Jena, Germany in 1846. They’ve been building binoculars since 1893, rifle-scopes since 1904, and variable power rifle-scopes since 1922. The anti-reflective “T” coating was a 1935 Zeiss innovation that increased light transmission by 50 percent! Today, Zeiss Group is a huge company manufacturing lenses and products with lenses for wide applications: Vision care, photography, microscopes, telescopes, medical applications ,and more. Zeiss Sport Optics, though important to us and a leader in our field, is a fairly small division.
Top of the line, Zeiss products are marketed under the Victory banner. Like many larger manufacturers, they also offer optics lines at medium price points. For some years this has been the Conquest line. Conquest is good, Victory is better. Victory should be better because the price differential is significant. I’ve used both lines quite a bit and have been very happy. There are differences, but you have to look pretty hard. Whether the differences are worth the extra cost depends altogether on what you’re doing, and your budget.
The Blaser R8 was introduced in 2009. In the spring of 2010, I was going to Nepal’s Himalayas, then to Romania to hunt European brown bear. It seemed to me a switch-barrel rifle would be perfect for such diverse situations, so I got a Blaser R8 with .300 and .338 barrels. I put a Victory 3.5-10x50mm scope on the .338; and a Victory 3-12x56mm scope, with the Rapid Z 800 range-compensating reticle. As one might (and should!) expect, both scopes were clear and bright, and the adjustments were perfect and perfectly repeatable. Once zeroed, neither has ever changed!
Nepal is sort of a post-graduate mountain hunt; very high, steep, and completely on foot. I did my homework, verifying reticle hash-marks to much farther than I intend to shoot. In the event I drew two difficult shots. The Himalayan tahr was 465 yards, the blue sheep a bit over 500. Both times I had a stiff crosswind, but I read it right and the shots worked. Now, honest, I am not steadfastly faithful to any rifle, cartridge, or scope, but with an inaugural experience like that, both the Blaser and the Victory 3-12×56 scope became a stand-by for mountain hunts.
That scope is a good example of the principle that magnification is over-rated! In the scope world today, 12X isn’t all that strong, but optical clarity counts for more, and it’s amazingly clear. I’ve had other scopes on that Blaser, and the 3-12X Victory has been on other rifles. In 2010 the 3-10x50mm Victory performed perfectly on a nice European grizzly in diminishing light. Since then I’ve moved it back and forth to other rifles (and Blaser barrels), it has also seen a lot of use. That same year, 2010, I got really lucky and won a Zeiss 10x45mm RF range-finding binocular. So, until 2018, I frequently paired this binocular with one of these Victory scopes. Mind you, in that period I also used various rifles with other scopes; including Zeiss Conquest scopes with one inch tubes. They weren’t Victory (nor are they supposed to be), but I always found them to be pretty good glass!
In 2018 Zeiss revamped their line dramatically. The one-inch Conquest scopes are gone, replaced by two Conquest lines with 30mm tubes: V4 and V6, the former with four-times-zoom, the latter with six-times-zoom. There are six V4 models and three V6, both pretty much covering the spectrum from dangerous game to long range. The Victory line has also been revamped. New is the Victory V8 with eight-times-zoom! There are four V8 Victory rifle-scopes, all with 36mm tubes, ranging from 1-8x30mm to 4.8-35x60mm.
The binocular line was similarly updated, with three tiers or price points. Terra, the entry-level Zeiss binocular, Conquest in the middle, and Victory the top of the line. Of a particular interest to me, the 10×45 RF range-finding binocular has been replaced with four new RF binoculars, including on-board ballistics calculators that interface with the new Zeiss Hunting app.
These are sweeping changes, with product still working through the pipeline. I knew nothing until summer of ’18, when I had a chance to see some of the new product. Problem was I was only a month away from a major hunt in Mongolia. It’s fun to try new stuff, but it’s also a bit scary; your gut tells you to stick with tried and true stuff. But, it’s part of the job, and, after all, the label was Zeiss.
Zeiss’s Kyle Brown loaned me a Conquest V4 4-16x50mm scope. I am not an extreme-range shooter on game, so I figured the 4-16X would be all I needed…and it’s a nice-sized scope. He was also kind enough to let me use a 10-42 RF binocular. My 10×45 RF is awesome, but it’s a bit heavy; the new 10×42 RF shaves a few ounces and some bulk…and it has the Bluetooth interface
So, I mounted the new Conquest scope in a Blaser saddle mount, loaded the free Zeiss Hunting app onto my I-phone, and repaired to the range. (Fortunately, I have good cell coverage there!) I’d be using a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel with Hornady 200-grain ELD-X. It was simple to put the data into the app. However, the Zeiss hunting app updates for atmospherics: Altitude, barometric pressure, temperature. Thing is, there may not be cell coverage in the middle of nowhere. No problem; I built my ballistics chart based on anticipated altitudes and average temperatures. I verified the hash-marks on the ZBR-2 reticle, and then I hedged my bet by putting the reticle—and its hash-mark values on a big square of duct-tape on my butt-stock.
The new Conquest scope came into zero easily and the adjustments were accurate, pure Zeiss. In the best part of a month in Mongolia we hit seven different areas, meaning endless drives and lots of bumping over horrible roads. I checked zero at least five times, and neither the rifle nor scope shifted a bit. The new 10×42 RF binocular was awesome, ranging far and fast. In the field, I must admit I didn’t strain the optics. Thanks to good stalking by the Shikar-Safari team, no shots exceeded 325 yards, but whether sheep, ibex, or maral stag, there were no misses, no tracking, and no lack of confidence.
All in all, I got what I paid for. Great shots, great scopes, and great rifles. It just takes some shopping around and field use to figure out what works best for you and your type of hunts.
Range Limits: Longer Than Ever, But Still Not Unlimited
In recent years I’ve done more long-range shooting than ever before. Ringing steel with relative ease at a thousand yards is not only fun, but also a huge confidence builder.
Years ago I did a lot of prairie dog shooting, which provides a fantastic opportunity for field practice. The target is tiny, and it doesn’t take much wind to blow the bullet clear off the mound, let alone off the varmint. And since prairie dog country is rarely calm, this is a great way to learn to read wind. If you can consistently hit prairie dogs at a couple hundred yards, big-game animals will pose little challenge at considerably longer distances.
I view range practice similarly. In a range setting, if you can ring steel consistently at 800, 900, or 1000 yards you will gain a lot of invaluable confidence in yourself and your equipment. Shooting targets at extreme range prepares you for field shooting at longer ranges, and shooting at actual distances is the only way to accomplish this. “Extending your range envelope” is a phrase I like. However, I don’t believe ringing steel at long range enables one to ethically shoot at game at similar distances.
I have used many rifles scopes over the last 46 years. My favorite brand has always been Leuplod. They and vary greatly in quality according to the price. But generally you can’t go wrong.
I know have a new favorite the Weaver Super Slam scopes and especially the Euro series with 30 mm tubes and First Focal Plane optics.
I have two 1-5 power scopes one on my .460 Wby magnum and one on a 416 Rigby where I have used both of these on dangerous game i Africa. This version has outstanding very long eye relieve and I don’t have to worry about getting a scope cut. They are super clear and reliable. I have used them on shots from 15 yards to 200 yards. For your big bore DG bolt rifle, it’s hard to beat these scopes at any price.
But my most favorite Weaver Super Slam scope is the Euro version 4-20X50. I have replaced all of my Leuplod scopes with this. I use this scope on a 204 Ruger Varmint rifle, .223 AR Varmint, a 22-250 Varmint, a 300 Win mag , a 257 Wby Mag and a 50 BMG target rifle.