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.
The first story I got paid ‘cash money’ for was a fishing story, published in the old Fur-Fish-Game magazine. For those who study ancient history, it was about fishing for grayling on Alaska’s Tanana River, back when I was a very young Marine lieutenant attending the Army’s mountain warfare school at Fort Greeley. I received $35 for it!
Since then there have been very few fishing stories under my by-line. In truth I’m not much of an angler. And certainly not an expert angler. However, there are exceptions…at least in interest, if not expertise. I just got back from sort of an annual hunting—er, fishing—trip with my buddy Jim Rough at his Black Gold Lodge at Rivers Inlet, British Columbia, on the mainland northeast of the northern tip of Vancouver Island.
Jim’s a serious, experienced, and well-traveled hunter, and I met him through hunting, at one of the major conventions. Hunting is his passion but, as a proprietor of Black Gold since 1988, salmon fishing is his business. So, while mooching along, lines in the water, we talk mostly about hunting…while we hunt for big salmon.
Yes, they’re down there, somewhere in that cold water, and the job is to find them. It’s impossible to know exactly where, but we troll long-known hotspots with shore and off-shore structure: Cranston, the Dome, Rough’s Bluff, the Wall, maybe Bull, Cow, or Calf Islands. We play with the depth and the weight, and of course we mess with the bait, usually herring, double-hooked to get just the right roll, and we work the tides.
Some years ago, Jim got the crazy idea to hold a salmon tournament with a combination of fishing and hunting trips as prizes. It must have worked—and I must like it—because this event was just past our 10th Annual Craig Boddington Salmon Fishing Tournament. The where for big salmon is tricky…but so is the when. It’s a short season up there, July into September, but typically late July sees a good run of big salmon, returning from the depths of the Pacific…but exactly when varies.
Honestly, this year the fishing for big salmon was slow during the tournament, picking up fast just as soon as it ended. Sort of like timing the peak of the whitetail rut: “You should have been here last week…wish you could stay until next week.” Even at the slowest, there are some big fish around, but it takes luck, patience, and persistence. This year, the swells were a bit rough, and Jim and I had just gotten to a drop-off near the Wall, 40 pulls down with herring and a ten-ounce weight, when a fish hit, gently at first…and then the line bent double. We fought for an hour, maneuvering to keep out of kelp, maintaining pressure, losing line, reel screaming when the fish ran, gaining some back, losing more, arms and shoulders on fire, we finally got him in, at 45 pounds my best salmon to date.
It wasn’t even the biggest in the area, either. There’s skill involved in spotting and stalking big salmon, but there’s at least a bit of luck in getting them in the boat…and it’s not going to happen every time. I claim no expertise in anything fishing-related, but after a decade of hunting big salmon I’m better at it than I used to be…and you still won’t boat them all. Two years ago. we had a much bigger fish all the way to the boat. The fish was right there, Jim had the net…and then the line broke. We saw him clearly, surely a 60-pounder, gone. A big fish like that might take you from one side of the inlet to the other and back, boats scattering to give room. Anything can go wrong: Hook thrown, tangled in kelp, too much drag…or too little. And sometimes, like the big fish I just caught, everything goes perfectly.
Speaking of the English and we Americans, Churchill said we are “one people divided by a common language.” This is also true of Americans and Canadians. Up there, the big salmon we hunt are called Chinook; we know them as kings. Aggravating the language barrier, up there a chinook of 30 pounds or more is called a “tyee.” Catching one yields a special cap and a pin…and your name on the “Tyee Club” board for the rest of the season. I’ve made that board several times…but definitely not every year. A 30-pound salmon is a big fish and a worthy adversary. You know my biggest (so far), and I’ve admitted to the one that got away. I’ve seen bigger salmon come into the lodge; hooking them takes luck, but boating them takes luck and skill. I’ve noticed that most of the bigger fish are taken by anglers with more patience, persistence, and experience than I can claim.
We love to eat salmon, and at Black Gold they’re filleted, vacuum-packed, frozen, and beautifully boxed for the trip home. A big chinook is the prize, but as uncertain as a big whitetail, so we spend part of our time fishing for the “other” salmon. We call them “silver,” but in Canada-speak they’re coho. We tend to fish for them in deeper channels, not always deeper, but with lighter weights. Pound for pound, I think the cohos fight harder than the chinooks, and certainly jump more. We catch a lot of cohos in the ten-pound class, a marvelous eating fish—and they get bigger, occasionally over 20 pounds.
Barbless hooks are an awesome conservation measure, but because of their acrobatics I think we lose more cohos than chinooks. On the other hand, we catch more of them, and often a pink salmon will be caught. Fishing is fishing; sometimes we go for long hours without a strike…and sometimes, often along a tide line at slack tide, the action is almost too fast and furious, and you never know what you might see. Rivers Inlet is a paradise for marine mammals: Whales, usually hump-backs; black-and-white orcas (also hunting salmon); seals and sea lions; occasionally dolphins or porpoises. Sea otters, once rarely seen, have moved into the area and are now frequently encountered. The shoreline is gorgeous, typically a rocky beach line with primeval conifer forest above. We see lots of eagles along the shore, occasionally deer and grizzly bears.
Rivers Inlet is a magical place, with several lodges tucked into the myriad inlets and channels. The lodges vary in the number of “rating *s” they might receive, but Black Gold is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are no permanent structures on the shore. Instead, Black Gold is a floating village, towed into place by two ocean-going tugboats when the ice breaks up in June, anchored for the short season and then, in September, towed to a safe winter harbor a few dozen miles up Rivers Inlet. Yep, has running water, all the amenities, and choice of “lodge” accommodations or self-catering. It’s comfortable rather than fancy, but for a few days a year it’s been home for more than a decade.
After 30 years the organization is excellent, but just getting there is an adventure. To Vancouver, then to the South Terminal across the runway, where Pacific Coastal runs scheduled flights to Port Hardy, northern tip of the island. Then a half-hour float-plane trip across the sound to Rivers Inlet and Black Gold. That last short flight is gorgeous, and I’m always amazed at how well it works…but weather (in summer, especially fog) can be an issue.
Every year I hope to hook into a really big salmon. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not…and sometimes I get them to the boat (and sometimes not), but I’ve never failed to catch fish. I look forward to taking home a box of tasty salmon, usually with some ling cod, perhaps a halibut, and savoring them throughout the year. But here’s what I look forward to the most: Black Gold rests on a network of huge floating logs, securely anchored to shore in a sheltered cove. That gentle rocking motion offers the best sleep I’ve ever known!
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!