Tag Archives: choosing the right cartridge

CHOOSING A 6.5MM CARTRIDGE By Craig Boddington

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.

There are quite a few cartridges in the middle tier of “fast” 6.5mms. All of these will at least approach 3000 fps with a 140-grain bullet, and certainly with a 130-grain slug. Left to right: 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5-.284 Norma, 6.5-06 (wildcat), .264 Winchester Magnum, 6.5mm SST (proprietary).
There are quite a few cartridges in the middle tier of “fast” 6.5mms. All of these will at least approach 3000 fps with a 140-grain bullet, and certainly with a 130-grain slug. Left to right: 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5-.284 Norma, 6.5-06 (wildcat), .264 Winchester Magnum, 6.5mm SST (proprietary).

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.

Left to right: 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor. Although the Creedmoor is by far the most popular 6.5mm cartridge, these three are ballistic equals, propelling a 140-grain bullet at about 2700 fps.
Left to right: 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor. Although the Creedmoor is by far the most popular 6.5mm cartridge, these three are ballistic equals, propelling a 140-grain bullet at about 2700 fps.

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!

: This is my .264, based on a left-hand Parker Ackley Santa Barbara action with a 26-inch Obermayr barrel. The long-unpopular .264 isn’t known for accuracy, but it depends on the rifle. This one shoots very well!
: This is my .264, based on a left-hand Parker Ackley Santa Barbara action with a 26-inch Obermayr barrel. The long-unpopular .264 isn’t known for accuracy, but it depends on the rifle. This one shoots very well!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The 26 Nosler and 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum are the two “very fast” 6.5mm factory cartridges. Both are capable of propelling a 140-grain bullet above 3400 fps. This makes them among the flattest-shooting hunting cartridges available.
The 26 Nosler and 6.5-.300 Weatherby Magnum are the two “very fast” 6.5mm factory cartridges. Both are capable of propelling a 140-grain bullet above 3400 fps. This makes them among the flattest-shooting hunting cartridges available.

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.

It is not true that all 6.5mm rifles and cartridges are tack-drivers…no more than anything else. But in good rifles with good loads most shoot very well. These are the initial groups from an Axial Precision in 6.5mm SST, based on the 7mm RUM case shortened and necked down.
It is not true that all 6.5mm rifles and cartridges are tack-drivers…no more than anything else. But in good rifles with good loads most shoot very well. These are the initial groups from an Axial Precision in 6.5mm SST, based on the 7mm RUM case shortened and necked down.

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.

On the bench with a Savage 110 Classic in 6.5mm Creedmoor. The Creedmoor is extremely pleasant to shoot and usually accurate. Designed for long-range target work, it’s an extremely effective hunting cartridge…but not for long range on large game!
On the bench with a Savage 110 Classic in 6.5mm Creedmoor. The Creedmoor is extremely

.204 RUGER: THE BEST VARMINT CARTRIDGE? By Craig Boddington

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.

Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,
The .17s run from very fast to “medium” and all are useful but, in common, the light .17-caliber bullets hold up poorly in wind. Left to right: .17 Remington, .17 Remington Fireball, .17 Hornet,

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.

The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).
The various .22 centerfires are the classic varmint cartridges—but only a few have become popular. Left to right: .22 Hornet (1930); .222 Remington (1950); ,220-250 (1965); .220 Swift (1935); .223 WSSM (2002).

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 .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.
The .204 Ruger is readily adaptable to the AR action and is chambered by numerous manufacturers. This super-accurate AR in .204 Ruger was made by MGA in Spring, Texas.

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.

My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.
My Ruger No. One .204 Ruger in stainless and laminate regularly turns in half-inch group with both 32 and 40-grain loads. Although a bit slower, I prefer the 40-grain load because the heavier bullet holds up better in wind.

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.

We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington
We all have our favorites, but without question these are the three most popular centerfire varmint cartridges, all made by numerous manufacturers and readily available: Left to right: .223 Remington, .204 Ruger, .22-250 Remington

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.

Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).
Velocity is important in a versatile varmint cartridge, but extreme speed isn’t everything! Few factory loads break 4000 fps, mostly with lighter bullets. Left to right, these are most of the modern 4000 fps merchants: .17 Remington (25 gr.); 204 Ruger (34 gr.); .22-250 (40 gr.); .223 WSSM (40 gr.); 220 Swift (40 gr.); .243 Winchester (55 gr.).

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.

Gordon Marsh marks a prairie dog for Stephen Shen. Spotting for your buddies is half the fun of a prairie dog shoot, but the learning curve is steeper if you can call your shots through the scope. The .204 Ruger allows this; the fastest .22 centerfires have a bit too much recoil.:

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.

Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger
Wholesale Hunter’s Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. A great varmint rifle isn’t just the action and cartridge! Also needed is a good, clear scope with plenty of magnification and a sweet trigger. Marsh modified this Ruger with a crisp, light Jard trigger

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.

: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod
: I like to spend at least part of my time in a prairie dog town shooting from field positions. Misses increase, but the training is invaluable! Here, I’m shooting sitting with the .204 over a tall bipod

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.

Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.
Vector Optics’ Stephen Shen on a portable bench with his Savage 116 in .204 Ruger, of course with a Vector high-range variable scope. Inexpensive, accurate, and with a great trigger, Savage offers several variations of excellent heavy-barreled varmint rifles.

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.

Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.
Stephen Shen of Vector Optics, Boddington, and Gordon Marsh of Wholesale Hunter on a fine Wyoming morning with a huge prairie dog town stretching away behind us! All three of us used the .204 Ruger as our primary rifles, in my opinion one of our very best varmint cartridges.

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!

Choosing the Right Cartridge – Craig Boddington

CHOOSING THE RIGHT CARTRIDGE… Out of dozens of good ones!
(Craig Boddington)

“Which cartridge for me?” is a question I’m often asked. It may come from someone looking for a first centerfire rifle to get a youngster or spouse started, but just as frequently I am asked, “What should I get next?”

Photo by Craig Boddington
Niece Megan Lurvey had never shot a rifle. We started with a .22 rimfire, then, to introduce her to centerfire muzzle blast, we went to a .204 Ruger. The various varmint cartridges are great for introducing shooters to centerfires, with the .223 the most popular and available.

These are altogether different questions. In both cases, it’s essential to know the intended purpose; for the second question, obviously, I also have to ask what that person already has. Either way, we have so many great cartridges today that’s it’s a bewildering mess! The good news is that there are few wrong answers—no “bad” cartridges make it to factory production, and there’s all manner of overlap and redundancy in power requirements. There are dozens of good “deer cartridges,” only slightly fewer great “elk cartridges,” and so forth.  Continue reading Choosing the Right Cartridge – Craig Boddington