LG Outdoors is proud to feature articles by Craig Boddington. Craig is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.
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!
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.
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?”
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→