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!
Just recently I got back from a “mixed bag” hunt in Argentina: where I did some wingshooting, deer, and water buffalo hunting. I took an over/under Blaser12 gauge; and a Blaser R8 with .270 and .375 barrels. At this moment I’m on an airplane, headed toward Cameroon. I do not have a gun case in the cargo hold; I’ll be using a “camp gun.” In this article I will be discussing the pros and cons of flying with and without firearms while traveling to hunt.
Mindsets vary. If you’re a hunter who views a firearm as an essential tool, then, so long as a suitable tool is available, it may not be important for you to bring a favorite firearm. On the other hand, if you’re a “gun guy,” it may be important for you to bring a firearm you consider perfect for game you’re hunting. Destinations vary. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to bring guns; other times it’s a major hassle, but still possible. And there are places where the hunting is great but it is not possible to bring a firearm. You simply must use whatever is available.
I’m both a hunter and a “gun guy.” Given a sensible choice I prefer to bring my own. However, I’ve hunted several places where bringing a firearm isn’t possible. That’s easy: I’ll use whatever is available! Where decisions get hard are situations where practicality and convenience enter in. Essential to consider: Game and hunting conditions; and what firearms are available?
ARGENTINA AND CAMEROON
My two situations, Argentina and Cameroon, although quite different, are good examples that led to different decisions. Argentina is the largest destination in the world, up to 20,000 foreign hunters per year. Their police and customs officials are no strangers to firearms. Foreign hunters can get temporary permits on arrival, or in advance at the nearest Argentinean consulate. It isn’t really a problem, but there are costs: Their government charges for the permit and your outfitter will probably charge to help expedite the permit. If you are flying to various places around Argentina, you must check the firearms in and out with the local airport police with every transition—much like South Africa. It is not a problem, but it’s a hassle. My hunting partners, Heather Smith and Gary Wells, elected to use camp firearms…and they had to wait for me in every airport!
I was filming, so using sponsor firearms was essential. But, absent compelling justification, there is no reason to bring firearms into Argentina! Outfitters there have good guns. Bird lodges have racks of shotguns, usually Benelli and Beretta. Big-game areas will have well-scoped bolt-actions in appropriate cartridges. I used my guns while Gary and Heather borrowed; at the end of the hunt we were all equally successful.
Cameroon is a different deal. I wanted to take the perfect rifle, and had my heart set on a 9.3x62mm from Montana Rifles. I could have…but the only way to get a gun permit is through their Washington embassy and I ran out of time. Outfitter, Phillippe Bernon suggested (politely) that they had three good scoped .375s available: A Blaser R93, a CZ, and a Sako. This is a forest hunt. The range will be close, a .375 is fine. I decided it wasn’t worth it to fight city hall. I don’t even know which of the three I will use…but it really doesn’t matter.
TRAVELING WITH FIREARMS…
Anywhere in the world the most important thing is to know the rules. Within the United States it’s simple: In checked baggage, sturdy gun case, unloaded, disassembled if possible, all lock holes in the case filled with locks. Ammunition cannot be in the gun case, but can be in other checked baggage. The magic litany: “In original factory containers, less than 5 kilograms (11 pounds).” Always check the airline’s website for any special rules, and for sure announce firearms and ammunition when you check in. Here’s the first caveat: The rules change! Some carriers will not carry firearms. Period, end of story. Make damn sure!
Traveling outside the U.S. is more complicated. Basic rules are similar, but the check-in agent has the obligation to ensure that your firearm can enter your destination country. So, if a temporary permit is needed, do it in advance and have a copy…or make certain it’s right there in black and white (in the airline regulations) that you can obtain a temporary permit on arrival (Argentina, Canada, Namibia, and South Africa are popular examples of this situation).
Ammo is another story. In the U.S. you can technically put ammo in checked baggage separate from firearms. In much of the world ammunition is checked separately in its own locked container. Here’s what I do: My ammunition is packed in a small “military-style” ammo can…with a hasp and padlock in the can to be used when needed. I start with the ammo can unlocked in my duffel…but I can lock it, and check it separately as needed. Checking ammo separately in a locked container is standard throughout much of the world.
The permit process differs radically in various countries, but your outfitter and a gun-savvy travel agent (highly recommended!) can help. The real magic lies in a little piece of paper called “U.S. Customs Form 4457.” Available at any U.S. Customs office, it’s the same form used to record jewelry, watches, or cameras you’re traveling with…to prove you didn’t buy them overseas. No record is kept, so it’s a silly form…but essential for firearms.
Elsewhere in the world, U.S. Customs Form 4457 generally serves as a “firearms permit” to obtain a temporary permit. The problem is the game is changing. Historically, that magical little form 4457 was good as long as you owned the firearm. Today’s forms are dated with an expiration, fine print, top right corner. So, it’s wise (and in some countries essential for a temporary permit) to get new forms.
Ah, one more caveat. You need to know the rules. Unfortunately, many airline employees and even TSA and U.S. Customs folks don’t know their own rules! Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee liked to say “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Honest, you can’t argue with these people. You can go through various levels of supervisors, but you cannot argue and must be polite! Just now, coming in from Argentina, I got a belligerent inspector who refused to accept a copy of my 4457. That’s a first; it’s a form that no one has a record of, and copies should be fine…but not with this guy. He also insisted they do not expire, so, on this form, he was quite surprised to see, in fine print, “Expiration Date 08/31/2019” in the upper right corner.
The discussion, now calm, got more interesting when I commented that this form served as a “international” throughout much of the world. He insisted that our Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) did indeed “register” firearms and I needed to obtain proper permits. Yes, for certain situations…but in these United States, thank God, we have no nationwide registrations process. You would think U.S. Customs officials would know this—but they do not, and this is not the first time I’ve encountered this. Be polite, get your 4457, make sure it’s current, make copies, and carry the original!
…AND WITHOUT THEM
Trust me, it’s a lot easier to travel without firearms! It’s a relief not to have to schlep the gun case, clear its contents through various authorities…and worry about it! But that depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. In several places I’ve hunted—Congo, Ghana, Liberia, Peru, Philippines—it’s been impossible to take a firearm so I’ve used what is there. Other times, like this hunt in Cameroon, it’s been too difficult. However, it depends on where you’re going. North America is rarely an issue; there are usually suitable firearms available. This is also true in Africa, Europe, South America, and South Pacific.
The biggest problem is Asia, largely mountain hunting where shots can be far. Flat-shooting, well-scoped, sporting rifles are rare throughout the region. I’ve done a couple dozen Asian hunts and, with just two exceptions, I’ve always brought a rifle. In the Philippines it was legally impossible; we borrowed a worn M14 from the local armory! But that was jungle hunting, where ranges are short. The last time I went to Pakistan I scrambled a hunt on short notice. Like this hunt in Cameroon, there wasn’t time to get a temporary permit, so I used the outfitter’s rifles. Mind you, before committing to the hunt I knew he had good rifles in camp and available.
No matter where you’re going, that’s a major key: If you choose not to bring your own guns, or you can’t, then you should find out what might be available for you to use. Honestly, you should do this anyway! Even with the best planning there is always the chance your baggage can go astray. Only rarely are guns permanently lost. This has never happened to me and, with heightened security, I think it’s extremely unlikely today. But delays happen and your hunt may be far from the airport; it’s good to know what’s on hand just in case.
Trust me, traveling with firearms is not getting easier! Recognizing this, smart outfitters the world over are “gearing up,” ensuring they have proper firearms to rent or loan. Heck, even though I’m completely left-handed, we keep a couple of decent right-handed rifles at the Kansas farm for hunters to borrow…and they see use every deer season!