November 15, 2023
In the several decades I’ve watched (with keen interest) various new cartridges launch and then succeed or fail, I’ve seen nothing that remotely compares to the meteoric rise of the 6.5 PRC. Officially introduced in 2018, just four years ago, it is now the trendiest hunting cartridge on the scene.
Although it took off like wildfire in a high wind—and although every custom and production rifle manufacturer scrambled to introduce models chambered for it—the 6.5 PRC suffered from one crippling factor during its first few years of life.
Only Hornady (who introduced it) offered factory ammo, and the two loads available were topped with long-range bullets.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that—until you shoot a big bull elk at close range.
Those superbly accurate, high-ballistic-coefficient bullets are engineered to expand reliably at long range, where slow impact velocities require thin bullet jackets and a nose optimized for easy expansion. On deer-size game, the results are spectacular. However, when fired at screaming velocities into a nearby bull elk, such bullets often pancake on impact or fragment, losing so much weight they fail to penetrate deeply.
Like the 7mm Remington Magnum did when initially loaded with thin-jacketed, lead-core bullets designed for the much slower 7x57mm Mauser, the 6.5 PRC quickly earned a reputation for erratic performance on game.
In neither case was the cartridge at fault. Just as the “Seven-Mag” eventually came into its own with heavy, controlled-expansion bullets designed to hold together and penetrate deeply, the 6.5 PRC was poised to gain reliable on-game performance with the introduction of new loads with deep-penetrating hunting bullets.
A couple of new loads trickled into the market last year, and at this year’s SHOT Show, press releases splashed across the industry. In all, at least 16 new loads entered the pipeline. Of those, eight or more are stoked with controlled-expansion bullets designed for deep, bone-breaking, straight-line penetration. (One of these featured Hornady’s new CX bullet, a streamlined 130-grain, deep-penetrating monometal.)
This gives 6.5 PRC shooters a vast spectrum of factory ammo from which to choose. Once the Great Ammo Drought of 2021 and 2022 lifts, hunters should be able to pick from several loads that are optimal for the task at hand.
At first look, all the new 6.5 PRC loads are good, and some are endowed with potential greatness.
Which is best? In some cases, that remains to be seen. However, I’ve worked with many early-production samples and haven’t been disappointed with any of them.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity
Last year a surprising, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity forced me to quickly make that “which is best” choice when, to my shock, a short-notice opportunity to hunt Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep came my way.
I’m not usually that lucky. In a lifetime of applying for special draw tags, I’d previously pulled just one. This new opportunity was for a conservation (management) permit on Native American tribal land. Hunt dates would begin in 18 days from the date when I was given notice. Rigorous protocols would be adhered to, with respect for the native land and sound bighorn management foremost.
The terrain would be challenging, and the wild sheep would be at an elevation between 11,000 and 13,000 feet.
As a passionate backcountry hunter and the host of the “Backcountry Hunting Podcast,” I make a point of staying in decent physical shape and of keeping my gear in order. But also being a rifle nut of the first degree, I wanted to choose just the right cartridge and shootin’ iron for this incredible opportunity.
I believe the 6.5 PRC is the .270 Winchester of today. The ballistic coefficients (BC) of most 6.5mm projectiles are excellent, and sectional densities are high. It beats the .270 Win. handily in both categories. It shoots similar-weight bullets, it recoils less, and it fits into short-magnum actions.
My wife, Jenna, is the proud owner of a Gunwerks ClymR mountain rifle in 6.5 PRC. Gunwerks’s owner Aaron Davidson contacted her two years ago and asked if she’d be interested in a trade for one of her bison paintings. (Jenna is an awesome wildlife artist). I answered with an emphatic, “Yes!” Thankfully, Jenna agreed.
Weighing around seven pounds when scoped with a 3.5-18X 44mm Swarovski Z5, Jenna’s rifle combines excellent accuracy with 600-yard reach and is ideal for mountain hunting. She graciously agreed to loan it to me for my hunt.
The rifle shoots everything well. Ammo options flickered through my mind like an old-fashioned movie, but from the get-go it was really no contest. Federal’s 130-grain Terminal Ascent was the clear choice.
My Favorite Load
Why? That, my friends, is the question that prompted this article. Editor in Chief Joel Hutchcroft and I recently visited about the incredible popularity of the 6.5 PRC cartridge and the immense wave of new loads hitting the market. When I confessed that
I already had settled on a favorite load, he said, “Why don’t you write about that? Touch on all the new loads but focus on the one you consider to be the best.”
In case you’re not familiar with the Terminal Ascent bullet, let’s look at the design and construction that make it so uniquely capable. It’s rooted in Jack Carter’s legendary Trophy Bonded Bear Claw dangerous-game bullet and shares the same solid-copper rear half and bonded-in lead core up front. Thanks to those two characteristics, it cannot pancake on impact or fragment much and lose significant weight. However, thanks to the lead frontal core, it does mushroom splendidly. This combination of a deep-driving projectile with a reliably large frontal diameter makes it tremendously effective on impact.
Lots of good controlled-expansion bullets share those characteristics. However, most—including the original Bear Claw—only perform well at relatively close range. They don’t share the Terminal Ascent’s excellent aerodynamics or its ability to expand perfectly way, way downrange.
Thanks to a sleek nose profile, a healthy boattail, and cannelure grooves optimized for airflow, the Terminal Ascent has high BCs. Not as high as Berger VLD or Hornady ELD bullets, but high. It’s in a whole different aerodynamic realm than controlled-expansion monometal designs, let alone deep-penetrating world-class standards like Nosler’s Partition, Swift’s A-Frame, and Speer’s Grand Slam.
Up front, the Terminal Ascent has a unique “Slipstream” composite tip. It’s heat-tolerant and resistant to erosion, which protects consistency in high-BC bullets fired at magnum velocities. It and Hornady’s Heat Shield are the only composite bullet tips on the market with that characteristic. Plus, the Slipstream tip is hollow. On impact, it caves in, exposing the bullet’s cavernous hollow nose. This is what enables the Terminal Ascent to expand reliably and dramatically even at very low impact velocities.
Testing an early version briefly named the Edge TLR, I shot oryx bulls in Namibia at distances from 15 yards to 997 yards. (I dislike shooting at distances that great, but I did so to give the test its full due.) The 200-grain .30-caliber bullets performed to perfection, generally opening to double their original diameter and penetrating 30 to 38 inches. All the newer Terminal Ascent bullets have the same terminal performance characteristics, with the benefit of accuracy-enhancing refinements to the cannelure grooves and nickel finish.
I had an ulterior motive for choosing the Terminal Ascent load and setting Jenna’s rifle up with it. I’ve seen unfortunate things when friends have shot elk with soft 6.5mm bullets—too many bulls lost; slow deaths in those recovered. My wife isn’t a cartridge nut like me, and I knew she’d hunt everything in Idaho with her one rifle. It needed to be paired with a bullet that not only would open well and drop deer quickly, but also would penetrate deeply on elk and black bears.
While the Terminal Ascent is available as a component bullet, Federal had recently introduced a 6.5 PRC factory load, and I wanted to hunt my ram with it. Assembled on the Premium ammo line, this load features top-quality nickel-plated cases, Federal’s ultra-consistent primers, and propellants chosen for stability across wide temperature swings. The 130-grain Terminal Ascent bullet has a BC of .532 on the G1 scale and is rated to exit the muzzle at 3,000 fps.
Jenna’s rifle regularly shoots the factory load into gratifying 0.60-inch clusters at 100 yards. However, I had to make one modification to achieve that. For whatever reason, the ammo shoots 1.25-inch groups with a muzzle brake on the rifle. Swapping the brake for my 12-ounce Gunwerks 6IX suppressor had a marvelous effect on accuracy, plus the added benefit of quiet shooting.
Velocity extreme spreads measured in the single digits. Running calculations on my ballistic app, I configured the ballistic turret rings atop the scope. I have steel targets out to 650 yards on my farm, and I tested and verified the load’s trajectory and accuracy to that distance.
Meanwhile, with only two weeks to train and with concern about hunting at an elevation of 13,000 feet, I climbed every hill and mountain around, pushing myself to try to acclimate my lungs and legs. The rifle went along, and every day I’d fire one to three shots at rocks across canyons. In short order I built tremendous confidence in the sleek little rifle and the new 6.5 PRC factory load.
Stellar Field Performance
The remaining time until the hunt flew by, and suddenly I was 12,200 feet high in the mountains, lying prone, crosshairs trained on a massive 14-year-old ram in the basin below. He was 532 yards distant, and we couldn’t get closer without blowing out every sheep of the hanging valley.
There was little wind. The ram stood way below, and the angle was shockingly steep. My turret was dialed to the corrected horizontal distance of around 475 yards. “Everybody shoots high up here,” whispered my guide. Knowing what thin air and steep angles can do to trajectories, I lowered the crosshairs to the ram’s brisket line, heaved a breath, and squeezed the trigger.
Simultaneous with the flat, subdued report of the suppressed shot, I saw my bullet impact exactly where I’d held. Mentally berating myself for not trusting my system, I ran the bolt and tracked the wounded ram with the crosshairs until he paused at 591 yards. This time my bullet took him squarely through both shoulders and dropped him in his tracks.
An hour later, as I sat marveling beside my first wild sheep, my guide climbed to the sheep trail above, where the ram had stood when the second bullet impacted. Scanning around, he suddenly bent and picked something out of the dust. It was my bullet. It had passed through both shoulders and smacked a granite rock hard enough to break off a portion of the mushroom. It was a fantastic find.
Less than three weeks after receiving the bighorn permit notice, I was back home in Idaho, meat and horns in the freezer. The whole experience was rich but brief and hard to hang onto.
Later that fall, with our entire family of four kids and a dog in tow, Jenna led the way up a backcountry Idaho ridge in search of mule deer with her 6.5 PRC rifle slung from her shoulder. Spotting a mature buck, she lay down and dropped him with a single shot from 280 yards. The Terminal Ascent bullet took the quartering-to deer on the point of the shoulder and exited mid ribcage on the far side.
With the vast array of new 6.5 PRC factory loads hitting the market in 2022, hunters may soon find it hard to decide which one to use. As always, pick projectiles designed for the task at hand, test several, and let your rifle tell you which ones it shoots the most accurately.
As for me, I’ll keep testing, but when all is said and done, I suspect the Terminal Ascent 6.5 PRC load will still be my favorite. I used it on one of the most significant animals of my hunting career, and I can’t think of a better way to state how good it is.
16 New 6.5 PRC Loads
- Barnes VOR-TX LR 127-grain LRX: This super-accurate monometal bullet is rated to exit the muzzle at 3,100 fps. With a G1 BC of .468, it’s relatively aerodynamic and penetrates wonderfully. I took my last big bull elk—a Colorado 6x6—with this load.
- Berger 156-grain Elite Hunter: Loaded in premium Lapua brass, this accurate, extreme-range load is rated to develop 2,960 fps of muzzle velocity. Its BC is .679, so it should prove to be one of the best options available for extending the reach of your 6.5 PRC rifle.
- Browning 130-grain Long Range Pro: Loaded with Sierra’s Tipped GameKing bullet, this load should prove to be extremely accurate. Because it’s not particularly tough, it’s best for use on deer-size game. Muzzle velocity is rated at a mild 2,900 fps. BC is .510.
- Federal Fusion 140-grain Bonded SP: Although this bullet is not a modern whiz-bang high-BC bullet, it expands well yet holds together. Terminal performance is predictably excellent. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,925 fps. With a BC of .439, this bullet is best for use inside 400 yards.
- Federal Premium 130-grain Terminal Ascent: Here’s the load I showcased as the “best of the best” in this article. It’s rated at 3,000 fps and has a BC of .532. Its real strength is its versatility, as it’ll expand big and penetrate reliably from the muzzle to way, way out there.
- Federal Premium 120-grain Trophy Copper: This lead-free load was recently branded with the MeatEater logo, and it’s a penetrator. Muzzle velocity is rated at 3,050 fps. The BC is .453, so the Trophy Copper won’t buck the wind or carry energy and impact speed super far, but inside 400 yards it’s extremely potent.
- Hornady Outfitter 130-grain CX: Excellent terminal performance on game is the hallmark of this bullet. It’s a monometal design, so it will never shed too much weight to penetrate reliably. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,925 fps. BC is .489, which suggests this bullet is best inside 450 yards or so.
- HSM 140-grain Berger VLD Hunting: Being a soft match-type bullet, this one can be pushed fast (rated at 3,070 fps), and with a BC of .600, it carries superbly. Its weakness is up close, where high impact velocities may cause it to grenade on impact.
- Norma 143-grain Bondstrike Extreme: Made in Sweden, the Bondstrike bullet is bonded for toughness, so it will expand beautifully and drive deep. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,953 fps. With a BC of .629, this bullet will buck the wind and carry plenty of wallop way downrange.
- Nosler 120-grain E-Tip: This is another excellent deep-penetrating monometal bullet. Rated at 3,100 fps, it has a screaming-flat trajectory. BC is .497, enabling this bullet to perform well inside that 450-yard mark.
- Nosler 140-grain Ballistic Tip: This load should be forgivingly accurate in most rifles. It pushes a very soft, rapid-expansion projectile, ideal for deer and antelope but not suitable for elk-size game. Muzzle velocity is not available at press time, but its BC is .509, giving it modestly good wind-bucking ability.
- Nosler Trophy Grade 140-grain AccuBond: Here’s an excellent round for use on big-bodied, tough mule deer and northern whitetails. The AccuBond is known for accuracy, for hitting hard, and for driving relatively deep. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,900 fps. BC is .509.
- Nosler Trophy Grade 142-grain ABLR: If your rifle likes this load, it’s an excellent extended-range option for use on big-bodied deer. Expansion on impact is massive. Penetrating ability is decent. The ABLR holds velocity well and expands beautifully at low velocities. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,900 fps, and its BC of .625 enables it to really hang onto velocity and energy way out there.
- Remington Premier Match 140-grain Berger Hybrid: One of several top-shelf competition-grade new 6.5 PRC loads, this features one of the most accurate, capable long-range Berger bullets. Muzzle velocity is rated at 2,925 fps. BC is .607, which is plenty high enough for extreme-range work on small steel targets.
- Winchester Expedition Long Range 142-grain ABLR: This factory load offers the same performance characteristics as the Nosler version above, but at 3,020 fps it is rated to offer more muzzle velocity. BC is .625.
- Winchester Match 140-grain HPBT: This 6.5 PRC load is not for hunting. It’s made to offer long-range steel-ringing aerodynamics and accuracy. Muzzle velocity is rated at 3,030 fps.