May 11, 2022
By Steve Gash
Bob Dylan was right: “… the times they are a-changin’.” Major advances in cartridge, case, and bullet designs have dramatically altered the shooting landscape, and for the better. This triumvirate of features has produced such outstanding cartridges as the 224 Valkyrie, 6mm ARC, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and numerous wildcats. To this list we must add the recent and highly efficient 6.8 Western.
The case of the modern-day accuracy cartridge has to fit into a short action and have a sharp shoulder, usually around 30 degrees. The neck is at least one caliber long so that the bullet can be seated with full contact, with nothing except the boattail (if present) protruding into the case proper. The diameter of the chamber throat is very tight, just 0.001 to 0.002 inch over the bullet diameter. This prevents the bullet from tipping as it leaves the case and heads toward the rifling. This “tipping” is called in-bore yaw or principal axis tilt. If the bullet tips on its way to the rifling, its center of gravity shifts, and accuracy is seriously degraded. If the bullet starts out lined up with the throat, then a big chunk of the accuracy equation is solved. Accurate bullets designed for such chambers—i.e., long, sleek bullets with skinny points and uniform jackets—are available.
The leade ahead of the chamber is likewise precisely designed to aid accuracy. It is rather long so that the bullets can be seated out and not protrude into the case and take up volume better used for propellant. Modern bullets for such cartridges are heavier than previous bullets of the caliber, and long for their caliber, with high ballistic coefficients (BC) for flat trajectories and high sectional densities for deep penetration at long ranges. These long bullets require faster twist rates, such as 1:8, 1:7, and even 1:6.5.
Additionally, the powders used in these new, short and fat cases are carefully selected to optimize the cartridge’s performance. Several newer powders have “de-coppering” agents in them that really reduce bullet-jacket fouling and make bore cleaning easier and quicker.
Enter the 6.8 Western
All these precise design features apply directly to the 6.8 Western cartridge. As its name suggests, the cartridge is geared for wide-open spaces where game may be shot at extended ranges. The idea was to produce a cartridge with a bit more reach than the 6.5mms that would be suitable for game as large as elk but not overpowered for deer, sheep, and similarly sized critters. The round could be chambered in rifles that are not too heavy to tote over hill and dale after mountain species, without the recoil of the very popular .30-caliber cartridges.
The 6.8 Western was introduced by Winchester in 2021 and seemed to be a hit right out of the box, as it has been used on all sorts of game in all sorts of places, both here and overseas. The 6.8 Western case is essentially the .270 Winchester Short Magnum (WSM) case shortened by 0.08 inch, with the same 35-degree shoulder. The case’s length-to-diameter ratio is said to provide better ignition and a more efficient powder burn, and the sharp shoulder makes the powder burn in the case rather than blowtorching down the bore. The neck is one caliber (0.276 inch) long.
Here’s an important safety note. A 6.8 Western cartridge will chamber in a .270 WSM-chambered rifle. This would give about 0.08 inch of extra “headspace,” and I’ll bet you it would fire, which can’t be good. (I didn’t try it.) The SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the 6.8 Western is 65,000 psi.
The SAAMI maximum throat diameter for the 6.8 Western is a measly 0.0011 inch over nominal bullet diameter of 0.277 inch. This gets the bullet off with straight alignment with the chamber throat. The fat case holds plenty of propellant, and this gives the round tremendous long-range potential.
Interestingly, while the 6.8 Western is .270 caliber, it sure isn’t your granddad’s .270. Bullets that realize the 6.8’s hunting potential are as heavy as 165 and 170 grains, and they have excellent accuracy in the 6.8’s 1:8-inch twist.
I bought a new Winchester XPR in 6.8 Western for testing last year and topped it off with a Vortex 4.5-20X 50mm scope. I’ve been very impressed with the rifle and the cartridge. The 6.8 Western is a snap to handload, and the potential bullet-powder combinations are almost endless.
Let’s look at some handloading component-specific comments. I don’t know of a source of empty cases for the 6.8 Western, but where there are rifles and factory ammunition, can a trail of fired cases be far behind? I lucked onto a supply of once-fired Winchester nickel-plated cases for my handloads. While these are good cases, after two or three reloads, quite a few of the case necks split. This is not very unusual for cases with sharp shoulders, and in my experience, it is often a little more pronounced in nickel-plated cases. Nevertheless, I had good results with them.
I used Redding dies in my Redding Ultramag press. An important but often overlooked accuracy component is case sizing. A close fit of case in the chamber promotes good accuracy, increases case life, and enhances safety. If possible, set your resizing die to just bump the case shoulder back 0.002 to 0.004 inch; you should feel slight resistance as you chamber a round. This process can be more precisely done with the Hornady Lock-N-Load Headspace Comparator. The Winchester cases didn’t lengthen much with repeated firings, but when they exceeded the maximum length of 2.020 inches, I trimmed them back to 2.010 inches.
The debate over whether to weigh each and every powder charge is basically moot these days, what with precision powder measures and stubby-grained powders that meter very uniformly. For just a few test loads, I weigh charges, but for volume loading, it’s to the RCBS Uniflow powder measure I go.
Extensive reloading data are available on the Hodgdon website, and it’s free. My handloads are based on those data. I recommend shooters stick with pressure-tested load data from a recognized lab, and right now that source is the Hodgdon Reloading Data Center, which, as of this writing, lists over 300 loads, with starting and maximum loads with chamber pressures in psi.
My load table shows typical loads with representative hunting bullets that shot well in my rifle. Of course, each rifle is unique, so there surely are many additional loads that would fill the bill. The 6.8 Western case is basically a short magnum round, and magnum primers, while not required, are probably not a bad idea. Hodgdon used Winchester Large Rifle Magnum primers for its load data, and I used Remington 9½M and CCI 250 Large Rifle Magnum primers, with excellent accuracy and ballistic uniformity. As always, experimentation is the key—and it’s one of the fun parts of handloading.
There are plenty of powders suitable for the 6.8 Western, including Magnum, MagPro, Retumbo, and H1000. I put cleaning copper fouling out of a rifle bore right up there with a root canal, so I leaned heavily on IMR 4451, IMR 4955, IMR 7977, and IMR 8133 from the Enduron series, and they have magic de-coppering “pixie dust” in them. Other good “anti-copper” powders are Reloder 26 from Alliant and some of the new High Energy N500 Series powders from VihtaVuori.
Bulletseating depth and the resultant “bullet jump” also affect accuracy. The old paradigm was to seat the bullet about 0.010 to 0.015 inch off the lands. However, with the tight throat of the 6.8 (and similar cartridges), bullet jump doesn’t seem to be nearly as critical as with previous chamber designs that have more generous throat dimensions. I seated bullets 0.020 inch off the lands, experienced no problems, and achieved excellent accuracy. Measuring the proper seating depth is easier with a precision gauge, and the Hornady Lock-N-Load O.A.L. Gauge makes determining the cartridge length where the bullet ogive touches the lands easy. Then just subtract your desired bullet jump, and you’re all set. But keep in mind that cartridge overall length is, of course, ultimately controlled by magazine length.
I fired my 6.8 Western XPR from a Caldwell Lead Sled DFT out of my shooting building. All rounds were chronographed over my Oehler Model 35P chronograph. The sky screen spacing was four feet, with the midpoint 10 feet in front of the gun’s muzzle. I followed my usual testing protocol: three, five-round groups at 100 yards.
Plenty of Good-Shooting Handloads
Here are some assessments of various handloads that shot well in the XPR. A glance at the standard deviations (S.D.) in the load table indicated that the loads were uniform ballistically. However, a metric called the coefficient of variation (C.O.V.) provides a relative measure of variation, in contrast to the S.D., which is in the same units as the observed data. The C.O.V. is the S.D. expressed as a percent of the mean. Since the C.O.V. is the ratio of two averages, it is independent of the unit of measurement and provides more of an “apples-to-apples” comparison.
Here’s an example. Let’s say we’re chronographing our pet .45 ACP load. The velocity is 800 fps, and the S.D. is 25 fps. While the S.D. looks acceptable, it is actually relatively high, and the C.O.V. of this load is 3.12 percent. For a C.O.V. that high for a 6.8 Western load, the S.D. would have to be about 100 fps, which would be totally unacceptable.
Any C.O.V. under about 1.0 to 1.5 percent is considered good. The average C.O.V. for all my 6.8 Western loads tested was 0.57 percent.
With the variety of bullet styles and weights represented, loads for the 6.8 Western can be tailored to fit the game. The average group accuracy of all 22 loads listed in the chart was 0.93 inch, and only seven went over an inch. I’d say that’s pretty darn good accuracy for a relatively inexpensive out-of-the-box hunting rifle. And with muzzle energies of around 3,000 ft-lbs, there is plenty of power for big game. The average recoil was a relatively modest 21.8 ft-lbs, and the average recoil velocity of the gun was 12.5 fps, well below the flinch-inducing threshold of 16 fps.
There are numerous good loads with 130-, 140-, and 150-grain bullets for big game, but for the most part, I stuck with the heavier .270-caliber bullets that are available. Here are the particulars on the cream of the crop.
Hornady’s ELD-X bullet is a proven game-getter, and the 145-grain .270-caliber version shot well. The best load I tried was with 67.0 grains of MagPro at 3,080 fps and a 0.78-inch group average.
The Nosler 165-grain AccuBond Long Range just missed 2,900 fps with 67.0 grains of Magnum powder, and it averaged 0.90 inch.
I just can’t complete an assessment of a new cartridge without including the justly famous Nosler Partition bullet. The 150-grain version over 65.1 grains of MagPro gave a velocity of 2,974 fps and a group average of exactly one inch.
The heaviest .270-caliber bullet I tested was the Berger 170-grain EOL (Extreme Long Range) Elite Hunter. The two loads that made the cut were with 64.0 grains of Retumbo and 67.2 grains of Magnum. Velocities were 2,836 and 2,852 fps respectively. This sleek bullet is 1.49 inches long and has a sky-high G1 ballistic coefficient of .662. Berger recommends a 1:8-inch twist for it, which is what the XPR has. While these two loads averaged slightly over an inch, my impression is that they were on the ragged edge of stabilization.
When new cartridges are introduced, the good ones, rounds that serve a useful purpose, flourish. Others, those built just to have something “new” to sell, mercifully wither and die. The 6.8 Western looks to be one that will flourish, and it really steps up in three important ways. It plays on one of America’s most beloved calibers; it really boosts the ballistics and accuracy levels of the new, high-BC bullets; and it applies the lessons of case, chamber, and twist design learned from the immensely successful 6.5 Creedmoor and similar rounds. Plus, the 6.8 Western is offered in a variety of rifles, from inexpensive synthetic-stocked versions to high-dollar, camo- and Cerakote-clad versions festooned with muzzle brakes and celestial-quality scopes. And lots of excellent handloading components and tools are available with which handloaders can build loads that are “just right.”
With all of this going for the 6.8 Western, how can it miss?