June 02, 2021
Sleek 6.5mms, 7mms, and .30s have been all the rage this century, leaving the classic .277-caliber cartridges behind. The new hot-rod 6.8 Western cartridge aims to change that.
When hearing of the new short-action magnum 6.8 Western, my first thought was, “As if we need another .270!” Admittedly, I felt a bit jaded by the recent deluge of modern cartridges and was quite skeptical whether the 6.8 Western could offer shooters and hunters anything fresh and worthwhile. This attitude only deepened when I heard that the 6.8 Western cartridge case is really similar—but not quite identical—to the .270 WSM.
My inner grinch emerged. “All they’ve done,” I grumbled inwardly, “is put a fast-twist barrel onto a .270 WSM chamber and called it a new cartridge.”
But that’s not accurate. In essence, the fast rifling twist rate is what sets the 6.8 Western apart from the .270 WSM. That said, it’s important to note that there are dimensional differences, too. The two cartridges are not interchangeable. According to Winchester Ammunition’s Nathan Robinson, “The shoulder and neck have been shortened to allow for the use of longer, sleeker, heavier, and higher BC bullets that have been purpose-built for the .277 caliber.”
It was a written comment by Rafe Neilson, Browning’s head marketing guru, that pierced the fog and led me to see the light. “Whereas the 6.5s aren’t enough for elk and the .30 cals are too much for whitetail, the 6.8 strikes the perfect balance of ballistic performance for all North American big game and in lighter, easier-to-shoot rifle platforms.”
First, I was shocked (and delighted) to hear a major rifle manufacturer state outright that the 6.5s are marginal for elk. (Yes, hundreds of elk fall to 6.5s every year. On the flipside, more and more outfitters are outlawing them for use in elk camp.)
While I think the various 7mms capably fill that gap between the 6.5s and the fast, hard-recoiling .30-caliber Magnums, Neilson’s point resonated, particularly as he filled in the blanks.
X-Bolt Western Hunter Specs
TYPE: Bolt-action repeater
CALIBER: 6.8 Western
MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 3 rounds
BARREL: 24 in.
OVERALL LENGTH: 44 in.
WEIGHT, EMPTY: 6.3 lbs.
LENGTH OF PULL: 13.62 in.
FINISH: Blued action and barrel, A-TACS AU camo stock
SIGHTS: None; drilled and tapped for scope mounts
TRIGGER: 2.38-lb. pull (as tested)
SAFETY: Two position
MANUFACTURER: Browning Arms; browning.com
“Most new cartridge introductions have focused on lighter, easy-to-shoot calibers (6mm, 6.5mm, etc.) or heavy magnum-style rounds (.300 PRC, 28 Nosler, etc.). The lightweight cartridges just don’t cut it for long-range energy and larger game, and the heavier cartridges are hard to shoot and are overkill for most everyday needs (whitetail). The .270 Win. has a rich history of being an all-around performer but has lacked today’s modern advancements. With the 6.8 Western, you’re getting the all-around performance of the .270 but with longer, sleeker (high BC), and heavier bullets (165 and 175 grains). These improvements outperform magnum cartridges like the 7mm Rem. Mag. but with a .277-caliber bullet, a short-action platform, lighter recoil, and improved accuracy.”
Improved accuracy? Hmm. I’ve known some extremely accurate 7mm Rem. Mag. rifles, so I would have debated that point with Neilson, but his other points were solid. Robinson detailed the successful efforts to achieve fantastic precision: “…the throat, bore, groove, and twist rate have been optimized for accuracy with these heavy-for-caliber bullets.”
There’s a substantial demographic of American hunters that simply love the .270. I’ve fielded numerous questions from them over the years. Like: “Why is the grand old .270 Winchester being ignored?” Or: “Why aren’t manufacturers designing long, sleek, high-BC bullets for it like they are for the 6.5s, 7mms, and .30 calibers?”
The answer was simple. The 1:10 rifling twist rate standard for the .270 Win. was inadequate to stabilize the long, sleek, heavy bullets that provide super-high BCs. Unfortunately for all the .270 Win. lovers out there (and I’m one of them), factory ammo will never be made with truly impressive long-range bullets because none but custom rifles with faster-than-spec rifling twist rates would shoot them accurately.
As a result, until recently, projectile companies saw no reason to engineer heavy-for-caliber, highly aerodynamic .277-caliber bullets. The heaviest bullets were 160 grains, and they had to be flatbased, bluntnosed versions so as to stabilize in 1:10-twist barrels. For the most part, “heavy” .277-caliber bullets were 150 grains.
The muscle car of .277-caliber cartridges is the recent 27 Nosler. It shoots a svelte .277-caliber 165-grain AccuBond Long Range bullet with an unprecedented BC of .620. The key to its fire-breathing performance is a fast rifling twist rate of 1:8. It lets go of the mild nature of the long-loved .270 Winchester, taking on instead the rocket-launching persona of fast magnums.
The new 6.8 Western perfectly bridges the classic .270 Win. and the more powerful 27 Nosler. SAAMI-spec’d with a 1:8 twist, the 6.8 Western is short enough to fit nearly all proper short actions—something even the über-popular 6.5 PRC won’t quite do.
As with all short, fat cartridges, the 6.8 Western’s internal propellant chamber promotes efficient, complete, even combustion. As a result, velocities are excellent—for the amount of powder burned—and, more importantly, consistent.
At the time of this writing, two loads were initially available. Winchester is loading the Nosler 165-grain AccuBond LR to an advertised velocity of 2,970 fps. Browning is loading a 175-grain Long Range Pro Hunter bullet at 2,835 fps. Interestingly, the heavier bullet actually has a slightly lower BC, but at .617, it’s still impressive. More factory-loaded options should be announced in 2021.
Of course, handloaders can load any current .277-caliber bullets, and the 6.8 Western will cheerfully digest them and provide good, traditional .270 Win.-class performance.
How does the 6.8 Western compare with the 7mms? As savvy cartridge enthusiasts know, the .270 Win.’s true diameter (0.277 inch) is really close to that of the 7mm, which is 0.284 inch. That’s a difference of just seven thousandths of an inch.
As a result, long, sleek bullets have comparable aerodynamics. Nosler’s 168-grain 7mm AccuBond LR, for example, has a BC of .616. In practical terms, that’s indiscernible from the 165-grain 0.277 version. All that matters at that point is how fast you want to launch the projectile.
Modern 7mm magnums capably push super-heavy projectiles of 175 to 195 grains, and that does enable a powerful 7mm like the 28 Nosler to draw away from the 6.8 Western ballistically. However, then you’re getting into the world of muscle cartridges and away from polite cartridge behavior. The 6.8 Western is all about civilized behavior combined with fantastic downrange capability.
6.8 Western Specs
Parent Cartridge: .270 WSM
Water Capacity: 74.0 grs. filled to case mouth
Overall Case Length: 2.020 in.
Trim-To Case Length: 2.000 in.
Cartridge Overall Length Max.: 2.955 in.
Rifling: 6 grooves, 1:8 twist
Primer: Large Rifle
Pressure Limit: 65,000 psi
The 6.8 Western is not purely a pussycat, though. An 8-pound 6.8 Western rifle firing a 165-grain bullet at 2,970 fps generates about 26 ft-lbs of recoil energy. Contrastingly, an 8-pound 6.5 PRC rifle shooting a 140-grain bullet at 3,000 fps generates about 19.5 ft-lbs of recoil energy. That’s about 20 percent less.
To provide perspective, allow me to point out that the classic .270 Win. is nearly identical to the 6.5 PRC. A 130-grain .277-caliber bullet at 3,060 fps has 19.3 ft-lbs of recoil energy.
Let’s throw a 7mm Rem. Mag. into the mix. In the same-weight rifle, firing a 175-grain bullet at 2,900 fps, the famous “Seven-Mag” generates 27.5 ft-lbs. of recoil energy. That’s only 5 percent more recoil than the 6.8 Western. Draw what conclusions you wish from that. Bear in mind, the recoil of a .300 PRC rifle pushing a 212-grain bullet at 2,850 fps is nearly 40 ft-lbs.
Summing up the 6.8 Western’s ballistic niche, Robinson stated: “This cartridge is designed specifically to meet the extreme demands of Western adventure rifles but is still an excellent choice for deer and black bear hunters throughout the rest of the continent.”
How about factory rifles chambered in 6.8 Western? According to Neilson, Browning will chamber it in most models, including the X-Bolt Speed line, the McMillan line, the Max LR line, the Pro line, and so forth. Standard barrel length will be 24 inches. Models designated Long Range will have 26-inch barrels. The twist rates these Browning bolt-action rifles will be a fast 1:7.5.
Winchester is offering the 6.8 Western in most of the XPR models and the Model 70, with the exception of the Safari and the Alaskan versions. All Winchester barrels are 24 inches, with 1:8 twist rates.
For this report, Browning sent me a sample X-Bolt Western Hunter. It has a blued, sporter-contour barrel; a muzzle brake; and an adjustable comb on the A-TACS AU camo composite stock. It’s ergonomic and just heavy enough to be easy to shoot well but light enough to pack in elk country.
After mounting a Leupold 4.5-14X 40mm VX-3i scope with the CDS-ZL turret on the rifle, I fired a series of three consecutive three-shot groups with each of the factory loads to determine which load the rifle preferred. Browning’s Long Range Pro ammo is typically extremely accurate, and the other writers I’ve corresponded with confirmed that their 6.8 Western test rifles shot it best. However, my rifle absolutely loves the 165-grain AccuBond Long Range and regularly produced groups of 0.75 MOA or less. Velocity with both prototype loads, as measured with my LabRadar chronograph, was initially somewhat less than advertised, but it increased as the barrel broke in. The results are listed in the accompanying chart.
Luckily, I had a solo, DIY Alaskan drop-camp caribou hunt planned when the 6.8 Western rifle arrived, so after preparing for the hunt, I spent a week hunting truly remote country with the new cartridge.
Well above timberline in steep, windswept country, the caribou trails laced the rocky slopes and tundra flats like spiderwebs, but animals were scarce. Glassing the first evening away, I saw a few caribou miles away on a distant ridge, and five grizzlies scattered in a berry patch not far from my tiny camp.
The next day dawned bright and beautiful, but my Garmin showed troublesome weather in the future. Vast banks of dark clouds threatened as evening came, and then rain and fog blew sideways. In a gap between squalls, a mature caribou bull suddenly appeared, working my way. With several smaller bulls, he paralleled the ridge I glassed from. At 370 yards, I laid prone and tried unsuccessfully to get the crosshairs on his shadowy, shimmering form as rain slashed.
Suddenly, he was gone into a small canyon, and just as suddenly, the rain squall passed. Picking up, I hustled closer, trying to see down into the canyon. As I dropped onto its edge, ready to shoot down, the bull fed out the other side. My rangefinding binocular read 608 yards.
I really don’t like to shoot that far and generally avoid such shots, but I’d validated the rifle’s capability at long distances before the hunt, and shots like this are where the 6.8 Western is supposed to provide an advantage over the classic .270 Winchester. There was no wind, so I took the shot.
The sound of a solid impact floated back, and the bull leaped and staggered. This was Alaska, I was solo, and I take no chances. My second shot drove through both shoulders and put the bull down.
I had time only to set up my camera and tripod and snap a few photos before rain set in. Not wind-blown squalls this time, but steady, drenching rain. Dark set in as I went to work field dressing the bull.
Constant rain, staggering winds, fog, and loneliness combined to make the remainder of that adventure the most mentally challenging hunt I’ve been on. It was good to get back home, clean and oil the X-Bolt, and hunker down to crunch and analyze data.
On that note, I’ve included a 1,000-yard comparison chart on the preceding page that shows drop, drift, velocity, and energy. I chose the 6.5 PRC with a 142-grain AccuBond Long Range (ABLR) at 3,000 fps, the .270 Win. with a 150-grain ABLR at 2,900 fps, the 6.8 Western with a 165-grain ABLR at 2,970 fps, the 27 Nosler with a 165-grain ABLR at 3,125 fps, and the .300 PRC with a 212-grain Hornady ELD-X at 2,850 fps. All are factory-rated velocities, and all other numbers were calculated using standardized, sea-level atmospherics, with a 200-yard sight-in. As you can see, the classic .270 Winchester is outclassed by the more modern cartridges, while the brand-new 6.8 Western holds up admirably.
In retrospect, my early doubts about the 6.8 Western were entirely wrong. After working with it at the range and in the hunting field, I can say it’s a fantastic medium-size cartridge that offers proper magnum performance—politely.