6.5 PRC Best 6.5mm Hunting Cartridge?
June 28, 2018
This short-action magnum cartridge - 6.5 PRC - from Hornady is an excellent hunting cartridge and fun to reload.
Over a century after Scandinavia discovered the merits of 6.5mm projectiles, the United States has finally caught on. And just perhaps, the 6.5mm Precision Rifle Cartridge (6.5 PRC) recently introduced by Hornady is the finest all-around one.
In simplest terms, the 6.5 PRC is a necked-down .300 RCM, resulting in a short-action magnum cartridge that pairs the exceptional aerodynamics of 0.264-inch-diameter projectiles with an efficient not-quite-overbored powder chamber. In other words, it's a factory-produced, SAAMI-approved ballistic twin to the 6.5 SAUM and similar wildcats.
Resulting velocities run neck and neck with traditional .264 Winchester Magnum speeds and are achieved with less powder courtesy of the shorter, fatter, more efficient, effective, consistent-burning powder column. Pleasant side-effects of the efficiency are less recoil, better barrel life, and good performance in 24-inch barrels.
Its "Precision Rifle Cartridge" moniker notwithstanding, the 6.5 PRC was not really developed to target the PRS-type competition market, although 10-round AICS-type magazines that handle 6.5 PRS are available. Unlike Hornady's 6.5 Creedmoor and 6mm Creedmoor that currently dominate the PRS scene, the 6.5 PRC has a bit too much recoil and a shade too little barrel life for most PRS competitors. For those interested, the loads I fired for this report ranged in recoil from 15.9 ft-lbs to 18.6 ft-lbs.
Rather, the 6.5 PRC tilts toward long-range shooters and hunters who want premium performance but don't burn mass quantities of ammunition and don't absolutely need to spot their own bullet impacts. Ballistic performance edges out the 6.5-284 Norma without incurring significantly greater barrel wear, and factory ammo will be ably supported by Hornady. Presumably, several 6.5 PRC loads will be available and should include the company's 120-grain GMX (my top choice for tough caribou- and elk-size game), the 140-grain ELD Match (a superb long-range target bullet), the 143-grain ELD-X (arguably the best all-around 6.5mm hunting projectile available), and the sleek 147-grain ELD Match. (At the time of this writing, Hornady is offering Precision Hunter ammunition loaded with the 143-grain ELD-X and Match ammunition loaded with the 147-grain ELD Match bullet.)
Interestingly, rifling twist rate will likely be spec'd at 1 turn in 7 or 7.5 inches. According to Hornady spokesperson Neal Emery, rigorous testing via Doppler radar indicates that when 6.5mm projectiles are spun faster than the common 1 turn in 8 inches, ballistic coefficient degrades less as bullets slow down at extreme range.
For use on big game, the 6.5 PRC should be superb, particularly on deer-size game at extended distances. Many hunters use and tout the 6.5 Creedmoor even on elk- and at excessive distances- but others voice strong dissent, referencing the relatively low velocities and modest energy figures of a 140-grain hunting bullet started at around 2,700 fps. The 6.5 PRC's additional 300 fps provides more effectiveness at distance and- to my mind- just bumps the 6.5 PRC across the line into the realm of truly effective elk cartridges.
Handloaders will get the best out of it using relatively slow-burning propellants like H1000, Reloder 26, and IMR 7828. However, unless charge weight exceeds 60 grains, handloaders are best served with standard Large Rifle primers rather than Magnum primers, unless the ammo is intended for a hunt in extreme cold, in which case Magnum primers offer a bit more consistent ignition.
While all the Hornady bullets mentioned are available in component bullet form and cover most of the useful bases in the 6.5 PRC, there are several other projectiles that are great for the new cartridge.
Because it's simply the most forgivingly accurate 6.5mm long-range projectile I've ever used, Sierra's 142-grain MatchKing is a top candidate for extreme-range work (1,000 to 1,600 yards) in match-accurate 6.5 rifles. However, I draw the line at hunting with it. Another superbly accurate bullet that I am willing to hunt with- on select game- is Berger's VLD Hunting, a projectile that began life as a match bullet and proved surprisingly effective on big game.
Two midweight hunting bullets that typically offer outstanding accuracy and downrange terminal performance are the Barnes 127-grain LRX and the Swift 130-grain Scirocco II. With careful handloading, both can be pushed to 3,200 fps in the 6.5 PRC, and both offer sufficiently high BCs to be very useful on big game to distances that most of us have no business shooting.
I really like Swift's 140-grain A-Frame for use on heavy-boned, mature bull elk or moose in thick timber where long shots are rare. It's an almost-indestructible bullet that expands well and causes tremendous tissue damage, plus it maintains almost all its weight, enabling it to punch through bone and drive deeply. However, unless you simply enjoy reloading, Hornady's Precision Hunter load featuring the 143-grain ELD-X bullet will likely provide all the performance you could wish for.
Let's look at the ELD-X in the 6.5 PRC and compare its ballistics with those of a couple of other popular 6.5mm cartridges, namely the rightly popular 6.5 Creedmoor, the very comparable 6.5-284 Norma, and the hot-rod .26 Nosler.
Handload data and factory velocities are still being finalized, but of the three 6.5 PRC rifles I have fired, one shoots the 143-grain ELD-X at 3,069 fps, and the others average between 2,960 and 3,010 fps. For ease of calculating, let's average it to 3,000 fps.
Even in standardized, sea level conditions (the worst kind), the high BC of the 143-grain bullet (.623 G1, .314 G7) provides admirable aerodynamics. Now, maximum point-blank range is an outdated concept in today's scene of ballistic reticles and dial-up turrets, but it provides an interesting baseline. My calculations on JBMballistics.com show that when zeroed at 340 yards, the 6.5 PRC with the 143-grain ELD-X has a point-blank range of 401 yards on a 12-inch vital zone. That's impressive.
Zeroed at 200 yards, the ELD-X impacts 1.3 inches high at 100 yards and drops 6.2 inches at 300 yards, 17.7 inches at 400 yards, and 35.2 inches at 500 yards, where it's still traveling 2,270 fps. Muzzle energy is 2,870 ft-lbs, and it's still carrying 1,636 ft-lbs at 500 yards- well in excess of the 1,500 ft-lbs traditionally prescribed for elk.
Now, 500 yards is a long shot even for very accomplished hunters, but if you're one of those chaps who likes to push the envelope, let's look at just how far the 6.5 PRC is ethically lethal.
First, we need to establish criteria for "ethically lethal," which is a subjective concept difficult to quantify. But quantify we must. Let's take 1,000 ft-lbs of impact energy and 1,600 fps of impact velocity for deer-size game. That's enough velocity to expand the ELD-X so that it can create a significantly lethal wound cavity and enough energy to cause systemic organ failure.
Although the 143-grain ELD-X is relatively heavy for caliber, it's light in comparison to heavy 7mm and .30-caliber bullets, and it runs below the minimum 1,000 ft-lbs of energy well before it dips below 1,600 fps. How far? At sea level, it goes sub-1,000 ft-lbs between 875 and 900 yards. Let's be generous and call it 900 yards. On the plus side, it's still ripping along at 1,763 fps at that distance.
Of course, few long-range hunting opportunities present at low altitude, so crunching the numbers at an arbitrary mule-deer elevation of 7,500 feet, 500-yard drop now is only 33.1 inches, where the ELD-X is still packing 1,853 ft-lbs of energy and 2,416 fps in velocity. Energy doesn't drop below 1,000 ft-lbs until 1,125 yards, where the bullet is still zinging along at 1,777 fps. I don't know about you, but that's way farther than I want to shoot at a deer.
Because factory ballistics are calculated at sea level, let's drop back down and compare the 6.5 PRC with the three cartridges mentioned earlier, all loaded with the same 143-grain ELD-X bullet. To make it interesting, let's zero each at 200 yards and simply compare 1,000-yard drop, drift in a 10-mph crosswind, retained velocity, and remaining energy.
As you can see in the accompanying comparison chart, the 6.5 PRC comfortably outpaces the 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5-284, and it even nips at the heels of the smoking-fast .26 Nosler. Plus, unless you typically shoot at sea level, real hunting-world performance is going to be even better. Traveling up to that 7,500-feet muley country injects a dose of magnum performance. At 7,500 feet, the 6.5 PRC doesn't go transonic until 1,950 yards, and it packs a lot more energy and velocity at 1,000 yards.
While no published handloading data for the 6.5 PRC existed at the time of this writing, I resolved to create some. (By the time you read this, Hornady likely will be providing load data.) According to the technicians at Hornady, handloading data for the 6.5-06 may be used as a starting point, but you must be cautious. Every rifle is unique, so work up handloads slowly.
All handloads shown in the accompanying accuracy and velocity chart are close to or at maximum in my rifle. Keep in mind that I did not perform ladder tests or find accuracy nodes with each bullet. I simply worked up until I began seeing early signs of pressure, backed off a trifle, and loaded 10 rounds. Firing from a bipod and a rear bunny-ear sandbag rest from the prone position, I shot three consecutive three-shot groups without allowing the barrel to cool.
Impressively, not only did the rifle shoot accurately and consistently when hot, but also it averaged less than 1 MOA with every handload. Better yet, two of them- loaded with the Hornady 147-grain ELD Match and the Berger 140-grain VLD Hunting- averaged less than 1/2 MOA. Clearly, not only does the cartridge possesses inherent accuracy, it's also easy to handload.
Hornady's timing in bringing out the 6.5 PRC couldn't be better. Right now, American shooters are devouring all things 6.5mm, including three new high-performance 6.5 cartridges introduced in the last four years. And as much as I love the .26 Nosler and the 6.5-300 Weatherby, I'm constrained to confess that the 6.5 PRC is more practical than either. It provides bonafide magnum-level performance with less recoil, less muzzle blast, and more barrel life.