April 15, 2022
Why certain cartridges excel over others is usually partly intentional, partly serendipitous. Inherently accurate cartridges are a combination of ideal technical design, which enterprising engineers can model, and an otherworldly natural precision, which every design team hopes for, but few achieve.
Over the decades, a few cartridges have emerged as the best of the best. Some are relatively obscure to the average shooter; they’re handload-only propositions used primarily by passionate competition shooters. Examples include the .22 PPC, 6mm BR, 6mm Dasher, 6mm GT, and 6.5x47 Lapua. However, as remarkable as these cartridges are, they aren’t practical for hunters and everyday shooters, and they certainly aren’t available in a broad spectrum of factory loads. So we’re not going to concern ourselves with them.
For the purposes of this article, let’s use three criteria. Each cartridge included must be renowned for accuracy, each must be factory loaded, and each must be readily available in a variety of different loads.
You might argue that by eliminating handloads, we also eliminate the potential for best-possible accuracy in a plethora of deserving cartridges. And you would be correct. However, only the most inherently accurate cartridges regularly produce top-shelf accuracy in factory loads. Eliminating handloads is a stringent but useful criterion. Plus, many shooters do not handload, and spotlighting cartridges that shoot superbly well in factory-load form is particularly valuable to them.
Without further ado, let’s dive in. We’ll start with the star of the whole show.
1. 6.5 Creedmoor
This cartridge is sensational! It was designed by Dave Emary, a ballistic genius at Hornady, and Dennis DeMille, a national champion long-range shooter. Its purpose was to be a 1,000-yard competition cartridge so naturally accurate that competitors could use factory-loaded match ammo and be competitive.
It was introduced around 2008, but it didn’t develop a head of steam until several years later. Then, it exploded on the long-range, precision-shooting scene like no other cartridge in history. It shoots flatter, bucks the wind better, and carries farther than the .308 Winchester by a significant margin. It’s easy on barrels, easy on your shoulder, and easy to shoot well. I’ve had senior rifle product managers from the biggest gun companies in America tell me that the 6.5 Creedmoor is easily the most accurate cartridge in their entire lineup—and those chaps see data from tens of thousands of rounds per year.
Candidly, it’s startling how many off-the-shelf, production-grade rifles in 6.5 Creedmoor will shoot half-inch, 100-yard groups from a benchrest.
Hunters adopted the 6.5 Creedmoor wholeheartedly. Inside 400 yards, it’s a superb deer cartridge. Past that it’s still accurate but lacks power. Hunters using the 6.5 Creedmoor in pursuit of elk are best served with tough, deep-penetrating bullet designs.
2. .308 Winchester
Introduced in 1952, this cartridge is the civilian twin of the 7.62 NATO round, which was the result of a perceived necessity. Military history aside, the incredible natural accuracy of the .308 Win. was sorta happenstance because reliable function through semiautomatic and fully automatic firearms was of much greater importance at the time.
Accidental or not, the .308 Win.’s inherent accuracy quickly became legend. The cartridge is naturally consistent. Its velocity may be unimpressive, but its extreme spreads and standard deviations are inspiring. Five-shot groups cluster like amorous flies. Barrel life is long, and maintenance is low.
The .308 Win. is a standard-issue military round, so its adoption by sniper programs was a practical—and effective—progression in the world of precision fighting. Hunters, too, learned the .308 Win.’s impressive effectiveness on big game at reasonable distances.
In modern times, the cartridge has been overshadowed by the 6.5 Creedmoor and its ilk for long-range precision work and by the fast 7mm cartridges for hunting. However, the .308 Winchester is still a very accurate cartridge particularly adept on game to 300 yards or so.
3. .223 Remington
Like the .308 Winchester, the .223 Remington predates its military counterpart, the 5.56 NATO. This cartridge was the result of a combined effort from a lot of smart people in the late 1950s. It was adopted in 1962, one year before the 5.56.
Although accuracy wasn’t an early hallmark of the .223 Rem., shootability was. Eventually, obsessive handloaders using premium components in varmint-type bolt-action rifles with precision chambers proved the cartridge was extraordinary. The military and the competitive world both took note, and match-grade .223 Rem. and 5.56 NATO ammunition was born.
Sierra’s 69-grain MatchKing bullet proved superbly accurate and is factory loaded by several brands. Black Hills Ammunition loads the long, heavy, aerodynamic 77-grain Tipped MatchKing in 5.56-labeled ammo, and in the right firearm it’s amazingly accurate and 1,000-yard capable.
Although it’s 60 years old this year, the .223 Remington is still one of the best cartridges available for varmints and predators (four-legged and two-legged), and it still wins long-range service-rifle matches.
4. 6.5 PRC
Springboarding off the burgeoning popularity of the 6.5 Creedmoor, the 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge (PRC) is simply more of a good thing. Introduced in 2018, it’s a proper short magnum, featuring a short, fat case that holds plenty of gunpowder. Propellant burn benefits from the short, fat column shape, resulting in excellent consistency.
Generating about 300 fps more velocity than the 6.5 Creedmoor, the PRC has about the same performance jump as the .300 Winchester Magnum has over the .30-06. In a word, significant.
Also significant is that the same engineers who designed the critical throat and chamber dimensions of the 6.5 Creedmoor created the 6.5 PRC. Skill and perfection pay dividends, and the 6.5 PRC has proven to be extraordinarily accurate.
By nearly every metric on the market, the 6.5 PRC is now the trendiest, best-selling precision hunting cartridge available—and for very good reason. It’s pure poison on deer-size game out to 600 yards. As with the 6.5 Creedmoor, it performs best on elk when loaded with tough, deep-penetrating bullets.
5. 6.8 Western
This cartridge is still embryonic. It was introduced early in 2021. However, I’ve been using it for two years, in preproduction and production rifles and ammunition. Every single rifle I’ve tested (and there have been many) has produced extremely tiny groups. Sub-MOA accuracy is the norm, and most 6.8 Western rifles—even lightweight mountain rifles—will do significantly better than that.
I shot a mature caribou bull at 608 yards with a 6.8 Western (serendipitous numbers, are they not?). I shot a coyote in Nebraska at 20 yards, a whitetail at 40 yards, a Kodiak Island fox at 250 yards, and a Sitka Blacktail at 280 yards. My brother shot a monster 406-inch (official, gross score) public-land bull elk on a DIY hunt with the 6.8 Western, from 679 yards.
What exactly is the 6.8 Western? It’s the classic .270, brought to space-age performance by fast-twist rifling that enables it to use long, high-ballistic-coefficient bullets. Like the 6.5 PRC, it uses a short, fat column of powder and has plenty of “head height” for super-streamlined bullets protruding way out of the case. And clearly, the chamber was designed properly because even though it is an infant in terms of years, the 6.8 Western provides veteran levels of long-range capability and extraordinary accuracy.