The 6.5 Creedmoor is fast becoming the most successful hunting round developed in the 21st century.
That’s notable because there are far more hunting rounds designed than ever become popular with hunters in the U.S. This is true even for some calibers that are not bad ideas, but still fail to catch on.
In fact, some of the rounds designed over the last 100 years that didn’t become popular with American hunters include some 6.5 mm ammo. So why the rapidly growing popularity of the 6.5 Creedmoor, and why now?
A Long Period of Obscurity Before the 6.5 Creedmoor
Rounds in 6.5 mm have had a long period of not being especially popular in America, even though 6.5 mm ammunition in various forms has been around for more than 100 years. Until the 6.5 Creedmoor was first designed as a long-range competition round in 2007 and Hornady followed up with rounds designed specifically for hunting, 6.5 ammunition was an option for American hunters, but not an option many chose.
That’s somewhat odd, because the 6.5 has decades of proven performance, first as a military round, then as a big-game round in Europe.
In the 1950s, inexpensive post-war Mausers became commonly available, and the 6.5 x 55 Swede showed up in some American hunting camps, but never became one of the most popular rounds here (though European hunters seemed happy enough to kill deer and even moose with it).
Interestingly, the 6.5 x 55 Swede is a round with a long history — it was developed in 1894. But at the time, no American manufacturer produced those rounds.
To some degree, American hunters (at least in the 20th Century) seemed to resist adapting rounds designated in “mm” rather than “caliber.” But that’s not the whole story: The Remington .260 never became hugely successful either, even though the .260 is essentially a 6.5 mm round.
The 6.5 mm and the 500-Pound Gorilla in the Room
One factor blocking the popularity of many calibers of big-game hunting rounds in America was that American hunters have a long history with the .30 caliber: the .30-30, .30-06, .308, .300 Win Mag, 300 WSM, 300 Wby, to name a few. The dominance of the .30 caliber rounds started early: The .30-30 Winchester was the first small-bore cartridge designed for smokeless powder.
Then, especially in the first half of the last century, surplus military .30-06 bolt actions were both common and cheap – for a while, the government actually offloaded surplus 03-A3s by selling them to citizens. Many Americans who had served in the military were familiar with them, and manufacturers after World War II made even better rifles, so you could always find a .30-06.
They worked on deer, they worked on elk, they worked on bears, they worked on sheep, they basically worked on everything. And in 1952 Winchester developed the .308, which not only grew in popularity among hunters, but became a standard round in competition long-range shooting.
A Crowded Field for 6.5 Rounds
The 1920s also saw the development of another popular round that may have squeezed market share away from the 6.5 mm rounds: Winchester developed the .270, a round that shot flatter and faster and with less kick than the .30-06 ammo at the time and was championed by the great outdoor writer Jack O’Conner. To be clear: the .270 was not an effective hunting round because O’Conner liked it; O’Conner liked it because the .270 worked in a wide variety of hunting situations.
A bit later the .243 was developed as a light-kicking round that could be used both on varmints and deer. And it works.
Thus, hunters had options slightly smaller than 6.5 mm, and slightly larger, and much larger. It was a crowded field.
The 6.5 Creedmoor and Modern Design
Despite the long history of American hunters basically ignoring 6.5 mm rounds, when the 6.5 Creedmoor was designed in 2007, several variables converged to put it on solid footing from the beginning.
First, unlike most popular big-game rounds in America, it wasn’t designed as a military round, but rather most directly came out of the needs of competitive long-range shooters.
Specifically, High Power National Champion shooter Dennis DeMille was sharing the same quarters as Dave Emary, a Hornady engineer at a shooting competition. Even though DeMille was doing well, he thought there should be a round that was as accurate as .308 but that kicked less and thus would make target re-acquisition easier. Emary had DeMIlle list what he wanted out of a competition round, and then Emary teamed up with fellow Hornady engineer Joe Thielen to design what would become the first 6.5 Creedmoor.
If you were to take a .30T/C shell, remove the rim, shorten the case, neck it down at 30 degrees to take a .264 bullet and make a couple of other adjustments, you’d have something that looked like a 6.5 Creedmoor (well, you would if you were as good an engineer as Emary and Thielen).
More on 6.5 Creedmoor
- 6.5 Creedmoor Q&A with Industry Experts (Sportsman Channel)
- 6.5 Creedmoor Rifles and Ammo (Outdoor Channel)
The design provided enough room for the bullet to be long enough to attain a high ballistic coefficient, yet the total length of the shell allows it to be shot in short-action rifles, so modern sporting rifles as well as traditional bolt-actions will handle the bullet.
The result is a flat-shooting round that retains speed well and is (relatively) steady in the wind — a round with competition grade accuracy at long ranges with less kick than .308s.
Although the 6.5 Creedmoor was mostly a target round for the first few years of its existence, it didn’t take a big leap of imagination to think the 140-grain bullet that can hit a tea cup at 1,000 yards might be something you could use to kill deer.
Hornady made some adjustments to the bullet — the demands of a long-range target bullet being different from a bullet that needs to produce controlled expansion and a maximum wound channel when it plows through the hide, meat and bones of a game animal. The result was the Precision Hunter line of shells.
It may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need mentioning, but for a hunting round to become successful, there have to be rifles to shoot the round, and ideally rifles at several price points. The hunting version of the 6.5 Creedmoor got a big boost when Ruger decided to make a hunting rifle that would shoot the round. Other manufacturers such as Savage followed suit, and when Browning produced their Xbolt line of bolt-actions, they included one for the 6.5 Creedmoor. Suddenly, there were all kinds of rifles (both modern sporting rifles and traditional bolt actions) in all kinds of styles and prices for hunters to choose from.
The Key Role of Technology in the Rise of the 6.5 Creedmoor
Technological advancements in manufacturing have no doubt played a big role in the 6.5 Creedmoor’s rising popularity among hunters. In most cases, the technology is not specific to 6.5 Creedmoor rounds, but the 6.5 Creedmoor was developed at just the right time for the advances to be incorporated into both these shells and the rifles that shoot them.
For example, Hornady developed a more progressive-burn powder for the 6.5 Creedmoor, using advances in chemistry and the ability to coat grains of powder to control burn rates. That allows for a reduction in pressure spikes as the round is going off, which in turn makes the bullet more stable and more accurate.
The 6.5 Creedmoor benefits from higher tolerances in computerized machinery to make shell casings and for bullet design. Again, tighter tolerances and less variation help to improve accuracy.
Although bullet design has progressed in all calibers, there’s some argument that such improvements are a big boost to relatively small caliber rounds, as they make the bullets decidedly more accurate and lethal in hunting situations.
Even the tips of 6.5 Creedmoor bullets benefit from improved materials and consistency, because obviously the less the tip of a bullet deforms at super-sonic speeds, the more accurate the bullet’s flight.
Rifles, especially inexpensive rifles, have benefited tremendously from new technology as well, notably computer numerical design machines that make barrels far more uniform than, say, the mechanical assembly lines that churned out your great-grandfather’s 03A3.
You could always buy very accurate rifles if you had enough money, because master gunsmiths could build them, but at about the time the 6.5 Creedmoor was developed, it had become fairly routine to be able to buy a rifle like the X-Bolt that is really, really accurate and that sells at a price most hunters can afford.
So the 6.5 Creedmoor’s popularity stems from the fact that some talented engineers listened to their customers and combined good design with newly available technology and manufacturing processes to produce an extremely accurate, reliable, lethal and low-kick line of ammunition that could be bought off the shelf and used in affordable rifles.
There’s no real mystery here. Turns out American hunters like the 6.5 Creedmoor because they like ammo that is accurate, kills game dead, and is fun to shoot.