by Steve Adelmann - Tuesday, September 6, 2016
A few years back, I got a hankering to play with alternative AR chamberings, but the two I really wanted to try—both 6.5 mm cartridges—were unavailable due to ammunition shortages. Thankfully, supplies have improved to the point where I have since had ample opportunities to shoot a bunch of 6.5 Grendel and 6.5 Creedmoor. I guessed from more than a century’s worth of successful 6.5s that these two would likely be good flyers. But I was wholly unprepared for how well they performed in semi-auto platforms. It turns out these cartridges are every bit worthy of their lineage.
As is the case with many cartridge-naming schemes, 6.5 mm (.256) is not the actual bullet diameter here. These long, .264-caliber projectiles have high sectional densities and good ballistic coefficients. Combining those attributes with high starting velocities leads to flatter trajectories when compared to other cartridges from the same platforms. In the small-frame AR, the Grendel yields much longer practical ranges than can be had with 5.56 NATO or any of the short .30s. On the big-boy AR side of the house, the Creedmoor spanks .308 Win. and can reach out to .300 Win. Mag. distances, but with substantially less recoil and longer barrel life than it and several other popular 1,000-meter+ cartridges. Thin bullet profiles, fast times-of-flight and less drop mean less wind effect, too. The icing on the cake is that these fast-movers are very consistent flyers and that equals awesome accuracy potential.
My first look at a 6.5 Grendel came too late in my Army career for me to form much of an opinion. At that time, I met with its creator—Bill Alexander—to talk over strengths, weaknesses and military applicability. Mr. Alexander was very helpful and passed on two important points. First, the Grendel was created to afford medium- and big-game hunters a very accurate, close-to-mid-range heavy-hitter for the smaller AR-15-size platform. Alexander felt at the time that the Grendel pretty much succeeded in doing that and said if we did not try to push it too far beyond reasonable distances, approximately 600 meters or so, the stubby cartridge also had very strong tactical possibilities. That dovetailed into his second point, which was that the 6.5 Grendel was not the 1,000-yard laser that some gunwriters were claiming at the time. And that’s precisely where the 6.5 Creedmoor comes into the picture. Hornady’s chief ballistician, Dave Emary, developed the larger 6.5 to fit in AR-10-size/short-action platforms, specifically to take advantage of the projectile’s superior efficiency at ranges out to 1,000 yards. That the Creedmoor continues to grow in long-range hunting and competition applications pretty much confirms the success of that plan.
I finally got to sink my teeth into the 6.5 Grendel while building one for an active-duty Army friend who is a current and successful competitive shooter when not on deployment. As usual, I failed to research the project ahead of time, so I really had no idea what to expect as I began breaking in the barrel. I was astounded to immediately see steady groups in the .35- to .5-MOA range with Hornady’s factory 123-grain Amax and SST loads. That performance has been repeated over the course of several dozen rifles and AR uppers in the past few years. I see similar results in the 6.5 Creedmoor—regularly shooting .4- to .6-MOA groups with factory Hornady and Winchester 120- and 140-grain loads. Handloads shrink those group sizes appreciably. The steady feedback I receive from long-range shooters confirms these cartridges do not disappoint in the field either.
Premium barrels from companies like Old Lodge Armory and JP Rifles squeeze the most out of these cartridges, but even Brownells’ budget-priced, stainless-steel Grendel barrels achieve ¾-MOA or better accuracy at a very fair price. The only problem I have encountered with the cheaper barrels is the Grendel extractors included with Brownells’ headspaced bolts are fragile. At a minimum, I recommend using heavy-duty extractors such as those available from Alexander Arms, but the company’s 6.5 Grendel HD bolt assemblies are the best bet for durability and uniformity. JPR’s High Pressure Creedmoor bolt/firing pin combos also turn in excellent performance. Both cartridges were designed with adequate case tapers to allow reliable feeding and neither gives me problems in semi-auto actions. The 6.5 Creedmoor uses standard .308 Win. AR mags, but the Grendel needs cartridge-specific magazines. While there is some debate in the 6.5 world over optimal barrel lengths, I prefer rifles that do not lumber through the woods one zip code ahead of me. Fortunately, 6.5 Creedmoor performance really excels out of a 22-inch barrel, while a 20-inch barrel is pure magic for the Grendel, both in 1:8- and 1:8.5-inch twist rates.
These cartridges lend themselves well to handloading, but that only matters if you are conversant with the processes and equipped with the resources to roll your own. Fortunately, the list of factory offerings continues to grow with Hornady, Wolf, Prvi Partisan, Freedom Ammunition, Federal/American Eagle and (naturally)Alexander Arms offering Grendel loads. Possibilities for 6.5 Creedmoor can be found in multiple flavors from Hornady, Federal/American Eagle, Winchester and Nosler. Both cartridges have proven to be good performers on static and live targets and have numerous projectile options available for each.
Five years ago, I read in an ammunition encyclopedia that the 6.5 Grendel’s popularity was “waning” and that it was “not likely to survive much longer.” In reality, the Grendel is more firmly established now and has a big brother named Creedmoor to back it up at longer ranges. Do not be surprised if you see one or more .264 cartridges [finally] being seriously considered by our military in the not-so-distant future. There is a lot to like in these and similar chamberings like the 6.5x40 mm and .260 Rem.
I am not quite ready to include a member of the 6.5 mm family in my answer to the “If you could only have one cartridge” question. However, every time I break in a new barrel in 6.5 Grendel or 6.5 Creedmoor, I edge ever closer to making that leap.
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