March 02, 2020
A single calf call brought elk pouring off the ridge above. Several were bulls, but the forest was thick making it difficult to identify the best one. I could only see pieces of elk between tree trunks and branches.
It was the heat of the rut, and a collision of herd bulls and lonely satellite bulls fired off a ruckus. It was music to an elk-addict’s soul. Bugles rasped the morning air, some so close and deep they reverberated in my chest. A heavy antlered 5x5 paused right in front of me, a front leg lifted in suspense. A younger bull plunged his muzzle into a pool of water nearby and drank. Still, there were bulls I hadn’t seen, and I figured at least one would be a 6x6. I hunkered behind my new Ruger Precision Hunter, reflecting wryly that its superb long-range accuracy potential was wasted on the current situation. Hopefully, the elk wouldn’t smell me before I could pick out the biggest bull.
At least, I figured, I had the right load in the chamber. In this thick timber, my shot would be close and likely at an angle rather than the ideal broadside presentation. Barnes’ 127-grain LRX bullet in the prototype VOR-TX LR cartridge I was using on this hunt should have the toughness to drive the necessary depth and destroy vitals.
A gnarly bugle growled from a thicket to my right. Through a narrow gap in the trees, I picked out the heavy shoulder of a mature bull. Sure enough, he was quartering to me. A whale-tail-looking fork of antler floated high above. That’s all I could see, but it was enough to gamble on. I glued the crosshairs to the point of the massive shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
6.5 PRC Cartridge
Introduced just a few years ago, the 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge (PRC) is the trendiest round in the 6.5mm hunting realm. In engineering terms, it’s arguably the best 6.5mm hunting cartridge ever designed. It sports a reasonably short, fat case that provides a plethora of accuracy-benefitting characteristics.
What are they? The short, broad column of gunpowder contained inside enables faster and more even ignition than a traditional long, slender propellant column. As a result, it’s more efficient and more consistent. Both are good for accuracy.
Also, the shoulder angle is steep enough to provide square and concentric alignment without introducing significant feeding issues. When paired with min-spec match-grade chambers, more consistency — that word again — results.
Finally, and critically, the chamber’s throat dimensions are designed to promote bullet concentricity and alignment as the projectile enters and engraves into the rifling leade. Hornady designed the 6.5 PRC, and much of the black magic that makes the 6.5 Creedmoor so incredibly accurate was incorporated when engineers designed the 6.5 PRC’s throat.
One other characteristic is worth noting: The 6.5 PRC achieves admirable levels of velocity without pushing the envelope so far that accuracy, barrel life and the forgiving nature of the round suffers. It’s not a muscle cartridge like the .26 Nosler or 6.5-300 Weatherby. Those cartridges have their place, but are not as versatile and forgiving as the 6.5 PRC is.
Barnes Bullets has just introduced factory loaded 6.5 PRC ammunition, adding a much-needed dimension to the cartridge.
There’s been a missing piece to the 6.5 PRC picture: a factory loaded, tough, deep-penetrating bullet designed for heavy bodied game such as elk. Hornady’s factory ammo is loaded with the streamlined 143-grain ELD-X bullet, an outstanding extended-range deer bullet. However, I’ve observed that the ELD-X sometimes pancakes on impact and fails to penetrate deep enough for quartering shots on up-close elk, particularly when fired at 6.5 PRC velocities.
The lack of controlled-expansion bullets in factory ammo is no problem for handloaders. The 6.5 PRC world is their oyster and they can choose whichever projectile they wish to shoot. For those who lack the time or inclination to roll their own ammo, it’s an issue.
Hopefully, Hornady will soon introduce a factory load with a heavy version of its tough GMX bullet. Until then, the Hornady’s 6.5 PRC ammo is best reserved for deer-sized game.
To make the 6.5 PRC capable of taking big, heavy bodied bull elk from all the common shot presentations — broadside, quartering away and quartering to — it must be loaded with a controlled-expansion bullet designed for deep penetration. In my book, all other considerations come second. (That includes the fervor for extremely aerodynamic, high-BC bullets optimized for long-range shooting.)
When engineering its 6.5 PRC load, Barnes took a no-nonsense, no compromise approach and chose a bullet known for bone-breaking penetration, good aerodynamics, low-velocity expansion and superb accuracy. While not as heavy as many 6.5mm projectiles, the 127-grain Long Range Expanding (LRX) bullet is a monometal design. As the savvy elk hunters amongst us already know, the long, all-copper bullet’s shank can’t be destroyed no matter how much bone and heavy muscle it encounters. These can be counted on to penetrate deep at any angle.
The LRX bullet is the flagship of Barnes’ lineup. Decades of experience molded its on-impact characteristics, making for a bullet that opens properly at long range yet holds together when impacting up close and fast. Doppler radar guided the engineering and helped maximize its ballistic coefficient (BC), enabling it to flow through velocity-robbing air molecules with minimum friction. Precise equipment and uncompromising quality control adds match accuracy potential to the bullet’s design.
Ahead of this evaluation, Barnes provided me a few boxes of prototype ammunition to test and hunt with. Lab techs pointed out to me that the final version will offer a bit more velocity. Tested using LabRadar, the prototype load exited a 22-inch barrel of a Ruger M77 Hawkeye Long-Range Hunter at 2,990 feet per second (fps), which isn’t bad at all. That’s about 50 fps more than is generated by both of Hornady’s factory loads, but keep in mind that the monometal bullet is about 10 percent lighter and, therefore, should be faster. Production Barnes ammo is said to be rated at around 3,050 to 3,100 fps when fired from a 24-inch barrel, so it’s fair to expect 40 to 60 fps less from a 22-incher.
To provide a comparison, I fired three consecutive, three-shot groups with the Barnes pre-production load followed by the same with Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X and 147-grain ELD Match loads. Two of the three loads averaged sub-minute-of-angle (MOA) groups. That’s a good indication of the performance of the relatively light, slender barrel on the Ruger M77 Long Range Hunter. Of the three, the Barnes load was the tightest, turning in a tidy .39-inch best-group measurement and a .67 overall average.
Also impressive were the small standard deviation (SD) numbers posted by all three different loads. All clocked at or less than that magic 10-fps mark coveted by long-range shooters. That’s an excellent testament of the consistency in the design of the 6.5 PRC.
As the echoes of my shot rippled away, the forest erupted with an avalanche of running elk. Leaping to my feet, I unsuccessfully searched for a bull moving like he’d been shot. Then, as the trample of hooves quieted into the distance, I heard a final, labored exhale from the thicket. Topping off the magazine, I listened to the fading bugles of bulls attempting to regroup their harems.
I never ranged it, but my shot was certainly inside 70 yards, maybe as close as 50. A heavy-antlered 6x6 bull laid not 15 steps from where I’d shot him, killed cleanly and quickly by the deep-penetrating LRX bullet. After giving thanks for the winter’s meat and taking pictures with friend and fellow writer Wayne van Zwoll, we took the bull apart for the pack out.
Informal forensics told an impressive story: The 127-grain LRX had impacted a couple of inches above the massive shoulder knuckle. It took out a 2-inch section of the wrist-size bone of the lower shoulder blade. Angling on toward the vitals, it passed through a measured 8 inches of dense, tough shoulder muscle, blew out a 2 ½ inch section of rib, pulverized the lungs and compromised the plumbing atop the heart.
Finally, it broke the last rib on the other side of the thoracic cavity where it came to rest. We estimated the bullet produced 30 to 32 inches of penetration. Few indeed are the bullets able to penetrate that deeply and maintain straight-line penetration after impacting that much bone.
Although I’ve come to expect such results from the larger-diameter, heavier versions of the Barnes LRX, and certainly hoped to see similar stellar performance from the 6.5mm 127-grainer, I must confess that I was impressed. That specific scenario was the perfect storm of challenges that a big-bodied mature bull elk can test a bullet with, and it performed splendidly.
In addition to Ruger, several rifle companies are on board with the 6.5 PRC including Begara, Browning, Christensen Arms, Masterpiece Arms, Montana Rifle Company, Mauser, Mossberg, Sauer and Savage. I expect other ammunition companies will follow. For now, with Hornady’s ideal-for-deer 143-grain ELD-X and Barnes’ 127-grain LRX for elk, hunters that want to field the 6.5 PRC have everything they need to hunt most hooved game in the lower 48.
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