May 05, 2021
By Tom Beckstrand
New cartridges are always a sensitive subject. Every shooter has their favorite, and there is no denying that the trusty .30-’06 Springfield and venerable .45-70 Government are still getting it done for thousands of American hunters each year. But these days we know more and can do better when it comes to ballistic performance.
The number-one reason, in my opinion, to develop a new cartridge is to push heavy-for-caliber, low-drag bullets farther and faster than legacy cartridges allow. Such projectiles have high ballistic coefficients (BC) which means, in general terms, that they are better at resisting the effects of the wind, maintaining velocity and retaining energy downrange. Shooting long distance is a passion of mine, and on that score low-drag bullets with high BCs are the gift that keeps on giving.
As low-drag projectiles have gained traction during the last decade or more, there have been plenty of attempts to improve old cartridges with new bullets; it can help, but it’s not usually the best solution. Newer cartridges like the 6.5 Creedmoor or the 6.5 PRC that were designed from the start to use long, heavy, low-drag bullets just plain outperform the traditional loads.
Now here comes Winchester’s new 6.8 Western. It’s a short magnum hunting cartridge that offers a step up in bullet weight from the successful 6.5s and is designed to maximize velocity of very-high-BC projectiles, while still running in a short-action rifle. I hunted mule deer and elk in Colorado with the 6.8 Western and can attest that this cartridge will answer the mail for big game in big country.
The 6.8 Western is optimized for bullets weighing 165 to 175 grains. It also has a maximum cartridge overall length (COAL) of 2.95 inches, which ensures it will feed reliably from AICS-pattern, detachable-box magazines. The cartridge uses 61 to 65 grains of powder to achieve muzzle velocities between 2,835 feet per second (fps) and 2,960 fps, depending on bullet weight, from a 24-inch barrel. Barrels chambered in the 6.8 Western will come with either 1:8- or 1:7.5-inch twist rate to stabilize the heavy-for-caliber bullets. (SAAMI spec is 1:8 twist.)
I spoke to Kyle Masinelli, Winchester’s lead engineer on the project, and he said, “We wanted to get into the untapped potential of bullets above the .264 caliber. We only wanted bullets with G1 BCs above .600 and our goal was to beat the .300 Winchester Magnum’s 180-grain AccuBond’s energy delivery at 500 yards.” The 6.8 Western succeeded in all of these endeavors.
What’s historically plagued every short-action magnum (with the exception of the 6.5 PRC) is the design emphasis placed on bullet velocity at the expense of a bullet’s BC. Cartridges like the Winchester Short Magnums (WSM) and Remington Short Action Ultra Magnums (SAUM) were stuffed with as much powder as the manufacturer could fit behind a medium-weight bullet. Factory loadings for 7mm WSMs and 7mm SAUMs offer bullets that top out around 160 grains — all lighter than the lightest, 165-grain 6.8 Western offering. Velocities are similar, but because of the 6.8’s slightly smaller caliber, the additional weight means its bullets must be longer than their 7mm counterparts, which results in substantially higher BCs.
The factory bullet weights with the WSMs and SAUMs could be corrected by handloading, but barrel twist rates on factory rifles are too slow to stabilize much heavier bullets. So, to get the most out of a 7mm short magnum, a custom rifle would need to be built for it. The 6.8 Western, like the 6.5 PRC, has all those problems solved when the rifles and ammunition ship from the factory. The advantage of the 6.8 Western is its ability to shoot heavier bullets at big game.
Why Not 7mm?
Cartridges with “7mm” in the name have a fair few devoted followers — and for good reason. There are a ton of really good bullets in the 7mm/.284-inch diameter realm, and the BCs on almost all of them are amazing. Bullet weights are also not obscenely heavy, so they don’t take a ton of powder to get moving quickly. Recoil for just about every 7mm cartridge is also mild, so much so that a lightweight so-called “mountain rifle” won’t be abusive.
However, the really good 7mm bullets that everyone gets worked up about are in the 162- to 175-grain range, which is exactly the same as the 6.8 Western. Winchester didn’t work with industry partners to develop these new .277-caliber bullets just to be different; they did so because, as mentioned before, the added weight in smaller-caliber bullets yields longer and higher-BC projectiles. Since they weigh the same as the 7mm offerings, the .277 also has better sectional density (assuming similar ogive profiles), which can contribute to effective penetration.
On the other hand, upsized 7mm bullets weighing 180 grains and more might sound like a good idea because of the awesome BCs they offer, but muzzle velocity on these tends to suffer. Also, most feature aggressive ogives and require handloading to yield satisfactory accuracy.
Since ogives — the shape of the bullet’s nose — keep coming up, this is a good time to point out what’s possible with factory ammunition versus what’s possible at the reloader’s bench. The 6.8 Western will be compared to various 7mm short-action cartridges, and all of those are going to be wildcats that only exist at the reloader’s bench. This tilts the ballistic performance field heavily towards the handloader.
Masinelli explained the top three priorities Winchester had when designing the 6.8 Western: “We had to optimize bullet weight, ballistic coefficient and ogive shape.” Everybody should now understand that as bullet weight goes up, so does BC. However, the cost is decreased muzzle velocity, and that matters a lot on a long-range hunting cartridge. In order for any hunting bullet to perform well, it has to hit with enough velocity to cause the bullet to expand and create a good wound channel. Eighteen-hundred feet-per-second at impact is one commonly accepted threshold for acceptable long-range hunting bullets. Both the 175-grain Tipped GameKing and the 165-grain AccuBond LR will keep this velocity in a standard atmosphere out to distances exceeding 700 and 800 yards, respectively. Get up above 5,000-feet elevation and that distance jumps to 900 and 1,000 yards.
Moving to heavier 7mm bullets causes the velocity to come down. But what about the higher-BC 7mm bullets weighing 180 grains and more? Those have aggressive ogives, really pointy noses, and are sensitive to how far they have to jump to the rifling to get good accuracy. A handloader can make those adjustments, but the 6.8 Western offers the same (or better) performance with factory ammunition in a factory rifle.
In The Field
Given the close ties between Winchester and Browning, it should be no surprise that the manufacturers worked in concert to develop not only the 6.8 Western cartridge, but also rifles to chamber it. Winchester XPRs and Model 70s, along with Browning X-Bolts, were in the works at this writing. To assess field performance of the 6.8 Western, I was invited on a Colorado elk and mule deer hunt armed with a Winchester XPR. Our small group of hunters was quite successful. I was able to take both a mule deer and an elk, and I was able to see another two muleys and another elk taken with the 6.8 Western. All animals required no more than one hit before they expired. The only animal to get shot more than once was my elk, and that’s because I prefer to shoot a big bull until he’s down rather than risk watching him disappear.
My mule deer took one hit on the shoulder and the 165-grain Accubond LR exited on the far side a little further back. The buck walked about 10 yards and then fell dead. The shot distance was 344 yards.
I killed the bull elk from 402 yards, also using the 165-grain AccuBond LR. My first hit impacted the shoulder, crossed the chest cavity, and lodged in the far shoulder. That shot would have been fatal by itself, but he remained standing so I shot him again just behind the shoulder, which put him down.
I watched Shaundi Campbell of Winchester Repeating Arms hit her mule deer at 432 yards, putting a single bullet on the deer’s shoulder. He walked about 15 yards, laid down, and died. Most impressive was Campbell’s single 476-yard shot that put the 165-grain Accubond LR right on the large bone knuckle in a bull’s shoulder. His right front leg immediately went flaccid, and he moved about 30 yards before he laid down for keeps.
Why So Accurate?
The 6.8 Western has all the speed and power required to be the ultimate short-action hunting cartridge. It is also extremely accurate, which is no coincidence. The source of the accuracy comes from new practices implemented in the last few years by ammunition manufacturers. The key is to keep the freebore diameter tight around the bullet. This prevents the bullet from yawing prior to engaging the rifling. The straighter the bullet is when it enters the rifling, the more accurate it will be.
With any new cartridge announcement, there is the occasional oppositionist that feels compelled to state “this doesn’t do anything my .30-’06 Springfield (or .308 Winchester or .270 Winchester) doesn’t do.” Both push bullets out the muzzle, but even a passing glance at the chamber dimensions shows just how different the 6.8 Western is to legacy cartridges.
Aside from the older cartridge having twist rates that are way too slow for high-BC bullets, most of the legacy chamber designs have overly loose freebore diameters that don’t play well with long bullets. For example, the .30-’06 has a SAAMI maximum bullet diameter of .309 inches and a freebore diameter of .3106, so there’s .0016-inch of slop around the bullet. A .308 Winchester has a max bullet diameter of .309 and a freebore diameter of .310, so .001-inch of clearance. The 6.8 Western has a maximum bullet diameter of .278 and a freebore diameter of .2781, so there’s .0001-inch of space — one-tenth of the .308’s — around the bullet when a cartridge is chambered. That is not a misprint. It’s the same amount of space left around the bullet in a 6.5 Creedmoor, and it’s a big reason why it’s hard to find a rifle in that cartridge that won’t shoot well. The burning powder pushes from the rear, and the tight freebore keeps the bullet straight prior to engraving the rifling.
Knowing that my own accuracy testing would be anecdotal since I only had one rifle to test and the cartridge is new, I asked Masinelli which load performed best during the prolonged testing at the factory. The first two loads developed were the 165-grain AccuBond LR and the 175-grain Tipped GameKing. The AccuBond measures 1.51 inches long and the GameKing measures 1.63 inches. With so much of the GameKing bullet protruding down into the case and powder column, I expected the AccuBond to fare better.
“The two would swap back and forth about which one shot better,” said Masinelli. “One week we’d test both, and the Accubond would edge out the GameKing. Then we’d come back a week later and the exact opposite would happen.” Both of us agree that the chamber design with tight freebore tolerance is a key contributor to the 6.8 Western’s accuracy. He continued, “The rifle manufacturing people groan in our meetings because the dimensions require so much gauging to produce the tight tolerance. They always ask, ‘Can’t we make more .308 Winchester rifles?’ Our answer is ‘No, the customer wants more these days.’”
The customer does want more and Winchester delivered. If throwing high-BC 165- to 175-grain bullets at close to 3,000 fps sounds like your jam, and you like accuracy, then it’s time to shoot the lock off your wallet and check the 6.8 Western out. Personally, I plan to purchase a Browning X-Bolt Pro in the cartridge. I think it’ll be an awesome rifle for anything in the lower 48.
Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter
Type: Bolt action
Cartridge: 6.8 Western (tested)
Capacity: 4 rds.
Barrel: 24 in., steel, 1:8-in. twist
Overall Length: 44 in.
Weight: 6 lbs., 5 oz.
Stock: Composite (A-TACS AU camo)
Trigger: Feather Trigger; 3 lbs. to 5 lbs.
Manufacturer: Browning, browning.com
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