July 08, 2019
By Joseph von Benedikt
It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to point you toward the best of the best.
Picking the “top six” cartridges for any discipline is akin to shimmying out on a branch and then rasping away on it with a pruning saw. I can already hear the snarls and gnashing teeth of offended readers.
Before undertaking presumptuous claims such as I’m about to make, it’s worth laying down a few guidelines. For starters, all the cartridges included below feature the following prerequisites: They are all readily available in quality, task-appropriate factory ammunition (i.e., their benefits are not limited to handloaders). Each can be proven to be above par either by history, by track record or by engineering features and calculated ballistics.
Picking six top long-range competition-cartridges was hard because various long-range disciplines apply a vast spread of demands, and many — such as Palma and Service Rifle — have cartridge-specific regulations. Although tempted to focus on the top six winningest cartridges in the current hottest, fastest-growing long-range discipline — Precision Rifle Series (PRS) — I finally opted to cover an arbitrary spectrum (heaven help me) of match types and cartridge demands.
- Introduced: 2007
- Parent case: .30 TC
- Maximum range: 1,400 yards
- Most useful for: PRS & 1,000-yard slow-fire matches
No cartridge since the .30-’06 has had such a fundamental effect on the way American precision shooters view long-range shooting as has the 6.5 Creedmoor. Like the classic ’06 did during the Great War, this efficient, mild-mannered, high-performance 6.5mm has opened the eyes of shooters to a new realm of possibilities.
By efficiently boosting high-ballistic coefficient (BC) projectiles at useful velocities in a case and chamber designed for inherent accuracy, the 6.5 Creedmoor enables shooters to consistently connect with 1,000-yard targets (and beyond in the case of a savvy shooter). Barrel life is excellent, even when 10-shot rapid-fire strings are run over and over during a weekend match. Recoil is polite, making it easy to focus on correctly executing the shot instead of clenching your teeth in anticipation. With an aggressive muzzlebrake, it’s possible to spot your own impacts on downrange steel targets.
Ballistically, it absolutely trounces the .308 Win. While it uses the same case-head dimensions as the .30-’06 and .308 cartridge families, the 6.5 Creedmoor’s direct ancestor is the .30 TC. The short case body allows long, aerodynamic bullets to be seated far out, eliminating bullet-base intrusion into powder capacity, while still fitting comfortably in standard short-action magazines.
Outstanding long-range match bullets such as Sierra’s 142-grain MatchKing (SMK) and Hornady’s 147-grain ELD Match may be comfortably handloaded to 2,700 feet per second (fps) or more. Lighter projectiles may be pushed faster, but most long-range shooters prefer the outstanding ballistics of the heavy-for-caliber versions.
Think the 6.5 Creedmoor is no more than a 1,000-yard cartridge? Au contraire! At standardized sea-level atmospherics, it gives shooters legitimate 1,600-yard supersonic capability with the right load. I’ve made five-in-a-row 1,400-yard hits on a 24-inch round steel gong with my favorite 6.5 Creedmoor match load (a 142-grain SMK pushed to 2,750 fps with H4350 powder).
While absolute best-possible performance is usually achieved through handloading, the 6.5 Creedmoor typically provides unprecedented factory-load accuracy. At least a dozen or more superb match loads are available from Hornady, Federal, Barnes, Nosler, Winchester, American Eagle, SIG Sauer and a plethora of smaller boutique ammo companies. Many, even most, will average half-MOA groups out of an accurate rifle.
Serious PRS competition shooters may argue that the 6.5x47 Lapua actually holds more places in the PRS top 50 spots, and that’s true. However, that’s probably because until 2017, Lapua brass (widely regarded as the best in the world) wasn’t available in 6.5 Creedmoor, which is a direct competitor to Lapua’s own 6.5mm. I recall several savvy shooters proclaiming that Lapua would never produce 6.5 Creedmoor brass. Well, now they do. I suspect that going forward, a lot of top PRS shooters will be transitioning to the 6.5 Creedmoor.
- Introduced: 2016
- Parent case: 6.5 Creedmoor
- Maximum range: 1,200 yards
- Most useful for: PRS
This sizzling descendant of the 6.5 Creedmoor offers a couple of PRS-match-winning advantages — but at a cost.
Because it shoots a much lighter bullet about 300 fps faster than its parent, recoil is much lighter, trajectory is flatter and wind drift is equal or less. However, the propellant chamber is more or less the same size as that of the 6.5mm version, making the 6mm Creedmoor just a bit overbore for ideal efficiency. As a result, barrel life suffers. Rather than the 3,000 to 5,000 rounds a careful shooter gets out of a 6.5 Creedmoor, most 6mm Creedmoors are burned out by the 2,000-round mark, and many last fewer than 1,500 rounds.
So, why do so many top PRS competitors choose to shoot the 6mm Creedmoor? Because the ultra-light recoil allows them to spot their own hits and misses more consistently. PRS is a rapid-fire, multi-position, multi-target, long-range game wherein no spotter feedback is allowed while the clock is ticking. Shooters are required to spot misses themselves and make needed corrections without assistance. When a heavy 6mm Creedmoor match rifle is paired with an aggressive muzzlebrake, it barely jars when the shooter fires, making self-spotting easy.
If landing in the top 10 at a major PRS match is high on your bucket list, the 6mm Creedmoor is probably your best cartridge bet. If, on the other hand, you like shooting a lot but don’t want to replace your barrel frequently, or if you don’t handload, the 6.5mm version is a more practical option.
- Introduced: 1963
- Parent case: .222 Remington
- Maximum range: 1,000 yards
- Most useful for: Service rifle and .223-only PRS matches
Service rifle competitions decree that only current or past military cartridges be used. Not long ago, the .308 was king. But advancements in projectile technology coupled with the .223/5.56’s extremely low-recoil characteristics have vaulted it to dominance.
Most service rifle matches include stages at 200, 300 and 600 yards, from various positions, some timed, while others are slow-fire. A few specialty matches, such as the Farr trophy at Camp Perry, are fired at 1,000 yards. And yes, the .223/5.56 even dominates that match.
Top shooters use an accurate, standard-length (magazine compatible) match bullet for the 200- and 300-yard stages but transition to super long, high-BC, heavy-for-caliber projectiles for 600 and 1,000 yards. While there are exceptions, the best of these are too long to feed through the magazine of the M16-type, match-tuned service rifles used for these matches and must be single-fed. That’s not a problem since the long-range stages are slow-fire.
Another rapidly growing competitive discipline is the “.223 only” PRS-type match. Inexpensive to shoot and easy on barrels, the little cartridge provides a great venue to polish your positional transitions, wind calls, corrections and shot executions at minimal cost. Quite a few of the more serious PRS shooters now have a dedicated, specialized rifle chambered in .223 just for such matches.
Sierra’s 80-grain MatchKing is a profoundly good choice for extreme-range shooting with the .223/5.56, a fact borne out by a glance at a list of National Match winners. For a more modern, cutting-edge option, Sierra and Hornady now both produce composite-tipped match bullets that provide significantly higher BCs while maintaining similar levels of accuracy.
- Introduced: 1952
- Parent case: .300 Savage
- Maximum range: 1,000 yards
- Most useful for: Matches regulated to .308 only
Out to 600 yards, the .308 is very capable, and by finessing the load and holding your tongue just right, 1,000 yards is doable. In fact, good shooters with a sound grasp of how to finagle the best out of the .308 do some outstanding shooting with it at 1,000 yards, sometimes farther. Its arched trajectory can make a rainbow look flat, and a grasshopper’s sneeze will drift its bullets off course, but if it’s all you’ve got, you make the most of it.
The .308’s biggest weakness is the lack of propellant capacity to push heavy-for-caliber, super-aerodynamic bullets at useful velocities. Unfortunately, the better the long-range bullet (read: heavy and streamlined with a stretched-out profile), the longer it intrudes into the .308’s powder chamber. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns with the .308.
Competitive shooters traditionally pick a hollowpoint boattail bullet in the 168-grain range, such as Sierra’s obscenely accurate MatchKing. Such bullets provide a good balance of best BC/best velocity out of the .308. Modernized versions, such as Sierra’s 168-grain Tipped MatchKing and Hornady’s 168-grain ELD Match, substantially bump up ballistic coefficient (BC) numbers, further increasing capability.
However, we’re interested in long range, and those bullets are usually considered mid-range projectiles. Better are the 175-, 178- and 180-grain bullets, if they can be pushed fast enough. Your magazine length will help determine that: A longer-than-spec mag allows handloaders to seat those long bullets out farther than standard overall length (OAL) so they don’t intrude into powder capacity.
One other downside of the .308 is that it has just enough recoil to be annoying. On the plus side, barrel life is outstanding.
In the final analysis, when regulation demands, the .308 can be manipulated into working at long range. However, given the choice, there are drastically more capable cartridges.
- Introduced: 2002
- Parent case: .300 Rem. Ultra Mag
- Maximum range: 1,600 yards
- Most useful for: 1,000-yard slow-fire matches
Vaulted to discreet stardom when used to win a 1,000-yard open-class championship at the National Matches at Camp Perry several years ago, this cartridge is a proper short-action round that offers an edge when aggressive wind conditions plague a match.
Handloaders push heavy, sleek 7mm bullets, such as Berger’s 180-grain VLD line, to outstanding velocities, achieving as much as 3,000 fps in 28- and 30-inch barrels. While it’s not as efficient as the 6.5 Creedmoor, and recoils harder and burns barrels faster, it is indubitably more effective at bucking wind. And in slow-fire matches, neither recoil nor barrel burning is really an issue.
Lapua has offered cases off and on for several years, enabling accuracy-obsessed shooters to make the most of the 7mm SAUM. The case body is slightly smaller and more efficient than the 7mm WSM, and slightly larger and more capable than the .284 Winchester.
Definitely a dark horse in the competition cartridge realm, the 7mm SAUM is quietly used by competitors who know it and love it to trounce those who don’t. That said, it’s most useful at 1,000 yards and beyond. Inside 1,000, shooters don’t really need its horsepower.
Extreme-distance shooters typically opt for obscenely powerful cartridges such as the .338 Lapua, .375 Cheytac and .416 Barrett, but I crunched the ballistics of the 7mm SAUM pushing a 180-grain Berger VLD at 3,000 fps in sea-level atmospherics and again at my home elevation of 5,000 feet.
It’s supersonic to 1,750 yards at sea level, almost making that one-mile mark. At 5,000 feet altitude? It stays supersonic clear to 2,100 yards.
.300 Win. Mag.
- Introduced: 1963
- Parent case: .375 H&H
- Maximum range: 1,600 yards
- Most useful for: Cross-country long-range & 1,000-yard slow- fire matches
Jack of all trades, master of none. The .300 Win. Mag. is not typically viewed as a competition cartridge. However, a variety of match-grade .300 Win. Mag. ammo is readily available, which is probably because of its history as a military sniper cartridge for distances where the .308 can’t get it done but the .338 Lapua and .50 BMG are unnecessary. This fact alone makes it a good do-all choice for shooters that dabble in quite a few different disciplines but don’t particularly care about winning in a certain one.
Recoil is harsh. Barrel life isn’t good. It’s too much cartridge to be practical in PRS or sniper-type competitions. It excels at 1,000 yards and beyond, and is really at home in long-range, cross-country competitions where distances range from mid to very far and shots are limited.
Don’t want to handload? No problem. All the big players in ammo offer at least one — and often several — match-grade, long-range-appropriate factory loads: Barnes, Black Hills, Nosler, Federal, Hornady, Remington, Winchester and more. Assuming you have a decent .300 Win. Mag. rifle, you can find a factory load that shoots well in it.
As always, though, handloaders get the best out of the cartridge. Myriad projectile options are available and perform superbly in the .300 Win. Mag., from Sierra’s legendary 190-grain MatchKing to Hornady’s cutting-edge 212-grain ELD Match.
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