When the 6.5 Creedmoor hit the shelves in 2007, it was met with the same mixture of acclaim and contempt that welcomes all new cartridges. Now, like it or not, the 6.5 CM is here to stay. It’s cemented the 6.5mm as a legitimate, effective caliber for U.S. hunters, and it’s by far the most popular 6.5mm cartridge on the shelves.
However, the Creedmoor is not the first still-in-production 6.5mm to be introduced by an American company. That distinction goes to another 6.5mm cartridge, one that’s enjoyed a more pedestrian reputation in the sporting world: the .264 Winchester Magnum.
Winchester released the .264 Win. Mag. in 1958, paired with their Model 70 Westerner bolt-action rifle. The cartridge is still chambered in bolt-action rifles from Winchester, Remington, and Browning, but it’s not nearly as common as the 6.5 Creedmoor.
Does the 6.5 CM deserve to eclipse its older cousin? Or should the .264 Win. Mag. be resurrected as a rival to the Creedmoor’s dominance? We paired these 6.5mm cartridges in this week’s Caliber Battle to find out.
6.5 Creedmoor Ballistics vs. .264 Win. Mag. Ballistics
Proponents of the 6.5 CM often point to ballistic advantages as evidence for its success. And they’re not wrong. The 6.5 CM cut its teeth on the long-range shooting circuit and it’s still popular among shooters looking to test the limits of their skill. Especially when compared to common .30-caliber hunting cartridges, the 6.5 CM shoots flatter and maintains its velocity at longer distances.
Federal’s 120-grain Trophy Copper load, for example, travels 2,875 feet per second (fps) at the muzzle and is still travelling faster than the speed of sound at 1,250 yards. The Trophy Copper bullet will reliably expand at 1,800 fps, which means hunters can expect lethal shots out to 650 yards. At that distance, the bullet has dropped only about 100 inches.
But the .264 Win. Mag. is a different animal. It pushes a 140-grain projectile about 150 fps faster than the 6.5 CM can propel a 120-grain projectile. That added velocity, paired with a modern, high-speed-low-drag bullet, allows the .264 to maintain supersonic velocities out to 1,350 yards and take large game at long distance.
The .264 Win. Mag. is a barrel burner, especially if the barrel isn’t given a chance to cool between shots or isn’t properly maintained. Frank C. Barnes reports in “Cartridges of the World” that Hornady went through three test barrels trying to work up data for only three bullets. Hunters should also keep in mind that barrel length affects velocity in the .264 more than in the 6.5 CM.
Even though both cartridges can make lethal shots well beyond the comfortable range of most shooters, the .264 Win. Mag. wins the ballistics race.
Winner: .264 Win. Mag.
6.5 Creedmoor Shootability vs. .264 Win. Mag. Shootability
“Shootability” combines recoil impulse (an important factor for any hunting cartridge) and the cost and availability of ammunition (an important factor for any hunter with a wallet to consider).
The 6.5 CM’s easy-going 12 foot-pounds of recoil energy is one of the factors that has convinced many hunters to give up their tried-and-true .30-caliber cartridges. Low recoiling cartridges save hunters from a bruised shoulder during practice, but they also minimize flinching and allow game to be tracked through a scope after the shot.
By contrast, the .264 Win. Mag. produces recoil that feels more like a .308 Win. (19 ft-lbs.). It pushes bullets faster, but you pay for that velocity at the recoil pad.
The 6.5 CM is an even clearer winner in the cost and availability category. Federal offers 18 varieties of 6.5 CM ranging from $25 for a box of 20 practice cartridges to $70 per box for premium hunting ammunition.
Meanwhile, that souped-up HSM .264 Win. Mag. I referenced above costs $83 for a box of 20, and I couldn’t find a company that offers inexpensive practice ammunition. Most online ammunition dealers offer 10 times more options for the 6.5 CM than the .264 Win. Mag., and the bigger cartridge is nearly always more expensive.
This calculation changes for hand loaders, of course. Hand loading the .264 Win. Mag. brings the costs down and allows hunters to take advantage of all the high-tech hunting bullets on the market. Still, the 6.5 CM is the clear winner in this category.
Winner: 6.5 Creedmoor
6.5 Creedmoor Versatility vs. .264 Win. Mag. Versatility
The difference between hand-loading and factory ammunition is even more pronounced when it comes to versatility. If hunters limit themselves to factory offerings, the 6.5 CM is usually more versatile. Federal offers the 6.5 CM loaded with bullets ranging from 95 grains to 140 grains, and cartridges can also be had with bullets as heavy as 153 grains.
In addition, the 6.5 CM is available in rifles ranging from AR-10s to lever-actions and bolt-actions.
The .264 Win. Mag., on the other hand, is generally only available from manufacturers with bullets between 125 grains and 140 grains and can only be found in bolt-action rifles.
Hand loading changes this dynamic. Barnes notes that the .264 Win. Mag. can be loaded with bullets as light as 85 grains and as heavy as 160 grains. Hand loading also allows hunters to mimic the versatility of the 6.5 CM in terms of cost and application, and craft cheaper cartridges for practice and more expensive cartridges for taking game.
Whether hand loading or using factor ammunition, however, the .264 Win. Mag. can reliably take a wider variety of game. While the 6.5 CM is a perfect cartridge for deer and other mid-sized game, the .264 Win. Mag. is powerful enough to handle any North American big game animal. Bullet selection is more limited, and hunters must be careful to choose the correct weight for their intended target.
But, in general, the .264 Win. Mag. can handle larger animals than the 6.5 CM while retaining the ability to be loaded with smaller varmint bullets. The nod goes to the .264 in a close bout.
Winner: .264 Win. Mag
And the Winner Is…
More than other Caliber Cattles, the winner here depends on who you are. If you’re a hand loader or a serious Western or plains hunter, the .264 Win. Mag. is the way to go. It shoots farther, hits harder, and allows you to take a wider variety of game.
If you stick to whitetail and don’t want to spend time reloading or searching (and paying) for ammunition, the 6.5 CM is far more user-friendly. It’s still available (even during the pandemic), costs less, and is easy to shoot.
If I have to choose, I’m going with the .264 Win. Mag. I like the ballistics better, and for hunting, I don’t need to worry about the cost of buying thousands of rounds. For now, this old horse wins this race.
Overall Winner: .264 Win. Mag.