The author tagged one of the first whitetails ever taken with the new 6.8 Western rifle cartridge – with a timely assist from a fox.
Strange things can happen in the dark, especially when you’re trying to find a downed deer in the thick brush of West Texas. A buck needs only a few leaps into that terrain before it swallows him up, and that seemed to be the case with this deer. I had felt good about the shot. Although the buck offered only a quartering-on angle, and experience told me that shot placement can leave little or no blood trail. The light was fading fast and I had to decide. He wasn’t the biggest buck on the 14,000-acre low-fence ranch, but he was a nice, representative 10 pointer, and I didn’t hesitate.
My guide and I waited 30 minutes before searching for the buck, and we looked for him for another 30 minutes before I suggested that we look more in the direction where I thought he had originally gone. That’s when things got a little weird. First, we had an uncomfortably close encounter with a skunk that narrowly avoided an odoriferous conclusion. Then, we spotted a gray fox acting strangely. He stood his ground in the glare of our flashlights as we approached, staring alternately and intently at something in the darkness ahead of him, and then back at us. We approached within a few yards of the bold little canine before I realized that he was probably pointing my deer like a bird dog pointing a quail. Standing statue-still, he did everything but raise a paw. We shooed him off and walked a short distance in the direction he was pointing, and sure enough, there was my buck.
I’ll long remember that hunt thanks to that deer-pointing fox, but I’ll also remember it for another reason. That 10-pointer was one of the first whitetail deer ever taken with the new 6.8 Western centerfire rifle cartridge from Winchester and Browning. He won’t be the last. More than two dozen game animals, including mule deer, elk, moose, caribou, blacktail deer, whitetail, and pronghorn, have already been taken with the new cartridge by those fortunate enough to be able to test it before its recent public unveiling.
The 6.8 Western is based on the 270 Win. Short Mag. with the shoulder pushed back and overall loaded length increased a tad, but there are some critical and important differences between the cartridges. For starters, the cartridge utilizes .277 caliber bullets that are heavier and longer — and have higher ballistic coefficients — than bullets commonly used for the 270 Win. and 270 WSM. In fact, due to the relative dearth of heavyweight .277 bullets, Winchester and Browning worked with Sierra and Nosler to create new bullets for the cartridge.
That collaboration has resulted in several new factory loads that elevate .277 caliber bullet performance to levels that, in some ways, equal or beat the performance of some 7mm and .30 caliber magnum cartridges. Initial offerings include a Winchester 165-grain AccuBond Long Range load with a G1 BC of .620 and a Winchester 170-grain Ballistic Silvertip load with a .563 BC. Browning is producing a Long Range Pro Hunter load with 175-grain Sierra Tipped GameKing bullets with a BC of .617. Match and copper loads are still in development.
In developing the cartridge, Winchester and Browning noted the trend toward cartridges specialized for long range hunting and target shooting, and saw room for improvement in cartridges pushing .277 caliber bullets. They also noted the fact that many newer cartridges originally intended for long range target shooting were later adapted with considerable success for hunting, but they often used lighter bullets than many hunters would prefer for large animals. With the 6.8 Western, the developers took a different approach. They designed the cartridge to be a great long-range hunting round that would also work well in long-range target shooting. That’s reflected in the choice of bullet weights that are actually closer to many .30 caliber offerings.
Some comparisons, using factory-stated numbers, are useful in putting the newcomer’s performance in perspective. The 6.8 Western 165-grain AccuBond load starts out at 2,970 fps, which is about 70 fps faster than a 160-grain 7mm Rem. Mag load and very close to a 180-grain 300 Win. Mag. load. You might expect long-range performance to be quite similar, but the higher BC of the 6.8 Western’s bullet starts to show some advantage downrange. At 500 yards, trajectories are somewhat similar, but the 6.8 Western load drops about three inches less than either of the other loads. At that distance, it hits with 1,856 ft. lbs. of energy versus 1,754 ft. lbs. with the 300 Win. Mag. load and 1,566 ft. lbs. with the 7mm Rem. Mag load. The same load punches with a whopping 67 percent more energy at that distance than a 143-grain 6.5 Creedmoor load and has a nearly 20 percent energy advantage over the 150-grain load of the parent-case 270 WSM.
Of course, game animals don’t read energy charts and don’t succumb to mathematical energy advantages alone. One of the benefits of heavier bullets with higher BCs and sectional density is increased penetration, and that was certainly evidenced on the buck I shot with the 165-grain AccuBond load. The bullet smashed the buck’s front right shoulder, broke three ribs, and penetrated through 20-plus inches of deer before stopping in the offside hide just in front of the left-side hip. Terminal effects along the bullet’s path were, in a word, impressive — and the recovered bullet still showed pretty good weight retention despite slamming through all that bone.
You might be thinking at this point that lots of good cartridges can deliver similar terminal performance, and that’s true, so where does the 6.8 Western fit in an increasingly crowded field of new cartridges? The short answer is that it fits just about everywhere and is a versatile cartridge for the versatile hunter. It delivers the same good long-range performance of some other wildly popular cartridges, but it does so with heavier bullets with high BCs, and that makes it a legitimate big game round suitable for all North American big game and African plains game. It’s not too excessively powerful for deer and pronghorn, but it has the authority to ethically kill elk, moose, and bear at extended ranges.
The 6.8 Western also has the important advantage of being designed to fit in short-action rifles, delivering all the benefits that accompany that, such as lighter and more rigid actions with improved accuracy potential. The cartridge was designed from the beginning with accuracy in mind, and it’s also quite manageable in terms of recoil for most shooters using hunting rifles of average weight. With recoil calculated using Browning X-Bolt rifles, the 165-grain 6.8 Western load generates 24.5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy, which about equals recoil produced by a 7mm Rem Mag 160-grain load. In comparison, a 180-grain 300 Win. Mag. load delivers an extra 5 ft. lbs. of recoil energy.
Of course, to realize its promise, the 6.8 Western needs rifles with faster rates of twist to better stabilize heavier bullets, and thanks to a partnership with Winchester Repeating Arms and Browning firearms, that’s going to happen in a big way. Winchester is rolling out seven XPR models, including Compact, Hunter Strata, Sporter, Renegade, and Stealth variants, chambered for 6.8 Western. There will also be five Model 70 rifles in 6.8 Western, including Featherweight, Super Grade, Extreme Weather, and Long Range rifles. All Winchester rifles will have barrels with a 1:8 rate of twist.
Browning will offer numerous X-Bolt rifles – all with muzzle brakes and all with barrels with a 1:7.5 rate of twist – in 6.8 Western. These include X-Bolt Pro, X-Bolt McMillan, X-Bolt Max, X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed and X-Bolt Western Hunter rifles. There will also be some special SHOT show introductions, even though SHOT is being held in an entirely virtual sense this year.
The rifle I hunted with was the Winchester XPR Hunter True Timber Strata model, which meant I was rather stylishly outfitted because I was also wearing True Timber Strata camo clothing. I rather like the camo pattern and have found that it works well in a wide variety of terrain. I also tested that rifle at the range, where it wore the same new Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10x40mm scope that I hunted with. The new scope with HD glass and upgraded features represents the ultimate evolution of the time-honored and proven VX-3 design.
Although I normally prefer to use higher-magnification scopes for range testing, the same 6.8 Western 165-grain AccuBond load I hunted with performed quite well at the range, turning in average groups measuring 0.99 inches and a best group that was under ¾ MOA. The average velocity out of the rifle’s 24-inch barrel was 2,873 fps, which was a bit slower than the factory stated number, but that’s not surprising because factory testing is often done with longer barrels. Numbers for extreme spread and standard deviation were 46 and 14.7, respectively.
How well the new cartridge will do in the long run is anyone’s guess. The 6.8 Western is now SAAMI approved, so any firearm or ammunition manufacturer can openly source the information to develop 6.8 Western products. Given the growing interest in long-range shooting and hunting, I wouldn’t bet against the cartridge’s chances, especially since it’s a go-anywhere, do-anything round that’s fully backed by two of the biggest brands in the business.