By Larry Teague
Hold it in your hand, show it to a hunting buddy, and chances are he’ll mistake it for a varmint or predator cartridge. The 6.8 Rem SPC is the same length as a .223 Rem, but fires a .27-caliber bullet. Its bore size is .277, the same as the .270 Winchester.
The 6.8 SPC is essentially a mild, short-action .270. It follows in the tradition of the .223 Remington, the .308 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield as military cartridges that have made the transition to the hunting world. Hunters don’t call the .223 Rem the 5.56mm NATO, or the .308 Win the 7.62x51mm NATO, however. The 6.8 Rem SPC would be more accepted in sporting circles if its name reflected its bore size in inches rather than millimeters.
The cartridge is not the long-range performer the .270 Win is, nor does it have enough terminal energy to tip over any big game animal in North America. However, factory loads can cleanly take deer, hogs and antelope as far as most hunters can accurately shoot, which is about 250 yards.
Remington factory cartridges launch 115-grain bullets with a muzzle velocity of 2,625 fps from a 24-inch barrel. Zeroed at 150 yards, the bullets drop 2.5 to 2.8 inches at 200 yards. Hunting bullets of 130 grains can also be fired from the 6.8 case, though no 130-grain factory loads are presently offered.
Other long-established cartridges like the .250 Savage are in the same power class. What sets the 6.8 apart is exceptionally mild recoil. It’s the most fun hunting cartridge to shoot this side of the .243 Winchester. In fact, recoil is less than the .243’s. A rifle chambered in 6.8 SPC would make a superb deer gun for kids, women or anyone with an aversion to rifles that roar.
The Remington 6.8 brass employs a large rifle primer vs. the small rifle primer of the Hornady case.
The 5th Special Forces Group and the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit developed the 6.8 for combat use in 2001. It seems that standard-issue 62-grain 5.56mm bullets were not taking out the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan fast enough, so the search began for a cartridge with more stopping power, particularly at close quarters.
Choices were limited because any new round had to fit and function in M4 and M16 envelopes. Many options were tried before the wildcatters took an obsolete .30 Remington case, trimmed it to .223 Rem length, necked it to .277, and slightly modified a .223 bolt face to chamber and extract it. The result, a cartridge that developed 50 percent more energy at 100 yards than the 5.56 and was accurate to 500 meters.
Remington Joins the Army
In 2001, Remington Arms teamed up with Special Forces to help refine and produce the cartridge. Two years later, three military and law-enforcement loads were announced: 115-grain Metal Case; 115-grain BTHP and 115-grain MatchKing.
It didn’t take long for the 6.8 to be carried in the deer woods. One of the cartridge’s developers is an avid whitetail hunter who early on had the first 6.8 sporting rifle built: a CZ 527 rifle with a Rock Creek barrel. His hunting handloads consisted of 110-grain Hornady V-Max bullets ahead of 30.5 grains of Ramshot 1660 powder. Up to 2004, he had taken 16 whitetails with his handloads, all one-shot kills out to 350 yards.
Through a chance encounter, I had an opportunity to hunt with the same soldier’s custom 6.8 rifle and handloads at a ranch near Kerrville, Texas. Rio Bonito Ranch owner Gwen Hughes used the borrowed gun to claim the first hog taken with the new caliber, while I dropped a Texas Dall ram at 110 yards and a hog at 130. I was amazed at the light rifle’s effectiveness. Both sheep and pig reacted as if they’d been pole-axed.
The author’s 6.8 handloads were very accurate, shooting under an inch at 100 yards. It was no surprise that the .270 bullets also performed well on game.
The 6.8 Out of Uniform
It made sense that Remington would eventually produce a 6.8 hunting cartridge and chamber the trim Model Seven rifle for it. I thought the 6.8 case, loaded with a polymer-tipped bullet such as the AccuTip, would make a splendid whitetail round. Remington obviously had other plans for the short case.
At the company’s new product seminar in South Carolina in October 2004, Big Green introduced the first factory 6.8 hunting load: a 115-grain Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded product. The following summer, GunHunter staffer Ralph Lermayer used a tweaked version of this load to drop a tundra caribou at 200 yards with a perfect (and, he admits, lucky) heart shot.
No one doubts the effectiveness of the .30-30 Winchester for hunting deer. Truckloads of whitetails have been dropped with the venerable cartridge inside 200 yards. In announcing its new bonded 6.8 load, Remington compared its energy levels to the 150-grain soft point .30-30. The 6.8 load has 7 percent more energy at 100 yards than the .30-30, and 26 percent more energy at 200 yards.
The Remington chart above compares the 6.8’s recoil with the .30-30 and other common factory hunting cartridges.
Handloading the 6.8
Remington sent me a Model Seven AWR custom shop gun, the first factory hunting rifle chambered in 6.8, as soon as one became available. Initial tests at the range showed the lightweight gun was plenty accurate for deer hunting. Groups with the 115-grain factory load stayed around 1 1/2 inches.
Handloading would likely produce tighter groups, and the more I thought about it, the closer I came to ordering a set of 6.8 dies. Scores of 110- and 130-grain .270 hunting bullets are available as components. Plus, I really enjoy shooting the 6.8, so working up hunting loads would give me another excuse to use it. I obtained a set of Hornady Custom dies in 6.8.
Gun writer Layne Simpson was on his own when he came up with the first published 6.8 handloading data, covering more than a dozen loads. Soon, Hodgdon Powder Co. and IMR had data as well. However, to my knowledge, only one of those loads, the 110-grain V-Max, had been successfully used on game up to that time.
What’s more, the .277 bullet that interested me the most, the 110-grain Barnes Triple Shock X-Bullet introduced in 2004, was not on either list. X-Bullets are known for their deep penetration and high weight retention. Expansion tests show they also open up quickly. A call to Barnes told me that the 110-grain TSX’s operating velocity is between 1,800 to 2,800 fps. My Ohler Ballistics Explorer software program indicated the TSX bullet leaving the barrel at 2,500 fps would still be traveling at 1,900 fps at 250 yards. In other words, the bullet should expand reliably as far as I needed to shoot.
Barnes recommends seating its X-Bullets 0.030 inch to 0.070 inch off the lands. Using a Stoney Point OAL gauge, a modified 6.8 case and the Barnes bullet, I determined the proper overall cartridge length in the AWR rifle, and set up my seating die accordingly.
The published data for similar-weight bullets called for 26 to 31 grains of various medium-burning powders like H4198. I started with 25 grains of H335 and carefully worked up, watching for pressure signs. I also tried Varget, H322 and IMR 4895, but 30 grains of H335 proved most accurate. The best group size was half an inch. The chronograph showed an average muzzle velocity of 2,541 fps and a standard deviation of 12.49. After zeroing the rifle dead-on at 100 yards, I was ready to test the load in the field.
Hunting with Handloads
Several days later, I was in a box blind watching a large food plot on a central Alabama hunting property. Prior to the 2005 season, this 500-acre section of land had never been leased, so it holds a good number of does. About an hour into the hunt, three of them entered the right side of the green field. Resting the AWR rifle on the blind’s window ledge, I placed the scope’s crosshairs on a large doe quartering toward me at 130 yards and pressed the trigger. The rifle cracked, and the deer’s knees bucked. A .270 Winchester could not have dropped it any quicker. The all-copper bullet rendered massive internal damage before exiting the top of the off shoulder.
Next up were the 130-grainers. Scores of deer have been taken with 130-grain Nosler Ballistic Tips from .270 rifles. How would these plastic-tipped bullets perform in the 6.8 case? For this exercise, I’d use a different rifle, a Thompson/Center Encore rifle in 6.8 that T/C had provided several months earlier.
At the range, I fired the rifle dozens of times, carefully working up loads, but my shoulder wasn’t the least bit sore. The best-performing powder turned out to be H322. I also tested some 130-grain TSXs. Twenty-eight grains of H322 pushed the Nosler Ballistic Tip out of the barrel at 2,556 fps and the TSX at 2,519 fps. The best group - 0.714 inch - was with the TSX.
I returned to my hunting lease, but this time set up on a wide road on the north end of the property. Although it was Dec. 21, temperatures were still in the 60s - not good for deer hunting and especially buck hunting. At 3:45 p.m., two does emerged from a well-worn woods trail. The smaller animal fed toward me, and the other walked in the opposite direction, stopping at 155 yards. When it turned to re-enter the woods, I fired. Gravity claimed it just 20 yards from the road. The Ballistic Tip bullet had penetrated both lungs and exited, leaving a nickel-size hole.
I wish I could say I used the TSX bullet to collect a wallhanger, but that wasn’t in the cards. While I saw a half-dozen bucks on the property during the rut, none qualified as shooters under our club’s rules.
On Jan. 25, I watched two spikes at 50 yards, and an inside-the-ears 8-pointer cross a road within easy shooting distance. Daylight was fading when a doe sauntered onto the field at 100 yards. The rifle barked, and immediately the cull animal was swallowed by thick brush. I searched for sign for an hour with no luck. The next morning, I discovered the doe had not run in a straight path, but had turned sharply to the south. It piled up just 40 yards from where it was standing when I’d shot. Not one of the 6.8 handloads had failed to deliver in the field.
Of course, taking just one big game animal with any new load or bullet is inconclusive, so additional research is required. There are also more factory loads and rifles to test. Last fall, Remington announced four new rifles chambered in 6.8, and one of them, the Model Seven YTH Synthetic (MSRP: $595), is a youth rifle. The other three are the Model 700 SPS ($532), the wood-stocked Model Seven CDL ($788) and the Model Seven SS ($811). Big Green should do especially well with the SPS rifle and the youth gun.
At the 2006 SHOT Show last February, Hornady introduced a 110-grain V-Max factory load. The brass is Hornady’s own and uses a small rifle primer versus the large rifle primer of the 6.8 Remington brass. There are also rumors that Hornady will introduce a 120-grain bonded load in 6.8 this year.
For a while, 6.8 brass was hard to come by, since most of it was going to the military, but supplies are back up. Another player, Silver State Armory, is also producing 6.8 cartridges and brass. The ammo is loaded with 110-grain Sierra Pro Hunter bullets and the brass is of benchrest quality. Both Remington and Silver State brass and cartridges are available from Midway USA, www.midwayusa.com.
Expect more loads and chamberings in different rifles as the 6.8 grows in popularity.
So many guns and loads, so little time.
Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine