I recently surveyed the top 100 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS), and this post reviews the calibers and cartridges those guys were running in 2015. The PRS tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. These are the major leagues of sniper-style competitions, with targets typically from 300 to 1200 yards.
I’d like to personally thank all the competitors who took the time to complete the survey. I also want to apologize for the survey being sent out so late this year, and for the technical issues a few ran into. I know your time is very valuable, so I hate it wasn’t a smooth experience for everyone. My readers and I whole-heartedly thank you guys for being willing to help out the rest of us, and giving us insight into the gear some of the best shooters in the world are running.
For more info on the Precision Rifle Series and who these guys are, or to view what other gear they’re running scroll to the bottom of this article.
Best Rifle Caliber
6mm cartridges continued to be the most popular again in 2015 among the most elite shooters, but it wasn’t by much. The field is fairly evenly split between the 6mm and 6.5mm cartridges. Before 2015, we only surveyed the top 50 shooters. So to look at historical trends we need to narrow it to the top 50.
I thought it might be interesting to look at what the average finish was by caliber. The data shows shooters using a 6mm cartridge finish four places better on average than those using a 6.5 cartridge.
Here are the results for all of the top 100 shooters who completed the survey. I broke them into a few different groups based on where they finished, which helps you see variance in the popularity among the groups.
You can see the top 10 shooters were weighted more heavily towards 6mm cartridges, then 11 through 50 were split evenly between 6mm and 6.5mm cartridges. But there were several more shooters who placed from 51 to 100 using 6.5mm cartridges.
There is a question about whether that is correlation or causation, which essentially is just saying did those shooters place higher because they were using a 6mm … or did it just so happen that the top shooters chose to use a 6mm cartridge. You’d likely need random sampling and a larger sample size to be able to answer that definitively, so I’ll leave it up to you guys to debate. I bet these guys could be successful with either caliber … they’re outstanding shooters. What seems obvious, is the top shooters are exclusively using 6mm and 6.5mm. None of those surveyed in the top 100 were using a 30 caliber or even a 7mm cartridge, and it’s not like there are caliber sponsors influencing choices here. Each shooter has the freedom to pick whatever they want, and the best of the best seem to be leaning slightly toward a 6mm a cartridge for that extra edge.
Best Precision Rifle Cartridges
When we break the calibers down into specific cartridges, the field gets a little more diverse.
There were clearly 4 favorites among the top 100 shooters. These 4 cartridges represent 80% of the shooters who finished in the top 100!
- 6.5×47 Lapua
- 6mm Creedmoor
- 6.5 Creedmoor
- 6×47 Lapua
While the 6.5×47 Lapua was the most popular choice among the top 100, when you just looked at the top 50 the 6mm Creedmoor was the most popular choice.
These four are just the 6.5×47 Lapua and 6.5 Creedmoor cartridges and their necked-down 6mm wildcats. So really there are only two cases represented. Here is a look at all four of these very similar cartridges. Thanks to AmmoGuide.com for allowing me to use their cartridge images to make this graphic.
One of the biggest differences is the Lapua cases use a small rifle primer, where the Creedmoor cases use a large rifle primer. The Lapua crowd believes small primers produce more consistent ignitions, and therefore lower deviation in muzzle velocity. I’m not a benchrest shooter, but that crowd almost exclusively uses the 6mm PPC cartridge, and it features a small primer pocket … so there could be some truth to that. Of course, on the other side of the table David Tubb has mentioned “a detailed study of large and small rifle primers showed that large rifle primers worked best when the propellant charge exceeds 35 grains.” Unfortunately, David didn’t cite any sources or data, but all of these cases have a typical powder charge weight around 35-45 grains. I’ve also heard others say that the smaller primer pocket allows you to push the Lapua cartridges to higher pressures … but that doesn’t sound safe to me, and likely isn’t recommended by Lapua. So there are many sides to the small vs. large rifle primer debate. I don’t have the answer, but it’s one thing that differentiates these cartridges.
The 6.5×47 Lapua and 6×47 Lapua cases have a case capacity of 47 grains of water, where the 6.5 Creedmoor and 6mm Creedmoor cases have 10% more capacity at 52 grains of water.
All four cartridges were designed within the past 10 years, and feature modern case design best practices, like:
- 30° shoulder angle – Older cartridge designs have a more shallow shoulder, typically around 20°. Cartridge designers have found a 30 degree has a lot of benefits. One is that it slows case growth, which means less trimming and longer brass life. Another benefit is the difference of how pressure builds with steeper shoulders, which can allow you to get the same velocities with less powder.
- Longer case neck (around 0.30″). Modern cartridges are designed with a longer neck to better support the bullet. This can promote concentricity and ensure the bullet is more perfectly aligned with the bore. Some also believe a longer neck can promote longer barrel life, because the “turbulence point” of the combustion remains inside the case neck instead of inside the throat of the barrel.
One of the intangibles of the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge is the option for affordable factory match ammo. You can typically find Hornady 140gr A-Max Match Ammo for around $1.20/round. You can’t reload it yourself for much less than that, if any. Check out my article on The Cost of Handloading vs. Match Ammo for a detailed comparison. That is a very attractive option for guys just getting into this sport and they don’t want to have to learn to handload right off the bat. I personally have started using that ammo for most of my training, and have loved spending more time at the range instead of the endless hours in the shop tediously loading ammo.
You can also find factory match ammo for the 6.5×47 Lapua, but it usually costs double what 6.5 Creedmoor ammo is. Another good option if you’re not wanting to reload is to look at boutique reloading shops like CooperCreekAmmo.com, who does offer 6mm Creedmoor loaded ammo. But then again, you’ll end up well over the $1.20/round price that Hornady offers 6.5 Creedmoor ammo for.
Of course, one of the attractive things about the 6.5×47 Lapua is the 5-star Lapua brass. Many believe brass is the foundation of great match ammo, and Lapua is regarded by most as the best brass money can buy. You can resize that same brass to work for the 6×47 Lapua by adding a couple extra steps.
Cartridge Muzzle Velocities
Let’s take a quick look at the muzzle velocities reported by the top shooters for each of the cartridges. CAUTION: I haven’t personally verified any of this data to be within safe or recommended tolerances. It’s likely that some of these guys run loads on the warmer side, so this is only for informational purposes and is to be used at your own risk.
First, we’ll look at the 6mm cartridges. The data below reflects what the shooters firing a 105-107gr bullet said their muzzle velocity was.
The 6mm Creedmoor produced an average muzzle velocity near 3100 fps with the popular 105gr bullet. The 6×47 Lapua had an average muzzle velocity about 20 fps slower, which you’d expect with 10% less case capacity.
Now let’s look at the 6.5mm cartridge muzzle velocities. The data below reflects what the shooters firing a 139-140gr bullet said their muzzle velocity was.
The average velocity for the 6.5×47 Lapua was 2765 fps when firing 140gr bullets. The average for the 6.5 Creedmoor was 50 fps faster at 2817 fps. One thing that is interesting here is that the range of muzzle velocities represented was huge for the 6.5×47 Lapua. But there were 12 shooters who were between 2700 to 2800 fps, and only 3 who were running faster than 2800 fps.
Trends in Rifle Cartridges
Now let’s look at historical cartridge trends since the inception of the PRS in 2012. This only includes the top 50 shooters, since that is all we surveyed prior to 2015. It also only includes cartridges with at least one shooter still using it in 2015.
There are a couple noteworthy points in this chart:
- The 6mm Creedmoor remains the favorite among the top 50 shooters again in 2015. While the margin isn’t as large as it was in 2014, it is still a healthy lead.
- Both the 6XC and 260 Remington seem to be quickly falling out of favor among these top shooters. That doesn’t mean those are no longer viable options (so please save your hate mail). The data just shows that for whatever reason those cartridges aren’t as well-represented among this crowd as they used to be. For the most part, shooters seem to be rebarreling in one of the Lapua or Creedmoor-based cartridges.
Other “What The Pros Use” Articles
This post was one of a series of posts that look at the equipment the top PRS shooters use. Check out these other posts:
- Calibers & Cartridges
- Scopes & Reticles
- Rifle Actions
- Rifle Chassis & Stocks
- Rifle Suppressors & Muzzle Brakes
- Shooting Bags
- Bullets, Brass, Primers & Powders
- Special Bonus Post!
Meet The Pros
You know NASCAR? Yes, I’m talking about the racing-cars-in-a-circle NASCAR. Before NASCAR, there were just a bunch of unaffiliated, regional car races. NASCAR brought structure by unifying those races, and created the idea of a season … and an overall champion. NASCAR identified the top races across the country (that were similar in nature), then combined results and ranked competitors. The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is like NASCAR, but for rifle matches.
The PRS is a championship style point series race based on the best precision rifle matches nationwide. PRS matches are recognized as the major league of sniper-style rifle matches. These matches aren’t shot from a bench or even on a square range. They feature practical, real-world field conditions, and even some improvised barricades and obstacles to increase the difficulty from hard to you-have-to-be-kidding-me. You won’t be able to take all shots from a prone position, and time stressors keep you from getting to comfortable. Typical target ranges are from 300 to 1200 yards, but each PRS match has a unique personality with creative stages that challenge different aspects of precision shooting. You might start off the day with a single cold bore shot on a small target at 400 yards, then at the next stage make a 1400 yard shot through 3 distinct winds across a canyon, then try to hit a golf ball on a string at 164 yards with no backstop to help you spot misses (can’t make that up), then see how many times you can ring an small 6” target at 1000 yards in 30 seconds, next shoot off a roof top at 10”, 8”, and 6” targets at 600 yards, followed by a speed drill on 1” targets at 200 yards and repeated at 7 yards … plus 10 other stages, and then come back tomorrow and do some more! Many stages involve some type of gaming strategy, and physical fitness can also come into play. For a shooter to place well in multiple matches, they must be an extremely well-rounded shooter who is capable of getting rounds on target in virtually any circumstance.
There are about 15 national-level PRS matches each year. At the end of the year the match scores are evaluated and the top ranked shooters are invited to compete head-to-head in the PRS Championship Match. We surveyed the shooters who qualified for the championship, asking all kinds of questions about the equipment they ran that season. This is a great set of data, because 100 shooters is a significant sample size, and this particular group are experts among experts. It includes guys like George Gardner (President/Senior Rifle Builder of GA Precision), Wade Stuteville of Stuteville Precision, Jim See of Center Shot Rifles, Matt Parry of Parry Custom Gun, Aaron Roberts of Roberts Precision Rifles, shooters from the US Army Marksmanship Unit, and many other world-class shooters.
Think of the best shooter you know … it’s actually very unlikely that person is good enough to break into the top 100. I know I’m not! I competed against a few of these guys for the first time earlier this year, and I was humbled. It’s incredible what these guys can do with a rifle. For example, the match in Oklahoma I was in had a station that required you to engage 4 steel targets scattered at random distances from 300 to 800 yards, and you only had 15 seconds! I think I hit 2, and rushed my 3rd shot. I didn’t even get the 4th shot off! But, one of these guys cleaned that stage with 4 seconds to spare! Yep, he got 4 rounds on target at distance in 11 seconds. That’s the caliber of shooter we’re talking about. It’s very different from benchrest or F-class competitions, but make no mistake … these guys are serious marksmen.