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6.5 Grendel – It’s Not Just for ARs Anymore

From the archives: CARNIVORE Magazine Issue 1
Photos by Kenda Lenseigne

BILL ALEXANDER’S CREATION MAKES A WHOLE LOT OF SENSE FOR THE WOODS

I’m starting this article with some assertions — feel free to shoot me down here, as there’s a lot of personal opinion interjected within these few lines. First, the vast majority, let’s say 95 percent, of shots on big game east of the Mississippi (and a lot of those in the west) are taken at less than 300 yards.

Second, most hunters don’t practice nearly as much as they’d like to, or should, due to a combination of factors such as range availability, time, and, let’s be honest here, lighting off a couple hundred rounds of hard-kicking big game rounds in the afternoon just isn’t much fun.

Third, there’s a commonly accepted maxim that it’s necessary for a bullet to deliver 1,000 foot-pounds of energy to a deer-sized animal in order to ensure its humane dispatch. Why not 950 ft-lbs or 1,086, and who came up with this arbitrary number in the first place? Some gun writer up against a deadline probably pulled it out of his ass and it stuck.

The firearms press must also take a large portion of the blame for hype and hoopla surrounding the launch of the various short and ultra mags, cartridges that address the needs of a microscopic fraction of the hunting community and yet received gallons of ink. No doubt, some poor saps were gulled into believing that if they could just push that 200-grain bullet a couple hundred feet per second faster, it would make up for their shooting like old people f*ck.

If we do actually accept the above three assertions, then why, other than for sake of pig-headed tradition, do we head afield each fall with calibers that were designed to kill a horse at a mile? It’s kinda like using a monster truck as a grocery getter.

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If we plug the 1K at 300 model into a ballistic calculator, then we’d probably arrive at a solution that’s lighter to carry, easier on the shoulder (and therefore more likely to promote both practice and good marksmanship), cheaper, and just as effective.

I haven’t worn a uniform in long time, but I do recall there being a lot of validity to the military doctrine of training with the same equipment you use for realsies. If you’re carrying a 300 RUM to drop whitetails, then there’s a better-than-even chance that you’ll either skip practicing altogether, curtail it in order to avoid burning up your barrel’s throat three bucks a pop, or else substitute another rifle and cartridge for this essential duty.

I’d go so far as to lay cash money that the main reason hunters miss isn’t due to any deficiency of their equipment; it’s because at the moment of truth they don’t know their gear half as well as they should. And the only way to gain that familiarity is to train.

Now, I’ll come clean here. The most memorable shot I’ve taken while hunting was on a flat-out, running hog at around 200 yards, offhand with a .50 BMG. I’ve also chased jackrabbits at night with the same caliber. I like shooting the big bores, and there’s nothing quite like whacking steel at over a mile with something that starts with a 3 and ends with an 8. But for something that’ll be carried for miles through the woods and called upon to put meat on the table, I might sacrifice a little horsepower.

There’s a round that checks all the above boxes: mild-recoiling, fun to shoot, accurate, sufficiently powerful and, thanks to the advent of steel-cased ammo, cheap to practice with. Until recently, it’s only been adopted by AR-15 owners, but at 23 cents a round, there’s no reason why anyone who wants to hunt with a bolt gun can’t take advantage of it, too.

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.308 Win (right), 6.5 Grendel (left)

There are currently two manufacturers building micro-length, bolt-action rifles around the 6.5 Grendel cartridge, namely CZ and Howa. Zastava briefly flirted with idea, but then changed distributors and now no longer offers it in the U.S. It’s a pity, as they provided a lower cost, if rougher, alternative to the other two.

Hailing from Japan, Howa rifles are once again being marketed under their own brand after years of masquerading as Weatherby and Smith & Wesson products. They’re essentially an upgraded M700 and offer a better trigger and extractor than their Ilion counterparts. For anyone who wants to build their own semi-custom rifle, they’re available as barreled actions, and the aftermarket is slowly adding options with regards to stocks.

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Howa’s version of their micro action Grendel, all dressed up in a chassis.

The Czech firm of CZ makes a micro-length Mauser 98 action, previously only available chambered in .223 Rem, 7.62×39, and .22 Hornet, but for 2017 they’ve added a 6.5 Grendel factory version. Back when I first started flirting with the Grendel as a serious cartridge, the only way to lay hands on one was to start with an action and then build out from there, which is as satisfying as it is expensive. Before signing checks, it was worth figuring out just what the goal was for this new venture.

This was to be a rifle that was capable of ringing steel at 1,000 yards, could drop deer, hogs, coyotes, and black bear out our 300-yard maximum, and would allow for lots and lots of practice in field conditions. It was to be lightweight (having humped many 15-pound precision rifles around, they’re way more fun to shoot than they are to carry), but here we run into a conflict between barrel weight and the ability of pencil-thin barrels to hold a group, once a practice session gets underway. A good trigger would be non-negotiable, as would a stock that was impervious to the elements while not feeling like it was made out of recycled grocery bags.

Proof Research was enlisted to address the barrel heating problem, and their 18-inch carbon-fiber–wrapped tube was screwed onto a CZ 527 action that started out life mated to an x39 steel pipe. CZ sends their bolt guns out into the world with one of the best factory triggers available, once you take the trouble to set them up.

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With its low gas volume, the Grendel is easy to suppress — the Proof barrel comes threaded 5/8-28 for a variety of cans.

While we toyed with the idea of adding a Rifle Basix unit to the buildsheet, after twiddling some adjustment screws we got a 3-pound, creep-free, single-stage break that brought a smile to everyone’s face. Pressing the trigger blade forward activates the set trigger and drops the poundage. If you take it to extremes you can wind up with a hilarious 4-ounce pull, but we wouldn’t recommend it for a hunting situation.

Our barreled action was mated to an HS Precision stock, but as their barrel channel arrives cut for a varmint, rather than bull, profile, we had to open it up slightly. Using an aluminum bedding block gives repeatable accuracy from the get-go, but giving in to our OCD side we also skim bedded it with epoxy, most of which oozed out during installation due to the preexisting tight fit. The stock itself is a blend of traditional and tactical styling, with a wider fore end than typically found on a deer rifle and ambi palm swells that work well if you favor laying your firing thumb along the strong-side of the pistol grip.

Rather annoyingly, CZ elects to cut the top of the 527 receiver for 16mm rings, severely limiting your choices when it comes to scope mounting, as almost all the available options are either high or medium height. Fortunately, by using a set of standard low rings in conjunction with a DIP Inc. 20MOA base, you can add a little versatility in terms of ring placement and scope choice, as almost any optic in the safe will then have the 40 minutes of elevation adjustment needed to reach the 1,000-yard mark.

We teamed the tiny bolty with a Leupold VX-R 2-7×33 scope, in keeping with its diminutive stature. With a 250-yard zero, bullets never drop or rise beyond 5 inches from the point of aim out to 300 yards, and the BDC’s hash marks correspond within 0.5 MOA of the actual impact at 300, 400, and 500 yards.

Due to its origins as a gas gun cartridge, the 6.5 Grendel has a somewhat conservative pressure limit of 50,000 psi, necessary to avoid the problem of sheared AR-15 bolt lugs, and exacerbated by the requirement of removing material from the bolt face in order to accommodate a fatter case head. Despite this, it’s one of the most efficient rounds out there, burning less than 30 grains of powder to launch a 123-grain bullet at around 2,500 fps.

Due to the mini Mauser’s stronger action, it’s possible to wring out another 125 fps through judicious hand loading, but that’s beyond the scope of this article and should be attempted only by those with a thorough understanding of the risks involved. That comparatively diminutive powder charge, along with a low bore/case diameter ratio is the main reason for the Grendel’s stellar barrel life — 5,000 rounds of sub-MOA group sizes isn’t uncommon in an AR. We suspect, given that no one will be doing mag dumps with a bolt gun, that our 527 will easily surpass that number.

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Micro Mauser bolt next to a M98 original.

Sticking to commercially available ammo, the shooter isn’t short of choices. We used Hornady’s loadings with both the 123-grain A-Max and SST bullets, and the accuracy results were both around 1 MOA. Although the SST has a reputation for varmint bullet performance when shot at velocities associated with a .260 Rem or 6.5 Swede, at the speeds generated from the milder Grendel, it should have no problem holding together and punching through both sides of a deer at up to our maximum range.

We’d like to see Barnes offer their 100-grain TTSX bullet as a factory load, as penetration and expansion are both excellent with this devastating little pill, which should still open up all the way out to 400 yards. For now, only the 120-grain TSX is available in factory ammo though it, along with Nosler’s 130-grain Accubond, give good results on game.

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Having waded through the turgid prose above, you might conclude that we’re pretty enamored with this little bolt gun. You’d be right. It’s the one that gets pulled out of the safe when there’s a spare hour in the schedule, thrown in the ATV rack and taken to the range behind the house. Because it’s now well into its second, 1,000-round case of ammo, it’s the rifle that’ll be taken on the majority of our hunts this fall, as there’s no question about where it hits at various ranges and positions — I know, rather than guess at, what I can hit and how big of a target must be presented for a one-shot kill.

Howa and CZ both make owning a 6.5 Grendel way easier than it used to be. Off-the-rack versions are readily available and in the case of the Czech offerings, feature some of the nicest walnut stocks of any production guns — just in case you want to go the whole “traditional, blued steel and walnut” route. With luck, we might just start a movement for easy-to-use calibers and get Savage, Remington, and Ruger on board. And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with swapping out the upper on your 5.56 AR, should you prefer hunting with a semi auto. Whatever you choose, we’ll bet that your practical marksmanship improves, as will your chances of punching a tag this year.

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