Long-Range Calibers & Cartridges: What The Pros Use 

I recently surveyed the top 100+ shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS), and this post reviews the calibers and cartridges those guys are running this year. For those of you who may not be familiar with the PRS, it’s an organization that tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. PRS matches are tactical/practical long-range rifle matches shot in the field conditions. Typical ranges for steel targets are from 300 to 1200 yards, and they are engaged from prone and improvised positions, often under extreme time pressure. It is one of the fastest growing shooting sports, and has attracted some of the best riflemen in the world. Literally thousands of shooters compete, so to land in the top 100 you have to be an exceptional competitor. I’d like to personally thank all the shooters who took the time to complete the survey.

More Info on the PRS

Advice From The Pros

On this year’s survey, I asked each competitor this question: If you could just give one piece of advice to a new shooter wanting to get into this sport, what would that be? I got some great answers and am planning a post covering those answers, but I’ll share a few a few as they’re relevant in this “What the Pros Use” series. I’ll sprinkle in these words of advice to help us keep perspective or show different viewpoints from these top shooters.

Let’s start with a tip from the guy who finished 1st overall, because it’s especially relevant to this topic:

“Get one caliber, learn your data, and don’t chase the new shiny.”
– Tyler Payne, US Army Marksmanship Unit, 1st Overall in Open Division

PRS Divisions

In 2016, the PRS introduced new divisions. All shoot the same course of fire.

  • Open Division:Able to use a rifle chambered in any cartridge 30 caliber or smaller with a max muzzle velocity of 3,200 fps.
  • Tactical Division: Restricted to 2 traditional military and law enforcement calibers: .308 Win or 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem.
  • Production Division: This division lowers the barrier of entry to start competing. Rifles can’t be altered/improved in any way from the original factory configuration, and combined MSRP for rifle and scope can’t exceed $3,000. (Update: They tweaked these rules slightly for the 2017 season.)

“The production class is a great feature the PRS offers. Just try one match and guarantee you will be hooked!”
– John Herring, 4th Overall, Production Division

Most Popular Calibers In Tactical & Production Divisions

First, I’ll quickly summarize the most popular calibers in the tactical and production divisions.

In the Tactical Division, the 308 Win was the most popular cartridge used, with 75% of those surveyed running it. But, there were a few people running the 5.56/223, including competitors who placed as high as 3rd overall in the Tactical Division.

In the Production Division, we only surveyed the top 4 shooters and they were evenly split between two very capable cartridges:

  • 6.5 Creedmoor: 1st & 4th place shooters
  • 243 Win: 2nd & 3rd place shooters

Most Popular Calibers In Open Division

Now, let’s dive into the most popular calibers in the Open Division. This was the only division that existed before 2016, and still represents the majority of shooters. This is the most interesting division when it comes to caliber choice, because there are very few restrictions. 95% of these guys handload and there are no cartridge sponsors (as far as I know), so each shooter goes with whatever they feel gives them the best shot at putting rounds on target.

The 6mm was the most popular caliber again this year. While there were still plenty of shooters using 6.5mm cartridges, the gap widened more than any previous year, with about 2 out of 3 shooters opting for a 6mm.

Best Long Range Caliber

“PRS shooting is a recoil management game. Go with 6mm and learn how to free recoil your rifle.”
– Paul Reid, 10th Overall, Open Division

Note: The chart above only shows the top 50 shooters, because in previous years we only surveyed those shooters in the top 50. So to keep it an apples-to-apples comparison, we filtered it to only include the top 50 ranked shooters for this graph.

Now let’s look at a breakdown of the most popular cartridges among the top 100 shooters in the Open Division:

Most Popular Long Range Rifle Cartridge

So here is the list of most popular cartridges for this past season:

  1. 6.5×47 Lapua
  2. 6×47 Lapua
  3. 6XC
  4. 6.5 Creedmoor
  5. 6mm Creedmoor
  6. 6mm Dasher
  7. 6mm Super LR

Last year, the 6mm Creedmoor was the darling of the 6mm’s, only to fall to the #5 spot this year, with the 6.5×47 Lapua and 6×47 Lapua leading the way in the top 2 spots. 6XC popularity more than doubled over last year, landing as the 3rd most popular cartridge among the top ranked shooters. The 6.5 Creedmoor and 6mm Creedmoor are perennial favorites, although they were a little further down the list than you might have expected. Lastly, the 6mm Dasher and 6mm Super LR both climbed in popularity this year.

View Last Year’s Data on Most Popular Cartridges

Here are the cartridge dimensions of most of this year’s top cartridges (at least the cartridges included in Berger’s Reloading Manual). You can see they share very similar sizes and design characteristics.

“Don’t chase calibers. Pick one in 6mm or 6.5mm, stick with it and learn it. Once you have something in either 6mm or 6.5mm it is the shooter’s ability after that. You’re not going to swap to a magical caliber and all of a sudden start winning matches.”
– Bannon Eldridge, 50th Overall in Open Division

Muzzle Velocity

The survey also asked each shooter what their average muzzle velocity was. That can obviously vary by barrel length and other factors, but 85% of the shooters were using a 24-26 inch barrel.

Let’s first look at the top 6mm cartridges. The data below reflects what the shooters firing a 105-108gr bullet said their muzzle velocity was. The gray arrows show the range of all answers, and the diamond indicates the average muzzle velocity of all shooters.

CAUTION: I haven’t personally verified any of this data to be within safe/recommended tolerances. It’s likely that some of these guys run hot loads, so this is for informational purposes only and should be used at your own risk.

6mm Rifle Muzzle Velocities

You can see that 4 of the top 5 cartridges have average muzzle velocities within about 25 fps of each other. The 6mm Dasher is the obvious outlier from this group, at 100 fps slower than the others. But one advantage to the lower muzzle velocity is reduced recoil (assuming bullet weight is the same). Remember veteran shooter Paul Reid told us the quick engagements and improvised positions common in the PRS-style of shooting makes recoil management a critical part of this game, and the 6mm Dasher may have the lightest recoil of any of the popular cartridges.

Next let’s look at the muzzle velocities for the 2 very popular 6.5mm cartridges. The muzzle velocities shown are from shooters who said they were shooting bullets weighing from 139gr to 142gr.

6.5mm Rifle Muzzle Velocities

You can see the 6.5×47 Lapua and 6.5 Creedmoor cartridges have very similar muzzle velocities. However, the 6.5×47 Lapua has a case capacity of 47 grains of water, where the 6.5 Creedmoor has 10% more capacity at 52 grains of water.

I’ve heard people say that because the 6.5×47 Lapua cases use a small rifle primer, they were able to push it harder (i.e. higher pressures) than you could most cases. I can neither confirm nor deny that report. You should be cautious and consult a quality reloading manual before attempting any load development. But, one thing that could cause a shift in upcoming seasons is the fact that Lapua has released 6.5 Creedmoor cases. The 6.5 Creedmoor was designed with a large rifle primer, but the Lapua 6.5 CM cases will feature both a small rifle primer and a smaller diameter flash hole. Lapua believes both of those things produce more consistent ignition, which means more consistent muzzle velocities … which is critical in the long-range game.

Lapua 6.5 Creedmoor Brass

When I first heard the news about Lapua making 6.5 Creedmoor cases, I figured it was just rumors or wishful thinking, because the case is so similar to Lapua’s darling 6.5×47 case. Even when I saw Lapua’s announcement, I was still a little skeptical … but I just received some of this brass today, so I can finally confirm that it is real! You’ll see the start hitting the shelves (or at least online) over the next couple weeks. My bet is Lapua will be shocked by the demand for the 6.5 Creedmoor cases, and they might struggle to keep up … and we may see a lot of guys running these cases in upcoming PRS matches.

Lapua Brass 6.5 Creedmoor For Sale
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