Hunting African Plains Game with the 6.5 Creedmoor

Every safari in Africa includes this ritual. After the hunters have had a chance to settle into camp and stow their gear, they meet their guides and together they go to a makeshift range to sight-in rifles off a bench that's less steady than a newborn giraffe's legs. What happens next is critical. The guides soak up every detail--how the hunters handle their guns, whether they seem comfortable shooting from an unsteady rest (the slipshod construction of the bench is no accident), and just as important, whether they brought enough gun. As I remove a cartridge from my ammo box, I see my guide squint at the undersized brass case. "What's that?" he says, not bothering to mask his skeptical tone. "It's new. A six-five," I reply, and I can tell by his look that he thinks I've failed this test before I've even taken my first shot--never mind that the 6.5 has a storied history on the Dark Continent.
His thoughts were plain: I hadn't brought enough gun. So how much, exactly, is "enough" when taking on the animals of Africa and their reputation for toughness? The safe answer with cartridge selection and power has always been the more, the merrier. And, true enough, every Professional Hunter I've hunted with lights up with pleasure when they see me uncase my .416 Rigby, which has been my go-to rifle for many safaris. "Lovely caliber, the four-one-six," they say. And what's not to like? With more than 5,000 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, it has proven itself time and again as a smashing cartridge over the last 100 years. But not everyone has the wallet or the masochistic streak required to handle the Rigby and its peers, like the .458 Win. Mag. and the .470 Nitro Express. The "smashing" qualities of these charge-stoppers hit both ways, and unless you're facing dangerous game, a lighter cartridge will probably serve better. Pictured: Cape buffalo taken with a .416 Rigby on a previous safari.
So how low can you go? For decades now the most popular plains game calibers have been the .30 magnums. The .300 Weatherby, .300 Win. Mag., and more recent introductions like the .30 short- and ultra-mags give hunters the warm-fuzzies with their flat trajectories and ability to reach out for longer shots. However, when chambered in standard-weight rifles, these calibers still bark with authority, and unless the person behind the trigger is accustomed to the recoil, a flinch is all but guaranteed, and the likelihood of wounding shots or outright misses skyrockets. I've witnessed this on numerous occasions, but don't take my word for it--if you get a chance to speak with an African hunting guide, ask whether he's had clients who were afraid of their booming magnums. Then pull up a chair and prepare for an earful.
The most sensible advice for a first-timer heading to Africa is to take whatever deer rifle he or she is most comfortable with. There's no plains game that won't succumb to a well-placed bullet from a .30/06 or a .270--the key being "well-placed." Since the vitals on African game are more compressed than they are in North American deer and elk, there's less leeway with shot placement. Due to the low quality of the forage in Africa, the stomach and gut take up more room in the body cavity of those animals, forcing the lungs into a smaller space. The trick with a broadside shot, then, is to sight along the front leg and take the animal through the shoulder, rather than aiming for the ribs behind the leg.
There's nothing magical about this prescription, but it does put added emphasis on marksmanship and bullet construction. Pair an accurate deer gun with a load that uses a tough bullet that will penetrate deeply and break through bone and you have the makings of a winning plains game rifle. This formula works so well, in fact, that calibers that once would have been considered marginal for Africa--at best--are proving their worth on even the largest non-dangerous game. Such was the case with the mild 6.5 Creedmoor my guide was so suspicious of. On paper this newcomer doesn't look like anything special as a hunting cartridge. Designed for long-range target competition, it launches a 140-grain bullet at 2,710 fps and a 120-grain bullet at 2,900 fps---moderate velocities and moderate bullet weights, perfectly adequate for -whitetail-​size animals but hardly any kind of world-beater. And yet, through a bit of ballistic alchemy, this cartridge has been transformed into a versatile hunting round that punches well beyond its weight class, as I hoped to show my skeptical PH.
We were hunting in the Baviaans River Conservancy, a geographically diverse region in South Africa's Eastern Cape that covers more than 350,000 acres and contains an abundance of wildlife. By mutual agreement, the ranches in this area put up no high fences, allowing the game to come and go as it pleases, offering hunters a true fair-chase experience, a rarity in Africa unless you're willing to re-mortgage your home. Early the first morning, PH Tyson Krause, my friend Mark Laney, and I stalked across a dry, rocky moonscape whose main features were dust, high winds, and bits of karoo bush. The animals we saw--mostly springbok and a few hartebeests--were skittish from the wind, and the only thing we collected was red grit in our teeth. That afternoon, Mark shot a good black wildebeest, his first African animal, with a clean through-and-through shot from the 6.5 Creedmoor.
His shot was no fluke. Other hunters in camp shot small to medium-size animals like wildebeests, which are comparable in size to a mature mule deer buck, with the 6.5 Creedmoor, making clean kills with pass-through shots. The first bullets to be recovered were on a pair of waterbuck bulls I shot the next day while they were grazing on dry grass in a grove of acacia trees. These stout animals aren't very tall, but their barrel-chested build makes them as thick as an elk, and as tough. My quartering shots on the two bulls were nearly identical. The bullets traveled straight and true through 3 feet of meat and bone. Afterward, when we dug them out at the skinning shed, we saw that both had expanded perfectly and retained all their weight.
The alchemy I mentioned before is what helped the underlying potential of the 6.5 Creedmoor blossom. The powder driving the cartridges is part of Hornady's Superformance line, which is able to propel bullets faster--by about 100 fps in the Creedmoor--while keeping chamber pressures at a safe level. Changes to the geometry and chemical composition of the powder allow this to happen. The extra velocity is just part of the story. Hornady also developed a monolithic bullet from a gilding metal alloy, called the GMX, that shows a lot of promise. Like other monolithic bullets that don't use lead, the GMXs are light for their length (120 grains in 6.5mm), but they penetrate like crazy and don't come apart in game.
These 6.5s work so well that they bring to mind the classic 159-grain roundnose bullets used in the 6.5x54 MS, a cartridge that gained fame as an elephant killer in the hands of W.D.M. Bell, who used the 6.5 for brain shots on hundreds of the tuskers he bagged in the early 1900s. That cartridge is all but forgotten among today's PHs, -however--​though the resurgent interest in today's 6.5s, such as the Creedmoor and .260 Rem., might change that.
As the sun was coming up the next morning, we were hiking in a different part of the conservancy, up a mountain valley flanked by lush, forested hills covered in a tangle of wild olive trees and vines. We were looking for eland, the largest species of antelope in the world. The bulls can reach 2,200 pounds, outclassing even American bison in size. We glassed the steep slopes and spotted a bachelor group of five bulls about a mile off and moved quickly on foot to catch up to the animals, which can cover a surprising amount of ground in a short time despite their size. There were two good bulls in the group. One was a young stud with long, sleek horns, who was clearly in his prime, but the bull that caught my eye was an older male, his spiral horns worn smooth and tipped with ivory, and his coat a ghostly shade of gray.
We got within a quarter mile of the eland before they became aware of us. This started a game of stop-and-go: We would freeze when their eyes turned our way, moving a step or two once their heads dipped to feed. Tyson and I slowly closed the distance to the bulls by crawling, shredding our hands and knees on the thorns that littered the ground. We eventually made it to a spot that opened up enough to allow for a good shot about 250 yards away from the bulls, where I settled in the shade of a crooked tree. I leaned back against the trunk, set up on my shooting sticks, and waited. The old bull finally limped clear of the trees where he was feeding, his sagging dewlap swaying as he stepped. I put the bullet just behind the bone in his front leg. That little 6.5 smashed through a rib, cut across the chest--tearing up both lungs and the heart--broke a rib on the offside, and came to rest in the meat of the off shoulder. The bull walked about 30 feet, fell, and rolled for nearly 100 yards down the steep mountainside--a one-ton avalanche smashing trees and dislodging rocks--before he came to rest.
If the eland demonstrated what the 6.5 Creedmoor can do at one extreme, the mountain reedbuck I killed a couple of days later showed what it is capable of at the other. The buck I shot was on an open hillside with very little vegetation, so a close stalk wasn't possible. To make matters more difficult, he was grazing in a slight fold in the hillside, so little more than his head was visible as he moved across my field of view. Eventually he moved into broken ground that briefly exposed his vitals. Like the eland, he was 250 yards away, but his vitals were a fraction of the size of an eland's--a target perhaps 4 or 5 inches in diameter.
With the Creedmoor's pedigree as a target round, accuracy comes naturally to the cartridge, and the factory ammo from Hornady in my Thompson/Center Icon had no problems printing tight groups. With one shot, the old reedbuck was mine. We spent the rest of the day beneath a band of cliffs that overlooked a dry riverbed, shooting rock rabbits off their stony perches, much to the delight of our trackers, who eagerly gathered up the marmot-like critters for their evening meal. By this point in the trip, the 6.5 Creedmoor had accounted for dozens of heads of game--kudu, gemsbok, black wildebeests, impala, vaal reedbuck, baboons, blesbok, red hartebeests--in addition to what I had put in the salt.
On the last day of the hunt, I shot a fine old cape bushbuck in brushy donga. We had to sneak within 50 feet before I was able to pull the trigger. After we had him on the ground, Tyson was admiring his handsome spiral horns. I asked him what he thought of the 6.5 Creedmoor now. "Lovely little caliber, that," he said.

Shooting Editor John B. Snow takes the light-kicking, flat-shooting 6.5 Creedmoor on an African safari. The hot new round proves that it packs all the punch necessary to take down tough African game.