Browning and Winchester joined forces in the development and introduction of an all-new cartridge aimed at the western hunter and named it the 6.8 Western. I had the privilege of testing it in a new model Browning X-bolt Western Hunter. Given all of the “westerns” in those first two sentences, this new combination had better be a good fit for those of us who hunt the West. The perfect rifle is certainly a matter of personal opinion, but allow me to state why I think this new combination might be “the one.”
What and Why a New Caliber?
The 6.8 Western is basically a shortened-down 270 WSM. This allows for longer and heavier bullets with higher ballistic coefficients to fit in a standard short action. The engineering team worked with Sierra and Nosler to develop the bullets, up to 175 grains, that would deliver long-range accuracy and perform well on game. The new, shorter case design is extremely efficient–resulting in some impressive muzzle velocity with less measured recoil than comparable cartridges. A faster twist rate in the area of one in 8” is required to stabilize these longer bullets.
The short and sweet selling point for the 6.8 Western is that it utilizes heavier bullets with higher BC to deliver an increased level of energy compared to most short-action cartridges. This gives it comparable energy levels to many long-action cartridges in the same bullet weight range. The 6.8 Western offers this performance with less felt recoil than the larger magnum calibers. For the record, I am comparing factory ammunition to factory ammunition. A dedicated hand loader may be able to replicate the 6.8 factory specs with an existing caliber, but for those of us who don’t hand load, this new caliber is in a class of its own. Western Hunter Rifle Editor Colton Bagnoli and I have had multiple conversations on this topic, and we plan to get into the weeds on this topic and this caliber in future issues, so stay tuned.
The Hunting Setup
I was excited about the new X-bolt Western Hunter right out of the box. I have come to learn how important rifle stock fit is to accuracy, and I have spent days in the past playing with spacers to achieve the most versatile confirmation. The new adjustable comb system is easily adjusted for height and pitch and locks in place with four Allen head screws. The new Feather Trigger is incredibly clean and breaks at 3.5 lb. The rifle weighs in at 7 lb, and after adding a Swarovski z8i 2-16×50 with Talley one-piece rings, my new hunting rig tipped the scales at 9 lb even.
I received the rifle in late October and had just enough time to get it ready for a Sitka Blacktail hunt on Kodiak Island, Alaska. I must say that I was nervous when I headed to the range for the first test. I only had 80 rounds of Browning 175 gr GameKing ammo to test, sight in, and hunt with. I usually like to shoot at least 200 rounds through a rifle before its first hunting trip. The first round was about six inches low and little right. After a quick adjustment on the Swarovski z8, the second round hit my goal of exactly two inches high. The next 10 rounds all pounded within 1” of each other. Because the 6.8 Western is brand new, the only ballistic data I had was off the back of the box out to 500 yd. I built my ballistic turret based on this data and then searched my ballistic database for anything that seemed to be similar. Three shots at 300 yd were all dead-on and inside of 2.5”. I had steel targets from 600-800 yd, and thanks to a light, consistent wind, I did not miss a single target, and I was only into the second box of ammo. A week later I was back at the range just to make sure I didn’t have a magic first day. Everything was perfect and I burned through all but 25 rounds.
In The Field
The 6.8 performed flawlessly in Alaska–two shots and two kills on blacktail deer–which I fully expected. If I did not have the new rifle, I would have had to decide between my 6.5 Creedmoor or a 300 WM. The 6.5 is plenty of gun for deer but would not inspire confidence if a 1000 lb brown bear showed up, whereas the 300 WM is heavier with more recoil, but would at least give me a fighting chance against a bear. The 6.8 Western, with its heavy bullets, bridges the gap between short-action portability and long-action performance.
As much as I love to shoot new guns and decide if they deserve a spot in my safe, I have always dreamed of owning just one gun. As the old saying goes, “Beware of the man who only owns one gun, he probably knows how to use it.” To me, the perfect rifle/caliber combination would be extremely accurate, light enough to carry on mountain hunt, heavy enough to minimize recoil, and allow for quick follow-up shots. The 6.8 Western combined with the X-bolt Western Hunter checks all of the boxes. I admit that I have only tested one rifle with one load, but it is hard to imagine anything better than having this rifle in my safe.