Primary Arms

Choosing From The Best Of The New Long Range Cartridges For The AR

AR variants like the Mk12 push the 5.56mm cartridge to the limit - but there's a whole world beyond 5.56mm for the AR.

Article By: Primary Arms Staff

The AR-15 has always been known as a relatively reliable and accurate rifle platform. It’s got a long and storied history, and deep in the roots of the .223 Remington you can find buried there, the lineage of benchrest pioneers.

What the AR has not been known for generally, at least not until fairly recently is for consistent long-range accuracy. It’s simply not that gun. That is, unless you harness the power of a new breed of AR cartridges that are built specifically to add that element to the AR resume, and for which it may just be an upper receiver swap away for you to begin enjoying such benefits….

This article seeks to help you decide if the new breed of long-range precision cartridges is something you should check out, and what exactly the story is behind this whole sub-category of AR cartridges that sprung up on the market over the past 5-6 years under heavy interest.

The Newcomer Long Range Cartridges For The AR

Perhaps the biggest reason that these cartridges are interesting is that they can almost put you at 1 MOA accuracy thresholds natively, without much difficulty. But they aren’t just pretty one-hole target shooting pieces of brass loaded with powder and new fandangled projectiles. These cartridges are legitimate multi-use options for the AR enthusiast.

Furthermore, they are all seemingly released near the same timelines (mostly) and with similar accuracy driven focal points tied to their development.

They are also easy to find in multiple load types because they have experienced wide market adoption, and someone you know is already talking about them for one reason or another.

If you are an AR owner, or a prospective AR owner, now is a very good time to reexamine the industry for an entry point into the precision upgrade game.

Who doesn’t want a cartridge that is meant to be a tactical ballistic powerhouse but also has sub MOA potential at 650 yards and fits into a standard AR magwell?

Who wouldn’t explore a cartridge that is pushed out of the same 16” barrel, but offers significantly more velocity and 45% more range consistently on target and cuts wind thanks to a heavier bullet that is also optimized for flight?

There is more to the AR than 5.56.

What AR user wouldn’t like to be able to take hogs one day at 75-125 yards, goat or rams the next at 650 yards and elk the next day at 450, and still get sub MOA out of a 16” barrel?

These statements aren’t extrapolations of ballistics about the same cartridge - rather it’s three different cartridges, and arguably the most impressive one hasn’t even been touched upon yet. And there are others in this new class.

This is the state of the contemporary intermediate and long-range precision cartridges for the AR platform, and it looks fantastic. In this article you can expect a relatively deep dive on these cartridges plus a bit more to give context. Let’s see if any of them interest you.

Has There Really Been That Much Innovation?

It’s tough to pinpoint what the exact net result of ballistic innovations over the past two decades but suffice it to say: much has been done to optimize what has existed all along. From those optimizations, there have certainly been innovations in the form of cartridges which can optimize based on these broader optimizations.

What are the broader optimizations? Powder efficiency, manufacturing consistency and precision, better lead and copper and raw material mixes. Better and more efficient primers, better attention to detail on premium loads at factories that can now almost compete one to one with precision handloads, generally.

Significantly better bullet engineering (though, in full transparency some of the best performers have been around for ages). Monolithic designs in projectiles; along with multi-layered, or multi-component projectile designs.

What are the optimizations made upon the backs of these broader innovations? Necked up cartridges/necked down cartridges. Better adoption of the wildcats and utilizing the concepts behind them to do proper R&D. More effective powder use. Better stabilization thanks to better throughput on the rifling twist rates on market available barrel options.

The willingness to look at data from a different perspective instead of just assuming everything about ballistics was a known factor. Adhering to legislative changes to force the new-found push away from reliance on lead centric projectiles, which has helped to improve bullet engineering.

Dedicated R&D teams that can access robust developmental budgets from big companies. Dedicated teams of enthusiasts trying to achieve the impossible with little to no budget.

The industry has been surprisingly spry and active on the ballistic innovation front, even upon the backdrop of a largely mundane last several years when it comes to other variables in the overall AR market (like hardware and accessory innovation).

The people making cartridges have pushed boundaries. They visualized limitations and gun regulations and hunting changes and law enforcement needs from a different perspective. It’s been eye-opening to see the success that has come from reimagining the way a cartridge could be designed to push the envelope when the envelope was so constrained.

But it is often said: adversity drives innovation. In this case some of the adversity came from politics, some from the tight constraints of the AR platform from a dimensional perspective and some from regulatory hurdles. Whatever the catalyst, there are some premium cartridges that are now on the market in a sustainable way, thanks in part to those adverse market forces.

Who Are The Players On the AR Platform If You Get The Long-Range Urge?

What’s available, who makes it, and why is it so interesting? What follows is a dissection of the most innovative new cartridges on the market that can claim to have improved precision and accuracy, and in many cases, significantly better long-range potential.

6.5 Creedmoor

The heavyweight in this list is the 6.5 Creedmoor, both from an inherent capability perspective and because of the monster adoption that it has enjoyed. It’s by no means a “new” round, but it’s also part of this contemporaneous grouping of cartridges for which accuracy has been a focal point, and it shines in that capacity.

The 6.5 Creedmoor is a 1000+ yard round. No, really. You can easily dial in the AR to a thousand yards with the 6.5 Creedmoor. Forget that those types of ranges are at the absolute limits of the actual firearm, which, of course, is held together with two pins still.

6.5mm Creedmoor - photo courtesy of Primary Arms

Of course, more realistically, the round gets you to 850+ yards consistently, and while it’s not some magical bullet, with the correct field math you can expect some pretty great numbers from a round that pushes the limitations of what the AR can do.

The 6.5 Creedmoor stays supersonic past 1200 yards. It has incredibly flat trajectories, but more than anything it’s a killing machine on large game to beyond 750 yards and can easily dispatch intermediate game and larger out past 850 and around 1000 yards depending on the environmental factors.

To shed some light on how incredible that is for an AR-based cartridge, this is a round that is capable of near ¼ MOA on a bolt action rifle; and with the right barrel on the AR can easily get you down to ½ MOA with a bit of tweaking. It’s not going to be cheap to do that, and the gun is going to be hefty compared to some ultralight build based on the .223, but what you’re getting is pretty special.

If you have a need to take larger game or punch accurate holes in paper targets at distances past 750 yards, this is a legitimate contender that won’t require you to be confined to a more restrictive platform like a bolt gun.

For some baseline ballistics *(all ballistics numbers are unverified manufacturer stated performance statistics):

(Utilizing the Hornady Precision Hunter 6.5 Creedmoor with an ELD projectile in a 143-grain configuration)

  • At muzzle: 2700 fps velocity & 2315 ft. lbs. energy
  • At 500 yards: 2030 fps velocity & 1308 ft. lbs. energy with 44.4 inches of drop

Note this is a heavy grain projectile detailed for hunting, not target shooting another Hornady load looks like this:

(Utilizing the Hornady Match 6.5 Creedmoor with an ELD projectile in a 140-grain configuration)
At muzzle: 2710 fps velocity & 2283 ft. lbs. energy
At 500 yards: 2023 fps velocity & 1273 ft. lbs. energy with 44.4 inches of drop

6.5 Grendel

Don’t confuse this cartridge with the 6.5 Creedmoor. It’s not built the same. It’s not even in the same class of the Creedmoor as far as long-range potential, but it is very accurate. And it is very interesting. It also doesn’t require the larger, heavier, beefier AR308 platform to be run in an AR. It can run natively in the AR-15 and utilize all of the accessories and fit within the OAL constraints.

That may be why it’s such an interesting round, because it does so much, with so little.

Or, perhaps better stated - why weren’t we innovating like this 25 years ago? The magwell hasn’t changed. The barrel production capabilities haven’t changed. The powder and primers and bullet engineering were pretty close to what it is today - with the exception of some specific incremental optimization improvements.

The 6.5 Grendel feels like it should have been part of the earlier history of the AR-15, and yet, many are just thankful that it has been released to the market when it was.

6.5mm Grendel - photo courtesy of Primary Arms.

The 6.5 Grendel was built as a military focused round and offers premium capability to 650+ yards. Which is absurd if you understand what the nominal range is for the competitor baseline in the .223/5.56. The fact that you can reasonably expect to take larger game on an AR at 650 yards with a cartridge that could be built on an ultralight configuration with all the native organic components of the AR-15 - it’s impressive.

The capacity in the magazine is high for non-hunting use and the Grendel has significant use cases outside of a hunting scenario, after all, it was pushed as a military round from inception. The self-defense capabilities, especially in a duty scenario or on a rural property are outstanding, and this multidisciplinary cartridge is able to accomplish a lot while multitasking.

Under the right conditions this is a cartridge capable of dispatching elk-sized game at 500+ yards, and certainly capable of 1 MOA accuracy with a few basic optimizations. Again - on the AR-15. Which is normally a difficult feat, or at least an expensive, time-consuming task for the .223 Remington.

For some baseline ballistics *(all ballistics numbers are unverified manufacturer stated performance statistics):

(Utilizing the Hornady Black 6.5 Grendel in a 123-grain configuration)

  • At muzzle: 2580 fps velocity & 1818 ft. lbs. energy
  • At 400 yards: 1940 fps velocity & 1028 ft. lbs. energy with 25.3 inches of drop

.224 Valkyrie

The .224 Valkyrie is a speed freak and offers wind cutting abilities the .223 Remington never dreamed of being able to deliver. It is a perfect cartridge to bridge out into the intermediate and even the lower end of the big game spectrum in North America (check your state and local laws to ensure you are within stated regulations for hunting with a small caliber anytime you go after larger game targets).

The cartridge can reasonably expect to perform out past 500 yards and probably is capable of taking very large deer at ranges like that, given the right conditions. Generally, the 450 lbs. game target at 450 yards is well within the sweet spot for the .224 Valkyrie, which far exceeds the consistent sweet spot for the .223 Remington.

.224 Valkyrie - photo courtesy of Primary Arms.

It’s got more heft to the projectiles with a lineup of grain weights that span from about 60-90 grains.

Capable of spanning a wide spectrum of targets from paper to varmint, to predators like coyotes and larger wildcats to hogs to large deer, this is a specialty round that relies on flat shooting and screaming fast performance to deliver more than adequate energy on target at distances that present more than 30% further than the best .223 loads, generally.

For some baseline ballistics *(all ballistics numbers are unverified manufacturer stated performance statistics):

(Utilizing the Federal American Eagle .224 Valkyrie with TMJ projectile in a 75-grain configuration)

  • At muzzle: 3000 fps velocity & 1499 ft. lbs. energy
  • At 300 yards: 2325 fps velocity & 900 ft. lbs. energy with 11.5 inches of drop

.300 HAM’r

The .300 HAM’r is a very interesting cartridge that is likely about to get much more interesting after the supply chain problems shakeout and the industry returns to some semblance of normalcy. It’s a Wilson Combat load from a growing stable of concepts that try to maximize the AR platform and up the defensive and multi-use-case potential for the lineup at Wilson.

The real point is that it’s sub MOA capable out of a 16-inch barrel, and while you probably aren’t going to use it past 500 yards, it can get you there at least, nicely. It also compares favorably to the .300 BLK supersonic loads and it also competes almost one to one (with some distinct advantages) with the 7.62x39 but offers better adoption and throughput in the AR platform.

Suitable for home defense certainly, the .300 HAM’r actually seems like the best fit for such a use case assuming you can minimize second target concerns and friendly fire issues (at least from the cartridges mentioned in this article). But that’s not all, the .300 HAM’r is a hog and depredation dream gun, with the capability of taking larger game up to about elk sized game at more than 400 yards. The 95-150 grain projectile weights offer the type of heft that is missing in many other AR configurations. The performance detailed below, at the muzzle offers the type of performance many large game hunters also dream of.

And now that SAAMI specification has been obtained for the cartridge, and the interest level is high from the other ammunition makers, you can expect some decent R&D outside of the umbrella of Wilson Combat to take place. This is likely to result in very compelling loads for the .300 HAM’r. Not that Wilson hasn’t already teased with some pretty compelling loads.

For some baseline ballistics *(all ballistics numbers are unverified manufacturer stated performance statistics):

  • At the muzzle:

  • Sierra 110gr HP 2600 fps velocity & 1651 ft. lbs. energy

  • Sierra 125gr SBT 2520 fps velocity & 1763 ft. lbs. energy
  • Sierra 135gr HP Varminter 2400 fps velocity & 1727 ft. lbs. energy
  • Hornady 150gr SST 2290 fps velocity & 1747 ft. lbs. Energy

When does it become overkill?

Does performance ever become so good that you don’t desire it? Isn’t it the pursuit of ever more performance that we all find so interesting?

Does seeing your goals realized as a shooter ever get tiring? One can judge for themselves when they think that it’s overkill. For the animals that you are stalking in the field, you are always cognizant of whether you have brought enough gun. You are always focusing on dispatching a game target with ethical shots that ensure clean, quick kills on that target.

In a home defense scenario, you can mitigate risk for background friendly fire targets, but it’s quite difficult to get to a point whereas a defender, you feel that you have all options covered with the ballistics and stopping potential of your rifle. So, performance is always front and center, and while very important, you plan around second target potentials and wall penetrations, etc. Should ultra fast, ultra long-range cartridges be used in urban centers where the risk to friendly targets is high? No. That’s a hard and fast rule. But where it makes sense, you should be pushing for the greatest potential to stop a threat.

Photo courtesy Primary Arms.

Will it ever get old to see a single jagged hole on a paper target at 500+ yards? No.

Are you ever disappointed that your rifle can do more than one thing extremely well? Is it overkill to enjoy the fact that these guns can hunt with the best of them in their specific classes, while offering potential for home defense or duty use in the case where you need the specific characteristics of the given cartridge, and still be good at shooting small groups? Not in the least.

Would you use these to shoot at 50 yards when the specialty cartridges are generally going to be twice the price of mil-surp loads? Probably not, but the urge to try it a few times is certainly there.

Some Conclusions

It’s the current roadshow for the AR, to have these cartridges simply extending an already glorious resume for the AR platform. It helps to showcase innovation - the main point that made the AR what it is to the overall firearms market. And it is a big part of that market. Everywhere you turn you see components and accessories, and specialty rifle builds, and pistols made from the AR. Everyone has familiarity with the idea of the AR, at least.

And now, it’s a rifle capable of shooting to 1k yards with 1MOA accuracy if you push it hard enough - that’s an almost unreal statement that no one would have envisioned even 20 years ago.

While the cartridges listed here are not all brand-new releases, they represent something in the evolution of the AR and they represent the modernization of the cartridge to fit the platform, which showcases the specialness of the AR system. That it is not constrained by the gun itself, but rather by the imagination and inventiveness of those who champion the platform.

If you need to punch holes at a distance, or dispatch a trophy kill on two hills away and you have your AR configured right, it’s going to be possible, where it wasn’t even a dream 20+ years ago. And that is why these cartridges are so special.

Note for my audience: This article has been done in partnership with the great people at Primary Arms. Hence the words aren’t mine, but I feel the information is important for us all.

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