By Guy J. Sagi
Grendel is the first creature that knightly Beowulf defeats in a classic work of English literature. Accordingly, only a hero with superhuman strength could overcome the beast’s mythical power and the cartridge named after it—the 6.5 Grendel—provides firearm enthusiasts with the same kind of legend-building performance.
Alexander Arms introduced the cartridge in 2003, around 1,000 years after an unknown author penned “Beowulf.” The latter work is requisite reading for most college freshmen and, similarly, modern sporting rifle owners should get behind an AR-15 chambered in 6.5 Grendel for some schooling. Cliff Notes don’t do justice to the soft-shooting cartridge. Powder charge is less than similar cartridges—thanks to the case design’s efficiency—and that translates to reduced recoil without sacrificing downrange energy.
The wider-diameter bullet also makes it legal for big-game hunting in a variety of states that otherwise don’t allow the use of 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. to fill tags. Likewise, semi-auto rifles don’t hold an exclusive on the advantages, either. Similarly, a variety of manufacturers today are producing bolt-actions in the chambering.
6.5 Grendel History
Most standard and even finely crafted AR-15s chambered in 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. aren’t renowned for tack-driving precision when distances stretch to 600 yards and beyond. Don’t blame the gun. Bolt actions shine at that distance, so it was not the semi-auto’s primary mission.
Competitive shooters, on the other hand, realized modern sporting rifles had untapped potential. Uncovering the accuracy, however, required overcoming a pair of obstacles. First, most 5.56/.223-diameter bullets lack the ballistic coefficients that allow them to sail reliably and true at distance. Those projectiles that do are heavier, correspondingly longer and when properly seated the cartridge usually won’t fit into a standard AR-15 magazine.
Arne Brennan and his company—North American Sportsman—had been working for a solution for some time, and by 1998 settled on a 6.5 mm-diameter bullet as the ideal solution in the AR-15 platform. The resulting 6.5 PPC was a big success with competitors, but Bill Alexander of Alexander Arms, and Janne Pohjoispää joined the project and polished the approach. In 2003 the 6.5 Grendel appeared, capable of loading in standard AR-15 magazines, feeding flawlessly in properly chambered modern sporting rifles and showing improved performance at 200 yards and beyond.
In 2011 the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute adopted the cartridge. Alexander Arms quickly relinquished its claim to the trademarked name, opening it up to commercial manufacturing by companies interested in offering it to enthusiasts. Now budget-friendly factory loads are readily available for plinking, match use and hunting.
Popular Bullet Types
Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)
This is where modern bullet design began, but ballisticians continue to improve its performance. Most notable is the slight streamlining or tapering at its base, the so-called boattail (FMJBT), that helps it maintain a true and predictable course during downrange travel.
Cartridges with this style of projectile, on average, are the least expensive. Comparatively, that makes them a budget-friendly option for plinking and high-volume shooting. If ringing steel, friendly competition, or leisure time at the range are part of your lifestyle, look for FMJ loads.
Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)
The AR-15 platform is ideal for taking vermin and predators and some companies offer hollow points—or their proprietary derivatives thereof—to maximize performance. This soft-shooting cartridge lends itself to the pursuit and there are flat-shooting lightweights tailored for that passion.
Soft Point (SP)
Soft points are the traditional hunting bullet. They maximize weight retention when striking soft tissue yet expand to efficiently transfer energy. That translates to the ethical, clean shots sportsmen demand.
Open Tip Match (OTM)
For the utmost in precision, match open tip designs and some of those with polymers (below) provide the kind of ballistic coefficients competitors expect. They can tighten groups dramatically, improve scores and wring improved accuracy out of otherwise stingy firearms. The added performance usually makes them slightly more expensive, but the bullet isn’t usually the only improvement in the cartridge.
Manufacturers always maintain tight tolerances in their products, but those tailored specifically for winning long-distance competitions are even more strict, often including double layers of quality control in everything from seating depth to powder charge and other variables. The best 6.5 Grendel ammo for accuracy is the OTM.
Polymer Tip (MPT, ELD, SST)
Bullets with polymer tips defy efforts to lump them into one specific category. Blame the prowess of today’s engineering advances, but even if they look and weigh the same, their optimal application can be vastly different. It varies by volume of that substance on the end, composition, size of the cavity it occupies, all closely guarded secrets.
What we do know is some versions deliver match-winning accuracy. Others can look nearly identical to the eye and weigh the same, yet they’re fine-tuned for big-game hunting. A pair of our favorite loads (below) emphasizes the need to look carefully at the ammunition you select. Ask our pros if there’s any confusion.
Common Bullet Weights
The versatility of the 6.5 Grendel shows in the wide range of bullet weights available in commercial loads. Whether you’re ringing steel, after prairie dogs or pursuing whitetail in Alberta, you’ll find something right for you—from 90 grain to 123.
Best 6.5 Grendel Ammo: Hunting Load
Hornady’s Super Shock Tip (SST) bullet delivers the performance required for one-stop shots. The polymer tip drives deep into the lead core for expansion. It is controlled by a jacket that doesn’t separate, thanks to the company’s exclusive Interlock ring. The boattail design has an aerodynamic profile and leaves the barrel at 2,580 fps. Regardless, it generates 1,818 ft.-lbs. or energy.
Best 6.5 Grendel Ammo: Range/Match Load
The Hornady 123-grain ELD Match load for 6.5 Grendel has an identical bullet weight as its hunting-optimized brother. However, the projectile design is very different. The company’s Extremely Low Drag (ELD) bullets feature heat shield tips that come to a perfect tip. Along with other aerodynamic improvements, it provides the kind of ballistic coefficient needed to win matches. The bullets launch at 2,580 fps and have 1,818 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle.
Best 6.5 Grendel Ammo: Plinking Load
Budget-friendly options exist for high-volume fire in 6.5 Grendel, including the Wolf 100-grain FMJ-BT load. Lastly, the steel-cased ammo is accurate, economical and features a bimetal jacket. Muzzle velocity is 2,690 fps and energy there is 1,607 ft.-lbs.