Into Hell’s Canyon: Browning X-Bolt in 6.5 Creedmoor
When I first saw the Browning Hell’s Canyon X-Bolt at SHOT Show, I remember thinking to myself that many folks were going to eat it up. As years have passed, it surely has become one of the most talked-about hunting rifles out there. So, when I finally got a chance to check it out myself, I was eager to see if all the hype was well-founded.
I had already been playing with a different X-Bolt model, so I was pretty familiar with it before I even opened the box. What I didn’t realize was just how deep into Hell’s Canyon I would descend.
My very first impression of the rifle was not unlike my initial feeling when I saw it at SHOT Show years ago. It was just a handsome gun. A bronze-colored Cerakote job and similar A-TACS camo pattern clearly set this rifle apart on the gun rack. The fluted barrel and its inconspicuous muzzle brake flow seamlessly into the receiver, all of which is set nicely into the camouflaged composite stock.
A nice, soft recoil pad at the back was a welcome feature, as was the detachable box magazine. Like other X-Bolts I’ve shot, it was just smooth. The 60-degree bolt design allows for shorter and faster operation, and the gold-plated trigger breaks as clean as almost any hunting rifle I’ve ever pulled from a shelf. The X-Bolt action features a bolt release button to unlock the bolt when the safety is on, which is a very cunning and intuitive design. If this rifle shot as good as it looked, I was going to be hard-pressed to let go of it.
I wanted to get straight to the range with this rifle, but first I had to get a scope mounted. I went with a one-piece scope base that uses eight screws to hold it down to the top of the receiver. I found this to be a superior mounting system to the traditional four screws that most manufacturers use to mount scope bases.
I tried a couple of different mounting systems and rifle scopes. First, I added a Nikon 4-16x scope, which worked great but was too high. I ended up with the system that seemed to work the best, a Crimson Trace 3-12x mounted in Warne rings and bases.
I had a small amount of Hornady American Gunner 6.5 Creedmoor ammo that I could test in the rifle, but I wanted to try more than one thing just in case the rifle didn’t care for it. So, I sat at my loading bench to crank out another couple of options hoping at least one of them would provide me with the exceptional accuracy I was hoping for. After that, I installed a Harris bipod to get this rifle into the field and shooting.
I bore sighted the rifle before I left the house, so it was straight to the paper at 100 yards when I got to my range. It only took a few adjustments to get the rifle zeroed, and I was ready to start some serious shooting in earnest. My hopes for the Hornady American Gunner were not quite met. The groups averaged around an inch, which isn’t terrible, but not good enough for me.
Some of my reloads averaged around the same. I expected that the 1:7 twist of the Browning would stabilize them well, but perhaps it just didn’t like those loads either. Adding a suppressor to the rifle improved the shot pattern, closing most of the groups down to sub-MOA and even half-MOA accuracy with certain loads.
The four-round magazine of the Hells Canyon rifle is fantastic. The magazine is rotary, allowing for four 6.5 Creedmoor cartridges to be preloaded in the rifle. This is more than enough for your average big game hunt. If it’s not, I’m sure Browning will sell you additional magazines. The polymer magazine feeds flawlessly, probably in part due to its slippery surface. It fits snugly into the bottom of the rifle and is easily removed by pulling on a hinged catch at the front of the magazine.
Shooting the Hell's Canyon rifle out in the mountains where it would be used was my next task. With the rifle zeroed and predictable accuracy, I decided to take it out a little further. We first started with a target at 440 yards, which is a very realistic shot in these steep canyons of the Rocky Mountains. With a spotter on the target and ballistic data estimated, I dialed the scope for my shot and put my finger on the golden trigger. Wind was coming from my left at about 4 mph, so I gave a slight favor to the wind and gave the trigger a gentle squeeze.
Watching the bullet impact is a big part of shooting at these kinds of distances. The muzzle brake on the front of this rifle helps reduce the movement of the gun, so the shooter can spot those impacts. The recoil felt behind this rifle was quite modest, and spotting shots as close as 400 yards was doable. We fired several shots at that target before we moved to another, and we managed to hit it over and over with very predictable results. Hitting a deer or elk properly at that range would be very likely with this rifle, but I wanted to see how much further we could shoot and get the same results.
We took it further downrange just to see how it would do. Another target that would make a nice addition to the rifle’s envelope lay at 660 yards. I dialed the 3.6 MRAD indicated by my ballistic computer and again estimated the wind for the shot. The target I picked was about 10-inches wide, which is about right for a kill zone on a deer and exactly what this rifle was built for. The 800 milliseconds it took for the bullet to get there were easily viewed through the scope as the trajectory arched into the target. The bullet crashed hard in the middle, creating a puff of gray.
Over and over, we sent shots downrange. I imagined each one as a potential buck sneaking away, but the little Browning was just the right tool for preventing such a scenario.
I was very excited to find the muzzle was threaded on this rifle. I was sure to mount a different brake or a suppressor for part of my testing. To my shock and horror, Browning had gone to all the work of threading the barrel, but it wasn’t threaded in one of the common thread patterns used for muzzles. This meant that I wouldn’t be able to use any of my muzzle trinkets unless I wanted to recut the threads. Luckily, I found a thread adaptor made by XCaliber Firearms designed specifically for the X-Bolt. This allowed me to install suppressors on the rifle, which made it even more fun and accurate to shoot.
After having spent some time with this rifle, I can see why so many have chosen it. Besides its good looks and construction, the X-Bolt has all the quality features that your American hunter would like. It has a great trigger, intuitive controls, an excellent magazine feeding system, a recoil-reducing muzzle brake, and more.
It doesn’t surprise me that I like this rifle. Browning has a long, distinguished history of producing great rifles. What did surprise me was how hard it was to let it go.