January 26, 2023
It was cold and the sun was setting, but there was no wind to speak of. I had just finished accuracy testing at 100 yards and was packing my gear up to go. I’d hit the range again tomorrow, but for now the light was fading and the temperature had dropped to around 20 degrees. Even so, I just wasn’t in the mood to call it a day. Despite the bite in the air and the fading sun the conditions were beautiful. Instead of heading in, I dialed the Vortex’s magnification to 20x and peered at a six-inch plate sitting 450 yards away. I guessed where to hold on the Mil reticle, took up the first stage in the Wilson Combat two-stage match trigger and then broke the shot. The Aero Precision spit a .264-inch 140-grain Matchking and I watched it impact just in front of the target. I changed my hold and sent another. THWOK! I fired again and made another hit.
With my hold figured out and on steel, I turned my attention to the 20x11-inch LaRue silhouette next to it. Two quick hits made it dance on its chain. Next, I switched my focus to the 500-yard line. Holding up another half a Mil I put two shots in rapid succession on another LaRue. The Aero Precision M5E1 6.5mm Creedmoor is heavy enough that I could watch my impacts. There was a 12-inch plate to the left of the LaRue, and I hit that five consecutive times in rapid succession. I fired as fast as I could realign the reticle onto the plate. That is the fun of a semi-auto! I have to say that despite the cold November air, I was enjoying how fast I could make distant hits on steel with the Aero Precision M5E1.
It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that just mentioning the concept of a self-loading precision rifle would set many to gnashing their teeth and foaming at the mouth. Perhaps this indicates my age as much as the grey in my beard. In the not too distant past, many believed it to be carved in stone that a precision rifle needed to be a drop floor-plate bolt-action .308 Winchester weighing 17 pounds and topped with a fixed 10x scope. To believe otherwise was to be branded a heretic. I still find it amusing how quickly such close-minded thinking was quietly discarded once the Global War on Terror began. Today’s perception of what constitutes a precision rifle has changed dramatically, and for the better. This adjustment in thinking, based upon actual end-user feedback, unshackled designers and engineers providing some badly needed creative freedom. Aero Precision’s semi-automatic M5E1 seen here is an interesting example of the change in thinking which has occurred. It’s not just a ‘gas gun’ but rather a modern self-loading precision rifle chambered for the hugely popular 6.5mm Creedmoor.
Aero Precision is not your typical “gun manufacturer” per say, rather they’re known for offering a host of parts and pieces enabling you to build an AR yourself. This can be as simple as buying a complete assembled upper and/or lower receiver, by purchasing individual pieces or anything in-between. They offer stripped receivers, barrels, handguards, trigger groups, bolts and bolt carrier assemblies, receiver extensions and a whole lot more. Basically, everything a home builder might need to assemble a good quality AR-15 or AR-10-style rifle. In addition to their parts, they also offer complete rifles with this example being from their large frame M5E1 line. The M5E1 is an AR-10-sized platform available in both .308 Winchester and 6.5mm Creedmoor. A variety of barrel length options are offered including 16, 18, 20 and 22 inches. This particular example was selected by Firearms News magazine’s Editor Vince DeNiro and wears a 20-inch stainless steel match barrel. It has many of the features DeNiro finds useful on a rifle of this type. You can also custom pick any accessory or part available for your rifle and Aero Precision will build it accordingly.
While he and I were discussing the Aero Precision M5E1, the topic of caliber of course reared its head. Basically, which was to be preferred, the classic old .308 Winchester or the newer 6.5mm Creedmoor? For some there is no question, the flatter shooting 6.5mm Creedmoor is the only choice. For others, ammunition availability is the bigger factor and .308 Winchester is the preferred option. But which is the right answer? In my opinion, the 7.62x51mm/.308 Winchester is inherently accurate and has performed well in international competition, the hunting field and on the battlefield. It has long been the benchmark by which many other rifle cartridges are measured. It is offered in a plethora of loads and widely available. However, it is not ideal for dedicated use at longer ranges. Other cartridges, like the 6.5mm Creedmoor, shoot flatter, are better in the wind, have less felt recoil and provide more retained energy on target at long range.
While that last sentence is true, for many riflemen who live in a 300-yard or less world, it doesn’t really matter. The .308 Winchester provides a useful combination of bullet diameter, payload on target, velocity and energy at distances many riflemen hunt and shoot at. The .308 Win is very effective on game animals, is capable of great accuracy while being comfortable to shoot. It’s not fancy or new, but it remains popular because it does its job well. As the ranges get longer, and the wind becomes more unpredictable, other cartridges do have an edge. Out west, where recreational shooting can stretch to truly impressive distances, the .308 Win. is not ideal. Other calibers do offer various advantages. The 6.5mm Creedmoor is by no means perfect, but it does offer a useful blend of performance mated to very efficient .264-inch projectiles. I have shot well with it all the way out to 1,500 yards. So, I do not believe there is one cut and dried answer to the question, “.308 Win. or 6.5mm Creedmoor?” It comes down to what your particular needs are.
.308 vs. 6.5 Creedmoor
Whether you pick .308 Win. or 6.5mm Creedmoor though, Aero Precision has you covered with their M5E1. This rifle features a fairly heavy profile 416R stainless steel match barrel. This is bead blasted for a dull finish and features a 1 turn in 8 inches barrel twist. It is threaded at the muzzle and comes with an A2 flash suppressor. If you prefer a different muzzle device, or wish to run suppressed, it’s a simple matter to remove the A2 and mount the device of your choice. Surrounding the barrel is Aero Precision’s Gen 2 Enhanced Series free-floating handguard. This is approximately 15 inches in length and features a modified MIL STD 1913 rail at 12-O’clock. It’s not a true MIL STD 1913 rail as unnecessary material has been removed to reduce weight. M-LOK slots are machined into it at 3, 6 and 9-O’clock for mounting accessories. Quick Detach sling swivel sockets are machined into the rear of the rail at 3 and 9 O’clock. Inside the rail you’ll find a rifle length gas system and a low profile gas block. The match grade barrel is fitted to an Aero Precision M5E1 upper receiver. While at first glance the M5E1 upper receiver appears to be a typical AR-10 upper, it is not. Rather the handguard mount is forged integral to the upper receiver. So the handguard is not simply mounted to the barrel nut. The handguard bolts directly to the upper receiver via eight screws. The M5E1 upper is machined from 7075-T6 forged aluminum and has laser engraved T-marks. It features a forward assist, brass deflector and ejection port door.
This is a standard Stoner direct gas operating system and inside the upper receiver rides a Black Nitride coated bolt carrier assembly. The bolt carrier is machined from 8620 steel while the bolt is machined from 9310 steel. The bolt is shot peened, magnetic particle inspected and high pressure tested. The extractor is machined from 4340 steel and is fitted with double O-rings and double springs. The gas key is machined from 4130 steel and attached with Grade 8 bolts which are properly staked. The firing pin is machined from 8740 steel and hard chrome plated. The Black Nitride coating reduces friction and reduces the need for lubricants and cleaning. Aero Precision also offers this bolt carrier assembly with a phosphate and a Nickel Boron finish.
The upper receiver is pinned onto an Aero Precision M5 lower receiver. This forging is machined from 7075-T6 aluminum and it has a number of nice features. These include a threaded bolt catch retainer, integrated trigger guard, upper tension screw, threaded take-down pin detent recess and a flared magazine well. It arrived from the factory with a standard
Fitted to the lower is a Magpul MOE pistol grip and a Magpul PRS Gen3 Precision Adjustable Stock. The grip has a handy storage compartment. The stock is adjustable for length of pull and has an adjustable cheek riser. Multiple sling mounting positions are fitted. Plus, the butt features a soft and fairly thick rubber recoil pad. With the stock adjusted all the way in length of pull is a fairly long 14.8 inches. DeNiro is 6' 3" and when I received the rifle from him he had the length of pull cranked way out. I’m 5' 11" and I shook my head as I cranked the LOP in. Inside the receiver extension is an M5 Rifle buffer and spring. DeNiro had done some shooting with the Aero Precision M5E1 before shipping it to me. During our conversations about the rifle he relayed the standard trigger was fairly heavy, and felt it was like a GI trigger. When I received the rifle I noted it was indeed heavy and so rummaged around for a simple solution. I found this in the form of a Wilson Combat TR-TTU-M2 2-stage Match trigger. The Tactical Trigger Unit (TTU) is a self-contained trigger module that easily drops into an AR rifle. It features components CNC machined or EDM Cut from solid bar stock. The hammer, trigger and disconnector are made from H13 steel. Wilson Combat claims this is an easy drop-in installation, requires no adjustment and provides a crisp four-pound trigger pull.
I had never used the Wilson Combat TTU, so I decided to give it a try. After removing the standard trigger mechanism, the TTU did indeed drop in place in about a minute. Installation is simple. I dropped it into the receiver, aligned the holes, pushed the two pins in place and that was that. Once installed, I was impressed by the improvement over the standard unit. The pull is light, crisp and the reset is short.
Built for Abuse
On the journey to my place, the shipping company had done some of their own abuse testing on the rifle. Basically when it arrived at my FFL the ambidextrous charging handle was snapped off on one side. However, Aero Precision was quick to respond and they sent out a replacement, although it was a standard model. With that installed it was time to get to work. I began by selecting an optical sight and mount. I happened to have a new Vortex 6-36x56mm Razor HD Gen III scope needing some love. So, I mated this to a Geissele Super Precision 34mm mount. This Vortex is an impressive optic. I am old enough to have shot with an old Weaver T-36 target scope with fixed 36x magnification for benchrest use. The new Razor matches that 36x magnification on the top end, while zooming out to 6x on the low end. The turrets are big, easy to zero and feature .1 Mil adjustments with 10 Mils per full turret rotation. The adjustments are precise with distinct audible and tactile clicks. An external rotation indicator provides both visual and tactile reference of which rotation the turret is on. The design features locking turrets, a smooth operating mechanism block mounted parallax adjustment and an illuminated reticle. This particular scope was fitted with the EBR-7D reticle design delineated in Mils. A First Focal Plane design, the reticle sports a very fine center dot and hold points for elevation and windage/lead.
I selected four 6.5mm Creedmoor loads for testing. These consisted of Federal’s 140-grain Gold Medal Match loaded with a Sierra MatchKing projectile, SIG Sauer’s 140-grain OTM Match, Norma’s 130-grain OTM Match and Federal’s 130-grain Hybrid OTM Berger Gold Medal Match. I began testing by bore-sighting the optic, and then zeroing from the bench at 100 yards. Weather was 30-degrees with almost no wind. I fired four five-shot groups with each load from a rest at 100 yards. Velocity was recorded using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph. I immediately noticed three things as I began testing. The first is the optical quality of the Vortex 6-36x56mm Razor HD Gen III is very good. It has been a while since I have shot groups from the bench using 36x magnification. Even cranked all the way up the image quality of the Vortex was quite good. Back it off a bit and it really shines. Next, I really came to like the Wilson Combat TTU trigger. It is light, breaks very cleanly and has a short reset. Put another way, it made my time on the range much more pleasant as it was such an improvement over a standard trigger,
especially at long range. The third thing I noticed is this particular rifle didn’t love 140-grain bullets.
The M5E1 is fairly heavy weighing in at 11.2 pounds without magazine or accessories. It chunked out considerably with the Geissele mount, Vortex optic, LaRue bipod and a loaded magazine. This makes it fairly stable though and it was a comfortable rifle to shoot from the bench. The rifle feeds from 20-round Magpul magazines and these load easily to capacity. The wide magazine well makes inserting them easy and they lock into place with a nice click. Rounds feed smoothly into the chamber. The rifle’s controls operate smoothly and ejection is to 3 o’clock with the gas pressure appearing to be spot on. Recoil with all the loads tested is fairly mild.
Best accuracy was obtained using Norma’s 130-grain Open Tip Match load. This posted a best 100 yard five-shot group measuring .5 inch and it averaged .8 inch for four five-shot groups. Velocity averaged 2,663 fps. Federal’s 130-grain Berger Gold Medal Match load averaged .9 at 2,666 fps while their 140-grain Gold Medal Match load averaged 1.3 inches at 2,576 fps. SIG Sauer’s 140-grain Open Tip Match load averaged 1.2 inches at 2,522 fps. My initial testing, firing prone at 450 and 500 yards, demonstrated the Aero Precision was capable of making rapid multiple hits on various sized steel targets. My first time out with it the conditions were excellent with almost no wind. Things were a bit different my next time on the range with it. It was a bit warmer but the wind was running from 12 to 20 mph. This made things a little bit more challenging as I shot various sized steel targets at 280, 450, 500, 550 and 580 yards. All my shooting was done using the EBR-7D reticle to adjust for both elevation and windage. This proved very fast.
I used two loads at these distances, Federal’s 140-grain Gold Medal Match and Norma’s 130-grain Open Tip Match. Once again, the M5E1 preferred the Norma load shooting slightly better with it. Keeping in mind how windy it was, at 500 yards the M5E1 was grouping into five to six inches with the 140-grain Federal Gold Medal Match load. The 130-grain Norma Match load was grouping into 3.5 to 5 inches at 500 yards. Note all of my shooting at steel was done at a fairly rapid cadence, it was not slow fire. I have to say that I really enjoyed my time on the range with Aero Precision’s M5E1 rifle. It ran flawlessly, and while heavy to lug around it proved very stable in position. It is a fun gun to shoot steel with at distance, and sometimes we forget shooting is supposed to be fun. I will say though that the Wilson Combat TTU trigger was a big improvement. This lists for $189.95 and proved to be a worthwhile upgrade. Vortex’s new Razor HD Gen III 6-36x56mm scope really impressed me. Not only is the optical performance extremely good but I really like the design of the controls and the EBR-7D reticle. I should though as this optic retails for $3,999.99.
It’s a great piece of glass though and I’ll be taking a closer look at this optic in an upcoming issue. Aero Precision’s 20 inch M5E1 rifle starts at $1,688.99 and runs to $1,814.99. If you are looking for an AR-10/DMR type rifle it should be on your list to consider. I like the design of the upper receiver and the overall build quality looked good. Function was flawless and the gas system was well tuned from the factory. The hard question is whether you want the Aero Precision M5E1 in .308 Win or 6.5mm Creedmoor. I’ll leave that up to you.
Aero Precision M5E1 6.5 Creedmoor Rifle Specs
- Type: Semi-Automatic with Rotating Bolt and Direct Gas
- Caliber: 6.5mm Creedmoor
- Barrel: Ballistic Advantage 20 in. 416R Stainless Steel Match
- Muzzle Threads: 5/8x24
- Rifling: 1:8-in. twist
- Overall Length: 41.3. in. with buttpad fully retracted
- Trigger: Standard GI-type
- Sights: None
- Feed: 20 rds. detachable box magazine
- Length of Pull: 14.8 to 16.1 in.
- Weight: 11.2 lbs. without mag or accessories
- Stock: Magpul PRS Gen3 Precision Adjustable Stock
- MSRP: Starting at $1,688.99
- Manufacturer: Aero Precision
Ballistic Advantage Barrels
The stainless steel match barrel fitted to the Aero Precision M5E1 was machined by Ballistic Advantage. This company was founded by Adam Wainio in 2008. It had a humble start, initially as a small shop in a garage in Altamonte Springs, Florida. There Wainio specialized in custom work and barrels using a manual engine lathe and a Bridgeport mill. A year later, he purchased his first Mazak CNC lathe and expanded into a warehouse in Apopka, Florida. In 2010, he ceased being a one-man shop when he hired his first employee and in 2011, he was able to purchase additional CNC equipment.
The year 2012 marked an important event when Clint Hanson joined Ballistic Advantage and the first barrels bearing his name were developed. Things were growing for the little company. Then a milestone occurred in 2014 when Ballistic Advantage partnered with Aero Precision. This partnership led to the company’s rapid growth and a substantial investment in modern equipment. In 2020, Ballistic Advantage moved into a larger facility to further increase production in the midst of the panic buying this time period is famous for. Today Ballistic Advantage is a growing barrel manufacturer intent on carving a special niche for itself.
Each Ballistic Advantage barrel starts its life as a piece of 416R stainless steel or CrMoV steel bar stock. They then cut this to length, drill and ream it. Rifling is performed using the button rifling process where a “button” is pulled through the drilled bore. Ballistic Advantage claims every production barrel has a bore uniformity of .0003-inch or better. Properly turning a barrel is critical to its performance, and is considered something of an art. Ballistic Advantage states, “Every element of our turning production is designed around our original goal of combining critical elements of custom barrel making with the value benefits of high-volume CNC production.” Quality is checked using contact gauging, air gauging, and laser light measurement. After going through Quality Control, barrels are sent out for any coating treatments. When they come back they go back through another set of QC checks.
When it comes to performance Ballistic Advantage states, “All Ballistic Advantage barrels are guaranteed to give sub Minute of Angle (MOA) accuracy with match grade ammunition. We define sub MOA as a group size of one inch or under at 100 yards with a three-shot magazine fed group, or five-shot single-loaded group using factory ammo.” My testing showed the Ballistic Advantage barrel fitted to the Aero Precision M5E1 was capable of achieving this.
Birth of the 6.5 Creedmoor
The genesis of the 6.5mm Creedmoor was a conversation between Hornady Senior Ballistician Dave Emary and from two-time National Champion Dennis DeMille at the National Matches. They were bench racing and sharing thoughts on what would be the ideal NRA High Power match cartridge. DeMille’s requirements consisted of match-grade accuracy, a high ballistic coefficient projectile, long barrel and brass life, moderate chamber pressure, low recoil, ability to feed from a short action and to be readily available and affordable. Emary took these requirements and, with Joe Thielen, used them to develop a new cartridge. The end goal was to provide the accuracy and exterior ballistics to be competitive at the top level of High Power Long Range competition using factory ammunition or easily produced handloads. Emary selected a 6.5mm diameter due to the wide selection of .264-inch-diameter match projectiles with high Ballistic Coefficients. These are not only very
efficient but provide light recoil.
The end result from Emary’s work was a new 6.5mm cartridge called the Creedmoor which Hornady introduced in 2007. The basis for the Creedmoor is Hornady’s earlier .30 TC cartridge developed for Thompson/Center. Basically, they pushed the shoulder back on a .30 TC and necked it down to 6.5mm. Designed from the ground up for competition, this cartridge offers performance similar to the .260 Rem. However thanks to a longer neck combined with a slightly shorter case length (1.915 inches), bullets do not intrude on powder capacity like with the .260. Despite the shorter case length, water capacity still runs between 51–52 grains. Base diameter is .470 inch and shoulder angle is 30 degrees. Case length is 1.920 inches and it has an overall length of 2.825 inches. This allows it to fit into a short-action rifle as well as an AR-10 type semi-auto. Hornady’s goal with this cartridge was for it to be not only extremely accurate, but capable of driving high BC bullets at respectable velocity with decent barrel life.
Hornady initially introduced two loads in this caliber: 120-grain A-MAX at 2,910 fps and a heavier 140-grain A-MAX at 2,710 fps from a 24 inch barrel. It took shooters a bit of time to warm up to Hornady’s new cartridge, but after a few years it began to grow in popularity. Today it is a hugely successful cartridge and widely embraced by hunters, recreational and competitive shooters.
About the Author
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007 he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist.
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