The Rise and Rise of the 6.5 Swede
In all my years of hunting, shooting and going to rifle clubs, I have lost count of the number of debates I have heard about calibre selection for game. After years of overhearing conversations, and trying hard not to get involved, it has become immediately apparent that hunters rarely agree on which calibre is suitable for a particular type of hunting. Yes, I can hear you from here. This isn’t going to be yet another article on the ‘perfect’ all-rounder or matching calibres to game. So before you start pulling your hair out and screaming, relax. There is no such thing as a calibre for every season or every reason. There are any number of calibres which are immanently capable of bring home an honest 90% of your hunted quarry, thus to discuss which single one is best is an exercise in futility.
It is in our current myriad of calibres that we find those which are most useful. Since the dawn of the present century, there have been enough new calibres introduced to cover every practical hunting situation, and they keep on coming! The WSM offerings by Winchester and SAUM cartridges from Remington are answers to problems solved decades before by cartridges like the .300 Winchester Magnum and 7mm Remington Magnum. Now Sturm Ruger have jumped on the bandwagon with their own line of compact short magnum cartridges. The modern shooter has never been so spoiled for choice. As size of hunted game and range is increased, we can find up to a dozen cartridges, which would be considered by the average hunter as ideal.
One cartridge which, thankfully, has been respected enough not to have been lost in a market swamped by newer offerings is the highly capable 6.5x55mm Swede. It was designed back in 1894 and served as the Swedish military cartridge through two world wars. Norway also used it, but their military rifle was the model 1894 Krag-Jorgensen. Throughout this time, it also found remarkable favour as a hunting round. Starting in the 1950’s and accelerating to full steam by the late 1970’s, surplus Mauser model 1896 rifles and carbines were imported in their droves. Back then, the only sporting ammunition came from Norma. Later, the cartridge has gained enough popularity to be offered as ammunition by other manufacturers. It is now easy to get ammunition in 6.5x55mm from any number of manufacturers, including Remington, Winchester, Hornady, Federal, Speer as well as European makes like RWS, Siellor and Bellot and Norma.
The 6.5x55mm has buried a lot of competition, both old and new and is now by far the most popular and widely used cartridge of its calibre. Older military calibres like the 6.5x50mm Japanese, 6.5x52mm Italian Carcano and 6.5x54mm Greek Mannlicher-Schoenauer have languished in popularity, little doubt due to the rifles these cartridges were offered in. Older sporting calibres like the 6.5×57 couldn’t compete with the availability and widespread use of the Mausers. Even modern calibres such as the 6.5 Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .260 Remington and 6.5×68 Schuler are left for dead when sales of 6.5x55mm Swede are compared. Despite this, one can still find loads in modern manuals for the wildcat 6.5-06, based on the .30-06 necked down. A recent legitimisation of a wildcat is the 6.5-284 Norma. This is a cartridge of promise.
Ex-military arms are now no longer the only option for a hunter searching for a rifle in this calibre. It is available in any number of top quality European hunting rifles and its popularity has made it more than accepted by American arms makers as well. Its enduring popularity is no fluke. As a hunting cartridge, it may not fly as flat or hit as hard as other rounds in its class, it just plain gets the job done, without showing off. There is little doubt that the availability of those cheap ex-military Mausers helped to secure its enduring popularity. The strength, quality and inherent genius of the Mauser action, with its controlled round feed and aggressive claw extractor appealed to many on a budget. High quality rifles such as those offered by Brno, Voere and Winchester’s excellent model 70 have helped elevate the 6.5x55mm to new heights. Metallurgy has progressed a long way since the 1890’s and those older Mausers with their softer steels would be risky to use with high-pressure loads. Likewise, a lot of those rifles saw considerable action in battle and may show signs of fatigue. As a result, the bulk of factory loaded ammunition is loaded to lower velocities, around the 2550fps mark with a 140-gr bullet. Those with a modern made rifle can easily improve on those ballistics by hand loading. There are any number of quality projectiles available in 6.5mm, .264 is the imperial measurement.
The reason the 6.5x55mm Swede took a while to gain popularity in the United States is not too hard to fathom. America is the home of the .25 calibre and the .270 is basically an institution. Sitting as it does between these two calibres it is easy to see why commercial ammunition manufacturers wouldn’t load for it until those old Mausers flooded into the U.S. starting in the 1960’s. Ammunition production began in the U.S. in the early 1980’s. Also, metric calibres have never seemed to fare well in the U.S., no doubt due to their staunch capacity for hanging on to imperial measurements. Funnily enough, the 7mm Remington Magnum is a purely American development, with a metric designation and it is the most popular of all the belted magnum cases. For those of us who hand load, there may not be the staggering array of projectiles available in .264 as there are in .277 or .257, or even 7mm, but there are more than enough for us to turn our 6.5x55mm into a game getter suitable for the bulk of our needs.
Personally, I consider anything larger than a hot .22 centrefire to be excessive as a varmint round. However, there are several projectiles available to the hand loader, which will help transform your 6.5×55 into a long-range small game sniper. Sierra makes an 85-gr hollowpoint and Hornady produce a 95-gr V-Max, both of which are designed as varmint bullets. They can be accelerated to 3300fps in the 6.5x55mm. Moving up to the 100-gr weight, choice is broadened a little. The 100-gr Hornady soft point is designated a varmint bullet. Nosler’s Partition and Ballistic Tip are available. Amongst the more popular and widely distributed middleweight projectiles are those in the 120- to 130-gr weight class. Remington’s 120-gr Core-Lokt, Nosler’s 120-gr Ballistic Tip, 125-gr Partition and 130-gr Accubond, the 129-gr soft point Interlock and Super Shock Tip by Hornady, Barnes 130-gr X-Bullet and the 120-gr Speer Hot Core are popular choices. With 120-gr loads, 6.5x55mm ballistics are on par with the .25-06 Remington.
The most popular choices in 6.5 calibre revolve around the 140-gr weight. Once again, the Remington Core-Lokt, Hornady A-Max, Super Shock Tip and soft point Interlock, Speer Hot Core and Grand Slam, Woodleigh Weldcore Protected Point, Nosler Partition, Sierra’s spitzer boat-tail and the Barnes X are all fine bullets. One can expect velocities of around 2750 to 2850fps with this weight. Heavier bullets are a little more specialised, but are available. Norma makes three different 156-gr bullets. The Alaska soft point, the Vulkan hollow point and their premium bullet, the Oryx featuring jacket and core bonding. Woodleigh make a 160-gr Protected Point and both Sierra and Hornady offer 160-gr round nose soft points. These are clever designs as this is the heaviest practical weight in this calibre. A round nose with plenty of lead showing will still mushroom well, despite being handicapped by lower velocity. These 160-gr heavyweights can be pushed to almost 2600fps in the 6.5x55mm case.
Heavier 6.5 projectiles often have terrific ballistic coefficients and sectional densities, enabling them to both hold onto their velocity and penetrate deeply. I’m not much of a fan of the Nosler Partition bullet. At high impact speeds the front portion often breaks away entirely and the rear portion, now lacking mass, refuses to drive in deep. However, I have achieved complete success with the Partition in the 6.5x55mm. Because it is incapable of being driven at truly blistering velocities in this case, subsequent impact velocities are lower and it seems to retain its mass better and actually work as advertised. I also use 100-gr Partitions in my .250-3000 Savage, loaded to around the 2850fps mark and they behave equally satisfactorily. I believe that due to its lower than spectacular velocity, the 6.5x55mm generates ballistics which negate the use of true premium grade bullets. By premium grade, I am referring to bullets the likes of the Barnes Triple shock and X bullets. Despite their hollow points, this is one tough bullet. This bullet, started at 2800fps is down to around the 2450fps mark at 200 yards, and packing 1865ft lbs. of energy. Speaking from my own personal experience, performance can be a wee bit erratic on deer sized game at this range and velocity. For a 200 yard zero, a bullet of this weight, at this velocity should be sighted in around an inch and three quarters high at 100 yards. At 300 yards, it will have dropped a further seven and a half inches.
My projectile weight of choice is the 140-gr. It has a sectional density of .287. Different projectiles from various manufacturers will of course have different ballistic coefficients due to differing lengths and ogives. The Nosler Partition has a coefficient of .490, the Hornady soft point, .465 and the Speer Hot Core .496. The Woodleigh Protected Point has a ballistic coefficient of .444. All of these are pure hunting bullets, compared here because they all feature lead cores with no plastic inserts in the tip. They all work as well as each other, but I would reserve the Woodleigh for heavier game in the class of sambar and wapiti. The middle weight 120- to 130-gr bullet weights are grand for chamois, goats, thar and fallow deer sized game, but I tend to load the 140-gr Remington Core Lokt for everything. I have high praise for the Woodleigh Protected Point and Speer Hot Core as well.
I have used the Woodleigh in 160-gr before when hunting red deer. It certainly killed, but it was due to exact bullet placement on my part. The stag succumbed to a shot that lacerated the arteries at the top of the heart. Range was 220 metres. I believe if my shot had been a little more misplaced the 160-gr Hornady round nose would have killed more emphatically. Being a round nose, it opens more readily than does the Woodleigh. The tip of the Weldcore was certainly deformed due to mushrooming, as one would expect, but the mushrooming was only back to about halfway down the bullet’s ogive. This was no doubt due to the very tough construction of the Woodleigh, and relatively low impact velocity. As far as the heavy bullets go, the Hornady gets my nod, although its range has limits. As for the lighter bullets, so long as target game weight is kept sensible, the choice is yours. My pick would be the 129-gr Hornady soft point Interlock or 120-gr Speer Hot Core. They can be started at around 2850 and 3000fps respectively. Nosler’s Ballistic Tips and even their 130-gr Accubond in 6.5 open too fast for my liking. This is due to the plastic tip at their jacket mouth. Think about it, remove that plastic tip and what do you have? A great gaping hollow point is what! Smart hunters know that game the size of deer is brought down by deep driving conventional soft points. The plastic tips are there to increase ballistic coefficient only. They are designed to help the bullet open readily at impact, but it often opens too fast and won’t penetrate deeply enough on raking shots. Hollow points are the realm of the small game hunter. I prefer a level balance of expansion and penetration. These long, well designed 6.5 projectiles, hitting at medium velocity levels wreck a lot less edible meat than similar shots with higher velocity magnum cartridges.
On rare occasions, I have been chastised for hunting with such an ‘under powered’ calibre. Friends who hunt their red deer and similar species with .300 Winchester magnums claim they are better because their projectiles pass clean through the game, leaving a good blood trail both sides. Theres certainly no arguing with that, but you only need to follow a blood trail if your first shot fails to anchor the animal. They will claim that their rifles are considerably more powerful than mine, due simply to the fact that they can drive their bullet right on through. I’d be very interested to know exactly how much a portion of a bullets energy is wasted when that happens. I’ve hunted with lower powered, not under powered calibres, most of my life, and fail to see the need for powerful fire breathing magnums for the vast majority of my hunting. Every hunter will shoot better with a rifle they can shoot well, and by that I mean accurately. The 6.5x55mm may have a little bit of kick to it, but its not enough to pull you off target or give you a flinch to the extent that a larger magnum cartridge like the .300 Winchester would! In my hunting experience, which now spans over 25 years and countless species large and small at ranges near and far, I have always found that my game is dropped more emphatically, or if not, covers a lot less ground when my bullets stay in them. Sure, there are many cartridges available out there that are more powerful than the almost ancient 6.5x55mm, but few of them are as user friendly.
Damien Edwards joins the FOU team as a guest writer. Filled with a wealth of knowledge, and a keen hunter himself, the inscrutable becomes crystal clear with his fountain of knowledge.