Shooting the "Other" 6.5mm's
By Mike Hudson
While the .260 Remington and the venerable 6.5x55 Swede are the current glamour girls of the standard velocity 6.5 mm sorority, untold thousands of rifles are floating around chambered for three quite similar rounds. The 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer, 6.5x52 Carcano and 6.5x50 Arisaka cartridges possess most of the superb characteristics of the better known rounds, firing efficient 6.5 mm bullets famous for their outstanding sectional density, ballistic coefficient and deep penetration. 6.5mm (.264) bullets are available in a multitude of styles and weights suitable for everything from varmints to all but the heaviest big game.
So long as the hunter does his part with regard to proper bullet placement and keeping within the limitations of range, these rounds are all that is needed for feral hogs, antelope, deer, black bear and caribou using typical 125-140 grain bullets. Loaded with 160 grain round nosed bullets, they have also killed their fair share of moose, polar bear, African lion and even elephant at close range, though such practices are generally frowned upon today.
These cartridges are somewhat hamstrung by the relatively low pressures allowable under SAAMI standards (between 38,000 and 43,000 psi), as well as by their relatively small case capacities. Yet all possess adequate killing power out to around 215 yards when fired from sporting length barrels.
In rifles and carbines with barrels in sporting lengths of 17” to 24”, velocities in the neighborhood of 2000-2300 fps are attainable with bullets of 140-160 grains. The full dress military barrels, at 30” to 32”, will give you another 200 feet per second across the board.
Because of the wide variation in barrel length, handloaders are presented with a confusing situation. For example, 6.5x50 Arisaka data provided by Hodgdon and Hornady is taken using the 32” military barrels, while Accurate Arms tested their recommended loads in a weapon with a 24” barrel. To complicate matters even further, some companies actually chronograph recommended handloads at the range, while others use computer-generated tables.
Ballistics data for the factory loaded ammunition offered by Norma is taken from weapons with 24” barrels. Norma ballistics show the 160 grain bullets leaving the muzzle at 2067 fps and the 140 grain bullets reaching 2225 fps.
When all is said and done, however, the ballistics of these more obscure 6.5 mm rounds are unquestionably superior to those of many popular deer and black bear cartridges, due to their excellent sectional density and ballistic coefficient numbers. They are a better choice for larger game than the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .257 Roberts, which are limited to bullets weighing 87 to 120 grains. I don’t know a single hunter familiar with one or more of these little 6.5's who would rather use a .243 Winchester, even for small deer.
While various formulas have been devised over the years, none of them entirely satisfactory, killing power in the woods of Pennsylvania was generally measured by dividing foot pounds of energy at a given range by half to arrive at an appropriate live game weight. While this approach might be regarded as overly simplistic by some, the old timers swore by it and by that standard the Mannlicher, Carcano and Arisaka cartridges would be suitable for game weighing up to 500 pounds out to 200 yards.
Even "big bore" Elmer Keith, who thought the .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield barely adequate for any sort of big game hunting, sang the praises of the 6.5 Mannlicher:
“The 6.5 Mannlicher, loaded with its very long 160 grain bullet, has for a great many years proved a very reliable cartridge. It has been used successfully on all American and about all African and European game. The velocity is not high enough to disrupt or blow the bullet and owing to its great sectional density, in the 160 grain soft point load, is directly responsible for its great popularity as a short range or medium range timber load.”
“For game of our deer size and class it is a mighty fine little cartridge. I have several friends who have claimed it very reliable in all their reports and all insist it to be a much more reliable load than the .30-30. I have only seen the cartridge used on mule deer, but it killed very well and the long soft point bullet expanded perfectly, broke both shoulders of a large buck and went on through the animal, tearing a two-inch hole at exit. The [Mannlicher-Schoenauer] rifle is best fitted with the Lyman peep sight on the receiver. So equipped, it makes a very light and handy little brush rifle.”
Charles Sheldon, the authority on the northern Stone, Fannin and Dall sheep, killed everything on this continent, including many grizzly and brown bears, with the light Mannlicher carbine. Roy Chapman Andrews, who collected most of the trophies still on display at the American Museum of Natural History, killed some very large animals with his 6.5 Mannlicher, including a coastal brown bear. While I'm not suggesting the 6.5 mm is ideal for huge bears, Sheldon and Chapman got the job done and that is my point.
In the hands of the legendary African ivory hunter W.D.M. “Karomojo” Bell, the diminutive round proved deadly on elephant. He wrote:
"I once owned a Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine of about 5-1/2 pounds that was simply lightning on elephant. I only once failed to kill an elephant with the 6.5 carbine and that was because of a faulty round.”
While some have dismissed Bell’s experience because he favored brain shots, a few have noted that an elephant’s skull is approximately a foot thick above the brow ridge, making extreme penetration essential regardless of perfect shot placement.
Frederick Courtney Selous also wrote of using the Mannlicher with good results on elephant. Kenya’s first game warden, Blaney Percival, was another enthusiastic proponent.
As Guns and Shooting Online Editor Chuck Hawks has noted, the minimal recoil and muzzle blast these rounds produce can often make an average shot into a marksman and correct bullet placement is the key to quick kills on all sorts of game. With 140 and 160 grain bullets, recoil with the little 6.5's range from around 7.8 to 11.1 foot-pounds, depending on the weight of the rifle, which is about the same as that of a .243 Winchester.
Following World War II, the United States was flooded with surplus military arms of all configurations. While Mauser 98's were the most popular for conversion into fancy sporting rifles, boatloads of Italian Carcanos, Japanese Arisakas and even Greek and Dutch Mannlichers were available at bargain prices. These rifles are rugged and reliable, having been built prior to the introduction of sheet metal stampings and plastic for the manufacture of critical firearms components.
Perhaps the least suitable for general sporting use are the Carcanos, mainly because they require the use of a stripper clip for loading that makes scope mounting a relatively difficult proposition. The Weaver No. 1 side mount can be made to work by using very high rings, but a more satisfactory solution is to use the old Pachmayr swing mounts. Also, many of the Carcanos are slightly overbore and shoot better with a .268” bullet than they do with a standard 6.5 bullet, which is .264” in diameter. Hornady has recently introduced .268 caliber bullets and loaded ammunition in response to the problem.
Mannlichers have become rarer than hen’s teeth, with many examples cannibalized to provide spare parts for the beautiful Mannlicher sporting rifles that were built on the same 1903, 1905 and 1908 actions. Finding a surplus Mannlicher in good, shootable condition for under $300 is a challenge. Still, many sportsmen find the glass smooth action of these rifles irresistable and they are occasionally seen in the hands of Native American guides working in Newfoundland, Quebec and northern Ontario.
The Arisakas and Beretta Type I export rifles are plentiful and many have already been scoped and otherwise customized. While the Arisakas are known for their sometimes loose chambering, the Berettas are tight to the point that they occasionally have difficulty ejecting original military rounds. With modern sporting loads they function flawlessly, however, often attaining a higher velociy with the same cartridge than their Japanese counterparts.
As with the Mannlicher, numerous firsthand accounts document the taking of all North American big game species with the Arisaka round, from Maine moose and coastal brown bear to javelina and coyote.
The ballistic differences between the three cartridges, when fired from barrels of equal length and using bullets of the same weight, are negligible. The Arisaka has a case capacity of 48 grains to the Carcano’s 49 and the Mannlicher’s 50. A four percent change in case capacity, two grains in this comparison, gives about a 1 percent change in velocity with bullets of the same weight and barrels of the same length, or 20-25 fps in the case of these three rounds.
While most of today’s gun writers favor lighter bullets in these calibers because of increased velocity and muzzle energy, those who have used them to any extent on live targets favor the tried and true 155-160 grain bullets.
The round nosed Hornady 160 grain Interlock or the 156 grain Norma Alaska are entirely adequate for most applications, while those hunting for trophy sized animals or at longer ranges might do well to use a premium bullet such as the 155 grain Lapua Mega or the 160 grain Hawk SP, especially in sporting arms with barrels of 24” or less. These bullets are designed specifically to impart maximum killing power at the lower velocities generated by these cartridges and barrel lengths.
All of these bullets are loaded to maximum permissible pressure by Stars & Stripes here in the US, in virgin brass at very competitive prices. The company tests all of its loads on live targets, generally feral hogs, rather than the ballistic gel used by most other manufacturers. Sighted-in to strike two inches high at 100 yards, these bullets will hit around 2.4 inches low at 200 yards, just shy of their maximum effective range.
For serious work with these cartridges you won’t go far wrong with the Lapua Mega at 2100 fps from a 24” barrel. The bullet is actually designed for use in these standard velocity cartridges and provides excellent penetration, expansion and weight retention on even the largest game. The slightly flattened tip is alleged to cause more immediate tissue damage and shock than other point styles and makes for an excellent hunting bullet.
It never ceases to amaze me how much harder it has become to kill big game animals over the past century or so. Even though there are more deer, elk, moose and bear on this continent than there were in 1907, rounds that were regarded as entirely adequate for shooting them then are regularly dismissed by today’s gun writers as suitable only for dispatching barn rats and other vermin.
Writing in 1920, Col. Townsend Whelen had a lot of bad things to say about the aged .38-40 Winchester cartridge before grudgingly concluding “it has plenty of power for deer and black bear up to 200 yards.”
Whelen didn’t put much stock in muzzle energy, but noted that the round threw its 180 grain flat point bullet at 1770 fps from a 24” rifle barrel. That’s about the same as you’d get from a modern .357 Magnum rifle with the same bullet weight, though I have yet to see any modern expert recommend the .357 as a 200-yard bear cartridge. I wouldn’t recommend it myself, but have no problem recommending these “other” 6.5's for about 90 percent of the hunting most of us will ever do.
Note: More articles about all of the cartridges mentioned above can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2008 by Mike Hudson. All rights reserved.