The 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer

By Chuck Hawks

The 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer dates to 1903 when the cartridge and both military and civilian rifles to shoot it were introduced by Steyr of Austria. Greece adopted the 1903 military rifle and the 6.5x54 cartridge that same year.

Within just a couple of years the 6.5x54 had become a very popular sporting cartridge in Europe and Africa. This was no doubt partly due to the low recoil, excellent accuracy, and adequate killing power of the 6.5x54 cartridge, and partly due to the excellence of the Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles and carbines in which it was chambered. Like the .30-30 cartridge and the Winchester Model 94 carbine, the 6.5x54 and Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine are a classic combination.

Anyone who has handled a classic M-S carbine understands the appeal of this fine, compact firearm. The basic carbine weighed about 7 pounds and was only about 38" long. Its bolt action was the simply the smoothest ever made. It is the only bolt action that I know of that will close and lock itself if the muzzle of an empty rifle with a fully open bolt is swung down to point at the ground. This is partly because of the outstanding machine work put into these rifles, and partly because the Schoenauer spool magazine does not drag against the bolt as does the follower in the box magazine of a Mauser style rifle. The typical M-S trigger mechanism, usually a double set trigger type, was absolutely awesome. Just pulling the release trigger normally can fire the rifle, but the pull weight is a creepy 5+ pounds (about what you get today with a lot of factory made rifles). However, when the set trigger is first pulled to "set" the release trigger, the release trigger then breaks with a perfect 8 ounce let-off (as adjusted by the factory). The set trigger can be adjusted for a pull so light that the weight of the trigger itself fires the rifle if the muzzle is elevated--which clearly should be avoided!

When a smooth, easy pointing rifle with a great trigger is chambered for a light recoiling but effective game cartridge, the average hunter and shooter is liable to suddenly become a very good shot. Very good shooting takes a lot of game, and 6.5x54 M-S rifles did just that, at first in Europe and then very soon in Africa, where the 6.5x54 was found to be excellent for plains game.

The 6.5x54 became a favorite of many well-known professional hunters in Africa before the beginning of the Second World War, some of who wrote about the rifle and cartridge. The legendary ivory hunter W.D.M. Bell was among these, and he went so far as to use the 6.5x54 with 160 grain solid bullets for brain shots on elephant. The factory loads at that time had a MV of about 2230 fps. He liked the moderate recoil and deep penetration of the little 6.5mm cartridge. Later he adopted the more powerful 7x57 Mauser (!) with a 175 grain solid bullet as his elephant hunting weapon of choice. With these two calibers he is reputed to have killed over 1000 elephants.

For the average hunter, of course, the 6.5x54 is not an elephant cartridge. It is, however, a very efficient cartridge for medium size big game. In the hands of a cool marksman it is adequate for large game like North American elk, Swedish Alg, and African Kudu. Free recoil energy in a 7.5 pound rifle shooting 140 grain bullets at a MV of 2400 fps is only about 11.1 ft. lbs.

After the end of the Second World War the 6.5x54 declined in popularity, primarily due to the effects of the post war economy. The rapid increase in the cost of manufacturing Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles drove the retail price above what the average shooter could afford. The M-S carbine and the 6.5x54 had always been closely associated, and when only the wealthy could afford to purchase M-S rifles, the sales of both rifles and cartridges declined. Eventually Steyr could no longer afford to produce the traditional Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles at all, and the line was redesigned for more economical manufacture. Steyr-Mannlicher rifles are still manufactured and sold, but they no longer use the Schoenhauer spool magazine (which was expensive to machine) or the original action. They are still good rifles with many modern improvements, but they are not the same.

Through it all, the 6.5x54 has remained reasonably popular in Europe and Africa, although it never really caught on in the New World. Physically the 6.5x54 is a modern looking, rimless, bottle neck cartridge that uses standard 6.5mm (.264") diameter bullets. Its case is 54mm (2.11") in length with a 24 degree shoulder and a .453" rim diameter. It is a cute looking little cartridge.

I believe that Norma offers factory loaded cartridges and brass to American as well as European shooters, and RWS offers factory loaded ammunition in Europe. Most of the bullet makers supplying reloaders offer a decent selection of 6.5mm (.264") bullets. Most reloading manuals include loads for the 6.5x54, and any shooter with a 6.5x54 rifle in North America (or perhaps anywhere, given the high cost of factory loaded ammunition) would do well to reload his own ammunition.

The 6.5x54, like all 6.5mm cartridges, kills well because of the generally high sectional density (SD) of its .264" bullets. Good SD translates to deep penetration, which allows these rather small caliber bullets to get deep inside of even very large animals, where they can do the most damage.

For instance, the light 120 grain 6.5mm bullet has a SD of .246, slightly better than that of the famous 130 grain .270 bullet. The medium weight 140 grain 6.5mm bullet has an outstanding SD of .287, which is essentially the same as a 190 grain .30 match bullet. The heavy 160 grain 6.5mm bullet has a SD of .328, about like a 220 grain .30 bullet or 400 grain .416 bullet.

According to the Sierra Reloading Manual, Second Edition the 120 grain spitzer bullet can be driven to a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2600 fps from a 20" barrel by 35.9 grains of IMR 3031, 37.3 grains of IMR 4895, 37.8 grains of IMR 4064, or 41.2 grains of H380 powder. The muzzle energy (ME) of these loads is 1801 ft. lbs. This is the bullet to choose for medium size big game animals like the smaller species of deer and antelope when a relatively flat trajectory is required. According to the Sierra external ballistics tables, from a scoped rifle the trajectory of this load looks like this: +2.31" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -9.64" at 300 yards. This is a 250 yard load for a plains or mountain rifle.

From the same 20" barrel the Sierra 140 grain Game King bullet can be driven to a MV of 2300 fps with ME of 1644 ft. lbs. by 33.1 grains of IMR 3031, 34.4 grains of IMR 4895, 35.1 grains of IMR 4064, or 37.4 grains of H380 powder. This if a fine all-around load for the caliber, suitable for most animals one is likely to hunt with a 6.5x54 rifle. Zero a scoped rifle for 200 yards, and the bullet will land 3.07" high at 100 yards and 12.03" low at 300 yards.

The 6.5x54 will still kill large and heavy game way out of proportion to its paper ballistics in the hands of a good shot. And, as I pointed out above, the 6.5x54 is the kind of cartridge that helps hunters become good shots.

Back to the Rifle Cartridge Page

Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.