The Fabulous 6.5x55

By Chuck Hawks

Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

6.5mm calibers have been popular with various of the world's militaries, including Japan (6.5x50), Sweden (6.5x55), Norway (6.5x55), Italy (6.5x52), Greece (6.5x54), and no doubt others. Most of these have also been successfully used as sporting cartridges, and the most successful of all in that role has been the 6.5x55.

The 6.5x55 seems to be one of those well balanced cartridges that is "just right." It does an excellent job without muss or fuss, much like the 7x57 Mauser. Powerful enough to do pretty much whatever can be done with its bullet diameter, yet mild enough so that almost everyone can shoot it well. It has an excellent reputation as a game cartridge, better than its paper ballistics would suggest.

The 6.5x55 was developed by a joint Swedish/Norwegian commission in Christiania (later renamed Oslo) in 1893. It was officially adopted as the military caliber of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway in 1894. (At the time Sweden and Norway were one country.) It became a popular sporting rifle cartridge in Scandinavia, and then all over Europe, where it is often referred to as the 6.5x55 SE, the "SE" standing for Sweden. It is famous as a superbly accurate cartridge and has been widely used in Europe for target shooting, including Olympic free rifle competition.

The cartridge remained little known in the U.S. until the late 1950's, when surplus 6.5x55 military rifles became available to American shooters in good numbers. In 2003 Blaser, CZ, Dakota, Ruger, Sako, Sauer, Tikka, and Winchester are all offering fine bolt action sporting rifles in 6.5x55 to the North American market. RCBS reports that the 6.5x55 ranks among the top 30 calibers in reloading die sales. The cartridge has finally come of age in the U.S., where it is known as the "6.5mm Swede" or the "6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser."

The 6.5x55 uses regular 6.5mm (.264") bullets in a bottle necked, rimless case with a 25 degree shoulder. It has an unusual head size which is slightly larger in diameter (.476") than the standard 7x57 Mauser or .30-06 case (.473"). The rim of the 6.5x55 is also slightly thicker (.059") than a standard 7x57 Mauser or .30-06 case (.049"). The twist in Mauser military 6.5x55 barrels is a fast 1 turn in 7.5" to stabilize the very long 160 grain bullets. Most civilian 6.5x55 barrels use a 1 turn in 8 inch twist, which will still stabilize the 160 grain bullet, and is slightly better for 120 grain bullets.

The typical bullet weights are 87-100 grain, 120 grain, 125 grain, 129-130 grain, 140 grain, 150-156 grain, and 160 grain. The 87-100 grain spitzer bullets are varmint bullets, the flat shooting 120 grain spitzer bullets are generally intended for the smaller deer and antelope species, the 125-130 grain spitzer bullets are excellent for all-around hunting, the 140 grain spitzer bullets combine the weight, SD, and BC for larger game at fairly long range, and the 150+ grain bullets are usually designed for large animals at medium range.

If these bullet weights seem a little light for their intended applications, note their SD relative to popular bullet weights in better known calibers. For instance, the .26 caliber 120 grain bullet has a SD of .247, almost identical to the 165 grain .30 caliber bullet. The 125 grain .26 bullet has a SD of .256, identical to that of a 170 grain .30 bullet. The 129 grain .26 bullet has a SD of .264, nearly identical to that of a 180 grain .303 bullet. The long 140 grain .26 bullet has an outstanding SD of .287, which is essentially the same as a 190 grain .30 match bullet. The 160 grain .26 bullet has a SD of .328, about like a 220 grain .30 bullet.

U.S. specifications limit the MAP of the 6.5x55 to 45,000 cup. Federal, Remington, Speer, and Winchester each offer the 6.5x55 with a 140 grain spitzer bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,550 fps and a muzzle energy (ME) 2,020 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the numbers are 2164 fps and 1456 ft. lbs. (Remington figures).

With the standard American 140 grain factory load zeroed at 200 yards, the trajectory is as follows: +2.4 in. at 100 yards, +2.1 in at 150 yards, 0 at 200 yards, -3.9 in at 250 yards, -9.8 in. at 300 yards. As you can see, with this load the 6.5x55 is a good 250 yard big game rifle.

Somewhat hotter U.S. hunting loads for the 6.5x55 are offered by Federal and Hornady. Federal has a 140 grain Hi-Shok bullet at a MV of 2600 fps and ME of 2100 ft. lbs. Hornady has two 6.5x55 offerings in their Light Magnum line, a 129 grain Spire Point bullet at a MV of 2770 fps with ME of 2197 ft. lbs., and a 140 grain Spire Point bullet at a MV of 2740 fps and ME of 2333 ft. lbs. If the 129 grain bullet were zeroed to take advantage of its maximum point blank range (+/- 3") it would hit 2.7" high at 100 yards, 1.7" high at 200 yards, 3" low at 275 yards, and 5.5" low at 300 yards.

European loads for the 6.5x55 tend to be hotter than the standard U.S. loads. Sellier & Bellot of the Czech Republic load their 140 grain soft point spitzer bullet for the 6.5x55 SE at a MV of 2645 fps. Sako of Finland offers a wider range of loads, including a 100 grain FMJ spitzer bullet at 2,625 fps, a 139 grain match bullet at 2,790 fps, and a 156 grain round nose bullet at 2,625 fps. Norma of Sweden loads their 139 grain Vulkan bullet to a MV of 2854 fps and ME of 2515 ft. lbs. They offer several loads with 156 grain bullets, the fastest of these being the Vulkan bullet at a MV of 2644 fps and ME of 2422 ft. lbs. These loads are typical of the performance European hunters expect from the 6.5x55.

The reloader with a modern bolt action rifle can do very well with the 6.5x55. The Speer Reloading Manual No. 13 shows that their 120 grain spitzer bullet (BC .433) can be driven to a MV of 2650 fps with 45.0 grains of IMR 4831 powder, and 2886 fps with 49.0 grains of the same powder. Their 140 grain spitzer (BC .496) can be driven to a MV of 2449 fps by 44.0 grains of RL22 powder, and 2671 fps by 48.0 grains of RL22. Speer recommends the 120 grain bullet for antelope and the smaller deer, and the 140 grain bullet for large deer and black bear. The good old boys at Speer tested these loads in a Ruger M77 rifle with a 22" barrel, and used Federal cases and CCI 200 primers.

The Hornady Handbook, Sixth Edition shows that their sleek 129 grain Spire Point and SST bullets can be driven to a MV of 2700 fps by all eight powders listed. Examples would be 42.4 grains of IMR 4350, 45.5 grains of H450, 42.1 grains of Win. 760, or 45.4 grains of RL-22. These loads used Hornady brass and Winchester WLR primers, and were chronographed in a Model 1896 Mauser with an 29" barrel.

The fifth edition of the Nosler Reloading Guide lists loads for their excellent 125 grain Partition bullet in front of 41.5 grains of IMR 4350 powder at a MV of 2592 fps, and 45.5 grains of 4350 at a MV of 2910 fps. IMR 4350 was the most accurate powder tested with the 125 grain bullet. Norma cases and Remington primers were fired in a 23" barrel to develop these loads.

At present I am loading the 140 grain Sierra GameKing SBT bullet at a MV of 2650 fps in front of 44.7 grains of RE-22 powder for use in both my Swedish Mauser Model 1896 and my Winchester Model 70 rifles. See the Sierra Edition V reloading manual for details.

The 6.5x55 is an extremely accurate, very capable hunting cartridge. Its mild recoil makes it a pleasure to shoot at the range or in the field and insures that the average hunter and recreational shooter can take full advantage of its capabilities.

High performance factory loads and handloads make the 6.5x55 suitable for all of the world's thin-skinned big game in the hands of a skilled marksman. Trond Borge Ottersen of Norway, who helped me with some of the historical information in this article, assures me that Norwegians were very active in the arctic around the turn of the 20th Century. They were especially active in whaling and hunting. As a result of this many polar bears have been taken with the 6.5X55. Put one of those deadly 6.5mm bullets into a vital spot and you will indeed "bring home the bacon" with the 6.5x55.

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Copyright 1999, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.