The 6.5x52 Mannlicher-Carcano (6.5mm Italian, 6.5mm Carcano)

By Chuck Hawks

The Italian government adopted the 6.5x52mm cartridge and the Mannlicher-Carcano M-91 bolt action rifle in 1891. This rifle and cartridge served the Italian military through two World Wars, victoriously in the First, and in a losing effort in the Second.

The M-91's used in WW II were, in the main, not very well made rifles; nor were they particularly accurate. Although the M-91 was always nominally a 6.5mm rifle, during the long years of production the bore and groove sizes of barrels varied considerably, which certainly did not help the rifle's reputation for accuracy. At least some (and perhaps all) M-91 TS Carbines were rifled with an unusual gain twist in their handy 21" barrel. By the end of the Second World War many of the M-91's had actions that were rather loose. In addition, the Mannlicher-Carcano action is not an easy one to adopt to a telescopic sight (although it can be done). For all of these reasons the M-91 is not the best military rifle to use as the basis of a sporter--in fact it is probably one of the worst.

The one real virtue of the M-91 is that it was a fast to operate. Perhaps this was partly because the action was not real tight, and partly due to the Mannlicher design. But for whatever reason, the bolt slid very easily and very fast in its recess. A buddy of mine owned an M-91 Carbine, and I remember it as being the fastest bolt action military rifle I ever cycled. Practically anyone, with a minimum of practice, could shoot a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle quickly.

A number of these rough rifles were brought home as "war trophies" by GI's after the conclusion of hostilities in 1945. Later on the Italian government declared the remaining M-91 service rifles surplus. A large number of them found their way to the United States, where they were sold to shooters seeking an inexpensive or knockabout rifle for deer hunting.

Unfortunately, one of these surplus Mannlicher-Carcano rifles was used by Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The eventual result of that sad affair was the Gun Control Act of 1968, as if it were the M-91 rifle and all of the law abiding gun owners in the US who were to blame for the death of the President, rather than the man who actually fired the shots. Once again symbolism triumphed over substance in the US Congress. In any event, the whole unfortunate affair served to further blacken the reputation of the M-91 Mannlicher-Carcano.

I have never encountered a 6.5x52 rifle of civilian manufacture, although presumably a few must have been made at one time or another. I am pretty sure that no sporting rifle made today is chambered for the 6.5x52 cartridge.

None of this has any direct bearing on the utility of the 6.5x52 cartridge itself, although the cartridge (as least as loaded for the Italian government) does have some drawbacks. One is the use of a Berdan primer of odd and generally unobtainable size. Another is the counterboring of the inside of the case neck, which extended to just above the shoulder; the original bullet was seated in this counterbored area. These peculiarities make 6.5x52 Italian military brass just about impossible to reload.

However, for the shooter with a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle in good shape, factory loaded 6.5x52 ammunition and brass is available from Norma. Norma brass uses standard large rifle Boxer primers, and is excellent for reloading.

The 6.5x52 is a cute looking bottleneck cartridge of modest capacity. It has a rimless case with a .449" head diameter. The case is 2.06" in length with a 24-degree shoulder. Bullet size is standard 6.5mm (.264"). The cartridge overall length is 2.90" (approximately). All of these dimensions are subject to variation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the modest ballistics of the 6.5x52 cartridge, which averages about 100 fps less velocity with any given bullet than the famous 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer cartridge. The Norma factory load for the 6.5x52 is loaded with a 156 grain Alaska bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2428 fps and muzzle energy of 2043 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures are 1926 fps and 1286 ft. lbs. Norma trajectory figures show the following: +2.9" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -12.3" at 300 yards. The 6.5x52 is about a 230 yard deer and medium game cartridge with this load.

Handloading data can be found in most reloading manuals. The following information is from the Sierra Bullets Reloading Manual, Second Edition. The folks at Sierra used Norma brass, Remington primers, and an M-91 Carbine with a 21" barrel for load development. The 100 grain HP bullet (SD .205) can be driven to a MV of 2500 fps with 37.0 grains of IMR 4320 powder. This would be a good small predator and jackrabbit load for off season shooting with a 6.5x52 rifle.

The 120 grain Pro Hunter spitzer bullet (SD .246) can be driven to a MV of 2400 fps and ME of 1535 ft. lbs. with 35.3 grains of IMR 4064, 35.9 grains of IMR 4320, or 37.7 grains of H380 powder. The figures at 200 yards are 1996 fps and 1062 ft. lbs. The Sierra trajectory table shows that this load should strike +2.86" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -11.58" at 300 yards. This should be a good 250 yard load for the smaller deer and antelope species.

The 140 grain GameKing boat tail spitzer bullet (SD .287) can be driven to a MV of 2300 fps with ME of 1644 ft. lbs. in front of 34.5 grains of IMR 4064, 34.6 grains of IMR 4320, or 36.8 grains of H380 powder. At 200 yards the figures are 1969 fps and 1205 ft. lbs. The trajectory of that load looks like this: +3.07" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -12.03" at 300 yards. This should be a good 250 yard load for the larger deer species, reindeer, caribou, black bear and the like, or for a general mixed bag hunt with a 6.5x52 rifle.

Since there are no new 6.5x52 rifles being made, and the newest of the WW II surplus rifles are over 55 years old and slowly going out of service, the 6.5x52 will likely become obsolete at some point in the future. At present ammunition and reloading components are available, so there is no reason not to enjoy shooting a serviceable Mannlicher-Carcano rifle if you happen to own one. While the 6.5x52 is not a powerhouse cartridge, it is perfectly adequate for medium size big game within about 250 yards. Certainly many deer are killed every year in North America, Europe, and around the world with less capable calibers.

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