6.5mm - The Handloader's Caliber
February 13, 2019
Right now, a 6.5mm is the rifle to have, and the unquestioned top dog is the 6.5 Creedmoor. More and more ammunition companies are offering top-quality ammunition, and riflemakers can’t keep up with demand.
The 6.5 Creedmoor is unique in several ways. It’s the first .264-caliber cartridge ever to enjoy widespread popularity in the United States, and it’s the first in which every aspect of its specifications, from overall length to twist rate, has been tailored for optimal performance. It is also the first to have factory ammunition that is so good, and in such variety, that one could cheerfully get by without handloading for it. Every other 6.5 cartridge ever offered here has been largely a handloading proposition. You load your own or you don’t shoot much.
My introduction to the 6.5s (aside from a youthful, unrequited infatuation with the .264 Winchester Magnum) was the Swedish 6.5x55. It was the 1980s, and at the time ammunition was available only from Norma and Dominion, a Canadian brand. Both employed heavy bullets at low velocity — 155 to 160 grains at 2,200 to 2,400 fps, roughly. Bullets for reloading ranged from 100 grains to 160 grains, including some beautiful 120-, 129-, and 140-grain bullets. I worked up a wonderfully accurate load using the Nosler 140-grain Partition and went Dall sheep hunting in Alaska. At 2,800 fps, that load performed like a scalpel out to about 300 yards.
That made me a 6.5mm fan, but in those days any suggestion of an article about .264s drew only yawns from editors. No one—no one—they said was interested. The thing is, though, someone must have been because bulletmakers offered an ever-increasing array of 6.5mm bullets. And wildcatters, that indefatigable bunch, kept necking cases up or down to 6.5.
One wildcat that gained considerable currency was the 6.5-284 Winchester, which is simply the rebated-rim .284 Winchester necked down by 20 thousandths. Another was the 6.5-06, which had been around forever and was merely a slight modification of the .256 Newton, which was created in 1913. Of course, there was always the scattering of European military 6.5s, too. Most were strictly handloading propositions.
One exception was the aristocrat of the bunch: the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schönauer, which not only was the Greek military cartridge, but also was chambered in the beautiful Mannlicher rifles imported from Austria. Commercial 6.5x54 M-S was loaded here for many years, and most lines of imported ammunition included it. It was never cheap, but then those rifles were rarely owned by anyone who considered money an object. More recent 6.5 innovations include the 26 Nosler and the 6.5-300 Weatherby. The latter has been around for a long time as a wildcat, originally intended for long-range benchrest shooting. The 26 Nosler is a bulky, rimless case with sharp shoulder and straight walls, fitted to a magnum action. Ballistically, it and the 6.5-300 Weatherby are similar.
Oddly, the original 6.5s from around 1900 used a heavy-for-caliber bullet with high sectional density, at relatively low velocity, for great penetration and dependability. They were used for hunting everything from chamois in the Alps to elephants in the Lado Enclave. A rifleman who wanted a lighter bullet at higher velocity, however, had to handload. Then, when such cartridges as the .256 Newton came along, their creators insisted on high velocity and loaded them with a 129-grain bullet. The formula was turned on its head, and you had to handload it to achieve the old, established weight and sectional density combination.
Today’s 6.5mm cartridges emphasize long-range shooting and are loaded with beautifully streamlined, heavy bullets. While these undoubtedly perform at distances unheard of with, for example, the 6.5x54 M-S, they are not the best for every application. Which puts lovers of the 6.5 right back where we always were: shopping for bullets and loading our own ammunition.