March 09, 2021
By Joseph von Benedikt
With a century and a quarter of experience in military service and in rifles for hunting, the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser was the original 6.5mm king. And if you were totally the matches won, the Olympic medals earned, and the big game dropped by it, you’d find it positively shames the upstart 6.5 Creedmoor that just about everybody reveres today.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the 6.5 Creedmoor. In fact, I’ve often called it the .30-06 of the 21st century in terms of how it has brought riflemen to new levels of precision capability. And candidly, in terms of pure design, it’s a better cartridge than the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, particularly for target work.
But the 6.5x55 Swede can offer hunters an edge over the 6.5 Creedmoor. For that reason, and to honor its veteran heritage as the dominant 6.5mm cartridge around the world, let’s take a close look at it.
Designed in 1891 and introduced into military service in 1894 by the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway, the 6.5x55 is debatably the single most successful of all the very early cartridges designed for smokeless gunpowder. Only the 7x57mm Mauser can compete for that honor, having been used by more militaries around the world and earning international fame in the hands of dangerous-game hunters in Africa and India.
In addition to its military service, the 6.5x55 proved to be inherently accurate, and as I said earlier, it has numerous match championships and Olympic medals to its credit. With fame gained by military use and doubled down with international accuracy accolades, the cartridge was ensured a place in history.
Predictably, hunters across Scandinavia gravitated toward the 6.5x55. The cartridge quickly gained a reputation for punching above its class on big game, including moose. This was in large part due to the heavy-for-caliber projectiles loaded in 6.5x55 ammo. Possessing very high sectional densities, these 140- to 156-grain bullets proved to penetrate deeply and kill cleanly.
As a happy happenstance, the fast 1:8.66 rifling twist rate required to stabilize the early 156-grain roundnose FMJ bullets first fielded by Sweden’s and Norway’s militaries works wonderfully well with today’s long, sleek, high-ballistic-coefficient projectiles designed for long-range shooting.
Sweden adopted the 1896 Mauser and Norway the Krag-Jorgensen M1894. Both rifles were solid performers in their era. European countries load the 6.5x55 to 380.00 MPa, which translates to a bit more than 55,000 psi of chamber pressure. It’s proof-tested at nearly 69,000 psi. However, when America’s cartridge-governing institution SAAMI standardized the 6.5x55, adding the name “Swedish” to the cartridge’s designation, it set maximum pressure at 51,000 psi.
This was done presumably to protect shooters out of recognition of all the vintage surplus rifles out there. However, it quite effectively curtailed the 6.5x55’s ballistic performance as loaded by U.S. ammunition companies.
As a result, U.S. shooters and hunters wanting to get the best out of modern rifles built on strong actions must either use European ammunition or handload using European load data.
Before moving on to ballistic comparisons, it’s worth noting that the 6.5x55 utilizes an original cartridge case, and while it’s visually nearly identical to the 0.473 inch of the .30-06 and all its offspring, the 6.5x55 has a case-head diameter of 0.480 inch. Case body taper and shoulder angle were optimized for reliable feeding and extraction from bolt-action rifles and the machine guns of the era.
According to my measurements, the 6.5x55 has about 11 percent more internal case capacity than the 6.5 Creedmoor (60.7 grains of water versus 54.0 grains). As a result, even though maximum pressure is lower (55,000 psi when loading with Euro data versus the 62,000 psi of the 6.5 Creedmoor), the older cartridge can produce more velocity.
Savvy handloaders opt for slower-burning propellants than the 6.5 Creedmoor can handle under heavy-for-caliber projectiles. Superb performance results.
Now, it’s necessary to pause and point out that the 6.5 Creedmoor is technically and dimensionally a superior cartridge. In the 6.5mm realm, it’s almost certainly the best cartridge ever designed. My point here is merely to suggest that the 6.5x55 is not only still viable, it’s an outstanding cartridge that excels within certain parameters. Besides, with its history and character, it’s just darn likable!
There’s an additional dynamic at work. Since the 6.5x55 is technically a mid-length cartridge (3.150 inches overall length), it must be chambered in a standard-length action. This is good and bad. Good, because there is no limitation on how long a handloader can seat highly aerodynamic modern projectiles. Bad, because such actions are longer and heavier than the short-action versions compatible with the 6.5 Creedmoor.
So, if healthy 6.5x55 loads produce more velocity than the 6.5 Creedmoor, how does it compare to today’s other 6.5s? It’s faster than the .260 Remington. It’s slower than the 6.5-284 Norma, by a fair margin. It’s much slower than the 6.5 PRC and .264 Winchester Magnum. And, of course, it’s not even in the same realm as fire-breathing 6.5mm dragons such as the 6.5 Weatherby RPM, 26 Nosler, and 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum.
For those of you who like to crunch ballistic comparisons, here are a few of my favorite 6.5x55 handloads, along with basic performance parameters.
For deer, pronghorn antelope, wild hogs, and the small- to medium-size African plains game species, a controlled-expansion bullet of about 130 grains, over 48.0 grains of Reloder 16, is pure magic. Muzzle velocity from my favorite Ruger Hawkeye African rifle is 3,029 fps when using a Hornady 129-grain InterBond, which generates 2,640 ft-lbs of energy and nips at the heels of the classic .270 Winchester 130-grain load at 3,060 fps. The same-weight, smaller-diameter 6.5mm projectiles hold onto energy better, so out past 200 yards or so they actually have more velocity and more retained energy. Plus, they have higher sectional density, meaning bullets of like construction will penetrate better.
Great bullets in this weight range include the Barnes 127-grain LRX, Nosler 130-grain AccuBond, Federal 130-grain Terminal Ascent, Swift 130-grain Scirocco II, and others, but I’ve used Hornady’s 129-grain InterBond more than any other bullet in my pet Ruger rifle. Accurized with glass bedding and a trigger job, the rifle loves that particular bullet and will comfortably hold sub-MOA groups.
When zeroed at 200 yards, in standardized sea-level atmospherics, the 129-grain InterBond strikes 1.3 inches high at 100 yards, 6.3 inches low at 300 yards, 18.3 inches low at 400, and 37.1 inches low at 500 yards. Impact energy at that distance is 1,280 ft-lbs, which is plenty adequate for deer.
If you want to really maximize the 6.5x55’s extended-range potential, load Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X bullet over H4831SC powder. My rifle loves 49.0 grains, with accuracy hovering at the 0.67-inch mark. It’s a mild load, generating about 2,790 fps and 2,460 ft-lbs of energy. Some 6.5x55 rifles will produce that sort of accuracy with a heavier charge, generating closer to 2,850 fps, but this load shoots so well for me, and the bullet is so aerodynamic, I just don’t worry about it.
To compare this load to the faster but less aerodynamic bullets in the 130-grain range, here are its ballistics: zeroed at 200 yards and in standardized, sea-level atmospherics: impact is 1.7 inches high at 100 yards, 7.3 inches low at 300 yards, 20.8 inches low at 400 yards, and 41.4 inches low at 500 yards, where the 143-grain ELD-X retains about 1,380 ft-lbs of energy. At 600 yards, this bullet really begins to shine. It’s still packing nearly as much energy as most of the 130-grainers carry at 500 yards. I don’t have room here for wind-drift tables, but if you take a moment and crunch the ballistics on your favorite online calculator, you’ll find it drifts less, too.
Many 6.5mm enthusiasts figure that as far as they can hit a big-game animal in the vitals, they can cleanly kill it. I’m not one of them. Deer, maybe. Elk, black bears, and any other big-game animal over about 300 pounds pose greater challenges to these relatively small-diameter projectiles, and the ethics of using them become questionable. One of the primary reasons the Scandinavians are so successful on their moose is that they generally shoot them when up quite close, where the 6.5x55 packs plenty of wallop, using very heavy-for-caliber bullets. Plus, that subspecies of moose is considerably smaller than any of our North American moose.
For North American moose, elk, and the bigger black bears, the 6.5x55 is at its best with very tough, controlled-expansion bullets designed to retain weight and penetrate deeply. Such projectiles must often break massive bones; penetrate heavy, dense muscle; and plumb through a vital cavity more the size of a 30-gallon drum than a three-gallon bucket. Swift’s A-Frame, Nosler’s Partition, and all of Barnes’s heavier 6.5mm monometal bullets are excellent. But for hunting the biggest, heaviest, toughest game with any 6.5mm, my favorite is Hornady’s new 140-grain GMX bullet. In a major departure from the GMX norm, this bullet has a flat base and a protected polymer tip with a broad meplat. It’s not particularly aerodynamic; it’s a penetrator. It opens up well at medium-low velocities and drives extremely deep. As an interesting note, this particular GMX was designed for the European market. Specifically, as a matter of point-proving fact, for 6.5mm shooters hunting moose.
Judicious 6.5x55 handloads push the 140-grain GMX to 2,800 fps. Muzzle energy is about 2,450 ft-lbs. Inside 300 yards, this bullet is spectacular. However, because its ballistic coefficient is literally half that of the 143-grain ELD-X, it loses steam quickly. Zeroed at 200 yards, it impacts 1.8 inches high at 100 and 8.4 inches low at 300 yards, where it’s packing 1,325 ft-lbs of punch. At 400 yards, it’s 25 inches low and has dropped to nearly 1,000 ft-lbs of energy.
In the Field
Last fall, on assignment in Mozambique, I shot several warthogs and reedbucks for leopard live-trapping bait. The local biologist was collaring female leopards for a study and needed help. Happy to oblige, I shot warthogs from 15 yards to 380 yards. In each case the Hornady 129-grain InterBond impacted precisely where needed and resulted in a clean, fast, one-shot kill. In all but one strongly quartered-to shot presentation, it exited, providing an excellent blood trail (not that one was ever needed).
Meanwhile, as we prowled around looking for suitable management animals, PH Garth Robinson and I hunted for an exceptional sable bull. This was truly wild Africa, where Zambeze Delta Safaris hunts Cape buffalo in the vast river-delta swamps. There, too, is found a good population of wild, indigenous sable.
We had five or six days left on safari, when as evening was falling one night and we were glassing a fire-scorched two-track through the thick forest, Garth and the tracker simultaneously spotted a jet-black form across a distant meadow. We rolled out, and the stalk was on.
With only minutes of shooting light remaining, I slowly slid my Ruger rifle onto the shooting sticks and glued the crosshairs of the Trijicon 2.5-15X 42mm Credo scope to the sable bull’s shoulder. The distance was about 110 yards. Adrenaline coursed through me, but I willed away the excitement that threatened to turn into buck fever. I carefully squeezed the trigger.
The 129-grain InterBond drove through the sable’s shoulder, breaking it, turning the lungs to froth, and compromising the plumbing atop the heart. The bull was anchored on the spot. The shot had felt perfect, but this was Africa, and one never knows, so I paid the insurance with another bullet.
As evening lingered, stubbornly glowing as the night sky climbed around it, Garth captured some wonderful photographs. Right at that moment, I loved no rifle or cartridge so much as the 6.5x55 Swede.