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The Long-Suffering 6.5

The Long-Suffering 6.5

The caliber American hunters would love to love--but don't.

The .260 Remington is the most recent attempt to create a popular 6.5 U.S. hunting cartridge. It's capable of taking a wide range of game but hasn't really taken off.

No 6.5mm cartridge, whether European or American, has done particularly well over here. The longest-lived 6.5mm cartridge in America is the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser. It has never burned up the world, but at least it manages to hang on with a small but loyal following.

No other European 6.5mm has made even a tiny blip on the American market, and no domestic 6.5mm cartridge has achieved lasting glory. Of course you remember the .264 Winchester Magnum, a real rising star in the late 1950s and early 1960s that was quickly eclipsed by the 7mm Remington Magnum. The lone factory rifle in .264 today is Remington's Model 700 Sendero SF II, and it's a small miracle that factory ammo is still available.

And then there's the .260 Remington. It's a wonderful little cartridge. Like the .264 it took off like a rocket amid much hype, but it seems to have reached its zenith, with current sales rumored to be slipping badly--although it is making inroads among the AR-style crowd as a tactical and competition round.

The latest American 6.5 cartridge is the 6.5 Creedmoor developed by Hornady, but it's intended as a competition round for NRA highpower and long-range matches. (For more on this cartridge, see the September/October issue.)

If you happen to be a 6.5mm fan and an American hunter, these are harsh facts. But on the European market things are a bit different. The old 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer cartridge is still around, as are a number of other 6.5s we don't see over here.

The 6.5x55 generally holds sway in the Scandinavian countries, where it is still frequently used for game up to moose. The 6.5x68 is a special favorite among German and Austrian hunters and is quite similar to our almost-defunct .264 Winchester Magnum. And here's a surprise: The .264 Winchester Magnum remains fairly popular in Spain.


In the dawn of smokeless powder, the armies of Austro-Hungary, Greece, Holland, Italy, Romania, Sweden and others adopted various 6.5s, so it's no wonder the bullet diameter remains popular in Europe. The early 6.5mms were developed with extremely long, heavy-for-caliber military full-metal-jacket bullets, like 156 to 160 grains. By our standards today velocities were mild, but a century ago these velocities were compared to blackpowder cartridges, so they seemed to really sizzle.

Those long, heavy-for-caliber "solids" yielded unprecedented penetration. They were used to take all manner of game that, today, we consider far beyond the suitability window of such a small caliber. Captain C.H. Stigand, for instance, actually preferred the 6.5mm for elephant, as did W.D.M. "Karamoja" Bell. But later in his life Bell wrote that the 6.5s were a bit below the sensible minimum for elephant.

The most common 6.5mm hunting bullet today is probably 140 grains, with an impressive sectional density of .287. This is higher than the SD of the 150-grain .270 bullet, higher than all 7mm bullets up to 160 grains (the 162-grain .284 bullet has the same SD of .287) and higher than the 180-grain .30 caliber.

Provided bullet design and construction are similar, a bullet of higher SD will out-penetrate a bullet with a lower SD. If aerodynamic shape is similar, a bullet with a higher SD will have a higher ballistic coefficient than a bullet with a lower SD. The higher BC means the bullet will hold its velocity better, thus maintaining a flatter trajectory and resisting wind deflection better.

Left to right: .256 Newton, 6.5x55, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum. Only the 6.5x55 has had lasting (although limited) popularity.

If you work the numbers with a ballistics program, as I did in the accompanying chart, it's easy to see that the 6.5mm looks pretty darned good. It holds up extremely well at distance and doesn't beat you up in the process. For instance, if you can get an aerodynamic 140-grain 6.5mm bullet up to about 3,000 fps--which, depending on barrel length and load, is possible in several 6.5mm cartridges--you will achieve a trajectory curve similar to a 140-grain bullet out of a .270 WSM at 3,200 fps.

Perhaps a better example is to compare a 140-grain 6.5mm at 3,000 fps against a similar 180-grain .30 caliber bullet at 3,200 fps. I can get 3,000 fps out of my .264 Winchester Magnum, and I can get 3,200 fps out of my .300 Weatherby Magnum. As you can see from the table, the trajectory curve is about the same, but in a 20 mph crosswind the 180-grain .30 caliber drifts about six inches more at 400 yards. And of course my .300 Weatherby is going to beat me up a whole lot more in the process. This is why inherently accurate 6.5mm cartridges such as the short, fat 6.5-.284 Norma have become a darling of the 1,000-yard crowd.

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.264 Winchester Magnum Comparison

VELOCITY (fps)ENERGY (ft. lbs.)VELOCITY (fps)ENERGY (ft. lbs.)VELOCITY (fps)ENERGY (ft. lbs.)VELOCITY (fps)ENERGY (ft. lbs.)
.270 WSM 1403,2063,1952,7582,3642,5502,0212,3511,718
Trajectory (in.) __ 0 -5.6 -16.4
.264 Win. Mag. 1403,0082,8122,6272,1462,4491,8642,2771,612
Trajectory (in.) __ 0 -6.2 -18.2
.300 Wby. Mag 1803,2004,0932,6692,8482,4262,3532,1961,928
Trajectory (in.) __ 0 -5.9 -17.8
Notes: Data taken from QuickLoad and QuickTarget ballistic programs. All bullets are Nosler Partition to maintain similar ballistic coefficient

None of this is new, so why has the 6.5mm never achieved great popularity here in America? In part it's because of our .30 caliber culture, and in part it's because clear back in 1925 Winchester decided on an almost unheard of .277-inch bullet, creating the .270 Winchester. Had it opted for the very similar 6.5-06 instead (which was then and still is a reasonably popular wildcat) history might have been different.

But that's ancient history, as is the failure of the Newton Rifle Company, which took with it the .256 Newton. The failures of more recent 6.5mms can perhaps be tied to other factors. The .264 Winchester Magnum was an instant success that seemed destined for lasting stardom. However, original factory figures contained an awful lot of blue sky. The word got out, along with the rumor that the .264 (which is definitely somewhat overbore capacity.) was a barrel-burning S.O.B.

Then along came the 7mm Remington Magnum. The 7mm is admittedly a bit more versatile and able to strut its stuff quite well from a 24-inch barrel, while the .264 really needs two more inches. The 7mm Remington Magnum raced ahead, and the .264 became an also-ran.

Perhaps even more tragic is the fate of the 6.5mm Remington Magnum. It was introduced in 1966 along with the .350 Remington Magnum.These cartridges were ahead of their time--the first "short magnums" intended for .308-length actions.

But Remington introduced them in the Model 600 series carbines. In that guise, both gathered followings that were extremely loyal but small. In its light little synthetic-stocked Mohawk carbine, the .350 was legendary as a hard-kicker.

The 6.5mm actually did okay in its 18-inch barrel, coming pretty close to .270 Winchester performance. However, if you browse through a modern reloading manual you will discover the 6.5mm Remington Magnum is a tremendously efficient little cartridge. According to Nosler's latest manual, in a 24-inch barrel there are several powders that allow the 6.5mm Remington Magnum to outrun the .264 Winchester Magnum.

The jury is still out on the .260 Remington. It was championed by Jim Carmichel, as astute a rifle guy as ever lived, and it was touted for its exceptional inherent accuracy. But with factory loads I haven't yet seen a .260 that showed me much, and perhaps its biggest problem is that it so closely duplicates the performance of the superb and popular 7mm-08 Remington.

Boddington borrowed a Merkel 6.5x68 to take this Balkan chamois. The 6.5x68 is similar to our .264 Winchester Magnum and is a common choice for long-range work in Europe.

As for additional 6.5s coming down the pike, well, maybe--but I doubt it. When the .300 Winchester Short Magnum was new many of us, including yours truly and editor Scott Rupp (who is also an astute rifle guy) suggested that short, fat case should be necked down to 6.5mm, creating (for lack of a better name) a .264 WSM. Instead we got both .270 and 7mm WSMs as factory cartridges.

Undoubtedly marketing was an issue; there have been just enough failures for manufacturers to be scared to death of the .264-inch bullet diameter. On the other hand, a couple of years later Winchester did introduce the .325 WSM, and it isn't like its .323-inch or 8mm bullet diameter has been a bell-ringing success.

There are a couple of other small issues with the 6.5mm. One, relative to the Winchester Short Magnum case, is that an extra manufacturing step would have been required because .264 inch is just a bit tight for a one-step necking job from the parent case. So manufacturing cost would have been higher than for the .270 WSM case, added risk with no assurance of success.

And then one of the great attributes of the 6.5mm, its long heavy-for-caliber bullets, causes it problems. Remember that the bore diameter started with relatively short cases--6 .5x53, 6.5x54, 6.5x55, 6.5x57--housed in long Mannlicher and Mauser actions. So the overall length created by those pencil-length 156-and 160- gra

in bullets wasn't a real problem.

However, if you put a 6.5-.284 Norma, 6.5mm Remington Magnum or even a .260 Remington cartridge into a .308-length action you do have concerns about bullets of 140 grains and over intruding into the powder space. And that's another reason we haven't seen, and probably will not see, a factory 6.5mm short magnum.

Although 6.5mms have rarely made the major leagues--and even more rarely managed to stay there--the bullet diameter is the darling of serious rifle nuts, so much so that the choices are legion. With good Norma brass available, the 6.5-.284 is extremely popular. The efficiency of its short, fat case enables it to come very close to .264 Winchester Magnum performance, and it doesn't require a 26-inch barrel to strut its stuff. Rigby has even made one up on a Model 88 Winchester lever action, but this is a classic example of action length interfering with potential performance.

Of the many wildcats, the 6.5-06 is certainly one of the very best options; with modern propellants it's another cartridge that can easily equal the .264 Winchester Magnum.

John Lazzeroni has experimented with 6.5mms in both his short and his long magnum lines. His long magnum, the 6.71 (.264) Blackbird, was based on his Firebird case necked down, and I suppose it pretty much defined "overbore capacity," but in a long barrel the velocity was frightening. His 6.71 (.264) Phantom is part of the short magnum line, pushing a 120-grain bullet at 3,312 fps.

Unfortunately, if you choose any 6.5mm cartridge you are very limited in your choices in factory ammo. There are currently four American factory loads for the .260 Remington, just two for the .264 Winchester Magnum (Winchester and Remington, both 140-grain) and a single 6.5 Remington Magnum load.

To get the most out of almost any 6.5mm you probably should be a handloader. I've played with both the 6.5-06 and the 6.5-.284 a bit. Both are excellent cartridges that come very close to .264 Winchester Magnum performance, as does the 6.5mm Remington Magnum if you add a bit of length to both action and barrel.

The author's Serengeti Rifles .264 represents the left-handed "Westerner" he's always wanted.

Specialty suppliers such as Superior Ammunition routinely load popular wildcats as well as obsolete cartridges, so 6.5 Remington Magnum, 6.5-.284, 6.5-06, and more are definitely available. And then there's Nosler Custom Ammunition (featuring, not too surprisingly, Nosler bullets). This is a real treasure trove for certain 6.5mms, including 6.5-.284 and .264 Winchester Magnum.

I always admired Winchester's 26-inch-barreld Westerner. I owned a couple of them briefly, but I always wanted a left-handed .264 with a 26-inch barrel. I sent an Obermayer match-grade 6.5mm barrel and a Parker Ackley left-hand Santa Barbara Mauser action to Serengeti Rifles, which built me the left-handed "westerner" I've long wanted.

As much as I hate to admit it, I have yet to load a single cartridge for it. My excuse is that I'm still gathering enough brass to make the effort worthwhile, but the reality is I'm getting half-inch groups out of some test loads Serengeti sent, IMR 7828 and 140-grain Hornady bullets; and, for Pete's sake, I'm getting the same accuracy from Winchester's 140-grain Power Point factory load.

And then I discovered Nosler's Custom ammo. They offer not one or two but six loads for the .264 Winchester Magnum, with bullets of 100, 120, 125, 130, and 140 grains. Their load with the 120-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip, at 3,250 fps, produced the first quarter-inch group I've seen from the Serengeti .264.

But I suspect not the last. Because Nosler also offers new brass for the .264, so I no longer have the excuse that I have to create more once-fired cases. I'm going to have to work up some loads. This rifle deserves it, and so does the .264 Winchester Magnum--like all of our 6.5mm cartridges.

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