Hot Cartridges: Get to Know the 6.5 Family

Introduce your customers to a once-ignored cartridge clan that’s now hailed by hunters.

Hot Cartridges: Get to Know the 6.5 Family

The first 6.5 from U.S. shops was Charles Newton’s .256, in 1913. Essentially a shortened .30-06 necked down, it drove 129-grain .264 bullets at 2,760 fps. Today, shooters can find a variety of ammunition. (Photo: Wayne Van Zwoll)

Loath to hit behind vitals, I led the deer generously but at 40 steps my bullets missed well ahead. A humbling way to start a relationship with 6.5s.

Here I’ll beg your patience; you probably know some cartridges are named for the rifle’s bore, others for bullet, or groove, diameter. A .270 uses .277 bullets, .300s use .308 bullets, as does our .308. Europeans — excluding the British — are refreshingly consistent and descriptive and cartridge names typically include bullet diameter and case length, both in millimeters. The 6.5x55 uses a 6.5mm (.264) bullet in a case 55mm long.

There’s no magic in a measure; indeed, numbers describing the .38-40 and .444 Marlin and many other cartridges stray far from bullet diameters.

So, it’s time we stripped the voodoo from 6.5.

Since the 6.5 Creedmoor’s 2009 debut, a rash of rounds with 6.5mm bullets have appeared; loud in the chorus of claims of “superior ballistic coefficient” and “extreme range.”         

Ballistic coefficient (C) is a number describing a bullet’s ability to cleave air. It incorporates bullet weight, shape and diameter. Change any of these variables, and you change C. Popular bullet diameters for deer hunting — say, .243 to .308 — have similar C ranges.

Hornady’s sleek ELD-X bullets boast very high C values. The 143-grain 6.5mm comes in at .623. But the C of a corresponding 7mm bullet (162 grains) is .631. Two 30-caliber ELD-Xs have Cs over .650.

Want a really high C? Choose a rifle in .50 BMG. Its 750-grain spitzer has a C of 1.050! 

Deer pay no attention to C. Only at very long range might an incremental boost in C help your customers kill a buck. The load matters too. Fired at 2,700 fps from a 6.5 Creedmoor, Hornady’s ELD-X strikes within 1/2 inch of an ordinary 6.5mm boat-tail hollowpoint of the same weight — out to 400 yards!

Under most hunting conditions, that’s extreme range. Beyond that, and closer if you’re not prone over a rest, the odds of crippling instead of killing argue against a shot, no matter your load.

Most deer are killed inside point-blank range — about 270 yards with modern rifles zeroed at 200. That is, bullets should land within 3 vertical inches of zero to 270 steps, close enough to stay well inside deer vitals. The bullet’s arc isn’t the weak variable at point-blank range — it’s the rifleman.

In the Beginning

Back at the dawn of smokeless powders, hunters like W.D.M. Bell and F.C. Selous in Africa, and Jim Corbett in India latched onto the new “smallbore” bottleneck cartridges. One of these was the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer, a Greek military round birthed in 1900. In svelte M-S carbines it recoiled gently.

But at 2,450 fps its long, blunt 156-grain softpoints and solids killed beasts as big as elephants. It became so popular with hunters that all major U.S. ammo firms loaded it until 1940. A ballistic twin, Sweden’s 6.5x55, earned plaudits in that country’s 1894 and 1896 Mausers. Never adopted by an army, the 6.5x57 Mauser also impressed turn-of-the century hunters.

Riflemen stateside started down the smokeless path with the .30-40 Krag in 1892 and stayed with .30-bores into the 1920s, with the .30-30, .30-06, .300 Savage and .300 H&H Magnum. Not that Europe’s best loads were ignored. Charles Sheldon found the 6.5x54 adequate for big bears, sheep and moose. The 7x57, with an international fan-base in the ’93 Spanish Mauser, earned renown as a sheep cartridge. Still, the .270, introduced in 1925, shot faster and flatter than most 6.5s and 7mms. And it was all-American!

The first 6.5 from U.S. shops was Charles Newton’s .256, in 1913. Essentially a shortened .30-06 necked down, it drove 129-grain .264 bullets at 2,760 fps. My handloads for a .256 on Mauser metal by rifle-maker Buzz Fletcher delivered more zip. A young lady I’d introduced to Africa brought her father’s original Newton rifle on safari. I pried it away to kill a blue wildebeest.

The 1930s gave stateside hunters the .257 Roberts, on the 7x57 case. Winchester and Remington followed with a pair of fine deer cartridges, the .243 and .244, in 1955. Four years later Winchester’s .264 Magnum arrived. Alas, instead of hawking it as high-octane ordnance for deer and elk (Remington would claim that turf for its 7mm Magnum in ‘62), Winchester pegged the .264 as a deer/varmint round.

Adding insult, it reduced chart speed for 140-grain Power-Points from 3,200 fps to 3,030 — what anyone could get from a .270! Verily, handloaded to its potential with powders like IMR 7828 and RL-25 and fired in a 26-inch barrel, the .264 Magnum is a hotrod. I’ve clocked 140s at over 3,300 fps. 

The Next Era 

Remington eased into 6.5 territory in 1966 with its 6.5 Remington Magnum. This belted cartridge (and the .350 Remington Magnum) appeared in Model 600 and 660 carbines from 1965 to 1971. A 2.15-inch case limited its capacity. The 6.5 Remington Magnum matches .270 performance.

The .260 Remington came in 2002. A necked-down .308, it trailed the versatile 7mm-08, whose popularity surely affected .260 sales. Earlier, I was handloading the 6.5 Redding wildcat (with 30-degree shoulder) that predated the .260. I’ve since used several .260s. My Surgeon rifle drives nails.

Inspired by its long-range credits in competitive circles, hunters have found the 6.5/.284 a superb open-country deer round. Norma and Black Hills list ammo. My rack holds two 6.5/.284s: A fluted barrel by E.R. Shaw complements a Savage action. A welterweight by Ultra-Light Arms also drills little knots.

Less well known is the 6.71mm Lazzeroni Phantom. This 2.05-inch rimless case has a .580 head, so holds enough powder to match .264 Winchester performance.

AR-15s have inspired some 6.5 cartridges. The 6.5 Grendel evolved from the 6.5 PPC Benchrest. It reaches 2,500 fps with 129-grain bullets. Commercial loads came a few years after Bill Alexander and Arne Brennan so chambered a rifle in 1998. While the Grendel’s 1.52-inch case is shorter than the .223’s, loaded length is the same. Les Baer’s .264 LBC AR is essentially the Grendel, although chamber dimensions differ slightly. With the Grendel in a bolt rifle, Brennan fired a 600-meter group making under 1.2 inches. 

Creedmoor and More

The most popular 6.5 ever to sell stateside is certainly the 6.5 Creedmoor, named for the famous New York shooting range on Creed’s Farm that once hosted long-range rifle competition. Dave Emary, a 1,000-yard marksman and senior ballistician at Hornady, tapped other competitive riflemen to contribute ideas for a short, mild-mannered hunting/target cartridge with great reach. Emary necked down the .30 T/C hull “to keep the shoulder back so it could accommodate longer bullets than the .260 in short actions.” Hornady’s Superformance project yielded powders for the 6.5 Creedmoor.

One of the first 6.5 Creedmoor rifles I fired was built by Todd Seyfert at Magnum Research. The Remington 700 action wears a carbon-fiber barrel with a Kreiger stainless core. GreyBull Precision added a stock and a modified 4.5-14x Leupold scope. The rifle’s accuracy and the bullets’ flat flight was impressive at long range. Hunts for deer, elk and African game proved the 6.5 Creedmoor was more versatile than suggested by its civil recoil and report. 

Frothier 6.5s have followed. The 6.5 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge) is based on the .300 Ruger Compact Magnum, its 30-degree shoulder set well back to marry long bullets with short actions. I’ve used it in a Ruger Hawkeye. The PRC outruns the Creedmoor by 250 fps; 143-grain ELD-Xs clock 2,960 fps.

Arguably Winchester’s .264 and the rimless 6.5x68 Schuler, its ballistic twin in Europe, were as big as practical for bullets of that diameter. Nosler disagreed, and a few years ago unveiled its .26 on the .404 Jeffery case. With a loaded measure of 3.34 inches, the .26 fits a .30-06-length action. Its 35-degree shoulder and relatively short neck boost case capacity, to send 129-grain LR AccuBonds at 3,400 fps and 140 Partitions at 3,300. The .26 Nosler carries a ton of energy nearly a quarter mile          

Not to be outdone, Weatherby’s crew reached back decades to a wildcat by Paul Wright of Silver City, New Mexico. In his 1962 Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders, P.O. Ackley listed bullet speeds topping 3,400 fps for the 6.5/300 Weatherby-Wright Magnum. Shooters with memories as cobwebbed as mine will recall a 6.5/300 Wright-Hoyer. It’s the same round. Alex Hoyer built several rifles in 6.5/300 in his Mifflintown, Pennsylvania gun-shop.           

The 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum is now offered in AccuMark, Arroyo, Outfitter, TerraMark and 5 ¾-pound Ultra Lightweight Mark V Magnum rifles. Rifling twist is 1-in-8, for the leggy bullets favored by long-range shooters. Factory-loaded 127-grain Barnes bullets clock 3,537 fps. At 500 yards they match the exit speed of 156-grain bullets from a 6.5x55. Energy levels stay above 1,000 foot-pounds past the 850-yard mark, where velocity still exceeds 1,900 fps. That’s how fast early smokeless loads sent .30-30 softpoints from the muzzle.           

Weatherby’s 6.5 RPM (Rebated Precision Magnum) appeared last year. “We wanted a cartridge that would use every bit of space in our trim six-lug Mark V action,” said CEO Adam Weatherby. The 6.5 RPM has no belt. Its .473 rim fits standard bolt faces; but the case body is bigger in diameter, “so you get magnum powder capacity in a standard-size rifle action.” A 127-grain bullet clocks 3,200 fps, a 140 over 3,000. Both carry 1,500 foot-pounds nearly 500 yards.” Unlike traditional Weatherby cartridges, junctures of the RPM’s 35-degree shoulder are not radiused. The 6.5 RPM is chambered in lightweight Backcountry and Carbonmark six-lug Mark Vs. The 5 ½-pound Backcountry loaned to me drilled snug groups.

Better Luck   

My fortunes with 6.5s have improved over the years. A bull elk I bounced from Wyoming timber crashed off into the canyon below. I ran after him, leaping deadfalls. A shot alley gaped just as he paused. My 6.5x55 bullet lanced both lungs. He plunged on. I followed, getting another poke that broke his neck.

On a late Colorado hunt with a Kimber in .260, I spied a group of elk far away. I bellied through snow to within 280 yards on a ridge opposite. The cow flinched, dashed downhill and somersaulted to a stop in a flurry of snow.

In New Mexico, the elk were so far away I almost declined the shot. But conditions were perfect, the approach impossible. My 6.5 Creedmoor bullet struck within a hand’s width of where I’d aimed. The elk ran in a tight loop and collapsed.           

I remember a big whitetail in a snowstorm, and crawling to where I could shoot, and spitting out dry weeds and firing the Ruger with frozen fingers. Next year on that Dakota plain, I borrowed a left-bolt Savage because I’d forgotten the ammo for my rifle at camp. My chance came close, offhand. Both these 6.5 Creedmoor rifles dropped the deer instantly.          

Then there was the beef-size steel slab a measured mile from a windy spine. I snugged the sling, read the zephyrs and sent VLD bullets long as knitting needles from a GreyBull rifle in .264 Winchester. I missed, then missed some more. When at last the steel winked, my partner sighed, “Bout time.”   


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