column By: Dave Scovill | September, 17
My introduction to 6.5mm rifle cartridges was sometime in the fall of 1955. There were three – the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schönauer (M-S), the 6.5x50 Arisaka (aka 6.5 Japanese) and 6.5x257 Roberts – in the then-current Ideal Handbook. The latter is certainly among the first 6.5 wildcats, along with the late Ken Waters’ .263 Express, circa 1953.
As the years went by, the Lyman/Ideal Handbook added the 6.5x55 Swedish, 6.5x52 Italian Mannlicher Carcano, 6.5 Remington Magnum (1966) and .264 Winchester Magnum (1958). The two belted magnums may also deserve the distinction of being the most berated cartridge designs in history, the former owing a carbine barrel that wasn’t much longer than a soda straw while the latter gained a reputation early on for burning barrels out almost overnight. Together, the Remington and Winchester belted magnums spelled the end of factory 6.5 cartridge development.
Lost in the heap of dead-and-buried 6.5s were also the little- known 6.5x68, 6.5x57 and .256 Newton and a long list of wildcats based on various case designs, from the .308 Winchester to the .300 and .378 Weatherby Magnums.
The most noteworthy of all the wildcats was the 6.5-300 Weatherby Wright-Hoyer (WWH) that essentially rewrote the 1,000-yard record books and ran the highly vaunted .30 calibers off the line. It is duplicated more recently by the introduction of the 6.5-300 Weatherby and/or wildcat 6.5 Shooting Times Westerner (STW).
Two of the major considerations offered in the development of the 6.5-300 WWH were the ballistic efficiency of the Norma 139-grain Tri-Clad bullet, which was followed by the Sierra 140-grain MatchKing, and limited recoil compared to the big .30 calibers. Those comments have survived as talking points even today each time a new 6.5 cartridge is introduced, from the 6.5 Grendel to the .26 Nosler. Unfortunately, rants suggesting 6.5mm ballistic coefficients (BC) are somehow superior in comparison to other calibers are, to put it politely, uninformed, albeit obviously part of a public relations effort to bring attention to new cartridge designs. (See my “Reloader’s Press” column in Handloader No. 302, June-July 2016.)
Given advances in long-range riflescopes and match-grade rifles available today, it is interesting that so much is made of 6.5 BCs. Bullets still follow the rules of gravity and drift, regardless of minor differences in BC and caliber, and as long as folks must adjust scope settings accordingly, what difference does the caliber make? The U.S. Navy Seals and Special Operations outfits seem to have gotten along well enough with the .300 Winchester Magnums complete with a “useless” belt and “too short” case neck.
In the last few years, SAAMI additions to factory 6.5s include the .260 Remington (2.85 inches OAL) formerly known as the .263 Express, 6.5 Grendel (2.26 OAL), 6.5 Creedmoor (3.0 OAL), 6.5-284 Winchester (2.85 OAL), 6.5-06 (3.34 OAL), .26 Nosler (3.34 OAL) and 6.5-300 Weatherby (3.6 OAL). The oddball out, at least as this goes to print, is Hornady’s 6.5 PRC (Precision Rifle Cartridge) that is based on a shortened .375 Ruger case with a tentative OAL of 2.950 inches, similar to the 6.5x55 and 6.5x57 but with much larger case capacity.
In general terms, the 6.5 Creedmoor is similar to the 6.5x55, and the 6.5-284 is similar to the 6.5-06. Based on information available at this time, the 6.5 PRC is similar to the .264 Winchester, e.g., 140-grain bullet at 3,000 fps. Performance of the .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby, based on Hodgdon data, are also similar given appropriate barrel length and pressures.
More recently, Rick Jamison offered an overview of the 6.5 WSM in Handloader No. 307 (April-May 2017). One of the unknowns Rick addressed was barrel erosion that is often mentioned in the same sentence with the .264 Winchester. The same topic crops up in discussions about the .220 Swift.
Shortly after Rick’s article appeared in Handloader, I was visiting with Danny Pedersen (Classic Barrel & Gun Works, Prescott AZ; www.cutrifle.com) who commented that Winchester barrel steel averaged about 14 on the Rockwell hardness scale (RHS). So I asked how that compared to other barrel steel, to which he responded: 26 RHS for his barrels, which is likely representative of other custom barrel-makers. The unanswered question is whether or not Winchester barrel steel contributes to ero-sion because it was/is relatively soft compared to custom barrels today.
There may also be some question regarding the use of barrel steel that is cryogenically treated (frozen) before or after the barrel is manufactured. This is not to ignore chamber design, e.g., leade (length, diameter and angle) or, as some folks advocate, case neck length. So there may be additional mitigating factors, such as the assumption by some respected long-range competitors that a few canister powders appear to be inherently rough on barrels. Of course, it may require shooting a great deal more ammunition than the average rifleman/hunter might fire in a lifetime to evaluate erosion, or lack of it, with various powders.
Historically, the biggest issue with 6.5mm wildcats based on big cases like the belted H&H, was relative efficiency. Smaller cases like the 6.5x55 Swedish produce more velocity per grains of powder than larger cases. As case volume increases to include the 6.5-300 Weatherby, it is necessary to use a rather long barrel, up to 30 inches or more, to increase the expansion ratio and help avoid the potential accuracy nemesis associated with exceptionally high muzzle pressure (blast). Of course, the long barrel also developed high velocities, up to a point, where it is difficult if not impossible to exceed 3,400 fps in 24-inch barrels with a 140-grain bullet, as the late Bruce Hodgdon found many years ago with the 6.5-378 Weatherby Magnum compared to the 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum.
Interestingly, where most of the work done with the big Weatherby cases was generally directed at 1,000-yard matches, there isn’t much information regarding barrel erosion associated with great dollops of slower-burning canister powders in the relatively small 6.5mm barrel. No doubt, the big 6.5 cartridges ate barrels compared to larger calibers, but there were only two, maybe three, canister powders available at the time that would achieve necessary velocities while providing acceptable accuracy: H-870 and H-570, the latter of which was believed by some to cause more barrel erosion than the former.
In the article noted above, Rick Jamison also acknowledged most of the issues associated with almost any other 6.5 wildcat based on a big belted or nonbelted case. Rick’s advantage, of course, is that there are several canister powders available today – as opposed to nearly 70 years ago – that might be suitable for a big 6.5 magnum, and hopefully one or more may help abate the barrel erosion issue. (Reviewing the drawing of
the Hornady 6.5 PRC, one might wonder if Hornady and Rick Jamison are on the same trail, albeit the 6.5 WSM is based on the .404 Jeffery case and the 6.5 PRC is derived from the .375 Ruger.)
Friend Dave May, former U.S. Navy Seal, long-time High Power competitor and bighorn sheep guide, has been working with the 6.5 STW with a 28-inch barrel on a Remington Model 700 action. Preliminary tests are reaching 3,400 fps with the Berger 130-grain Hybrid/Target VLD seated over healthy charges of Reloder 22 and 25 with good accuracy. Folks can “google” the 6.5 STW and read former Wolfe Publishing staffer Layne Simpson’s remarks about that wildcat as well.
My interest in the 6.5s dates back to the late 1950s, long before folks in this country expressed much interest in the oddball metric caliber. Then, about 30 years ago, there was an influx of surplus Finnish issue 6.5x55 rifles at bargain prices. I purchased three Model 96 Mausers, two of which had matching serial numbers, and the third had a mismatched bolt and a threaded muzzle, which the Fins tell me was intended to shred wooden practice bullets.
Then about 10 years ago, Ruger decided to make a run of M77 6.5x55 rifles, only one of which could be found in the Lower 48, the rest having been shipped to Europe and Australia. Bill Ruger’s assistant, Margaret Sheldon, found the stray rifle, and my wife, Roberta, latched on to it, using it to take a trophy-class Northwest Territories caribou with a Hawk 160-grain roundnose bullet seated over a near-maximum charge of Reloder 19.
Shortly after Roberta’s caribou hunt, we were visiting with the president of the gunsmithing school in Ferlach, Austria, and asked about the popularity of the 6.5 calibers. He said it was one of the most requested calibers, and they made hammer forged barrels quite often, mostly for surplus military rifles. Many
of the advanced third- and fourth-year students used the 6.5x55 for over/under double-rifle projects. Two days later, I found myself in the Slovenian Alps hunting chamois with a Johann Fanzoj custom 6.5x57mm Mauser.
Then a couple of years ago, when grandson Trystan was getting ready to take the firearms safety course, he came up to Prescott, and we dug up the Ruger M77 6.5x55, a Ruger Ultra Light .270 Winchester, a Remington Model 700 7x57mm Mauser and a Model 92 Winchester .44 WCF carbine, all of which – except for the Winchester – had the stocks shortened and served as Roberta’s hunting rifles. Trystan soon tired of shooting targets and asked if we could set up a few rocks to shoot. Thereafter, he thoroughly enjoyed himself when every rock disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Sometime later, when his father, Davin, asked Trystan which riflehe preferred, he responded with “Grampa’s Winchester,” but for hunting he wanted a 6.5 like Grandma’s.
I’m still wondering why it took so long for the gun-press in this country to latch on to the 6.5.