Middleweight Magic!

These 6.5’s Punch Over
Their Weight Class

By Dave Anderson

The success of the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge is an interesting and in some ways surprising development. It isn’t a magnum. It isn’t the biggest and fastest, nor the smallest and most efficient. Ballistically it doesn’t perform any better than cartridges we already have.

You could say it is exceptionally moderate, supremely average, a victory for medium. In fact, it is a very well designed cartridge providing an outstanding balance of accuracy, adequate power, impressive velocity retention and resistance to wind drift—all achieved with modest powder charges, moderate recoil and long barrel life.

In terms of case capacity, the Creedmoor is very similar to the .260 Rem and the 6.5×55 Swedish. All have a water capacity (with bullet seated) of around 47 to 51 grains depending on factors such as brass thickness and bullet seating depth. Recently I’ve been reloading, target shooting, and hunting with the three cartridges. I’m thinking “medium 6.5” is a very nice place to be.

There’s speculation the popularity of the Creedmoor will kill off the .260. Maybe I’m just being contrary but I think the effect will be to make it more popular. I don’t think the Creedmoor is stealing many sales from it. Rather, I suspect the Creedmoor’s success is increasing overall interest in the 6.5’s.

Increased interest is leading to innovations, most notably in bullets, which benefits all cartridges. The appeal of medium capacity 6.5’s to target shooters is the ability to have high ballistic coefficient bullets at fairly high velocity, with modest powder charges and long barrel life. The big game hunter can have these benefits, along with adequate power for most hunting situations and moderate recoil even in light, portable rifles.

Although I’ve owned and shot 6.5’s for decades, mostly it was with cartridges such as 6.5×54 Mannlicher or .264 Win Mag. Some 10 or 15 years ago I did a fair bit of shooting with a Sako 75 Finnlight in 6.5×55, more recently with a Savage Lightweight Hunter in .260 Rem, both of them light, compact hunting rifles with 20-inch barrels.

My sorely-missed shooting buddy Barrie Gwillim was a big fan of the 6.5×55 and owned several. When he wore out the .270 barrel of his favorite pre-’64 Winchester 70 Featherweight he had it rebarreled to 6.5×55 and often extolled its virtues. Wish I’d taken his advice earlier, but at the time the .243 Win, 7mm-08 Rem, and .300 Win Mag covered most of my hunting needs.

But my super accurate Weatherby Vanguard in 6.5 Creedmoor with 24-inch barrel really got me on the 6.5 bandwagon. Experimenting at “medium” long range (500 to 800 yards) it was a joy to see how well long, highly efficient bullets resisted wind drift, and did so with moderate recoil.

When Tikka introduced the T3X model, a local dealer was discounting the earlier T3. I promptly grabbed up two Lite Stainless T3’s, in .260 Rem and 6.5×55. Both have 22.4-inch (570mm) barrels with 1:8-inch twist. A few months of shooting, reloading and hunting with these three cartridges hardly makes me a 6.5 authority, but it’s been fun and informative.

What most impresses me about the medium 6.5’s is the combination of effective ballistics with light recoil and long barrel life. Maybe the easiest way to illustrate is with a comparison. Back around 1975 I put together what at the time seemed like a state-of-the-art long-range deer and antelope rifle.

The rifle was a Sako L61 in 7mm Rem Mag with a 6-18X Redfield scope. It was a heavy old beast, probably around 9-1/2 pounds with scope. I loaded the Hornady 139-grain bullet (this was pre-Interlock), and, though I didn’t have a chronograph at the time, muzzle velocity was likely around 3,250 fps. It proved very effective, though ironically I can’t recall a shot over 200 yards.

Dave’s three medium capacity 6.5’s include (left to right) the Weatherby Vanguard
6.5 Creedmoor with a Leupold VX-3 3.5-10×40, a Tikka T3 Stainless Lite, .260 Rem
with Leupold Mark 4 3.5-10×40, and a Tikka T3 Stainless Lite 6.5×55 Swedish with
a Nightforce NXS 2.5-10×42. All have 20 MOA rails.

Last year I hunted with the Tikka T3 6.5×55 using the Hornady 143-grain ELD-X loaded to 2,750 fps at the muzzle. I’ve put together a chart nearby showing bullet drop, wind drift, and retained velocity of both bullets at ranges from 300 to 600 yards.

Admittedly this is an apples/oranges comparison. It’s possible that 40+ years ago I didn’t know as much as I thought. Note how superior the slippery 6.5 bullet is in retaining velocity. A 500 fps difference in velocity at the muzzle has melted to 200 fps by 300 yards. The lead is just over 100 fps at 400 yards, and by 500 yards velocities are virtually identical.

Resistance to wind drift is even more dramatic. Despite the difference in muzzle velocity the slick ELD-X bullet is less affected by wind. And any help I can get in dealing with wind is welcome.

The slower load does have more bullet drop. From a 200-yard zero the 6.5×55 load listed drops 1.7 inches more at 300 yards, and around 8 inches more at 500 and 600 yards. This mattered more back in 1975 when we didn’t have laser rangefinders and were less accustomed to spinning turrets to adjust for range.

Still, a flat trajectory is an advantage. Most big game is shot at ranges under 300 yards. The ability to aim and fire without a lot of time and movement, measuring the range and spinning dials, is a worthwhile advantage.

The key takeaway is with no change other than a more streamlined bullet, I can hit downrange with the same weight of bullet, going about the same speed. And I can do so with less recoil, using a lighter, more compact rifle. Loaded with 70-grains of powder my 9-1/2-pound Sako had a recoil energy of 20.4 ft.-lb. The 6.5×55 load uses 46 grains of powder for 15.9 ft-lb of recoil in my 7-1/2-pound Tikka T3.

Moreover, with the lighter powder charge I can expect double the barrel life, maybe more. I get about 150 reloads per pound of powder vs. 100 with the 7mm Rem Mag. This wasn’t a big deal in 1975 when surplus Hodgdon H-4831 was around $3 a pound, but prices have, hmmm, gone up a bit. While it is not quite a fair comparison it does reflect what I actually used 40+ years ago compared to the present.

You would think the medium 6.5’s would be popular with first-time or casual hunters. Forget it. They want a 7mm or .300 Magnum. They won’t listen, any more than I did when I was 20. One of the oddities of the rifle world is these versatile, easy to shoot 6.5 cartridges are chosen mainly by experienced shooters who have already tried everything else.

The three medium 6.5’s in factory form include (left three, left to right) the 6.5
Creedmoor with 129-grain bullet, the .260 Rem with overall cartridge length of 2.800
inches, and a 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser by Sellier & Bellot. On the same three cartridges
(right three, left to right) all are loaded with the Hornady 143-grain ELD-X bullet
seated to the maximum overall length permitted by the barrel throat. The 6.5 Creedmoor
is at 2.825 inches in a Weatherby Vanguard, the .260 Rem is at 3.000 inches in the
Tikka T3 (which was modified to accept longer than factory cartridges). Last is the
6.5×55 Swedish at 3.260 inches for the Tikka T3. (When the 3rd Edition of Phil Sharpe’s
Complete Guide to Handloading appeared in 1949, the 6.5×55 was already 58-years old,
while the 6.5 Creedmoor wouldn’t be created for another 58 years in the future.)

For those who are willing to give a medium 6.5 a try, select the rifle make and model first. I’d make sure the barrel has a 1:8 twist or faster. If the rifle you want is available only in .260 Rem or 6.5×55, there’s your cartridge.

The 6.5×55 needs a standard-length (i.e., .30-06 length) action. The .260 will work in either a short or standard action, though personally I prefer it in a standard-length action so I can seat bullets further out. I am most impressed with the pair of Tikka T3 Lites in .260 and 6.5×55.
If it is available in the rifle you like, I can’t think of a good reason NOT to select the 6.5 Creedmoor. It is very well designed, the perfect fit for a short (i.e., 2.8-inch-length actions). Excellent factory rifles and ammunition are available for it, and the selection gets better practically by the day. It’s a good one, and it deserves its success.

I need a Creedmoor with a 22-inch barrel to better compare velocities. As this is written, delivery of the Lapua Creedmoor brass with small primer pockets is still a month away. Once I have these items I’ll report on how the three compare with factory loads and handloads.

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