Smallbore Wonder

| Surplus |
The Iconic 1903
in 6.5×54.

If there ever was an “iconic” firearm with an international following reading like a “Who’s Who of the Hunting World,” it would have to be the 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer (or a .256 Jeffery) in 6.5×54 caliber. From the Arctic in the hands of Vilhajalmur Stefansson, to the Gobi Desert with Roy Chapman Andrews, to “seeing the elephant” with W.D.M. “Karamojo” Bell, to our very own North American trophy hunter, Charles Sheldon, a 156-or 160-grain. 6.5mm bullet driven at 2,200 to 2,400 fps from a light, handy rifle dropped everything from antelope to elephants and was almost magic to a generation just emerging from the big-bore, black-powder era.

Sheldon captured the hunting world’s enthusiasm for the 6.5×54 when he wrote: “It seems to me perfectly clear that the .256 (6.5×54 rimmed) with the right bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps is completely satisfactory for all game on this continent, including moose, caribou and the large bears, many of which I have killed during years of hunting them. My experience to me is a demonstration that with the .256 it is only a question of directing the bullet at a vital or disabling spot.”

The 6.5×54 cartridge did not begin life as sporting round or as a rimless cartridge. In early 1890, Romania went shopping for a new military rifle. As former customer of Osterreichische Waffenfabriks Gesellschaft of Steyr, Austria, a firm we simply refer to as “Steyr,” Romania worked with Steyr on the development a modern, repeating bolt-action design. The design talent housed at Steyr during that period was, to use the current adjective, “Awesome!”
The Chief of Research & Development was Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher (1848-1904) who together with a close, associate engineer, Otto Schoenauer (1844-1913), were the team.

Mannlicher was a mechanical genius and a prolific inventor. During his long career at the Steyr Works, spanning that fertile period when black powder gave way to smokeless, Mannlicher is credited with the design of over 150 different models of repeating and automatic military firearms adopted by numerous European countries

Working as he did on advanced designs in the last quarter of the 19th Century, Mannlicher was not influenced by previous models. There were none. Consequently his designs are refreshingly original. Some have gone so far as to say most of the small arms designs of the 20th Century reflect, in some way, individual mechanical principles Mannlicher incorporated into his numerous models.

Imagine fielding a light machine gun with a Bren-type feed system in 1885, or a semi-automatic, clip-fed rifle in 1893 utilizing the “hesitation lock” later to reappear as the “Blish lock” in the Thompson submachine gun, or a gas-operated, semi-automatic rifle in 1895, incorporating many of the fundamental mechanical features of the later Garand. Ironically, Mannlicher is best remembered as the inventor of the cartridge clip and for svelte rifles stocked all the way to the muzzle.

The Romanian Model 1892 and 1893 which emerged from the collaboration of Mannlicher and Schoenauer incorporated two features important to our story—the 6.5x53R (rimmed) cartridge and a sliding ejector riding in a groove in the bolt head.

The 6.5x54R cartridge set the standard for the rimless version which was designed by Steyr in 1900 and adopted as a military cartridge by Greece in 1903 as a 159-grain, 6.5mm, roundnose bullet at around 2,400 fps.


In deference to their age, Holt favors light, cast loads in the M-S Model
1903’s (above). Either 1903 will cut an inch or so at 50 yards with
Lyman’s 266469 cast bullet (below).


A 156- or 160-grain, 6.5 mm bullet is an impressive looking little package and its performance in the field belies its small diameter. Its secret then, and its secret today, is its sensational sectional density of 0.328 which treads right on the heels of the 220-grain, .30 caliber, roundnose bullet with a sectional density of 0.331. The 160-grain 6.5mm bullet simply penetrates and penetrates deeply into the vitals of big game. As Sheldon remarked, “it is only a question of directing the bullet at a vital or disabling spot.” With their new and effective rimless 6.5×54 cartridge, all Steyr needed was a sporting platform. Mannlicher and Schoenauer gave it to them in the Model 1903 sporting carbine, rifle and takedown models.

Incorporating the 5-shot, rotary magazine Schoenauer had perfected for the Greek Model 1903 as well as his sliding ejector, the Mannlicher-Schoenauer Model 1903 took the big game hunting world by a storm. Beautifully machined, fitted, polished and finished to an exceptionally high standard, the 1903 M-S action was butter smooth, and when mated to a lapped, 18-inch barrel and full-length stock, the carbine model defined the terms “svelte and handy.”

Two of the most popular Model 1903’s in 6.5mm are pictured here—the carbine and the rifle. The two pieces are also indicative of the hunting preferences of their former owners, especially the sighting systems.


Quality German scopes like this Hensoldt 2-3/4X are often associated
with the M-S sporters. To clear the body of the Hensoldt scope,
the bolt handle had to be carefully dished out.


The Griffin & Howe detachable, M-S side mount was both popular and expensive. Note the
windage adjustment built into the mount and the quick detach levers.


Running the Model 1903’s at peak pressures risks cracking stocks and
loosening horn inlays. Losing one afield will really ruin your day.


M-S floorplates were often engraved or monogrammed with the owner’s initials.

The carbine is set-up as a superb, close range, snap-shooting rifle. The original front sight has been replaced with a large, Lyman, white bead. The original 2-leaf rear sight has been replaced by a Lyman, folding, adjustable, single-leaf model. Ah, but the pièce-de-résistance is the Lyman Model 1A, fold-down peep sight fitted to the cocking piece or an adapter nut of the M-S bolt. That rear mounted peep sight is a snap-shooter’s dream, and I can imagine it drew down on some magnificent, white-tailed bucks in its day. This hunter also opted for a single, rather than a set trigger, a further indication of his style of fast, offhand hunting.

The rifle on the other hand with its 22-inch barrel retains its original open sights but is fitted with a 2-3/4X Hensoldt telescope in a Griffin & Howe, double-lever, quick detachable mount. It’s a classic set-up. Because the bolt of the M-S works through its split bridge, a side mount of some type is required. The G&H side mount as well as models by Jaeger, Echo, Leupold, Redfield and Pachmayr are commonly encountered on older M-S models. Notice the G&H mount for the Hensoldt scope features a micrometer, windage adjustment knob, which was required because the Hensoldt scope is adjustable solely for elevation. Also note the rifle is fitted with a set trigger, indicating a more deliberate style of hunting by its owner.

How does the 6.5×54 cartridge perform in these pieces? Frankly, these are both old, treasured guns which I feed with moderate handloads. If you run them at peak pressures, the picture of the attractive, horn filet rattled out in front of the carbine’s magazine well is what you might get. Cracked stocks are another distinct possibility.

With jacketed bullets, Sierra’s 140-grain spitzer combined with Accurate Arms 4350 and Hornady’s 160-grain roundnose propelled by Norma’s MRP have given me the finest accuracy.

What I really love to run through these old Model 1903 Mannlichers is a cast bullet load featuring Lyman’s 140-grain, roundnose, gas check bullet 266469, cast in Lyman No. 2 alloy and shot unsized with a diameter of 0.266 inch. With either 14.0 grains of IMR 4227 or 16.0 grains of IMR 4198, either piece will hold an inch or so for three shots at 50 yards. M-S barrels are light and heat up fast, so an easy firing pace is best.

Fortunately, Hornady, Sierra, Dynamit Nobel and Norma still cover the 6.5×54 cartridge in their handloading manuals, and Hornady turns out some very affordable reloading dies for the caliber.


The most popular M-S Model 1903’s were the short barreled carbine and the
standard rifle. The butter knife bolt handle of the peep sighted carbine
is the classic M-S design.


Holt often shoots just a light cast bullet load in his M1903 rifles.

In the gunny literature, you’ll come across numerous, utterly, hand-wringing comments about oversize bores and excessive headspace in the M-S 6.5×54. If it exists in your gun, all you can do is work with it. Frankly, I’ve never slugged a bore or gauged headspace or worried about either when working with Mannlicher-Schoenauers. You aren’t going to change the diameter of the bore or change the chamber shoulder-to-bolt face interface. Initial fire-forming of the brass (I use Norma and Prvi Partisan) will establish case headspace, then neck size or partially resize the cases and adjust the sizing die as necessary when loading jacketed bullets. Experimenting with a few bullet shapes and weights in the 140- to 160-grain range should reward you with a design that brings out the best in your barrel, so think positive, experiment a bit.

After the roaring success of their Model 1903 in 6.5×54, Steyr built on that success with a series of new models using a year and caliber designation for their initial introduction: the Model 1905 debuted in 9×56, the Model 1908 in 8×56 and the Model 1910 in 9.5×56.

The 6.5×54 may be the iconic 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer combination, but any vintage M-S in any of those classic Mannlicher calibers is worthy of your “classic collectible” consideration.
By Holt Bodinson

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