The Old Swede Still Delivers And
Does Its Job Well.
In North America the 6.5×55 is almost always called the Swedish Mauser, even though its origins weren’t exclusively Mauser or Swedish. It appeared in the early 1890s when Norway and Sweden were halves of the same United Kingdom, but had separate armies. (In 1905 they split up peacefully into two nations.) The world’s armies were rushing to re-arm with new-fangled smokeless powder rifles, and a joint Norwegian-Swedish commission designed a 6.5mm cartridge to work in both the Krag-Jorgensen rifle chosen by Norway and the Model 1894 Mauser of Sweden.
The original military load, like many in the early days of smokeless powder, used a long roundnosed bullet, apparently because that’s what black powder military cartridges used. The 6.5×55’s bullet weighed 156 grains, requiring a relatively fast rifling twist of around 1 turn in 8 inches, significant in the long-term success of the cartridge.
Like some other early smokeless military rounds such as the 8×57, 7×57 and .30-06, the 6.5×55 became a popular hunting cartridge. It worked well even on the large deer known in Norway as elg, in Sweden as alg, and in North America as moose, thanks to the long bullet and modest velocity. Soon, however, lighter and faster spitzer bullets started to replace roundnose bullets, and it was found the quick twist of 6.5×55 barrels would stabilize a spitzer of 139 grains. Because of the skinny bore, the 139 turned out to have a very high ballistic coefficient, making it a good choice for both target shooting and longer-range hunting.
As with some other early smokeless rounds, the 6.5×55’s popularity resulted in variations in cartridges and chambers. There were even minor dimensional differences in Norwegian and Swedish military ammo, and the throats of early military rifles were quite long, to accommodate the roundnose 156-grain bullet. As the 6.5×55 made the transition from military to hunting use, chamber dimensions started to change, especially in North America.
Supposedly the original military actions weren’t nearly as strong as later actions. This was no doubt true of Krag-Jorgensens, but the 1894 and later 1896 Mauser actions used by Sweden are just as strong as 98 Mausers made in the same era. Their “weak” reputation was due to the lack of the third, backup locking lug toward the rear of the 98’s bolt, and their gas-diversion wasn’t as effective as the 98’s. Both were critical in the early days of smokeless powder because cases sometimes came apart, but as ammunition improved they became far less important. (The pre-’64 Model 70 Winchester action also lacks a third locking lug or much provision for gas-diversion, but when it appeared in the 1930s smokeless cartridges had improved considerably.)
American 6.5×55 ammunition has always been loaded to relatively low pressures, like 7×57 and 8×57 ammo, partly because we’re such a litigious society. Most European countries figure shooters should know what they’re doing, so if some Swedish hunter blows up a creaky old Krag-Jorgensen with modern ammunition he’s not going to sue the ammo manufacturer.
John did his most recent field-testing on a cold day in November.
The 6.5×55 has long delivered game animals around the world.
Where To Start?
Along with higher pressures, European ammo is often loaded for longer chamber throats. American ammo is usually loaded with bullets seated deeper because, with a few exceptions, we’re convinced long chamber throats are bad for accuracy. The result of all this is, as Texas gunsmith Charlie Sisk pointed out when I asked him to rebarrel an FN Mauser commercial action to 6.5×55, “The dang dimensions are all over the place!” The varying chamber dimensions and still-existing older rifles also cause handloading data to be all over the place, both in North America and Europe.
I finally talked Charlie into the rebarrel job, mostly because we’ve done some handloading together and he knows I’m not too dangerous. Like most custom riflesmiths, he prefers his clients’ rifles to shoot well, so used a minimum chamber reamer, both in throat length and body size, from Dave Kiff of Pacific Tool & Gauge. The rear of the chamber’s so tight I have to size the heads of most American cases down slightly with a carbide .45 ACP die (a trick learned from retired gun writer Steve Timm) but Lapua, Norma and RWS brass slides right in. That’s fine with me, since those companies make some of the best brass on earth.
The parallel section of the throat is 0.20-inch long, a little shorter than the SAAMI standard of 0.26 inch. All the American ammo I’ve tried works (after sizing down the rear of the case), but for this test I decided to try some European factory ammo, mostly to compare velocities. Norma ammo with the 120-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip worked fine, but the 156-grain Oryx was seated too long. The RWS ammo features a 2-diameter bullet, with the 0.264-inch section seated just short enough to fit in my rifle’s throat.
The Lilja barrel Charlie installed is 21-inches long and fairly stout, measuring 0.700-inch in diameter at the muzzle, with a 1:8-inch rifling twist. The FN action has a 3.35-inch magazine, so there was no problem with rounds loaded with very long bullets such as the 130-grain Cutting Edge or 139-grain Lapua Scenar.
Some American 6.5×55 handloading information is developed with lower pressures for older rifles, while some is warmer. Hodgdon limits pressures to under 47,000 CUP, about 3,000 CUP under SAAMI .30-06 pressures, while Nosler’s 7th Manual says its “loads are intended for use only with new firearms in good condition.”
Vihtavuori’s 6.5×55 reloading information has two sections, one for older rifles and one for modern rifles.
Working up a hunting load didn’t take much time. Based on previous experience with other 6.5x55s, I tried Ramshot Magnum and the 140-grain Nosler Partition. The Ramshot website lists 49.8 grains as maximum with the 140 Partition, at 55,010 psi, for 2,778 feet per second from their 24-inch test barrel. In my rifle I risked another 0.2 grains for a flat 50.0, and the load shot under an inch at not quite 2,700 fps, bringing experimentation to a close.
For this column I tried loads from sources from Alliant to Vihtavuori. One of the maximum loads listed by Hodgdon, the 85-grain Sierra with 44.0 grains of Varget, could be exceeded safely, but the 160 Hornady roundnose and 48.0 grains of H4831 couldn’t be approached without the bolt just about locking up—though admittedly I substituted the 156-grain Norma Oryx. The listed Nosler maximum of 51.5 grains of Magnum and 140-grain bullets was also too warm in my tight-chambered rifle, and also didn’t shoot nearly as well as 50.0 grains.
The lesson relearned was a good one: Rifles are individuals, especially rifles chambered for 120-year-old cartridges with chamber dimensions “all over the place.” The listed loads were all safe in my rifle’s chamber, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t another 6.5×55 out there with an even tighter chamber!
By John Barsness
P.O. Box 6, Radford, VA 24143
Cutting Edge Bullets, LLC
75 Basin Run Rd., Drifting, PA 16834
Hodgdon Powder Company
6430 Vista Dr., Shawnee, KS 66218
Hornady Mfg. Co.
3625 Old Potash Hwy.
Grand Island, NE 68802-1848
4051 N. Higley Rd., Mesa, AZ 85215
Graf & Sons, Inc.
4050 S. Clark, Mexico, MO 65265
Sinclair International Inc.
200 S. Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171
P.O. Box 671 , Bend, OR 97709
Pacific Tool & Gauge, Inc.
598 Ave. C, White City, OR 97503
P.O. Box 158, Miles City, MT 59301
1400 W. Henry St.
Sedalia, MO 65301
400 County Rd. 2340, Dayton, TX 77535
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