6.5mm Cartridge Virtual Shootout: Which is Best?

Updated on March 21, 2017
LJ Bonham profile image

LJ Bonham is an author, historian, hunter, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

6.5x55 Swedish bullet recovered from a moose.
6.5x55 Swedish bullet recovered from a moose. | Source

Almost overnight, American hunters rediscovered 6.5mm bullets. Interest in long range hunting launched a search for efficient, accurate rifle cartridges and the 6.5’s are just that. America has not always been dominated by the ubiquitous .30 caliber. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people appreciated the 6.5mm bore size. It served the U.S. Navy for a time and surplus Swedish Mauser rifles chambered in 6.5x55mm were prized finds on the used gun market, but the bore size’s popularity waned after World War Two.

What Makes the 6.5 So Good?

Why all the fuss? Simple, 6.5mm bullets are long and narrow so they punch a smaller hole in the air, retain velocity down range better, and drift less in cross winds. Engineers would say they have high Ballistic Coefficients or BCs. The 6.5mm has another advantage, one hunters are interested in: 6.5mm bullets also have high Sectional Density (SD), the ratio between their diameter and weight. High SD bullets penetrate deep into game animals, even large, tough ones. They are lethal beyond what their size would indicate. Also, those bullets don’t need ultra-high velocity to do their job, which means less recoil, and less recoil improves a shooter’s accuracy.

A Better Way to Test

There are many 6.5mm cartridges on the market today, both old veterans and young upstarts. Which is best for hunting? Rather than shoot round after round, a comparison test using shooterscalculator.com’s free web based software allows one to remove the variables inherent to testing on the target range: shooter fatigue, weather, as well as ammunition and firearm production tolerances.

L-R: .308 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel, .223 Remington
L-R: .308 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel, .223 Remington | Source

Ground Rules

In this shootout, the author selected the Nosler 140 grain AccuBond™ bullet (.509 BC, .287 SD) to level the playing field. While Nosler offers a 142 grain AccuBond Long Range™ bullet, the standard AccuBond™ better represents the results most hunters can expect. All calculations were based on international standard atmospheric conditions: 59F (15C) and 29.92 inHg at sea level. Muzzle velocities are nominal industry values for commercial loaded ammunition in each cartridge as fired through a 24 inch barrel, except where noted.

L-R: 9.3x62 Mauser, .30-06 Springfield, 8x57 Mauser, 6.5x55 Swedish, .308 Winchester
L-R: 9.3x62 Mauser, .30-06 Springfield, 8x57 Mauser, 6.5x55 Swedish, .308 Winchester | Source

Performance Criteria

Cartridges are measured for the range at which they provide the minimum impact energy needed for a humane kill on medium game, such as deer and antelope (1200 ft-lbs), and large game, such as elk and moose (1500 ft-lbs), and the range at which they decelerate to 1800 feet per second, Nosler’s recommended minimum velocity for reliable bullet expansion. The test also reveals the maximum point blank range (MPBR) uncorrected for minute of angle (MOA) accuracy. MPBR is the range at which a bullet rises three inches above line of sight and then drops three inches below line of sight, ie. hits within a six-inch kill box.

Recoil values are based on an 8.5 pound (3.9 kg.) rifle weight and an average powder charge obtained from Nosler’s reloading data. Recoil is expressed in foot-pounds of free energy (ft-lbsf).

.308 Winchester (L), 6.5-284 Norma (R)
.308 Winchester (L), 6.5-284 Norma (R) | Source

Score Keeping

Rankings are calculated as follows:

  • One point for every fifty yards beyond 200 yards for medium game effective range and large game effective range, respectively.
  • One point for every ten yards beyond a 200 yard MPBR.
  • One point added for every ft-lbsf of recoil below 15 ft-lbsf, and one point deducted for every ft-lbsf over. 15 ft-lbsf is considered the maximum recoil most shooters can tolerate before it negatively affects accuracy.

Let the games begin.

8th Place. 6.5x55mm Swedish: 12.1 Points

This grizzled veteran, and Scandinavian hunters’ favorite, sent its slug out the barrel at 2600 fps. MPBR: 260 yards (with a 221 yard zero). Minimum expansion occurs at 500 yards. Medium game effective range: 375 yards. Large game effective range: 225 yards. Recoil: 12.9 ft-lbsf.

6.5x55 Swedish Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
6.5x55 Swedish Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

7th Place. 6.5 Grendel: 13.9 Points

The Grendel is designed to give standard size AR-style rifles more punch than the ubiquitous .223 Remington (5.56x45mm). Due to its short case, it cannot accommodate a 140 grain bullet so the author substituted a 120 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip™ (.458 BC, .246 SD). Muzzle velocity is 2600 fps.

MPBR: 258 yards (219 yard zero). Minimum expansion: 450 yards. Medium game range: 250 yards. Large game range: 125 yards. Recoil: 7.9 ft-lbsf.

6.5 Grendel Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
6.5 Grendel Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

6th Place. 6.5 Creedmoor: 14.9 Points

The Creedmoor is the current darling among 6.5mm cartridges and has gained an enviable reputation for accuracy since its introduction in 2007. For this test, it propelled a 140 grain AccuBond™ at 2700 fps.

MPBR: 260 yards (229 yard zero). Min. expansion: 550 yards. Medium game range: 450 yards. Large game range: 300 yards. Recoil: 13.1 ft-lbsf.

6.5 Creedmoor Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
6.5 Creedmoor Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

5th Place. .26 Nosler: 16.3 Points

Introduced in 2014, the .26 Nosler provides Ultra-Mag-like performance in a standard length action. Muzzle velocity: 3300 fps.

MPBR: 326 yards (277 yard zero). Min. expansion: 875 yards. Medium game range: 750 yards. Large game range: 600 yards. Recoil: 30.3 ft-lbsf.

.26 Nosler Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
.26 Nosler Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

4th Place. .260 Remington: 17 Points

The versatile .260 Remington’s mission is to provide 6.5x55mm Swedish ballistics, or better, in a short-action length cartridge. Muzzle velocity: 2750 fps.

MPBR: 274 yards (233 yard zero). Min. expansion: 575 yards. Medium game range: 475 yards. Large game range: 325 yards. Recoil: 13.4 ft-lbsf.

.260 Remington Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
.260 Remington Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

3rd Place. 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum: 17.5 Points

Weatherby claims this is the fastest 6.5 cartridge in the world. Muzzle velocity: 3395 fps (26 inch barrel).

MPBR: 334 yards (285 yard zero). Min. expansion: 925 yards! Medium game range: 800 yards. Large game range: 650 yards. Recoil: 31.9 ft-lbsf (estimated).

6.5-300 Weatherby Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
6.5-300 Weatherby Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

2nd Place. 6.5-284 Norma: 18 Points

Like the 6.5 Creedmoor, this cartridge began as a precision target cartridge. Hunters soon discovered its effectiveness and it has grown in popularity since. Muzzle velocity: 2850 fps.

MPBR: 284 yards (241 yard zero). Min. expansion: 650 yards. Medium game range: 525 yards. Large game range: 375 yards. Recoil: 15.4 ft-lbsf.

6.5-284 Norma Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
6.5-284 Norma Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

1st Place. .264 Winchester Magnum: 19 Points

This particular Winchester magnum never gained a large following due in part to a reputation for premature barrel wear, but those who use it swear by it. Muzzle velocity: 3000 fps.

MPBR: 298 yards (253 yard zero). Min. expansion: 725 yards. Medium game range: 600 yards. Large game range: 450 yards. Recoil: 18.8 ft-lbsf.

.264 Winchester Magnum Trajectory (200 yd. zero)
.264 Winchester Magnum Trajectory (200 yd. zero) | Source

Lessons Learned

The law of diminishing returns determined the winner here. Huge velocity numbers are not the full story when it comes to hunting cartridge performance. As power and speed increase, so does recoil, and recoil affects the most important factor in hunting: accuracy.

The most powerful cartridges in this test, the .26 Nosler and 6.5-300 Weatherby, are great rounds, but they have a narrowly defined mission which is to put the same hurt on an animal beyond 500 yards as the 6.5x55 Swedish at 200 - 400 yards. However, the shooter pays for such performance in bruised shoulders, short barrel life, and expensive gun powder. Plus, ammunition and reloading components are scarce and expensive not to mention cases will likely wear out in short order due to high operating pressures.

The 6.5x55 Swedish, 6.5 Grendel, and 6.5 Creedmoor scored low because they don’t hit large animals hard enough at longer ranges, but used inside their envelope, they would make up for the deficit with mild manners and superb accuracy.

Although the .264 Win Mag took first place, in the author’s opinion, the average hunter is better served with the fourth place .260 Remington or runner up, 6.5-284 Norma, due to the “winner’s” high barrel wear rate and copious powder appetite. Number’s aside, the timeless, low pressure Swede is still the best all-rounder in this group when world-wide ammunition availability, low recoil, and gun life expectancy are taken into consideration. When it comes to 6.5mm hunting cartridges, less is often more.

Bullet placement is everything. Elk are bullet sponges, but a 6.5mm bullet in the right spot does the trick.

Old veteran. The 6.5x55 Swedish in action.

A bit outside the 6.5-284 Norma's recommended range envelope on a large animal, but still fit for moose!

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 LJ Bonham


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      • profile image

        David 6 weeks ago

        What about the 6.5 Remington mag?

      • profile image

        Pizzaman1 5 months ago

        Using my Tikka T3 in 6.5x55 I am putting three in a dime at 100 yards using 46 gr of RE22 and a 140gr Nosler Partition

      • LJ Bonham profile image

        LJ Bonham 8 months ago

        Re: the 6.5 Rem, see my other comment; it's not a current production cartridge, good though it may be. Re: 6.5x55. Those who read the article will note that all the cartridges tested were tested based on their factory loaded standard velocities. I clearly stated hand loaders can do much better with all the cartridges. No favoritism was directed toward or against any cartridge; the factory ballistics are the factory ballistics. If one has a problem with that, contact the ammo companies.

      • LJ Bonham profile image

        LJ Bonham 8 months ago

        Not a current, mass production cartridge. Correct me if I'm wrong, but none of the big rifle companies chamber it any more, despite it's merits. The .264 Win. Mag. barely made the list as it looks on its way out, too. Look on the bright side, now that America has rediscovered 6.5mm bullets, maybe the 6.5 Rem will make a come back.

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        mocap 8 months ago

        Why didn't you enter 6.5 rem mag? Been shooting one since 1966. Currently using a Tikka T3 with schelen 25" bbl. 140 gr vld hunting @ 3130 fps. . .35 MOA. Using 23gr RL 23 and love it!

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        gpo1956 8 months ago

        Why even include the 6.5x55 if you're restricting it to M96 pressures and all the others are loaded to modern pressures? In a Tikka, Remington, Winchester or Ruger rifle, the Swede will out- perform 3 of the cartridges listed ahead of it. Why bother?