Ask anyone. Look on internet forums or in print magazines. Strike up a conversation at your local gun store. You’ll hear it everywhere: the 6.5mm family of rounds are like a mystical laser beam. Efficiency? Lethality? The 6.5mm round blows away other calibers. It knocks the .308 out of the water and shoots like a .300 mag. The 6.5mm cartridge family can literally transform your shooting. Before long, you’ll be a regular Bob Lee Swagger. I call bullsh*t.
People have been shooting the 6.5mm bore for over a hundred years. The oldest 6.5mm cartridge still in use is the 6.5x55mm. I shoot thousands of rounds of this caliber a year; it’s my favorite cartridge of all time. Modern loadings are typically launching a 140gr-class bullet at about 2600-2700fps from a 24-29” 1:7-8 twist barrel. Some guys who shoot CMP with me fire 120gr bullets in this cartridge loaded to well over 3000fps. It is a fantastic cartridge and was perfected long ago. Everything else is basically a copy.
Wait. What? You heard me right. Despite being new and cutting-edge, the 6.5x47mm Lapua and the 6.5 Creedmoor are essentially ballistic twins of the 6.5x55mm and, by default, the older .260 Remington. But that can’t be right, can it? How can modern stuff be basically the same as a century old design from Scandinavia? Easy. The modern 6.5mm rifle varies little ballistically when compared to the old x55. It was essentially duplicated because it works now as it did then.
Standard loadings for the 6.5×47 clock a 140gr bullet at about 2600-2700fps. Standard loadings for the 6.5 Creedmoor offer a 140gr bullet at about 2700fps. Same thing with the .260 and the 6.5x55mm. All these calibers, including modern 6.5x55mm rifles, use the same twist rate. What it comes down to is just a matter of what you want your barrel chambered in. Everything else stays the same. There really isn’t a difference at all if you were to fire the same bullet. A 140gr ELD Match bullet from Hornady can be loaded into any of these cartridges and achieve identical performance. It all comes down to what your needs in a rifle are.
The advantage that the modern 6.5mm cartridges: they can be loaded easily into what has become a standard of the industry: the AICS-pattern magazine and the PMAG 20 LR/SR. In short, these newer rounds fit into the types of rifles we use most and, well, that’s about it.
It wasn’t until about ten years ago that the 6.5mm began to catch on for the competition world. Competitors looking to get an edge in their game went with less recoil and sleeker bullets to help them win. That right there is where the craze began.
The competition world tends to push the limits of gear and bullets, so new advances are needed to win each year. The 6.5 became an answer to the .308 in competition because it offered better ballistics and less recoil for playing a game. Yes, I said it. Better ballistics for playing a game. The slightly cringworthy idea of tactical rifle shooting was born and a new generation of wannabe snipers stepped up ring steel. This is harsh, but true.
The sport was later re-branded as Practical competition, which is kinda odd seeing as how it isn’t really practical at all. But then again I shoot at circles with a 100 year old Mauser, so I guess I shouldn’t comment too much on the matter. Alas, people playing sniper led to the trend in modern 6.5mm rifles and PRS competition was established, which has given the idea some actual weight in the community in recent years.
Yes, the caliber is great at what it does. But it’s hardly better or more practical than .308 for use on game or the needs of the average rifle shooter. I’ve written before about the paradoxical notion of looking at 1000-yard ballistics when your range only goes out to 200. Out of the nearly fifty people I know who own a modern 6.5mm rifle, exactly two have fired past 600 yards and only one managed to get up to fire past that. Sure, living out West affords more opportunities for longer range shooting, but let’s not kid ourselves here. Most rifle shooters, especially those east of the Mississippi, don’t get out past 500 yards enough to be truly proficient at extended ranges.
I hear it a lot that the military wants to move into 6.5mm rifles because of the performance issues with the 5.56 and .308. Again, this is wishful thinking. The 6.5mm will never unseat the 5.56mm or .308 from their thrones, despite the constant outcry from armchair generals and YouTube experts. I’d actually argue that the 5.56, namely the 77gr OTM rounds and the new Barnes 85gr OTM mag-length loads, are actually better than any 6.5mm round for service, including 6.5 Grendel.
Military customers aren’t often concerned with what the shooting public demands of them. This was very noticeable when the shooting world pushed for the adoption of the 6.8SPC. It looked good on paper, but was hilariously and duly overthrown by the .300 AAC Blackout, which is now wildly popular despite being ballistically ‘inferior’ to both the 6.8 and 6.5 in a standard AR.
I would go so far as to say that they current trend in 6.5mm rifles will exhaust itself as even smaller-bore rounds become better and better. The old .243 offers superior ballistics when loaded with modern match bullets in a barrel of similar length and quality. Why? Well, the .243 is a 6mm, and 6mm rifles hold countless world records. It is a proven winner and I think it will begin to supersede the 6.5mm in competition in the years to come with cartridges like the 6XC, 6mm Creedmoor, and 6×47.
I’m not biased against the use of the 6.5mm. As I said, it is easily my favorite cartridge for match shooting, which again, is playing a game. I’ve been very clear about that in all my CMP articles to date. CMP and PRS are games, just like golf and tennis. When applied correctly, the 6.5mm class of cartridges offer a shooter great ballistics and low recoil. These things are good for winning matches and offer an increased likelihood of making hits at extended ranges.
Taking the logic a step further, this should mean that hunting will be taken over by the 6.5 if the trend continues. Again, I don’t think so. I would say that most people who say they regularly and ethically shoot deer past 300 yards are full of it. I’ve gotten some fantastic kills in the field on everything from coyote to boar, but even then my longest shot ever on a coyote was 440 yards with a .308. My average shot these days is a paltry 75 yards. The average total of all the game I’ve taken is only 110 yards. I challenge the credentials and honesty of anyone who claims to have a longer lifetime average than that. Shooting animals at long range isn’t funny and injuring an animal is cruel. If you hunt, do it right.
At distances inside of 300 yards, a .308 and a 6.5 are equals. My last two kills were a deer with my 6.5mm Mauser at 90 yards using iron sights and a boar at 250 yards with my .308. Both dead in one shot from a Hornady match bullet. It is true that the 6.5x55mm has been used for over a century on moose and bears in Scandinavia. It is also true that it has been used extensively in Africa and on animals as large as elephants. The caliber was also a favorite of Hemingway and featured heavily in his stories. I believe that it is a fantastic hunting caliber, but it cannot whatsoever claim superiority over .308 for these applications. Equal, sure, but certainly not better.
I’m not trying to make a case for .308 over the 6.5mm. I just feel that too many “experts” claim the 6.5mm is superior in every way. It isn’t. Shooters need to see the 6.5mm in context.
We all know what the .308 is and what it does well and what it doesn’t, but a lot of people are hesitant to say anything bad about the new 6.5mm rounds. I think it comes down to feeling embarrassed or inadequate. Again harsh, but true. Savvy competitors usually make the switch for shame of being left out rather than a true step-up in performance. It is very obvious that a 6.5mm bore is in vogue these days and many a shooter gravitates towards it because of fashion.
I’ve been to a fair number of 600 yard matches with my little 13.5” .308 and routinely beat most of the others I shot against. On the line of those matches, the 6.5 has hardly any advantage against a .308 shooter. The imaginary 1000 yard benchmark doesn’t apply and the ranges are known, so the advantage disappears. Steel at unknown distances gets harder for a .308 shooter, but only marginally so. You are typically allowed to mil for distance in those cases, and again, the advantage disappears rapidly. What it boils down to is shooter skill and knowing your gear, regardless of caliber. Again, practice, practice, practice.
To sum up, having a 6.5mm rifle in competition will not make you a better shooter. It will not make you a better hunter. It will certainly not turn you into a Camp Perry legend overnight. What will do is take animals the same as any other medium caliber rifle at ethical distances and will allow you to do better in a shooting game when competing against others with similar gear. Will it ever fully replace .308? No. Should it? Again, no.
If you are considering getting a rifle chambered in a modern 6.5mm cartridge, understand that it is essentially a reimagining of the classic 6.5x55mm and shares all the same characteristics. Many people I’ve spoken to consider this to be a slander, but it all comes down to the bullet and at what speed. A 140gr bullet at 2700fps doesn’t care if it is launched from an old Mauser or a new Savage Arms rifle. It is all relative to the bullet and velocity, not the rifle or cartridge.
It is my belief that the current 6.5mm trend is fueled by a true desire to do good in the world. The 6.5mm has many advantages and they are worth looking at. It is a very good do-all caliber and has earned a place in the modern shooting world. Is it the end-all for long range? I don’t think so. It is, however, an excellent place to start for the average shooter looking to take his game a bit further out.