The 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schönauer is, by modern standards, a distinctly puny cartridge. With its 160-grain bullet at 2,330 feet per second, it generates only 1,740 ft. lbs. of energy at the muzzle. This puts it on a par with the old .30 Remington, a round that was judged anemic even for whitetails in the early 1900s.
To use words like puny and anemic in describing cartridges, however, is hugely unfair. Puny for what? Anemic compared to what? Both cartridges far out-class the .223 Remington, to say nothing of the 7.62×39, both of which are now popular for hunting some classes of big game.
The 6.5×54 M-S, .223, and 7.62×39 all began life as military cartridges–each replacing something older, bigger and more powerful. There are fads and fashions in military cartridges, just as there are in hunting, and they follow each other as night follows day. Sometimes hunters trail the military, sometimes vice versa. Which military cartridge is in use at any given time depends on whether the
deep thinkers in Ordnance are favoring velocity, long range capability, stopping power or sheer firepower.
Every time the pendulum swings too far one way–favoring firepower, for example, to the detriment of virtually every other quality required in a military round–someone comes along with alternate demands and a new cartridge design to fill them.
In recent years, as it became apparent the .223 Remington (a.k.a., 5.56mm) has serious deficiencies for many military applications, new cartridges have been devised. Some are intended for ultra-long range sniping, others for close combat.
Among the more interesting ones are a few that really do little more than pack old ideas into a new case with a new name–if not reinventing the wheel, then at the least renaming it.
The most popular caliber for these creations is the 6.5mm, or .264, the favorite of European armies since the 1890s. In America, the 6.5 has never had mass appeal, but has been favored by the ballistically elite since Charles Newton determined, around 1912, that it was the best possible caliber for an all-around, high velocity big-game cartridge.
The 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 Grendel, and various others all offer ballistic performance comparable to the Swedish 6.5×55 or the 6.5×54 Mannlicher.
In the early years of the 20th century, the 6.5×54, in both rimmed and rimless form, established an enviable record as a big-game cartridge, and not just on deer. Karamojo Bell used it on elephants, Charles Sheldon hunted Dall sheep and grizzlies, and professional hunter Werner von Alvensleben reportedly culled more than a thousand Cape buffalo with it.
The secret to the 6.5’s extraordinary effectiveness, for a cartridge that is decidedly mid-range ballistically, is a combination of bullet weight (hence sectional density and penetration) and its ability to deliver this in a light, handy rifle with a short barrel, having both mild recoil and a tolerable muzzle blast.
This allowed Bell, Sheldon and von Alvensleben to stalk close and place their bullets exactly, knowing the pencil-like round-nosed bullets, whether softs or solids, would penetrate to the vitals and not blow up on the surface. They could recover quickly in order to make a second shot, if necessary, and the neat little rifles handled like a charm in the thick stuff.
The current infatuation is with long-range shooting, using cartridges chambered in cumbersome rifles, so loud they demand ear protection even while hunting. They either kick you into last week or, if fitted with a muzzle brake, deafen you and everyone around.
There is a counter-trend to this, and that is to cartridges, which have
none of the above vices, yet deliver a solid, killing blow at legitimate hunting ranges. Hunters are rediscovering the virtues of the mid-range 6.5mm’s, more than a century after they first came on the scene.
If they come down out of their tree stands, abandon the bipods and heavy barrels, and rediscover the fascination of still-hunting, they will find that the compact rifles and docile 6.5mm cartridges are ideal for that as well.—Terry Wieland