One of the first small-bore smokeless cartridges for military bolt rifles, the 6.5x55 was developed jointly by Sweden and Norway in 1894. When Sweden boosted 6.5x55 performance for Mausers, Norway stayed with original ammo in the less robust Krag. The 6.5x55 defended Scandinavia for a century. In 1990, the National Rifle Association of Denmark, Norway and Sweden standardized specifications and renamed the cartridge: 6.5x55 SKAN. Still hugely popular among moose hunters there, it has also excelled in 300-meter free-rifle competition. Sadly, no North American firm loaded 6.5x55 ammunition until 1991, when Federal announced it. For decades, Norma of Sweden had sold it in the U.S. and Canada; but availability and cost discouraged hunters. DWM and RWS gave 6.5 shooters a limited choice. The low price of surplus ’94 and ’96 Swedish Mausers, however, wooed many hunters—despite the cock-on-closing design.
The long tenure of this cartridge spanned the post-war wildcatting era. Unfortunately for shooters eager to make something new of the 6.5x55 hull, its head diameter is .01 greater than that of the 7x57 (and the .270 and .30-06). The rim is thicker too. At 2.16 inches, cases mike .08 shorter than those of the 7x57; but they’re .15 longer than the .308’s. Properly paired with a short rifle action, the 6.5x55 almost demands a mid-length magazine. As originally loaded, its overall length (3.15 inches) exceeds that of the 7x57. In fact, it falls just .1-inch shy of the finished length of the 7mm Remington Magnum. While you don’t have to seat bullets far out, you’ll make best use of limited case capacity if you keep bullet bases well forward.
Many 6.5mm cartridges, rimmed and rimless, came along in the 1890s. Military service, and the popular rifles made for them, ensured their use in game fields around the world. The finely built Swedish Mauser carbines added to their allure. Though predictably second-tier in the U.S., where the .30-06 ruled, 94 Mauser carbines in 6.5x55 went in droves to the deer woods, where hunters found them deadly. The 18-inch barrels made them quick to point. Recently, I found one in a gun shop. The rear ladder sight had been removed and a walnut patch carefully inlaid to cover the slot in the handguard. A Williams receiver sight sat snugly on the rear bridge. No other modifications were apparent. The rifle flew to my shoulder like a coach gun, despite the beefy military stock. I brought this Swede home to join my other 6.5x55, a Howa from Legacy Sports. That smooth-shucking rifle took a five-point bull elk I jumped in a Wyoming ’pole thicket a few years back. The first softnose quartered to the off-shoulder. The next, after a 100-yard sprint, struck the bull in the neck, breaking it. A memorable kill at the end of a grueling day spent still-hunting.
Is the 6.5x55 an elk cartridge? At modest ranges, with the proper bullets, sure. Light recoil makes it pleasant in fast-handling rifles. Stout bullets like Norma’s factory-loaded 156 Oryx suit it to heavy game. (In Africa the 6.5x55 and its kin were once used to topple much bigger game than elk.) But this cartridge is most at home on deer trails. Francis Sell, a knowledgeable riflemen whose book on blacktail deer hunting has no peer, favored the 6.5x55. While its compact case won’t let the Swede match the .270 ballistically, it is a fine all-around choice for woods and prairie, out to 300 yards.
Originally loaded with 156-grain roundnose bullets at 2,378 fps, the 6.5x55 followed other early-20th-century military cartridges in their shift to lighter, faster bullets. A 139-grain spitzer clocked 2,625 fps. Velocities for both were taken from 96 Mauser rifles with 29-inch barrels. Standard twist in early Swedish Mausers: one turn in 7.87 inches. Designed for a pressure lid of about 45,000 psi, the 6.5x55 can be loaded stiffer in rifles like the Winchester 70 and Ruger 77, two of few commercial rifles so chambered Stateside. But traditional Swedish 94s and 96s lack the safety lug of the 1898 Mauser and are best fed standard loads.
Winchester, Remington, Federal and Hornady all list the 6.5x55, though each offers only one 140-grain load. At 2,650 fps, Federal’s beats the others out of the gate by about 100 fps. You get more choices from Lapua, Norma, and RWS. Lapua catalogs eight loads, with bullets of 100 to 139 grains. At the bench, you can stoke 85-grain Sierras past 3,100 fps, though 120- to 140-grain spitzers offer more versatility. Sierra’s 140 MatchKing excels on distant paper.