Date: Apr 07 2020
Despite American’s belated 6.5mm craze (Europe embraced 6.5mm cartridges as early as 1890) – including AR-chambered 6.5 Grendel, gun-media darling 6.5 Creedmoor and now Hornady and Nosler’s hot rod 6.5 PRC and 26 Nosler, to name the most obvious – a 6.5mm-06 seems all but inevitable. Yet the 6.5-06 predates all modern .264-caliber rounds by a significant margin. Its origins date back to 1913, via Charles Newton’s .256 Newton (a true 6.5mm, despite the confusing numbers). Newton’s cartridge varied only slightly from the wildcat 6.5-06 we know today, the first commercially-produced U.S. 6.5mm/.264-caliber round, chambered in Newton rifles, which went out of production in the early 1920s. Factory ammunition produced by Western Cartridge Company was discontinued by 1938, transforming a commercial cartridge into a wildcat.
It was only natural someone would neck down the venerable .30-06 Springfield to accept ballistically-talented 6.5mm bullets. This created a deadly-effective and highly-efficient hunting cartridge. Sitting firmly between the .25-06 Remington and .270 Winchester, the 6.5-06 handily outperforms both, while also offering a wider array of bullet options. Despite more recent developments like the 1959 .264 Winchester Magnum and 1966 6.5mm Remington Magnum (both cartridges with fading popularity) – and of course the “end-all-be-all” 2008 6.5mm Creedmoor – the old 6.5-06 remains highly relevant, mirroring the performance of the newly-popular 6.5-284 Norma.
The 6.5-06, sometimes labeled as “6.5-06 A-Square,” is only slightly less powerful than the .264 Winchester Magnum, a cartridge viewed as a laser beam in my youth. It also proves to be much less destructive on barrels over the long haul. With 90-100 grain bullets the 6.5-06 serves well as a long-range/windy-day varmint cartridge, 120-130-grain bullets serving well for pronghorn- to deer-sized game, while standard bullets up to 140 grains and long-range 6.5mm bullets like Berger’s new 156-grain Extreme Outer Limits (EOL) Elite Hunter offer effective elk options.
Brass for the 6.5-06 is easily created by running well-lubed .25-06 Remington, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington or .30-06 Springfield hulls through standard resizing dies and performing necessary trimming (trim-to-length specifications 2.494 inches). Properly headstamped brass is available from Quality Cartridge and was used in my testing. Ten randomly pulled Quality Cartridge cases showed an extreme weight deviation of about 3.5 grains – lower than many big-name makers. A recommended overall loaded length of 3.34 inches functions neatly in standard 06-length long actions and the cartridge is popular enough that dies are offered by most major manufacturers. A new RCBS full-length die set and CCI 200 Large Rifle primers were used for all accompanying loads.
Bullets varying from 107 to 156 grains were chosen to represent the 6.5-06’s wide-ranging capabilities (no 90-95-grain bullets were available before press time), from burrowing rodents to elk and long-range steel. Every effort was made to sample as many newer powders as possible, including examples from Hodgdon, IMR, Vihtavuori, Alliant, Norma and Western Powders.
The rifle used for testing was built by Ron Soderquist of Cherokee Firearms Repair in Spanaway, Washington. It is based on a commercial Mauser action (or at least it lacks the side stripper-clip thumb detent of many military Mausers) and fitted with an E.R. Shaw barrel measuring 24 inches long and .90 inch at the muzzle. The rifle includes a crisp Timney Trigger. The stock is a custom job carved from dense curly maple, contrasting maple panels added to create a wide forend that adds stability atop a rest. The barrel was threaded to hold a Precision Hardcore Gear Slotted Hybrid Brake, which combined with the rifle’s 12-pound mass reduces recoil to a varmint rifle push. The rifle’s Vortex Viper 6-24x 50mm scope is set in steel Talley rings atop two-piece Weaver bases.
The 107-grain Tipped MatchKing from Sierra offers a mild-recoiling, long-range option with a solid ballistic coefficient of .445. I’ve used similar weight TMKs in 6mm cartridges like the 6mm Remington with satisfying results on long-range rockchucks and prairie dogs, so I would expect the same from this version. These bullets were seated so the top of the boattail just reached the bottom of the case neck. From this 6.5-06 rifle, the most impressive results involved Accurate 4350. A charge of 53.5 grains pushed the 107 TMK to 3,100-plus fps and created a .53-inch group, 54.5 grains assembling a .31-inch group at about 3,150 fps – with an extreme velocity spread of only 40 fps. Worth noting, a 48-grain charge of Alliant Reloader 15 resulted in a .61-inch group around 3,100 fps with single-digit extreme velocity spread. Hodgdon’s H-1000 doing its best work (.88 inch at around 2,950 fps with single-digit extreme velocity spread) with 55.5 grains.