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The Mild Bunch
Part 2: 6.5mm

January 2008
Dan Martinez  

6.5mm Mild Bunch
Left to right: Custom Remington 700 VLS in .260 Rem., Browning
Stainless Stalker A-Bolt in .260 Rem., Browning Micro Hunter in
.260 Rem., Thompson-Center Contender Carbine in 6.5mm TCU.

Back in September, I started what I promised was a series on something I called “The Mild Bunch.” Quickly recapping, I broadly defined The Mild Bunch as the class of rifle cartridges that sits between the .223 and the .280 Remington cartridges, not inclusive.

I disqualified all centerfire .22’s as being too small in caliber, and I disqualified the .30’s as being too large. I also disqualified all cartridges with case capacity as large or larger than the .30-06.

My reasons for focusing on these cartridges in particular was that first, I was interested in cartridges capable of taking after deer, which is why I cut off the centerfire 22’s from consideration. Second, I was interested in comfortable levels of recoil. One thing I definitely like about rifles is the BOOM and the shove, but there can be too much of a good thing! The .30-06 is probably my all-time favorite cartridge, but it’s hard to describe it as mild.

In beginning my series of articles, I started at the top with the 7mm-08, what I consider to be the most powerful of The Mild Bunch. Today, I’m going to dive into what’s probably my favorite caliber in The Mild Bunch, the 6.5mm. Presently there are six rifles in the Martinez armory in 6.5mm, plus one handgun.

The handgun is a Magnum Research Lone Eagle in .260 Remington. That handgun is frighteningly accurate, capable of firing .4” 3-shot groups at 100 yards off the bench. Three of the rifles are also in .260 Remington, and those can be seen in the picture to the right.

One rifle, really a single-shot Thompson-Center carbine, is chambered for 6.5mm TCU, a wildcat based on the .223 Remington case necked up to 6.5mm.

Finally, two Swedish M96 Mausers in original configuration reside in our collection. The first is a long M96 made in the Swedish Mauser factory in 1917. I purchased this one from fellow club member Bert Summer.

The second was originally a long M96 that was made for the Swedes in the German Mauser factory in Oberndorf in 1900. Starting in 1938, the Swedes started making new rifles in a shorter size. These rifles were called M38s and have dates of manufacture of 1938 and later. Additionally, they converted a number of their older long rifles to short rifle configuration. These shortened long rifles were called M96/38s, of which, we own an example.

Of course, the Swedish Mausers are chambered for the highly regarded 6.5mm Swede. This is probably the most popular 6.5mm cartridge in the United States. (True at the time this story was written, but no longer true today.) It might be more accurate to call it the 6.5mm Scandinavian, as the adoption of the cartridge was really a joint effort between the Swedish and Norwegian militaries.

6.5mm TCU

Let’s begin our detailed look at these three cartridges with the smallest of the three, the very uncommon 6.5mm TCU. With the inside of the neck well lubricated and using a tapered expander ball, commercial .223 cases easily neck up to 6.5mm diameter (.264”). Military cases with their thicker case walls can be troublesome, suffering from a higher percentage of neck splits during the operation. This is the first step in making 6.5mm TCU ammunition.

6.5mm Mild Bunch Cartridges
Left to right: 6.5x55 Swedish loaded with a 140 grain Hornady
A-Max; .260 Remington topped with a Sierra 120 grain ProHunter
softpoint; 6.5mm TCU with a 100 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip.

Next is seating a heavy bullet long in the case with a starting charge of powder. Heavy for this little cartridge is 120 grains. It’s not really the weight that we need for this next step, it’s the length of the heavier bullet. The final shoulder dimensions are established by “fire-forming” the brass with a bullet which jams against the lands of the bore. This makes sure that the back of the case is hard against the breech when the round is fired. The result is that the fire-formed case is a perfect fit for the chamber of the gun. The shoulder angle of the TCU is sharper than that of the .223 Rem. The fire-forming step creates the correct shoulder angle and position in the finished case.

When subsequently reloading 6.5mm TCU cases, case life can be extended greatly if care is taken not to set the shoulder back during resizing.

The looks of a loaded 6.5 TCU round is at first a little startling, especially the fire-forming loads. It’s a rather small case with a lot of bullet sticking out of it. It’s especially noticeable when you compare it side by side with the tiny bullet sticking only shortly out of a .223.

The scuttlebutt on the 6.5 TCU is that Thompson-Center specs a rather long throat for this cartridge. As a consequence, the lighter weight bullets, 85 and 100 grain, may not show the best accuracy since they have such a long jump before engaging the rifling. On the other hand, there’s not enough case capacity to get 140 grain bullets up to enough speed for reliable expansion. So for hunting, the sweet spot seems to be the 120 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip. This bullet is soft enough for reliable expansion at the 6.5 TCU’s velocity capabilities, and long enough to be seated close to the lands for accuracy.

The Contender carbine is my son Ben’s javelina rifle. It carries an 18” barrel. TC chambers very few carbine barrels for this cartridge. Anyone can get one by placing a special order as we did, it’s just that not many people ask for it in the long barrel. It is used most often in pistol barrels for silhouette competition. I now sorta wish that we had ordered a 20” barrel for just a little more velocity.

None of us have ever taken it after deer, but judging by what it does to the little piggies, I don’t think it would have any trouble on the typical Arizona deer at distances under 200 yards.

We have only ever tested three loads in the rifle, only for velocity. We’ve never sat down for a serious bench session with any of these loads. They are:

Bullet Powder Charge Wt. Velocity
100 gr. Nosler BT XMP-5744 16.5 gr. 1900 fps
100 gr. Nosler BT H335 27.5 gr. 2512 fps
120 gr. Speer SP H4198 19.0 gr. 2038 fps

Note that we’ve never tried the theoretical “perfect bullet,” the 120 grain Nosler BT. That’s probably because we’ve never taken it after deer, only javelina. The first load is the one we used back when Ben was a little guy. It’s our minimum recoil load. Nevertheless, this load had no trouble whatsoever laying low Ben’s first piggy.

The second load is our maximum velocity load. It’s the load that Ben currently uses for hunting javelina. It also has accounted for pork in the pot. There was no noticeable difference in how fast the critters were dispatched between the slower 100 grain load and the faster one at the distances the critters were shot – typical javelina shooting distances under 100 yards. We’ve tested the fast load on electronic deer targets up to 200 yards away, where it doesn’t seem to lack for practical accuracy.

The third load is our fire-forming load. We load this one a little longer than the hunting loads at 2.725” COL, which puts the bullet into the lands. We usually shoot this one against water-filled plastic pop bottles for fun practice.

.260 Remington

This of course is my workhorse 6.5mm cartridge. With four firearms chambered for it in our collection, I load a lot of .260 Remington.

By the way, I keep saying “ours” instead of “my” because a couple of these guns are much more my boys’ than they are mine these days. The Contender carbine is very much Ben’s as is the M96/38 Swedish Mauser. The Browning .260 Micro Hunter is very much Sam’s rifle.

As far as taking game goes, my boys have actually taken more game with the 6.5s than I have. Ben has taken two javelina with his Contender carbine, and Sam has taken one doe, one bobcat, one girl elk (a little too young to be called a cow, really), and now a buck. All with his .260 Browning Micro Hunter. Me? I’ve only taken one piggy and one turkey. Most of my game-taking seems to happen with some sort of a .30 cal.

How then is it that I can call the .260 Rem. “my workhorse” cartridge? It’s because I trip the trigger many more times with a .260 in the chamber than any other caliber. The reason that is so, is precisely for the reason that I started talking about The Mild Bunch in the first place: Satisfying BOOM and shove without beating myself silly! I shoot the .260 a lot in our club matches.

I like telling the story of one year at the club Turkey Shoot, when Gerhard was running the pistol stage. He put us together into teams and each team had to “hose down” a bunch of steel critter silhouettes standing in the dirt at various ranges, as quickly as possible. I figured the proper tool for that might be my 9mm autopistol for which I had plenty of hi-cap magazines all loaded up. After depleting all my magazines, having knocked down very few critters, I was in a panic. No time to reload mags, so I picked up the Lone Eagle single shot pistol in .260 Rem. Much longer time between shots, but the difference was that every time I pulled the trigger, CLANG, another critter went down! Soon, they were all down.

Interest seems to have waned in the Handgun Hunters Challenge event, where we go out into the desert and set up simulated handgun pig hunting situations, so we’re not holding that shoot this year. But for the last several years, the .260 Lone Eagle and I have usually finished at the top.

The load I use in the Lone Eagle is also a reduced recoil load. It is the Sierra 85 grain HP over 27.0 grains of XMP-5744. This load does 2300 fps out of the Eagle’s 14” barrel. It is very pleasant to shoot. This is the load that has twice fired 3-shot 100 yard groups in the .400s. It is also responsible for my only successful turkey hunt.

Going up in size to the next .260 in our battery is Sam’s Micro Hunter, our single most successful game-getting 6.5. Successful loads for this gun have been:

Bullet Powder Charge Wt. Velocity
100 gr. Hornady SP IMR 4064 35.0 gr. 2600 fps
120 gr. Nosler BT IMR 4350 43.5 gr. 2735 fps
140 gr. Speer SP IMR 4831 43.0 gr. 2600? (not chrono’d)

From the top, these are the doe load, the buck load, and the elk load. It was the elk load that also brought Sam’s bobcat to bag.

The next .260 in the lineup is my Stainless Stalker A-Bolt. I originally got this rifle to compete in Rifle Silhouette matches with the Hassayampa Rod & Gun Club. I showed up one time with my BOSS-braked .30-06 and they kicked me out. No brakes! So I got this .260, brakeless, and went back. I did OK, except for the mistake of knocking down a critter I just missed on. In “official” silhouette matches, you must move on to the next critter after each shot. Well I was used to how we shoot in our club matches, where you keep blasting away at the same critter until he’s down. So my knockdown of that critter didn’t count! That, and I didn’t care for the time limits.

It’s not that I felt that I had a bad experience at this match, not at all. But somehow I just never made it back out to another match.

I did take this rifle to Montana with me to hunt deer with Dale Saverud one year. Opportunity never presented itself on that hunt, though. The rifle did take game on a javelina hunt. That seemed almost too easy.

The best load I’ve found so far for this rifle is the Sierra 120 grain ProHunter SP over 38.5 grains of IMR 4064. This gives me about 2775 fps out of the Browning’s 22 inch barrel.

This brings me to my most recent rifle in .260 Rem., a custom-barreled Remington Model 700 VLS. From the factory it came with a matte black 26” heavy barrel in some other caliber. But the guy I bought it from had the action trued, rebarreled with a heavy 22” matte stainless Shilen barrel, and then chambered it for .260 Remington. He says that it is a match chamber, implying tighter tolerances. When I asked whether the chamber was tight neck, requiring the turning of case necks, he told me no.

However he did mention that it is short-throated, best suited for long-nosed or light varmint bullets. Round nose 160 grain bullets won’t work too well in this rifle. He also included a partially chambered barrel section to use as a gauge for bullet seating depth. The action is bedded, the barrel free-floated and a Rifle Basix adjustable trigger installed.

I always wanted a highly breathed-on heavy varminter and when I found this one on (in .260 Rem!) I just had to have it. It was offered for a very good price considering all that had been done to it.

To tell the truth, I haven’t really worked with this rifle all that much since I got it. But when Ray Cernansky’s 500 yard rifle match came up last summer, I knew that this would be the perfect gun for it. One of the classes in the match was “F Class” for scoped rifles. Since I didn’t have any special loads worked up for it, I dug into the ammo locker and found 50 rounds of the Nosler 120 grain load listed above. I just had to seat them a little deeper to accommodate this chamber. With a score of 437 out of 450 (14 Xs!), I won the match! Great fun.

Swedish Mausers
Model 96/38 dated 1900 on the left,
Model 96 dated 1917 on the right.

6.5x55mm Swedish

There are a number of military 6.5mm cartridges, including the 6.5mm Japanese, the 6.5mm Carcano, and the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer. But stateside by far, the most popular is the 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser cartridge. I believe that this is due in no small part to the rifle that was designed to fire the cartridge.

As stated earlier, the 6.5x55 Scandinavian cartridge was designed by a joint Swedish and Norwegian committee. The Norwegian military adopted a version of the home-grown Krag-Jorgenson rifle chambered for this cartridge, while the Swedes adopted the Model 96 Mauser. Very few Norwegian Krags have made it to these shores, but many thousands of the Swedish Mausers have. That’s the reason that Americans so closely identify the 6.5x55mm cartridge with the Swedish Mauser.

While the action of the Model 96 Mauser shares many design features with the much more famous Model 98, it is not quite as strong. However, the Model 96 is a very lithe and elegant rifle when compared with a Karabiner 98. The Swedish Mauser is acknowledged as one of the most accurate military surplus rifles available. To the consternation of military rifle collectors, many Swedish Mausers have been modified, with varying levels of skill, into very effective deer hunting rifles here in the states.

Because the Norwegian Krags and the Swedish Mausers are not as strong as the Model 98, the pressure standard for the 6.5x55 is not as high as modern cartridges. So even though the 6.5x55 has more case capacity than the .260 Remington, it cannot drive bullets to the same velocities, given the same length of barrel.

In our collection, the longer Model 96 gets fired very little. But it’s not leaving the collection any time soon! The shorter Model 96/38 gets taken out every month or two to compete in Obsolete Bolt Rifle matches. This is the rifle that Ben competes with. He says that he appreciates the relatively light recoil of the round during long matches. Notice in the photo below that there’s nothing but a tee-shirt between that skinny kid and the steel butt-plate!

Ben’s match loads for the 6.5x55 Mauser are:

Bullet Powder Charge Wt. Velocity
129 gr. Hornady SST IMR 4064 37.0 gr. Unknown
140 gr. Hornady A-Max IMR 4064 35.0 gr. Unknown

Nope, we’ve never chronographed these loads. We’ve kept them comfortably below max book loads for the 6.5x55. We aren’t shooting these against critters, we only need to make sure that we can make the bullet fly out to 200 yards, the max range for any of the Vintage Bolt Rifle matches we’ve entered.

In the next and final part of this series on The Mild Bunch, we’ll talk about some 6 millimeter cartridges.

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