AN ARCANE PROBLEM SOLVED
By any standard, the 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schönauer is one of the most successful hunting cartridges in history. It has been used everywhere, on everything, by some very big names in the hunting world. It’s synonymous with its original rifle, the Mannlicher Model 1903, which was so finely made that it, in turn, became synonymous with the term “gentleman’s rifle.”
Both rifle and cartridge were designed at a time when smokeless powder was new and gunmakers were feeling their way, seeing what worked and what didn’t. This applied to every aspect, from the cartridge’s shoulder angle, to barrel length, to how magazines worked (or did not.)
Cartridge magazines, and the related issues of feeding and extraction, were a particular bugaboo. The Model 1903 introduced, to the civilian world, Otto Schönauer’s rotary magazine. It is one of the most elegant systems ever designed, and was executed with all of Steyr’s legendary gunmaking skill.
As designed, the magazine was fitted to the cartridge like a custom-made glove to an individual hand. The cartridge was held firmly through every stage of its life in the rifle. In the magazine, it could not slide back and forth during recoil; as it fed into the magazine, the various parts held and guided it into place. The result of all this painstaking exactness was a rifle whose bolt operation and feeding became an ergonomic legend, and writers ran out of superlatives to describe its smoothness. We’ll call it “buttery,” and leave it at that.
If there was a problem, it was that the 1903 was too good, too exact. In their quest to have absolute control over the cartridge at all times, Steyr’s gunmakers sometimes fitted the mechanism so finely that it would feed the right ammunition to perfection, but nothing else.
The original 6.5×54 was loaded with a 160-grain round-nosed bullet, either soft or solid. Both were long and straight, with a blunt, rounded tip. The cartridge case itself, by the standards of 1903, had very little taper, but it did have some. As the bolt pushes the cartridge forward, it is held by the action rail on the left and by the blade of the spindle on the right. The nose of the bullet comes in contact with the feed ramp and gently lifts the cartridge up and to the right, out from under the action rail. Thence, it enters the chamber.
Here’s the problem: If the cartridge is not loaded with such a bullet, seated well out so that it contacts the feed ramp very early, the cartridge slides straight forward and wedges under the action rail. This can happen if the bullet is too short, seated too deeply, or has a spitzer tip.
According to the Norma handloading guide, this is not true of all Model 1903s, but it is true of some — mostly early ones — and mine is one of them. Later, presumably, Steyr adjusted the tolerances to at least allow the rifle to use bullets of different lengths and configurations. I should add that I have owned eight or nine Mannlichers in various calibers, including 8×56 Mannlicher-Schönauer (a Model 1908) and another 6.5×54 M-S (an African model.) Only the 1903 has exhibited this trait.
As long as original factory ammunition was available, the rifles could at least be used. Today, 6.5×54 M-S loaded with this bullet is almost non-existent. If you want to shoot your rifle, you have to handload, and you have to find bullets that work. Two that do are the Hornady 160-gr. RN (the traditional bullet) and the Lapua 155-gr. MEGA.
Of course, this rules out flattening the trajectory by using a lighter bullet. My all-time favorite 6.5, the Nosler 140-gr. Partition, will not work at all. Too short, and the spitzer tip does not lift the cartridge. They jam every time.
By accident, I came across another bullet that works like a charm: Lapua’s 140-gr. Naturalis. Here is a case of pure serendipity. Because the Naturalis is copper instead of lead, it is long for its weight, so it can be seated to the right length to function and still be held firmly by the case neck. As well, it has a very blunt tip, and the shoulder of this tip comes in contact with the feed ramp right where it should. Cartridges feed like a dream. And, being lighter, they can be loaded to higher velocity to flatten the trajectory a little bit and lengthen effective range.
The original Naturalis (NPL6101) worked beautifully, and I was kicking myself for not laying in a supply when I heard that it had been redesigned to be more streamlined. This, I assumed, would compromise its effectiveness. However, the new bullet (NPL6203) works every bit as well, in spite of having a slight taper and a curved nose.
For anyone with a Model 1903, who wants the pure animal pleasure of using one of the best hunting rifles ever designed, but also wants more modern ballistic performance, this is the answer.