Safari with a difference: Hunting plains game with a 6.5×55 rifle

Hunting Africa is all about big, shoulder-busting bores, right? Not necessarily. Thomas Nissen visits a PH who prefers something rather more diminutive

We get down and creep a few metres ahead under the thorny branches, then are forced to wait before we can again move forward. We are tracking a group of five blue wildebeest bulls somewhere in the dense bush right in front of us. Though they weigh about 250 kilos, we have not yet had any visual contact with them. What make the hunt even harder is that we need an unobstructed view for a shot, owing to the calibre we have picked for the hunt.

Low recoil, little meat damage,
good accuracy – what’s not to like?

Before the hunt, I asked the Professional Hunter at KZN Safaris in South Africa, Frank Smith, why he chose the 6.5×55 for such a daunting task. He said only one thing: “Just come with your 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, if you’re comfortable shooting with it. I have had only good experiences with ‘The Swedish Lady’.”

The calibre was introduced to the Norwegian and Swedish armies in 1894, and has been used in hunting ever since, proving its worth time and time again. It performs well on Scandinavian game of all sizes, from capercaillie up to moose. So – according to Frank Smith – it should also be great for hunting medium-sized African game.


“A fine shot with a small calibre is – according the PH – always preferable to a bad shot with a big calibre.”

Frank is in his mid-thirties. He has been hunting since he was four years old and been guiding trophy hunters since he was 16. He has hunted thousands of animals, from the biggest game to the very smallest. He has extensive experience with a wide variety of calibres, and he has personally, or with clients, taken more than 150 head of African game using the 6.5×55 calibre.

Frank guides another client into a successful shot with the Swedish

He has always been interested in individual calibres and bullets’ effect on wildlife in the bush, and made extensive research into ballistic and down-range performance. He’s not one to quote statistics at every opportunity about calibres and bullets, but he has a strong overview of the impact, advantages and disadvantages of a calibre such as 6.5×55 in the African bush. He considers a 250kg animal such as a kudu bull to be the upper limit of what the calibre can handle.

Frank has hunted and taken species like blesbok and springbok with ‘The Swedish Lady’. When unfortunate clients have wounded animals, he has followed them up with the 6.5×55. He has engaged a wide variety of game, such as impala, kudu and the small bushbuck, which is known for its propensity to attack.

Frank tells me that in his experience a greater percentage of wounds have occurred with calibres such as .375 Win Mag than they have with 6.5×55. Of course, this might be more down to psychology – the fright of recoil in the shot fired by clients without extensive experience in shooting such a large calibre – than because of the calibre itself. Frank is of the firm belief that trophy hunters who are nervous or inexperienced in shooting with large or medium-large calibres will reap great benefits from choosing to hunt African game with lesser calibres as 6.5×55. A fine shot with a small calibre is – according the PH – always preferable to a bad shot with a big calibre.

But won’t the shot game take longer death runs after a good shot from the 6.5×55? That is not what Frank’s experience has taught him. He has observed that game up to the size of a red hartebeest (approximately 180kg live weight) often have a shorter death sprint after a well-placed shot from a small calibre than they do after taking a shot from a major calibre. He does admit, though, that for larger species such as kudu it is probably the other way around.

‘The Swedish Lady’ gives – according to Frank – with the right bullet an exceptionally good penetration in the anatomy of animals up to the size of the kudu. On top of this, the calibre causes very little meat damage, which in a country like South Africa is considered a big plus. In addition, the ammunition is cheap as compared to many of the major calibres.

There are limitations. If a shot through the leaves, twigs or small branches is inevitable, which it can easily be when hunting in South African bush, Frank does recommend using larger, slow calibres. If it is manageable to find and shoot through holes in the vegetation, shooting with the 6.5×55 is no problem.

End game: Frank inspects the down-range performance of the bullet

You also have to select the right bullet. Frank prefers bullet types such as Swift A Frame and Barnes X, while bullets such as Nosler Ballistic tip are a no-go on African game. It is his experience that a bullet expanding too quickly does not leave much blood with which to track any wounded animal. In addition, there is a greater risk of wounding an animal if the soft bullet hits a twig or branch towards the goal.

If you choose ‘The Swedish Lady’ to hunt species larger than red hartebeest, you have – according Frank – to be a very accomplished shot. A trained expert shooter, with the right bullet, will be fully able to take game up to the size of a kudu bull. If you are not that good a shooter or comfortable with shooting from various positions, you should, according to the PH, probably choose a bigger calibre. You’ll just have to bear in mind the drawbacks of a big bore, including the strong recoil making it more difficult to follow up the first shot with a number two, if necessary – a issue that is greatly reduced with ‘The Swedish Lady’.

As we finally are within shooting range of the five animals, it is important to keep a cool head and see possibilities instead of limitations. Luckily, there are plenty of the former. After a moment, one of the bulls offers a shoulder shot through the V of some branches. The crosshair locks on the blue-striped shoulder, the finger curves… the bullet is well placed and deadly. After 60 metres tracking, we find the bull dead. Frank and The Swedish Lady have done it again.

Frank’s right that it is far better to take a confident shot from a relatively small calibre than a timid shot because of fear of recoil from a large calibre. The 6.5×55 is probably the calibre that has taken the greatest number of moose in Scandinavia. Kenneth Skoglund, who works for Norma Precision AB, believes it is difficult to estimate how many moose it has accounted for in Scandinavia today – partly because more and more people are moving to the .308 calibre instead of 6.5×55, and partly because the number of hunted moose has fallen in the past. However, 10-15 years ago he conducted a study on how many moose were taken with a 6.5×55, and at that time the number reached 60 per cent. So if the 6.5mm does not sound like much to you, remember that it has accounted for moose than any other cartridge, so it certainly packs a punch. It’s certainly a big-game calibre in the northern hemisphere – so why not in the southern one too?

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