Steyr SM12 6.5×55 Swede: Reviewing an Old-World Combo 

A classic hunting rifle in a classic caliber that speaks to hunting’s Golden Age
John B. Snow Avatar
Steyr SM12 6.5x55 Swede on bench
The Steyr SM12 blends modern manufacturing techniques with classic gun making artistry. John B. Snow

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Like a lightsaber, the Steyr SM12 is an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. The hogsback walnut stock with Bavarian cheekpiece, butterknife bolt handle, and light spiraling on the barrel — the telltale marks of cold-hammer forging — point to the rifle’s Old-World origins. And if its pedigree were ever in doubt, that it sports a single set trigger firing the most iconic of European big-game calibers — the 6.56×55 Swede — should settle the matter. The Steyr SM12 is old school.

It comes in three stock configurations and is available in many short-, long- and magnum-length calibers. For my money, the Halfstock Standard version I tested is the most appealing, though the others have their charms. The full-length “Fullstock” has aristocratic snob appeal to spare and in “Mountain” trim the rifle is lithe and delicate.

Aside from the stock profiles, the other difference between these trims is their length. The Standard rifles all have 22-inch barrels, while the Fullstock and Mountain version of the Steyr SM12 have 20-inch barrels. The Magnums come with 25-inch tubes.

Steyr SM12 Halfstock Standard Features and Specs

  • Cartridges: 6.5×55 Swede (tested), 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Win., 7mm-08 Rem., .270 Win., and .30-06
  • Barrel: 22 inch, cold-hammer forged, threaded ½-28, 1:7.9 twist
  • Action: Push-to-cock, 4-lug (two rows of two) bolt action
  • Capacity: 4+1 detachable box magazine
  • Stock: European walnut with ebony tip
  • Finish: Proprietary Mannox finish
  • Trigger: Single set trigger
  • Trigger pull: 1 pound, 11 ounces (4.8 ounces in “set” mode)
  • Weight: 7 pounds, 9 ounces (measured)
  • Length: 43 ¾ inches
  • Price: $3,499

Key Features

  • Embodies classic European design elements
  • Push forward set trigger system
  • Manual push-to-cock arming and safety mechanism
  • Two-stage magazine for easy feeding of single rounds
  • Action rated to withstand 120,000 psi of pressure without damage

Review Highlights

  • Excellent craftsmanship
  • Smooth operation
  • Great ergonomics
  • Traditional aesthetics
  • Accuracy:  2.094 inches (Average of 40 5-shot groups with 7 different types of ammo)

Configuration As Tested

Best Performing Ammunition

One thing about the 6.5×55 Swede is the relative scarcity of factory ammunition. I had to scrounge to find ammo from Nosler and Hornady. To get the most from this venerable cartridge you’re going to want to consider reloading. Not surprisingly, the best results I had were with ammo I made myself.

Hornady136-grain Lapua Scenar42.5 grains N555Fed. 2103.065 in.2429 fps1.358 inches (Average of five 5-shot groups)
Nosler140-grain Nosler RDF42.0 grains H4350Fed. 210M3.025 in.2624 fps1.628 inches (Average of four 5-shot groups)
Nosler95-grain Hornady V-Max42.0 grains StaBall MatchFed. 2102.900 in.2913 fps1.634 inches (Average of four 5-shot groups)

Steyr SM12: Traditional Hunter

High-tech hunting rifles are the rage right now — and have been for many years. Hunters and shooters have an endless fascination with rifles made from lightweight materials like carbon fiber, magnesium, aluminum, and titanium that make them easy to carry for mountain hunting, as well as rifles that are optimized for hitting targets at distances that would have seemed impossible a generation ago. I count myself among those who are intrigued by these tools.

The Steyr SM12 belongs to neither camp. It is so out of style that if you wanted to attach something as newfangled as a bipod you would have to remove the front sling buckle that comes attached to the forend.

And truth be told, there isn’t a bipod made that would be at home on the stock. The Schnabel forend — tipped in rich, dark ebony — is contoured for the human hand, not some artificial support.

Steyr SM12 grip detail
The fish scale checkering on the grip and forend of the Steyr SM12 is attractive and functional.

John B. Snow

Fish Scale Checkering

To drive this point home, the stock is checkered with an effective and attractive fish scale pattern. There are laser-cut panels on either side of the forend and on either side of the grip. The grip is deeply radiused and finished with an ebony grip cap, within which a metal oval bearing the Steyr logo is perfectly inletted.

The grip also has a bit of a palm swell on its right side, filling the shooter’s hand and placing the trigger naturally under the index finger.

Enhancing the stock’s unapologetically right-handed design is the raised cheekpiece that slants off the left side of the buttstock. The cheekpiece is finished with three folds carved into the wood and is cut in the Bavarian style, which curves at the front so that its lines flow into the grip and has a nearly straight drop at the rear.

The other type of cheekpiece you’ll often see on rifles with a hogsback comb is the German style, which is a raised oval.

The stock on the Steyr SM12 has a hogsback comb and Bavarian cheekpiece.

John B. Snow

Hogsback Comb vs. American Classic

The hogsback has a humped comb in contrast to the American Classic, which has a flat comb. A true hogsback gives the rifle significant drop at the butt to align the shooter’s eyes with iron sights, while the flat American Classic comb keeps the shooter’s head positioned higher and is optimized for use with scopes.

The Steyr SM12 is a bit sneaky in this regard. The rifle doesn’t come with iron sights, unless you order them special. Knowing that the majority of their customers are going to run an optic on the rifle, Steyr kept the drop to a minimum. The curve in the hogsback comb slopes up along 75 percent of its length before dropping for just the last 25 percent.

In this way the designers let the shooter have their cake and eat it too. The rifle maintains the traditional look of an open-sighted rifle for driven game yet positions the shooter’s head high enough to work with a scope.

The butt is fitted with a thin rubber recoil pad that is effective and looks good. It is joined to the stock with a thin spacer and shows a high level of craftsmanship for how well it is fitted to the wood.

When it comes to good looks, however, the real star of the show is the European walnut the stock is made from. The oil finish on my sample brings out the depth of the figure in the wood. It has an appeal that no synthetic stock, no matter how expertly executed, can mimic.

The stock is lovely on the inside as well. The inletting is clean and precise. It has dual aluminum bedding pillars with a thin, nearly translucent, layer of bedding compound applied evenly around them. This allows the stock and action to mate up in a consistent and strong manner and is another example of the traditional gun maker’s hand work that goes into the Steyr SM12.

The cocking piece is intuitive and easy to operate.

John B. Snow

Steyr SM12 Action

European rifle makers place great stock in the smooth operation of their actions, more so than raw accuracy. Much of their hunting culture revolves around driven game, so the speed with which a hunter can run a rifle trumps its ability to print tiny groups.

How deftly a rifle handles is a combination of many factors, including stock shape, the sighting system it uses, the ergonomics of the safety, trigger and bolt handle, and how the rifle balances between the hands. But all those qualities are for naught if the action has a heavy bolt lift or tends to bind and chatter in the receiver.

Full-Diameter Bolt

The bolt on the Steyr SM12 has two rows of two lugs that are machined into a full-diameter bolt body. The coatings on the bolt and in the receiver are pretty slick. And because the bolt body fills the raceway in the action and is well supported by the amount of material in the rear part of the action (from the back of the ejection port to where the receiver ends) the bolt travels easily back and forth.

I was unable to make the bolt bind or hesitate even when putting an exaggerated amount of lateral pressure on the bolt handle when running the action. After I put about 80 rounds through the rifle the bolt developed a minimal amount of resistance from the accumulated fouling. After a spritz of gun solvent and a wipe with a rag, however, the action was back to its glass-smooth self.

Manual Cocking System

Actions with manual push-to-cock arming and safety mechanisms are more common in Europe than the U.S., though they’ve been slowly making headway with American hunters who’ve purchased certain rifles from Sako, Blaser, Sauer, and Mauser.

The Steyr SM12 has a two-position tang-mounted toggle that sits naturally under the thumb of the trigger hand and doesn’t take much force to push forward. When slid to the forward, armed, position the cocking piece reveals a red circle, indicated the rifle is set to “fire.” Within the cocking piece is a button that when pushed decocks the rifle, returning it to its original position, and uncovering a white circle to indicate “safe.”

The system is intuitive and easy to operate. I had no issues starting with the rifle in the low ready position and cocking it while bringing it up to my shoulder. Likewise, returning the rifle to “safe” soon became second nature.

Steyr SM12 bolt detail
The bolt head has four lugs and a plunger style ejector.

John B. Snow

Running the Steyr SM12

The butterknife bolt handle on the rifle isn’t particularly long, but the way it is shaped, with a bit of an outward bend at the end, provides ample purchase and plenty of leverage when opening the action, extracting an empty, and chambering a fresh cartridge.

During the practical portion of my evaluation, I had no issue quickly relieving the magazine of its contents and making accurate hits on steel plates at 100, 200, 300, and 430 yards. This is a rifle that likes to be run fast and doesn’t feel at all awkward or unwieldy when pushed hard.

One detail I really like on the SM12 is the orientation and relative positioning of the lugs, extractor, and ejector. When the bolt handle is lifted, and the bolt rotates out of battery, the lugs are positioned at 6 and 12 o’clock. This gives the lower bolt lug plenty of engagement to pick up the top round in the double-stack magazine, which it did without fail during my testing.

The extractor is situated just to the left of the top lug in the 10:30 position, while the plunger ejector is lined up on the opposite side of the bolt face at 4:30. This propels the brass up and out of the oval ejection port at a 45-degree angle in a positive and reliable manner.

Steyr SM12 trigger assembly
The trigger group on the Steyr SM12 is large and complex and includes the manual cocking mechanism.

John B. Snow

Bench Shooting: Set Trigger and Two-Position Magazine

I spent many hours with the rifle at the bench gathering accuracy data, which is detailed below. Two things that make the Steyr SM12 a pleasure to shoot from the bench are its set trigger and two-position magazine.

Set triggers were incredibly popular back in the day. They work a couple different ways, either with a two-trigger setup where one trigger cocks the second trigger, which takes very little pressure to release, or with a single trigger that is pushed forward to “set” it.  When set it needs only a light touch to trip it. This latter system is what the SM12 has.

The interesting thing about these set triggers is that they don’t alter the amount of effort required to release the sear. Instead, the trigger gets a literal spring-loaded running start at the trigger mechanism and slams into it with enough momentum to overcome the sear engagement and fire the rifle.

When setting the trigger on the Steyr, it moves about 3/8 inches forward before clicking into place. It requires only 4.8 ounces ounces of pressure to fire the rifle this way, compared to the 1 pound 11 ounces of the trigger in its normal position.

To “unset” the trigger without shooting it you simply decock the rifle by depressing the button on the cocking piece.

The detachable box magazine has a second set of teeth that lets the user lower it a fraction of an inch in order to easily single-load rounds.

John B. Snow

The other feature on the rifle that makes it bench friendly is the two-position magazine. When inserted fully the magazine operates normally, but you can push the release tabs on either side of the magazine and lower it by about 5mm (.19 inches) to a second setting. When in this position the bolt won’t pick up the top round in the magazine allowing you to single-load rounds instead.

This is a remnant from an old military requirement where a soldier might need to load a different type of ammo on the fly and doesn’t have any practical application for the modern shooter other than making single loading more convenient. It’s another charming reminder of the rifle’s venerable design and heritage.

Granddaddy of Big Game Cartridges: 6.5×55 Swede

Speaking of venerable, few cartridges can match the 6.5×55 Swede when it comes to O.G. status. It was developed back in 1891 as a joint venture between Sweden and Norway and officially entered service as the military round for both countries in 1894. Though its official name is the 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser, the firm Mauser had nothing to do with the creation of the cartridge.

I won’t delve too deeply into the history of the Swede other than to note that it has earned its stripes on the battlefield, in Olympic competition and other high-level rifle matches, and has a sterling reputation as a hunting round, being used for everything from moose to grouse.

With a track record like that you can understand why 6.5×55 Swede fans get their lederhosen in a pretzel when heathens like me sing the praises of the upstart 6.5 Creedmoor and other trendy rounds based on Modern Cartridge Design.

Though the Steyr SM12 is offered in the 6.5 Creed and other newcomers like the 7mm-08, .308 Win., and .270 (the .30/06 gets a pass because even though it was developed in the 20th Century it is a two-time World War champ) I was never tempted to test the rifle in anything other than the 6.5×55.

Swede vs. Creed

At risk of being canceled by the International Order of Saint Hubertus, I must confess that the performance of my rifle likely suffered by going this route. Sorry, fellas, but the 6.5×55 Swede can’t do everything the 6.5 Creed can, even if I “do my part.”

The 6.5×55 Swede doesn’t have the same degree of inherent accuracy as the Creed and that showed during my accuracy testing. Even when using meticulously crafted handloads with high-quality components, the Swede isn’t on par with the Creed.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some truly accurate rifles out there in the round. Of course there are. And to be clear the performance I got is still more than adequate for hunting at typical distances. But where it is difficult to produce an inaccurate 6.5 Creed, an off-the-shelf Swede that shoots bug-hole groups is a rarity.

Steyr SM12 Accuracy

For factory ammo, I was limited to the three loads I could get my hands on. Those were Nosler 140-grain Ballistic Tips, Nosler 120-grain E-Tips, and Hornady 140-grain SSTs. The 140-grain Ballistic tips turned in 5-shot groups that averaged 2.280 inches. The Hornady 140-grain SST groups were about the same, averaging 2.422 inches. The Nosler 120-grain E-Tips opened up to 2.639 inches on average.

By today’s standards, none of these results are impressive. All told I put 21 groups downrange with the factory loads and collected the brass to reload.

A batch of the author’s 6.5×55 Swede reloads to test in the Steyr SM12.

John B. Snow

Reloading the 6.5×55 Swede

I selected four different bullets for the reloads: two match bullets (Lapua 136-grain Scenar and Nosler 140-grain RDF), a big-game bullet (Nosler 140-grain Partition), and a varmint bullet (Hornady 95-grain V-Max). I used three types of powder (H4340, StaBall Match, and N555) and two primers (Federal 210s and Federal 210Ms).

Reloading data for the Swede is already mild. The maximum SAMMI pressure is 55,000 psi, while the 6.5 Creedmoor is rated for 62,000 psi. The reason for this is the number of older military actions that aren’t built to the same level as modern rifle actions.

I picked charge weights that were in the middle of the pack and shot multiple 5-shot groups, which I aggregated into 20-shot groups. I did this with Hornady’s shot-analysis tool on their 4DOF app, which also calculates mean radius.

I dispensed powder on my SuperTrickler, which is one of the best powder throwers on the market in terms of its speed, accuracy, and versatility. All my powder charges were within +/- .02 grains of powder, which is roughly equal to a single kernel of H4350, Varget, H1000, N555 or similar extruded powder.

I used a Redding Premium die set on my Redding T-7 turret press to resize, decap, prime and seat bullets.

TypeBulletPowder5-Shot Avg.20-Shot GroupMean RadiusVelocityES SD
HandloadNos. 140-gr RDF42.0 gr. H43501.628 in. 1.94 in. 0.61 in.2625 fps23.5 fps8.7 fps
HandloadLap 136-gr Scn42.5 gr. N5551.358 in. 2.06 in.0.53 in.2428 fps74.5 fps24.5 fps
HandloadHrn. 95-gr V-Max42.0 gr. StaBall Match1.539 in.2.3 in.0.50 in.2913 fps104 fps22.9 fps
FactoryNos. 140-gr BTn/a2.280 in.2.79 in.0.93 in. 2526 fps55.6 fps16.4 fps
FactoryHrn. 140-gr SSTn/a2.422 in.3.30 in.0.96 in.2546 fps66.8 fps18.1 fps
HandloadNos. 140-gr Part41.5 gr. H43502.260 in.3.37 in.0.97 in.2608 fps44.2 fps12.2 fps
FactoryNos. 120-gr ETn/a2.639 in.4.00 in.0.96 in.2714 fps76.8 fps22.65 fps

A Note On Outdoor Life’s Accuracy Data

If you’ve read Outdoor Life firearms reviews before you might notice two extra data points in this chart. One is a 20-shot group and the other is mean radius. Both are calculated by overlaying consecutive 5-shot groups and using the group analysis tool in Hornady’s 4DOF app. The chart above is sorted by the 20-shot groups, from smallest to largest.

In the more than two decades I’ve been at Outdoor Life, we’ve always used a five-shot protocol to describe accuracy, with a couple exceptions. (With some competition rifles we’ve shot 10- or 20-shot groups, and with some dangerous-game rifles in heavy safari calibers we shot 3-shot groups.) This has been our standard and we’ve talked about its value in contrast with three-shot groups.

However, we’ve come to learn that five-shot groups are too small to correctly ascertain accuracy, and that 20-shot groups provide more statistically valid data.

This isn’t our opinion. This is based on the facts that underlie the science of statistical analysis and it has been backed up by a mountain of real-world data that’s been gathered by the ballisticians at Hornady. If you want to take a trip down that rabbit hole, start with the podcast, “Your Groups Are Too Small.”

We’ve always prided ourselves on the quality of information we gather and disseminate. We don’t make excuses for the guns. We don’t filter out “fliers.” And we shoot until we feel like we’ve got enough data to support what we write.

That said, we’ve concluded that we have more work to do if we’re going to serve our readers to the best of our abilities. It’s going to involve even more shooting and spending a lot more time crunching data. But we think it is worth the effort.

What Is Mean Radius?

The idea of mean radius is simple and powerful. It is the average distance from the center of your group that your shots impact. The smaller the mean radius, the better your firearm shoots. What’s particularly significant about it, compared to average group size, is that it is a predictive tool, rather than one that just tells you what happened — which is what group size does.

A group just records the spread of the two worst shots — those that are farthest apart. That doesn’t tell you what might happen in the future. Mean radius, on the other hand gives you an average that applies to subsequent shots.

If that seems confusing or counterintuitive, think of it in terms of muzzle velocity. Let’s say we record 20 shots measuring muzzle velocity. The difference between the two worst shots — the fastest and slowest — is our extreme spread, which is analogous to the extreme spread we use to define group size. For argument’s sake, let’s say the average speed of the 20 shots is 3000 fps. And let’s say the slowest shot was 2800 fps and the fastest shot was 3200 fps. All the other 18 shots were within a few fps of 3000, giving us an overall average of 3000 fps and a standard deviation (SD) of 50 fps.

While the extreme spread (group size) in this example is 400 fps, that doesn’t provide any insight into what future shots might register. Instead, we need to turn to the SD, which is a calculation based on all the shots. The SD is a predictive tool (not just a historical record of what happened) that we can use to anticipate the speed of our bullets in the future.

Statistical analysis tells us that about 68 percent of our shots will be within one SD of our average (mean). While 95 percent will be within two SDs of the mean. And 99 percent will be within three SDs.

Knowing this, we can predict that more than half our shots will fall between 2950 fps and 3050 fps, while 19 out of 20 shots will range from 2900 to 3100 fps. The extreme spread told us nothing beyond what happened once.

While mean radius isn’t exactly the same as SD, like SD it has predictive value.

Mean radius won’t supplant group size anytime soon (if ever) for most shooters. But a savvy minority of trigger pullers will start to use it, while gathering larger, more relevant, sample sizes with their shooting data.

My colleague Tyler Freel has an excellent story on mean radius that you should check out if you’re curious to learn more.  

Interpreting The Steyr SM12 Accuracy Data

The three handloads at the top of the chart are all within spitting distance of each other with respect to their precision, with the mean radius of the 95-grain Hornady V-Max edging out the others. I’d happily keep shooting any of them, but I plan to load another batch of the 136 Lapua Scenars and 140 RDFs with H4350. I’d expect to see good SDs (note that while the groups with the 140 Partitions weren’t particularly good, the H4350 delivered consistent velocities and SDs) and good mean radiuses.

I’ll also try loading Hornady 143-grain ELD-X bullets. In an original 6.5×55 Swede the 1:9 twist would do a marginal job stabilizing these bullets, but the Steyr has a faster 1:7.9 that should do well.

Steyr SM12 bedding detail
The Steyr SM12 is bedded around the aluminum pillars at the front and rear of the action.

John B. Snow

Steyr SM12 Pros and Cons

On the “pro” side of the ledger, the Steyr SM12 is a beautifully crafted firearm that blends excellent manufacturing processes with skilled handwork. The tight and even metal-to-wood fit along the barrel channel is a good example. The gap on either side is minute, but you can slide a piece of paper between the barrel and stock and watch it glide unimpeded until it contacts the recoil lug.

Other pros include the rifle’s reliability and smart ergonomics. Features like the set trigger and two-stage magazine are useful without being gimmicky.

As for cons, the big one is cost. I see and appreciate the complexity and craftsmanship that leads to its $3,500 price, but that is still a heavy lift for most hunters. I also wish the rifle were more accurate. It isn’t a competition rifle and don’t expect that level of precision, but I’d be much happier if I could find (or load) ammunition that printed 20-shot groups around 1.5 inches or better.

Final Thoughts on the Steyr SM12

This elegant rifle harkens to a bygone era. It is designed for the person who prioritizes tradition and who relishes the warmth of walnut and steel over carbon fiber and polymer — even if that choice costs performance. The SM12 is still a completely capable hunting tool, and I look forward to taking mine afield this fall. And the fact that I have to work harder to get the most out of it, frankly, appeals to me. It’s the difference between rolling up to the edge of an alfalfa field in the dark to pick off a cow elk at first light versus trekking into the mountains to locate a solitary bull.

There’s nothing wrong with opting for the easy route from time to time, whether in your choice of quarry or hunting rifle, but there’s value, too, in taking the path that’s followed by the few rather than the many.