Six Virginia death row inmates, one of them brandishing what a prison official called a "realistic looking" pistol made of cardboard, unsuccessfully tried to escape today from the state's troubled Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

Warden Toni Bair said guards "did not go for the bluff" and foiled the prisoners' effort to flee from the maximum-security prison near the North Carolina border. The prison last year was the scene of the nation's biggest escape of death row prisoners, an incident that embarrassed Gov. Charles S. Robb and led to changes in the state's prison system.

Officers responded to the ruse today "in textbook fashion . . . and followed established security procedures to the letter," said Bair.

Corrections officials would not reveal the names of the prisoners involved in the plot or say whether any of them were among those involved in the earlier escape.

Of the 25 men currently on death row at the prison, four were among the condemned killers who escaped with brothers James and Linwood Briley on May 24, 1984, tricking guards with a television set draped to appear to be a bomb. All of them were captured within 19 days and the Brileys were subsequently executed.

Fred Greene, assistant warden for operations, cited the control room officer, William S. Reese, for particular praise during today's incident. He said Reese "held in there" when the fake gun, which Greene said "you would perceive as a weapon," was pointed at him through a window.

When Reese failed to respond to the inmates' demands that he open a barred gate to the common area, Greene said, the prisoners "ignited tightly packed matches" and broke a window in the control room.

But by then, Greene said, other guards, summoned by an alarm sounded by Reese, arrived "with a show of deadly force," including shotguns, and the prisoners returned to their cells.

"No shots were fired, no one was hurt, and quite frankly, I feel very, very good about the response and professionalism of our officers" who were facing "desperate men looking for freedom," Greene said.

The prison's 320 inmates were "locked down" after the 11 a.m. incident, but later the prison returned to normal.

Greene said the incident will not deprive any inmates not involved in the escape attempt of the annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner or visits.

George Stoddart, spokesman for Robb, said the governor was informed of the incident and said that "everyone responded as they should have."

In the months that followed the 1984 escape, the prison continued to be the scene of trouble, including three uprisings in which inmates or guards were injured.

Last December, still seeking solutions to the crisis in the prison system, Robb named his third corrections director in three years, Allyn R. Sielaff. The new director quickly ordered management changes at Mecklenburg, which included hiring Bair, who had been deputy warden at the Utah State Prison in Salt Lake City.