The .35 Whelen: A Practical Powerhouse
January 12, 2018
Although the .35 Whelen is commonly assumed to have been designed by the legendary Col. Townsend Whelen, many astute researchers believe it was actually designed by James Howe, a toolmaker/gunsmith at Frankford Arsenal and later cofounder of Griffin & Howe, and named in honor of the colonel. It was originally spawned around 1922 and having Colonel Whelen's name attached to it certainly helped bring it celebrity. It was commercialized by Remington in 1988.
While its origins are shrouded in mystery, the .35 Whelen's strengths are clear. Created by simply necking up a .30-06 case to accept 0.358-inch-diameter projectiles, it's a superbly practical cartridge that fits in standard-length actions, is inexpensive and mild-mannered to reload, and, with correct bullet choice, is capable of cleanly taking almost anything that walks. All this at a minimum of recoil (my handloads range from 25.2 ft-lbs to 29.9 ft-lbs of recoil in an 8-pound rifle). Plus, for those who care about such things, four or five rounds will fit in a bolt-action magazine instead of the two or three that typically fit in a magnum rifle.
Interestingly, the .35 Whelen is considered by many knowledgeable engineers and shooters to have the maximum neck-up diameter feasible when using an otherwise unmodified .30-06 case. Necking it up much larger leaves such a minimal shoulder to headspace against that consistency is compromised. Of course, there is a solution to that: sharpen the shoulder and reduce the amount of case taper. However, that is a lot more work than simply necking up the .30-06.
When the .35 Whelen was developed, resources were few. World War I was over, the Great Depression ahead, and World War II already germinating. The Springfield 1903- and its .30-06 cartridge- was the rifle of the century at that point, and the ability to simply rebarrel it (or any other standard-length bolt action), chamber it appropriately (no modifications to boltface, follower, rails, or extractor are necessary), and easily form cartridge cases from .30-06 brass was important. Plus, the .35 Whelen performed decently with propellants designed for the .30-06.
Because Remington chambered pump-action and semiauto rifles in .35 Whelen, factory ammo (and load data) is kept to rather modest pressures. It's an unfortunate disservice to .35 Whelen fans shooting strong bolt-action rifles because the cartridge is capable of considerably better performance than provided by almost all factory loads.
Shooters today enjoy an embarrassment of riches, and with the projectiles and propellants available, the .35 Whelen is far greater than it was at its birth almost 100 years ago- and it was pretty spectacular then.
Handloading the .35 Whelen
While its ancestry sometimes causes shooters and reloaders to default to .30-06 powders, because of its capacity-to-bore-diameter ratio, propellants engineered for the .308 Winchester are ideal and will eke more performance out of the .35 Whelen. For the heavier 225- and 250-grain bullets, IMR 4064 is superb. For 180- and 200-grain bullets, the cutting-edge IMR 8208 XBR provides unprecedented velocity at moderate pressure coupled with outstanding accuracy. Varget is also appropriate.
I've found considerable disparity in capacities between various brass manufacturers. While none of my favorite loads show any signs of high pressure, when loading for peak performance in my .35 Whelen, I prefer Nosler cases. They're consistent and have the highest capacity of those I've tested. Typically, I get from 98 percent load density to very slightly compressed loads with the powders I've listed.
It's important to note that I shoot a lot of maximum loads in my rifle, but I work up to them very carefully and tend to seat bullets out a good 0.10 inch farther than typical maximum overall length, which my rifle's chamber throat and magazine length allow. The result is a fair amount of additional internal capacity (which helps keep pressures safe) and less bullet jump before the projectile engages the rifling, which commonly aids accuracy. With the Barnes 200-grain TTSX, I leave one groove exposed and crimp in the second, which puts the bullet about 0.050 inch off the rifling.
If you prefer to seat your bullets not to kiss the rifling- or are loading a dense projectile like any of the all-copper bullets on the market- crimping the mouth of your cases may significantly reduce extreme spread and standard deviation numbers.
As for bullets, every major manufacturer offers several variations in 0.358-inch diameter. For game bigger than whitetails, avoid bullets designed specifically for the .35 Remington, as they tend to be very lightly constructed in order to expand adequately at the slower cartridge's minimal impact velocities.
The .35 Whelen does have a weakness. Almost all 0.358-inch-diameter bullets have low ballistic coefficient (BC) numbers. The cartridge produces velocities similar to the .30-06 with much heavier bullets, but those bullets just aren't as aerodynamic. As a result, most aficionados consider the .35 Whelen a 300-yard cartridge, and for the most part- and for most shooters- they're correct. However, there are exceptions.
My custom Remington Model 700 in .35 Whelen was built by Hill Country Rifles using a Benchmark barrel. While it shoots most bullets well, it really shines with the Barnes 200-grain TTSX and the Nosler 250-grain Partition. While I'd choose a heavier bullet for use on a hunt for big, toothy bears, the TTSX is my magic bullet for all-around hunting. Pushed to 2,910 fps with no signs of high pressure, the 200-grain TTSX carries 1,925 fps of bullet-expanding velocity to 500 yards, where it impacts with about 1,650 ft-lbs of energy. In drop and drift it's a ballistic twin to most 150-grain .30-06 loads, but it impacts much harder and has considerably greater frontal diameter.
.35 Whelen Authority
There's only one reason to neck a perfectly good .30-06 cartridge case up to .35 caliber. You want more authority. How much more authority can you gain? Let's look at some numbers, contrasting the .35 Whelen to its parent .30-06. The accompanying chart details bullet weight, velocity, and energy generated.
As you can see, the .35 Whelen generates from 20 to 26 percent more energy at the muzzle than the .30-06. Don't think that's a lot? Compare it to the legendary .375 H&H.
Comparing these numbers shows us that the .375 H&H offers about 32 to 36 percent more energy than the .30-06. It doesn't sound like a lot, yet practical experience has shown that's a very big difference indeed.
Another factor that enables the .35 Whelen to hit much harder than the .30-06 is frontal diameter. As the engineers tell me, increasing diameter increases capacity exponentially, so the seemingly small jump from 0.308 inch to 0.358 inch actually adds a bunch of surface area on the front of that bullet. Plus, that bigger bullet expands into a much bigger mushroom. For pure thumping effect, it makes an eyebrow-raising difference. There is one downside, though. That same bigger frontal area that does so much more damage encounters considerably more resistance than a smaller bullet, resulting in greater deceleration. Greater deceleration in general equals less penetration. Sometimes, choosing a tough bullet that minimizes expansion is the way to go.
For any commonly hunted game and a whole bunch of uncommonly big stuff, the .35 Whelen is a capable cartridge. It's below the legal threshold for elephant and buffalo (.375 in most African countries), and frankly, it's pretty marginal for those, along with hippo, Asian buffalo, rhino, and so forth, but for any other hooved game and the big cats and bears, it's very good indeed.
However, as mentioned, the importance of choosing the right bullet for the task is of vital importance with the .35 Whelen because of the dramatic difference in the various cartridges that 0.358-inch-diameter projectiles are designed for. Light-jacketed "soft" bullets designed for the .35 Remington may knock the stuffing out of a whitetail, but they definitely should not be used on a grumpy brown bear. On the other end of the stick, bullets like the Barnes 225-grain TSX and the Swift 250-grain A-Frame are tough projectiles that expand slowly, hold together even when encountering heavy bone, and penetrate deeply. They are ideal for big bears, moose, and so forth and actually work well on deer-size game if minimal meat damage is important to you, but they won't have a lightning-bolt effect on a whitetail.
A Gentleman of a Cartridge
With all the savage downrange ability that I'm attributing to the .35 Whelen, one might mistakenly get the idea that it's a rip-snorting cartridge with bite on both ends. It has some recoil, sure, but I've shot more than one lightweight .300 Win. Mag. that loosened the fillings in my teeth more. The .35 Whelen is a true gentleman of a cartridge, offering considerable performance at a very civilized cost. Like many big thumpers, its recoil is more of a push than a vicious smack.
Additionally, the .35 Whelen is, in my experience, a very easy cartridge to handload. It's not finicky about powder charge weights, is not prone to pressure spikes, and tends to do its best with whatever bullet you put in it. That's not to say that it shoots everything perfectly- for whatever reason, mine just won't shoot Nosler 225-grain AccuBonds accurately.
The .35 Whelen has one other great advantage. You'll shoot long and hard for many summers to burn the barrel out. Barrels heat slowly and hold accuracy well- at least mine does- over a long string of shots.
Odd as it may sound, I consider the .35 Whelen a far more useful sporting cartridge than the .308 Win., and in some ways it's more useful than the .30-06. It hits considerably harder but is just as easy and inexpensive to handload. Brass lost in the field during the heat of the moment can be left behind without regret because more is just a crank of the sizing press away.