May 22, 2023
In about 1935 a migration to bolt-action rifles and “rimless” cartridges occurred, and although Winchester had a rifle for that (its newly introduced Model 70), the company wasn’t ready to let go of its lever-action legacy.
For around 60 years, America’s favorite repeating rifles were all lever guns. And while the doughboys who had returned from the Great War had a new understanding of rifle and cartridge performance, lever-action rifles were still second to none in popularity.
But the writing was on the wall, especially in terms of cartridge performance. Lever-action rounds, such as the .30-30, .32 Special, .33 WCF, .38-55, and .45-70, were all quite good inside 150 yards—or even 200 yards—but past that, they just couldn’t compare. A bolt action in .30-06 or a European round like the 7x57mm, 8x57mm, or .303 British shot flatter and made connecting at 300 yards feasible. Even the .30 Gov’t (.30-40 Krag) in Winchester’s box-magazine-fed Model 1895 lever action trumped all more traditional lever actions.
A high-velocity cartridge for traditional tube-fed lever guns was in order. Winchester set out to produce one. The result took form as the .348 Winchester.
Designed and introduced in conjunction with the Model 71 lever action (check out my “The Shootist” column where I detail a pristine Browning Model 71 made in 1986), the .348 Win. cartridge fired a true .34-caliber projectile (0.340 on the lands, 0.348 across the grooves). Light 150-grain bullets exited the muzzle at an astonishing (for a lever action) 2,890 fps; almost exactly what similar-weight .30-06 bullets were achieving.
Of course, since the host rifle utilized a tubular magazine, those 150-grain bullets were flatnosed. And they were significantly larger in diameter than .30-caliber pills. Because they were short and blunt, they were much less aerodynamic. However, the average rifleman of that era was less concerned about ballistic coefficient than we are today.
Even so, it was soon observed that past 150 yards or so the 150-grain bullets ran out of steam pretty quickly.
Winchester also introduced factory loads featuring 200-grain bullets (2,530 fps) and 250-grain bullets (2,350 fps). Savvy shooters gravitated toward them, particularly the 200-grain projectile. It provided plenty of authority for deer- and elk-size game, had a reasonably flat trajectory to 300 yards, and was easier on the shoulder than the 250-grain load.
North in Alaska and Canada, the 250-grain load quickly proved excellent for across-the-board use on big game, ideal for caribou and moose and black bears and musk ox, and pretty capable on grizzlies and even brown bears. While hard to prove, it’s likely that the bulk of hard-used rifles chambered in .348 Win. migrated up to the Last Frontier.
The .348 Win. is unique. As far as I know, it’s the only cartridge in the world of its caliber. It features a huge amount of body taper, so it feeds with unparalleled smoothness. Created by necking down the massive .50-110 WCF, it has a rim diameter of 0.610 inch—huge by today’s standards. Even the .404 Jeffery case that so many modern fat centerfire cartridges use has a rim diameter of just 0.543 inch.
Of course, the body of the .348 Win. is significantly smaller than the rim, tapering from 0.553 inch to 0.485 inch at the shoulder.
Overall case length is 2.255 inches (slightly shorter than the 2.40-inch length of the parent case). Water capacity is about 76 grains. The designated rifling twist rate is 1 turn in 12 inches.
The cartridge’s 0.605-inch-long neck is a remnant of cartridge design from the lead-bullet era and is longer than necessary. However, it did provide tinkerers with plenty of canvas on which to paint. “Improved” versions, such as the .348 Winchester Ackley Improved, sprung up and offered a 200-fps velocity increase. Eventually, the .348 Win. case was wildcatted all the way from .30 caliber back up to .50 caliber. One was dubbed the .50 Alaskan, and it featured a straight case optimized for smokeless-powder use rather than the blackpowder design of the original .50-110 WCF. I have heard, but have not confirmed, that .348 Win. cases are made with thicker, stronger walls, so they were more suitable for the higher pressures of the .50 Alaskan than .50-110 WCF cases.
In retrospect, when picking a bullet diameter for its do-all cartridge, Winchester would have been better off to use a 0.358-inch-diameter bore. Flatnose and roundnose 0.358-inch bullets abound, and it would have been much simpler for handloaders to source components. However, the company intended to drive bullets much faster than the .35 Remington, which was in common use at the time. Perhaps wise heads correctly concluded that the soft, thin-jacketed .35-caliber bullets would not stand up to high impact velocities.
In addition to nearly 50,000 original Model 71 Winchester lever-action rifles, quite a few reproductions also have been manufactured. Around 13,000 were made under the Browning name back in the 1980s and are considered by many enthusiasts to be the ultimate “shooter” Model 71s. Made in Japan’s Miroku facility, they are beautifully put together and tend to be more accurate than the originals.
Winchester offered a run of Model 71 rifles from 2011 to 2013, also built in the Miroku facility. These have tang safeties and rebounding hammers. As a result, purists tend to prefer the Browning reproductions, which have the traditional halfcock notch/safety.
Uberti made a handful of Hi-Wall rifles chambered in .348 Win., and Pedersoli’s website currently lists an 86/71 model chambered in .348 Win. Aside from that, as far as I know, only random custom rifles—usually single shots—have been chambered for the cartridge.
Winchester Model 71 rifles quit production around 1957. Eventually, Winchester discontinued all but the 200-grain factory load. Today, the company still lists a 200-grain Power-Point in its Super X line, but it’s very hard to find. Over the years, Remington, Grizzly Ammunition, and others briefly manufactured .348 Win. ammo, but those loads have all gone extinct.
Without doubt the most cutting-edge and possibly the most versatile factory load on the market is Hornady’s 200-grain FTX LEVERevolution ammo. It utilizes the company’s soft FTX tip technology, enabling the use of a pointed bullet without detonating primers in the lever action’s tubular magazine. Advertised velocity is 2,560 fps. Muzzle energy is an impressive 2,910 ft-lbs. When zeroed at 200 yards, the bullet impacts 2.6 inches high at 100 yards and just 11 inches low at 300 yards, giving the load legitimate 300-yard capability in the field.
Unfortunately, in the current ammo drought, Hornady is focused on cranking out bread-and-butter ammunition, rather than interesting-but-obsolete offerings. So for now, unless you dredge up a box or two in a little, out-of-the-way gunshop or find some online, you can’t get Hornady .348 Win. ammo.
Candidly, it’s a challenging time to become a .348 Win. enthusiast. Thankfully, there are some handloading options (which I’ll get to in a moment), and Buffalo Bore usually has in stock its outstanding “Heavy .348 Winchester” load that pushes 250-grain bullets.
Buffalo Bore’s load is generated for those who use the .348 Win. in its favorite realm: the Far North, among big bears and big moose. It’s also prime for elk and big black bears in the Lower 48. Loaded currently with Barnes Original 250-grain projectiles, it’s rated at 2,250 fps of muzzle velocity, generating 2,810 ft-lbs of energy. It is a more authoritative load than any 200-grain offering.
As Buffalo Bore company owner Tim Sundles suggests on the website, the load “…is very capable of killing/stopping aggressive interior grizzly, which rarely weigh more than 600 pounds. Coastal grizzly, known as Brown Bear…can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. I see our .348 Winchester load as MINIMUM for such large coastal grizzly.” Sundles also recommends the 250-grain Buffalo Bore load as ideal for elk and moose to 250 yards.
“Rolling your own” .348 Win. ammo is, well, the American thing to do. It cuts the rather significant cost of shooting this cool classic cartridge, and it adds some useful bullets to the load list.
Thankfully, Starline Brass makes and sells .348 Win. cases. You can purchase cases direct from Starline in bulk, or you can order in smaller quantities from retail shops.
Reloading dies are usually available but, as with all things shooting, are in short supply currently. RCBS recently made a fresh run, and I’ve ordered a set. Meanwhile, I’m using a vintage Hornady die set I found on eBay.
Use RCBS shellholder number 5 or Hornady shellholder number 25.
Before loading, “bump” size the case necks to remove any dings caused in storing and shipping. Then trim, chamfer gently, and deburr the first time using new cases. Don’t overdo the chamfer on the inside edge of the case mouths because a healthy crimp is necessary to hold bullets in place during recoil. An overzealous chamfer can act as a ramp up and out of the crimping groove, minimizing the crimp’s effectiveness.
I like to prime with Winchester Large Rifle (WLR) primers. They have hard primer cups, and that’s a benefit to big lever-action cartridges getting rigorously cycled through tubular magazines and up into chambers.
Medium burn-rate propellants, such as H4350, Varget, and IMR 4451, work well with the spectrum of bullet weights. Slower-burning powder like H4831 can be useful, too, as discussed later in the bulletseating section, and I’ve found it provides superbly consistent velocity, standard deviation, and accuracy with 250-grain projectiles.
Barnes, Hodgdon, Lyman, and Hornady all have reloading data for the .348 Win. Only Barnes and Hodgdon have data for 220-grain bullets, and no published, verified data is readily available for Cutting Edge’s 175-grain Lever Raptor (also listed as Safari Raptor). Since it’s a dense, monometal bullet, I use data for 200-grain bullets.
On that note, let’s talk bullets. To my dismay, Hornady no longer lists its 200-grain FTX online as a component bullet. I hope it will come back, but for now we can assume it’s at least temporarily discontinued. If you come across any, stock up.
Like nearly all bullets, .348-caliber projectiles are currently as scarce as hen’s teeth. However, Barnes still lists its 220- and 250-grain Original bullets. (The latter, by the way, are the projectiles used in Buffalo Bore’s Heavy .348 Win. ammo.)
As supply slowly catches up with demand, these should go back into production. With an admirable sectional density of .295—approaching that magic .300 number coveted by African dangerous-game hunters—the 250-grain versions are likely the best option for hard-hunting users of .348 Win. bullets, particularly on big-bodied game.
Woodleigh made 250-grain Weldcore .348 bullets. Unfortunately, the plant recently burned down, and word is that it’s unlikely to be rebuilt.
The only bullets I’ve found currently in stock are Cutting Edge’s Safari Raptor. Cutting Edge’s monometal projectiles are hard-hitting, deep-penetrating bullets that pair very well with potent lever-action cartridges. Two versions are available: a 175-grain Safari Raptor hollowpoint and a 200-grain Safari Solid. The latter does not expand at all; it’s designed to drive very, very deep. Both bullets are available in pure copper or in brass.
Most Cutting Edge bullets are designed to mushroom dramatically, with all petals shearing off and creating auxiliary wound channels. Brass is more brittle; copper more malleable. I’m not an expert with these bullets, but according to Cutting Edge’s Samantha Smitchko, shooters hunting in lead-restricted areas gravitate to copper because it’s readily recognized as lead-free.
Because it’s a proper bottlenecked cartridge, there’s no need to use a case neck expander, as is necessary when loading straight-wall lever-action cartridges. With cases charged with powder, seat bullets until the case mouth covers two-thirds of the crimping groove. For the most part there’s no need to fiddle with seating depth. As with all tube-fed rifle designs, Model 71s need a correct overall cartridge length to feed reliably and a robust crimp to prevent bullet push-back into the cases.
On that note, it’s worth considering using a powder that provides maximum case fill, ideally achieving a slightly compressed load. This will help support the bullet’s base and prevent push-back. It also tends to provide excellent velocity consistency as well. According to Hodgdon’s data, only two powders achieve this. Healthy doses of IMR 4451 are great for bullets in the lighter range; H4831 works beautifully for 250-grain bullets. Plus, you’ll get excellent velocities with those propellants when paired with those bullet weights.
Finally, apply a crimp. I prefer to crimp in a separate operation, after seating has been accomplished. Fewer rolled case mouths, bulged case necks, and marred bullet tips result.
To give you a look at some shooting results, I’ve repeated the same shooting chart here that accompanies my “The Shootist” column on the Browning Model 71.
If you’re planning on hunting with your hand-rolled ammo, it’s worth taking it to the range ahead of time and carefully cycling each round through the chamber. Lever-action cartridges can be finicky about chambering, and there’s not much worse than a bad jam while trying for a crack at a big buck, bull, or bear. Be sure to keep your muzzle safely downrange meanwhile.
In the final analysis, the .348 Winchester is outdated, and it’s poorly supported on the current market. However, it produces the highest velocity of all the traditional tube-fed lever-gun cartridges. As the last of Winchester’s great line of rimmed, lever-action cartridges, it was born with built-in cool factor, and it has more than enough power for nearly any game species on this continent.
.348 Winchester Specifications
- Parent Cartridge: .50-110 WCF
- Water Capacity: 76.0 grains filled to case mouth
- Overall Case Length: 2.255 in.
- Trim-To Case Length: 2.245 in.
- Max Cartridge Overall Length: 2.795 in.
- Rifling: 1:12 twist rate
- Primer: Large Rifle
- Pressure Limit: 43,000 CUP