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The .35 Whelen Centerfire Rifle Cartridge: Lasting Power for Big Game

The hard-hitting .35 Whelen centerfire rifle cartridge, born a century ago as medicine for big game up to and including Alaskan-Yukon moose and brown bears, continues to deliver.

The .35 Whelen Centerfire Rifle Cartridge: Lasting Power for Big Game

(Shooting Times Magazine photo)

Through the decades, numerous centerfire rifle cartridges have been here today, gone tomorrow flashes in the pan. The fact that the .35 Whelen has proven to possess an abundance of lasting power is a bit of a mystery considering it does not shoot as flat as a banjo string, pulverize large boulders at 1,000 yards, place bullets inside a quarter inch, or leap tall buildings in a single bound. What the .35 Whelen does do is reliably drop game ranging in size from whitetail deer to Alaska-Yukon moose at a level of recoil tolerated by the majority of hunters. I am never surprised to see rifles chambered for the old cartridge in hunting camps all across America and in a few other countries as well.

The .35 Whelen was made by necking .30-06 case to .35 caliber
In the early 1920s, James V. Howe developed the .35 Whelen cartridge by taking the .30-06 case before it had been necked at all and necking it to .35 caliber. (Shooting Times Magazine photo)

Then

Townsend Whelen mentioned the development of the cartridge in a couple of his books. On page 185 of a reloading manual titled Why Not Load Your Own? (1957) he states, “This cartridge was developed by James V. Howe in 1922 and named for the writer.” Among the loads included was the Hornady 270-grain roundnose (no longer available) pushed to 2,375 fps by a maximum charge of IMR 4350. There was also a 300-grain roundnose bullet made by Fred Barnes at 2,350 fps.

To quote Whelen in another of his books, The Hunting Rifle, which was published during the early 1940s, “In 1922 Mr. James V. Howe and the writer developed the .400 Whelen cartridge. This cartridge was constructed by taking the .30-06 case before it had been necked at all and necking it down to .40 caliber. About the time we completed development of this cartridge, I went on a long hunting trip in the Northwest, and when I returned, Mr. Howe showed me another cartridge that he had developed. The .30-06 case was necked to .35 caliber to use existing .35-caliber bullets.

Customized Whitworth Model ’98 Mauser for .35 Whelen
For about the past 30 years, this custom rifle on a Whitworth Model ’98 Mauser square-bridge action has been Layne’s favorite .35 Whelen for hunting game ranging in size from whitetail deer to Alaska-Yukon moose. (Shooting Times Magazine photo)

Mr. Howe asked my permission to call this cartridge the .35 Whelen, but he alone deserves credit for its development.”


At the time, Colonel Whelen was commanding officer of Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia where Howe was in charge of the machine shop tool room. An accomplished gunsmith and stockmaker, Howe left Frankford in 1923 and joined with Seymour Griffin to form Griffin & Howe, a shop that became widely known for building fine custom rifles, many on the 1903 Springfield action.


Whelen did play an important role in the creation of the cartridge. Among his many friends was Leslie Simpson, an American who was considered to be an authority on hunting the African continent. During one of their conversations, Simpson voiced his disappointment with the performance of his Winchester Model 95 lever action in .35 Winchester on lion and opined that a cartridge of the same caliber with a velocity of 2,500 to 2,600 fps in a bolt-action rifle would be ideal. Whelen mentioned this to Howe, and the rest is history.

John Eddy may have been the first hunter to use a rifle in .35 Whelen on dangerous game. In his book Hunting the Alaska Brown Bear (1930), he writes about taking three of the big animals during the 1920s. His rifle, built on a 1903 Springfield action and wearing a Lyman 48 receiver sight, was one of the first in .35 Whelen produced by Griffin & Howe. His ammunition was loaded with 250-grain bullets, but no mention is made of their maker.

.35 Whelen Accuracy and Velocity Chart

Through the decades, Remington has tamed more wildcats than any other company, and the .35 Whelen was added to the list in 1987 with the introduction of ammunition loaded with 200-grain Pointed Core-Lokt and 250-grain roundnose Core-Lokt bullets at respective velocities of 2,675 fps and 2,400 fps. The limited-edition Model 700 Classic with a 24-inch barrel (produced only during 1987) and the standard-production Model 7600 slide action with a 22-inch barrel were the first rifles chambered for it. The Model 7400 and Model 750 autoloaders in .35 Whelen came later. Another bolt-action rifle in .35 Whelen that springs to mind is the Ruger Model 77. Also included are the single-shot Ruger No. 1, the single-shot Thompson/Center Encore, the single-shot H&R Handi Rifle, the single-shot CVA Scout, and the single-shot Traditions Outfitter. There have been many factory rifles chambered in .35 Whelen over the decades.

Should a search for a .35 Whelen rifle prove unsuccessful, any good bolt-action rifle in .30-06 or other member of its cartridge family is a candidate for rebarreling. Reboring and rechambering the barrel to .35 Whelen is an option offered by JES Rifle Reboring in Cottage Grove, Oregon. In addition to bolt-action rifles, they perform the work on the Remington 760/7600 pump guns and 742/7400 autoloaders in .30-06 and .270 Winchester. I have seen a Browning BLR lever action and a Browning reproduction of the Winchester 1895 single shot so converted, but I do not know who did the work.




Through the years, I have hunted with several different rifles in .35 Whelen. One of the more accurate was a Remington Model 700 Classic that, among other things, accounted for a good elk. My handload for it pushed the Swift 225-grain A-Frame bullet along at 2,650 fps. Remington built a few Model 7600 carbines with 18.5-inch barrels, and I have used one of those along with Remington 200-grain factory ammo to take several feral pigs and a medium-size black bear.

35 Whelen Full-Length Resizing Die with a Tapered Expander Button
While unprimed .35 Whelen cases are available from several sources for hand-loading, they are easily formed from more readily available .30-06 cases by running them through a .35 Whelen full-length resizing die with a tapered expander button. (Shooting Times Magazine photo)

However, the .35 Whelen rifle I have taken to the field most was custom-built about 35 years ago by Butch Searcy. He began by modifying a square-bridge ’98 Mauser action to accept quick-detachable rings made at the time by Kimber of Oregon.

A quarter rib machined for the 22-inch Apex barrel has a folding adjustable sight, and the front sight, on a banded ramp, has a fairly large bead. To make sure 275-grain and 300-grain bullets made by Barnes in those days would stabilize, I requested a 1:12 rifling twist rate. Searcy also modified the bolt shroud for a Model 70-style safety and attached the front quick-detach sling-swivel receptacle out on the barrel. The barreled action then made its way to the custom shop of E.C. Bishop & Son of Warsaw, Missouri, for a niece piece of handcheckered walnut. A steel cross bolt just behind the recoil lug of the receiver reinforces the stock. A Redfield 1-4X scope in the Kimber rings took hunt-ready weight to 8.5 pounds, and on its very first outing, the rifle dropped a very good Alaska-Yukon moose and one of the best black bears I have ever spotted. Each fell to a single Swift 250-grain A-Frame leaving the muzzle at 2,475 fps.

Recommended


Range of .35-caliber bullet weights
The 1:12 twist rate of Layne’s custom ’98 Mauser does a good job of stabilizing the full range of .35-caliber bullet weights: 1 Barnes 180-Gr. TTSX-FB; 2 Barnes 200-Gr. TTSX-BT; 3 Hornady 200-Gr. FTX; 4 Speer 220-Gr. SPFN; 5 Swift 225-Gr. A-Frame; 6 Speer 250-Gr. Spitzer; 7 Swift 250-Gr. A-Frame; 8 Barnes 275-Gr. PSN; 9 Swift 280-Gr. A-Frame; 10 Barnes 300-Gr. RSN; and 11 Woodleigh 310-Gr. Weldcore. (Shooting Times Magazine photo)

Now

The ammunition is presently cataloged by Barnes, Remington, Nosler, Federal, Hornady, Buffalo Bore, HSM, DoubleTap, and Choice Ammunition. Among those loaded with 200-grain bullets, Hornady Superformance tops them all in velocity by a considerable margin. Rated at 2,920 fps, it clocked an amazing 2,962 fps from the 22-inch barrel of my custom Mauser. That load should be quite deadly on deer, but for use on moose, elk, and big bears, more strongly constructed bullets are needed. For hunting those big-game animals, Federal ammunition loaded with the 225-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Barnes ammunition loaded with the 200-grain TTSX are a couple of the better choices.

The .35 Whelen is an excellent candidate for handloading. Unprimed cases are available from several sources, or you can do as we all did when the cartridge was a wildcat and run .30-06 cases through a .35 Whelen full-length resizing die with a tapered expander button. In the old days, I used unfired match .30-06 brass available on the military surplus market, and its quality was excellent.

A number of powders are suitable for use in the .35 Whelen, and there was a time when I mostly used IMR 4064. It is still a good choice, but I have since burned more Reloder 15 than anything else. Accuracy is usually quite good, and shot-to-shot velocity variation is minimal. But as illustrated in various reloading manuals, many other propellants, including Varget, W748, Accurate 2460, and VihtaVuori N140, work quite well. Standard-force primers, such as the Federal 210 and CCI 200, deliver enough spark to ignite most powders, but the Federal 215 and CCI 250 sometimes deliver more uniform velocities with the various spherical propellants. This especially holds true when the ammunition is subjected to frigid temperatures during a wintertime hunt.

Factory-loaded .35-caliber rifle cartridges
Through the decades, a lot of factory-loaded .35-caliber rifle cartridges have been introduced, but due to the greater number of different factory rifles chambered for the .35 Whelen, it has proven to be the most successful: 1 .35 Whelen; 2 .35 Remington; 3 .358 Winchester; 4 .350 Rem. Mag.; 5 .35 Winchester; 6 .35 Newton; 7 .350 G&H Mag.; and 8 .358 Norma Mag. (Shooting Times Magazine photo)

When handloading for deer and other game similar in size, fairly soft bullets like the 200-grain pointed InterLock from Hornady and the 220-grain SPFN from Speer should be excellent choices. The Hornady 200-grain FTX can be used, but since it is constructed to expand at slower .35 Remington impact velocities, damage to the eating part of a deer might be a bit much.

Moving to the opposite extreme, if I were to take on a brown bear in the alder thickets of Alaska, my ammo would be loaded with the 250-grain or 280-grain A-Frame from Swift. Due to a thin jacket and a soft lead core, the 310-grain Woodleigh expands to such a large frontal diameter that it does not penetrate as deeply as the Swift bullets. And then we have bullets constructed to drive deep on moose and elk with a bit less recoil. They include the Barnes 200-grain TSX and 200-grain TTSX-BT and the Swift 225-grain A-Frame.

For a friendly practice load, cast the 204-grain Lyman #358315 from scrap wheel weights and drive it to a velocity of 1,900 fps or so with IMR 4227.

The 9.3x62mm Mauser is the .35 Whelen’s biggest competition among factory-loaded cartridges of its powder capacity, and worldwide, it is far more popular. I also have a rifle chambered for that one, have taken game with it, and am quite fond of it as well. But I have yet to meet a big-game animal that could tell which of the two cartridges sent the bullet it was shot with.

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