January 07, 2020
By Joseph von Benedikt
For the first time in history, a metallic rifle cartridge has been engineered specifically to meet the needs of whitetail deer hunters in states restricted to using slug-firing shotshells or straight-wall rifle cartridges.
If you’re not familiar with the current straight-wall cartridge movement, here is the bare-bones version. Several states that previously restricted general-season deer hunters to using only slug and/or buckshot-firing shotguns have recently legalized the use of certain straight-wall metallic rifle cartridges for use on deer. These states include Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Other states are seeing the light and slowly getting on board.
The advantages of straight-wall cartridges over slug-firing shotshells are many. Foremost is predictable accuracy. Temperature swings cause major changes in the flexibility and nature of plastic—and most slugs are housed in plastic sabots and fired from plastic shotshell hulls. Shotgun slug hunters that sight-in during an 80-degree late-summer day often experience significant point-of-impact shifts and velocity loss when shooting at a deer in freezing temps. Metallic straight-wall cartridges eliminate that issue entirely.
Increasing accuracy benefits ethics, since hunters are more likely to place their bullets where they result in clean, quick kills.
The idea behind allowing the use of straight-wall rifle cartridges—within certain dimensional parameters that vary state by state—is to promote clean, ethical kills without greatly increasing the range of stray projectiles. The thought behind shotgun-only states is that big, ponderous projectiles don’t travel nearly as far as streamlined high-power rifle bullets do, and thus pose less of a threat in densely populated areas. Whether that theory holds water is debatable, but it is widely accepted, and hunting regulations in many whitetail states reflect it.
Because straight-wall cartridges heave large-diameter projectiles at modest velocities—much like a slug-firing shotgun—administrators reason that they pose little or no increased threat. Having lived in slug-only Illinois for four years several years ago, I can attest to the jubilation of hunters allowed to graduate from slug shotshells to metallic rifle cartridges. Additional advantages of straight-wall cartridges are greater reliability, less costly ammunition, less recoil, and much sleeker firearms.
Enough background! Let’s move into an examination of Winchester’s new .350 Legend straight-wall rifle cartridge.
The .350 Legend
Winchester’s aim was to provide straight-wall hunters with the most effective, practical, affordable, easy-to-shoot option available. Design criteria suggested it had to be adequately powerful to anchor big whitetail bucks with authority yet produce low, manageable levels of recoil. And it had to be inexpensive to manufacture so the ammo could be sold at reasonable prices.
To meet the broad spectrum of straight-wall regulations, the .350 Legend has a case length shorter than 1.8 inches (1.71 inches to be precise), and as the name suggests, it’s a .35-caliber cartridge. Why .35? Because Ohio and Indiana mandate 0.357 inch as the minimum legal diameter for use on deer when fired from a straight-wall case. And yes, the .350 Legend’s actual bore diameter is 0.357 inch.
Showing admirable savvy, Winchester’s engineers created a case with a rim and head size (0.348 inch) identical to that of the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO cartridge as well as identical maximum overall length (2.26 inches). As a result, the .350 Legend is beautifully suited for use in AR-15 firearms.
It’s worth noting, however, that the case is a rebated-rim design, meaning the body of the cartridge is larger than the rim. In other words, you can’t just neck .223 Rem. brass up and use it.
As for versatility—which is a derivative of what factory loads are available—Winchester launched the .350 Legend with three vastly different loads, including a 145-grain FMJ at 2,350 fps for plinking ($10 to $14 per box), a 150-grain polymer-tipped Deer Season XP at 2,325 fps for optimal performance on deer ($20 to $26 per box), and a 180-grain Power-Point at 2,100 fps for use on big wild hogs with heavy gristle shields or when the shooter just prefers a bit more bullet weight ($18 to $24 per box).
On the docket for introduction during late 2019 are two additional loads: a 160-grain Power Max Bonded bullet at 2,225 fps for use on midsize game and a 265-grain Super Suppressed bullet at 1,060 fps. At the time of this writing, other manufacturers, including Federal Premium, CMMG, Savage, and Ruger, have announced adding the .350 Legend to their lines.
Because it’s spec’d by SAAMI at 55,000 psi (which is the same as the .223 Rem. and .300 Blackout), the .350 Legend produces ballistic performance similar to the classic .35 Remington. As most readers know, the .35 Rem. is a time-honored, low-pressure, close- to medium-range deer and black bear cartridge typically found in Marlin lever-action rifles.
Winchester’s marketing gurus generated several comparison charts contrasting the .350 Legend with various tried-and-true deer cartridges, ranging from the .243 Winchester up to the .30-30 Winchester. Quite candidly, I don’t like the comparisons. Numbers and stats are easily manipulated, particularly when apples are compared not just to oranges but also to “fruits” as drastically different as, say, habanero peppers. However, those comparisons are now widespread, so let’s take a look at a few of them.
A recoil chart shows that the .350 Legend recoils less than either the .243 Win. or the .30-30 Win. No hard specs are provided regarding the various bullet weights potentially fired from the various cartridges, but there’s a reasonable takeaway: All produce mild recoil. This puts the .350 Legend firmly into the “easy to shoot” category.
In terms of terminal energy and penetration comparisons, the .350 Legend is an apple and the .243 Win. is a habanero pepper. The .350 Legend is a superb specialty cartridge engineered to provide unprecedented performance within its limited niche. It can stand on its own virtues. There’s no need to compare it to capable all-around cartridges like the .243 Win., which sports vastly better velocity, ballistic coefficient, sectional density, and downrange muzzle energy. Doing so merely discredits the .350 Legend, and I’ll leave it at that. A better ballistic comparison is with the .30-30 Win., which fires similar-weight bullets at similar muzzle velocities.
Benefits of the .30-30 are superior projectile ballistic coefficient (BC) and sectional density, meaning it maintains velocity better and penetrates deeper. The downside of the .30-30 is the ho-hum accuracy typical of common lever-action rifles, which ranges in the 2- to 3-MOA range.
The top benefit of the .350 Legend is pure accuracy. Both cartridges pack enough punch to take deer cleanly out to 200 yards or so, but the 1-MOA accuracy offered by many .350 Legend rifles makes it much easier to place shots perfectly.
Two downsides of the .350 Legend are a lack of staying power and less penetrating ability. You just can’t make a 150-grain .35-caliber projectile with a high BC, and sectional density is very low.
Of Winchester’s several .350 Legend loads, the one labeled “Deer Season” has a polymer tip and offers the best trajectory for deer hunting past 100 yards. Here’s a look at the load’s practical ballistics.
Possessing a G1 BC of 0.223, the bullet exits the muzzle at an advertised 2,325 fps and packs 1,800 ft-lbs of energy. When zeroed at 100 yards, it drops 7.6 inches at 200 yards and 28.1 inches at 300 yards. At that distance it carries 628 ft-lbs of energy. Most hunters consider that a bit low for use on deer, but more telling is that velocity has dropped to 1,373 fps, which is simply too low to reliably cause bullet expansion. Even Winchester’s spokesmen suggest that 200 yards—where the bullet impacts at about 1,650 fps—is about as long a shot that should be taken at deer. Past that, the bullet may not expand.
In stark terms, the cartridge that the .350 Legend was designed to put out of business is the .450 Bushmaster, which has gained tremendous popularity as a straight-wall deer cartridge. Although it has great close-range authority, I think the .450 Bushmaster’s recoil is obnoxious, plus ammo is typically very expensive. On the other hand, the .350 Legend recoils lightly and is priced competitively to .223 Rem. ammo.
In the Field and at the Range
I’ve hunted Kansas for December whitetails twice. On the first hunt, temperatures were brutally cold, and I was the only member of our party blessed with a buck (my biggest whitetail yet, but that’s beside the point). The second, more recent, hunt was with the .350 Legend, and we experienced rain, thunder, and lightning of apocalyptic proportions. Kansas, in my experience, is a promising but dramatic and unpredictable land for whitetail enthusiasts.
My hunt was with Chris and Casey Keefer—the Keefer Brothers of Dropped TV-show fame. Outstanding chaps both, they put me in the lonely path of a massive old buck they called “Walker, Texas Ranger” (because he wandered so much). Although the stand proved dead for days, cameraman Adam Raak and I stuck with it, knowing that Walker’s circuit should eventually bring him through the area.
The evening before our time ran out, the buck appeared, striding over a bulge in the river bottom and straight toward us. He paused at about 130 yards, still facing straight on, and I squeezed the Winchester XPR’s trigger and put a 150-grain Deer Season XP bullet into the center of his chest.
Through the mild recoil I watched the buck begin to crumple, then gather himself and make a mad, heart-shot dash for the treeline. We found him lying half in a small creek just inside the woods, cleanly killed with the .350 Legend.
We recovered the bullet inside his stomach. It had severed the arteries atop the heart, deflated both lungs, and penetrated through the diaphragm and into the abdomen. Perfect performance and, candidly, better penetration than I expected.
After shooting the three initial loads of the .350 Legend in a preproduction Winchester XPR at my home range, the first thing that stood out to me was the cartridge’s surprising velocity consistency. All three factory loads produced single-digit standard deviations.
In addition, cartridges fed slick as silk from the three-round polymer magazine and into the chamber. While not light, the XPR’s trigger was crisp, making the process of executing clean shots easy. Recoil was exceedingly polite, and the report of the .350 Legend was mild.
Because the cartridge is so efficient, burning minimal propellant and producing modest velocity, the barrel didn’t heat quickly. With each type of ammo I fired three consecutive three-shot groups for average without allowing the barrel to cool. The results were excellent, with no point of impact shift or group size expansion by the third group.
Two of the three factory loads produced accuracy averages of a whisker less than 1 MOA. Impressively, the Deer Season XP load actually produced slightly greater velocity than factory advertised—even though the barrel on the prototype test rifle was just 20 inches long rather than the 22-inch tubes that will be standard on production guns. For those interested, the recommended twist rate for .350 Legend rifles is one turn in 16 inches.
Winchester has proved the cartridge is capable on various game from coyotes up to wild hogs and mule deer. And, of course, it works perfectly on whitetails. However, I think it’s important to remember the cartridge’s roots. It was designed for maximum usefulness in a certain niche, and it offers that in spades. But it’s not an all-around performer. It will never reach 400 yards across a canyon and drop a big buck in his tracks. What it will do is make every other deer gun in states restricted to straight-wall cartridges obsolete. It kicks less and costs less than the .450 Bushmaster. It shoots more accurately than the .444 Marlin. And it is available in very modern firearms.
If you like to hunt deer but loathe the slug-slinging shotgun you’ve always been restricted to, you owe it to yourself to experience the .350 Legend.