August 21, 2020
Ask any serious gun crank what the most significant advances in ammunition have occurred in the last 30 years and you’re likely to get a verbal barrage of information concerning defensive handgun ammo, super-duper premium short magnum rifle loads, or match-grade this and that. But the real stunner has been in the development of sabot shotgun slug loads designed to be used in scoped shotguns with rifled barrels.
The accuracy, range, and efficiency of such sabot slugs are remarkable. The problem is, unless you’re in a “shotguns only” area, this whole thing isn’t gonna resonate all that much. It didn’t impress me personally until I saw guys dropping large hogs at ranges from close to 150 yards with 20-gauge sabot slugs from Winchester Model 1200 pump guns.
In addition, there has been an unintended side effect to all this innovation. If you keep abreast of such things (and what serious deer hunter doesn’t?), you’re probably aware that several formerly “shotgun only” deer-hunting states now allow the use of straight-wall rifle cartridges. Whether this came from the tacit realization that the ranging capabilities of modern sabot slugs are well beyond those of the old smoothbore “pumpkin ball” is an interesting question. And who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who decide such things?
Now, having grown up in an “anything goes” rifle state and moving—relatively late in life—to a shotgun/muzzleloader/handgun state was a shock. Even though my newly adopted state had more than its fair share of monster whitetails, my modest .35 Marlin Model 336 was off the table. But things have undergone a change. Maybe not in favor of cartridges like the .30-30, .35 Remington, or—God forbid—.308 Winchester, but something pretty cool.
Ohio, Michigan, and Iowa (among others) now allow straight-wall rifle cartridges, which, generally, lack the ranging potential of, say, a Wyoming mule deer hunter’s ’06. Indiana allows them in certain areas with specific restrictions, generally involving overall case length and caliber. Illinois, at last check, allows them only in handguns. But no matter how you slice it, these heartland states comprise a heck of a lot of prime whitetail real estate. And while we’re on the subject of practical range requirements, even in traditional “rifle” states, not nearly as many shot opportunities require the capabilities of the .270 Winchester or 7mm Remington Magnum as you might think.
Obviously, that was more than enough incentive to spur Winchester’s 2019 introduction of the .350 Legend. In terms of bullet diameter, it’s 0.357 inch not 0.358 inch—which may just keep it clear of the commercial curse 0.358-diameter offerings have suffered in the United States—most notably the excellent .358 Winchester and stout-recoiling .350 Remington Magnum. Actually, in terms of ballistic performance, the .350 Legend is a whole heckuva lot closer to the .35 Remington than the .357 Magnum. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the .350 Legend is, as some promotional material claims, “the fastest straight-wall rifle cartridge there is.”
The case, while roughly the same length as the 5.56mm NATO, is a new one and not simply a necked-up variant. What makes it so desirable is its mild recoil (around .243 Winchester level), the relatively inexpensive lightweight bolt actions it’s currently available in, and more-than-adequate ranging capabilities it delivers for deer hunting—topping out realistically at around 250 yards. (Personally, I’d prefer a limit of 200 yards, but then, I like that number with just about any cartridge.) And since the .350 Legend pushes 160- to 180-grain bullets to 2,100 to 2,300 fps, comparisons to the .30-30 are obvious, and the benefits of a greater frontal area than the old .30-30 aren’t likely to be lost on anyone possessing the slightest familiarity with terminal ballistics.
Apparently, a sizable number of ammomakers are confident in the .350 Legend’s success. At my most recent count, here are the number of loads for it being offered: Winchester (5), Hornady (2), Federal (3), Browning (2), HSM (2). I’m not suggesting it’s analogous to the 6.5 Creedmoor boom, but the Creedmoor has had around 12 years to pick up the head of steam it enjoys; the .350 Legend has been out for barely two years.
Besides the older .444 Marlin and .45-70, there are, of course, other relatively recent straight-wall options out there—notably the .450 Bushmaster and .458 SOCOM. Both are also available in AR platforms should your tastes run in that direction. Both are pretty potent. The .458 SOCOM is about on a par with the sainted .45-70. But again, they bring us back to the main arguments in favor of the .350 Legend: (1) They kick more. Maybe not so much in an AR platform, but they still bump a bit; (2) do you really need that kind of throw weight for a whitetail?
In the April 2019 issue of Guns & Ammo, Tom Beckstrand also addressed the subject of muzzle blast as a negative factor.
“What I did notice was how little muzzle blast the .350 Legend generates. This matters to everybody, but especially to new and young shooters. Muzzle blast is just as much to blame as recoil when it comes to identifying what causes poor shooting habits.”
For hogs or bears, get something bigger if you want to, but the .350 Legend looks to provide plenty of steam. An example? The Federal Fusion 160-grain .350 Legend loading has a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps. From the handy bolt actions comprising most of what the cartridge is currently chambered in, who could complain? Federal lists the “terminal performance minimum velocity” at 1,600 fps, which puts us right about at the 250-yard figure mentioned earlier. To put this in perspective, that’s still several hundred fps faster than a 158-grain .357 Magnum from the muzzle of a 6.0-inch revolver barrel.
And the advantages for younger hunters in formerly “shotgun only” jurisdictions are obvious. During my time in the Midwest, I met a lot of deer hunters who had acquired gas-operated 20-gauge shotguns for their wives and kids in an effort to spare them the felt recoil of a 12-gauge gun, something that translates over to the straight-wall situation. Recoil is something to consider. The old adage “you never feel the kick when you’re shooting at game” is true as far as it goes. But before you get in a position to take a shot at a deer, you have to zero the rifle and practice a bit. And that’s where excessive recoil can develop bad habits, such as flinching or failure to “follow through.”
To that end, Winchester and Browning both offer FMJ loads for the .350 Legend—Browning a 124-grainer at 2,400 fps and Winchester a 147-grain load at 2,350 fps. In view of the burgeoning popularity of suppressors for sporting rifles (where legal, naturally), Winchester also offers a 255-grain Super Suppressed Open Tip at 1,060 fps.
A Bevy of Bolt Actions
Even for as short a time as the .350 Legend has been on the market, the array of rifles it’s chambered to include well-established models and brand names. Since the cartridge isn’t some ridgeline-to-ridgeline high-velocity number, the rifle models are in keeping with the cartridge’s niche (tough, handy, and synthetic-stocked). Ruger’s very reasonably priced American Ranch Rifle ($549) and its more upscale Scout ($1,139) are standouts.
Mossberg offers the Patriot Youth Super Bantam Scoped Combo ($463) and Patriot Synthetic ($421). Thompson/Center offers the Venture II ($521). Savage has the Axis XP Stainless ($589, scoped).
Of course, Winchester Repeating Arms has the .350 Legend well covered with several XPR variants, including the 16.5-inch-barreled suppressor-ready Stealth ($619.99), the 22-inch-barreled Scope Combo ($709.99), the 20-inch-barreled Compact Scope Combo ($709.99), the walnut-stocked Sporter ($599.99), and various camo-stocked models like the 20-inch-barreled Hunter in Kryptek Highlander ($599.99), Mossy Oak Break Up Country ($599.99), and Kuiu Verde ($599.99).
Current .350 Legend Factory Loads
- Browning 124-grain FMJ (2,400 fps)
- Browning 155-grain BXR (2,300 fps)
- Federal PowerShok 180-grain SP (2,100 fps)
- Federal Non-Typical 180-grain PSSP (2,100 fps)
- Federal Fusion 160-grain SP (2,300 fps)
- Hornady 165-grain FTX (2,200 fps)
- Hornady American Whitetail 170-grain InterLock (2,200 fps)
- HSM 147-grain JHP (2,447 fps)
- HSM 170-grain InterLock (2,335 fps)
- Winchester 160-grain Power Max Bonded HP (2,225 fps)
- Winchester 150-grain Extreme Point (2,325 fps)
- Winchester 180-grain Deer Season XP Power Point (2,100 fps)
- Winchester USA Target 145-grain FMJ (2,350 fps)
- Winchester Super Suppressed 255-grain Open Tip (1,060 fps)