For years, the .35 Whelen has teetered on the brink of obsolescence. That’s a shame, because it’s more versatile than most hunters think.
By John Haviland
When Remington introduced the .35 Whelen as a factory round in 1987, it was touted as a cartridge for deer hunters who might want to hunt larger game someday. Evidently, few hunters wanted to roam farther than their back woodlot, because the Whelen is struggling along on its way to oblivion. That’s unfortunate, because the Whelen is an efficient and versatile hunting cartridge.
In 1922, gun writer Col. Townsend Whelen and James Howe, of Griffin & Howe rifle making fame, teamed up to build a rifle for a cartridge based on expanding the neck of a .30-06 case to hold a .358-inch bullet.
The cartridge was named after Whelen. Over time, it became a very popular custom rifle option. Rifles were easy to make because the Whelen fit the same standard-length actions as the .30-06 and required no alteration of the bolt face or feeding ramp.
Also, rifles chambered for cartridges larger than the .30-06 were expensive back then. So a rifle in .35 Whelen was the poor man’s path to a powerful rifle.
A friend who is an elk hunting nut had a Whelen built in the 1970s. He spared no expense on the rifle, based on a Mauser Model 98. Metalsmith Ted Blackburn extensively reworked it. He added a new bolt handle, a sculpted trigger guard and release floorplate. The late barrel maker Bill Hobaugh crafted its full octagonal barrel with integral leaf sights. Fred Speiser made the stock with a fleur-de-lis checkering pattern on the grip and forearm. Firing 250-grain bullets, the rifle shoots as good as it looks. And weighing about 8 pounds with a Leupold 4x scope, it packs light after elk in the mountains.
That sort of interest in the .35 Whelen prompted Remington to take the cartridge under its corporate wing in 1988. Dick Dietz was Remington’s public-relations man back then. He said the Whelen sold relatively well when it was introduced. “The rifle was more than hunters needed for deer, but they bought them just in case they hunted anything bigger, like bears.”
Remington first chambered the Whelen in its Model 7600 pump and Model 700 bolt action. The chambering was also available for a few years in Kimber’s Big Game Rifle and Ruger Model 77 bolt actions. However, what little interest the Whelen generated diminished, and by 2000, no major manufacturers offered it.
Remington is now giving the Whelen another go and is chambering it in its new Model 750 Woodsmaster autoloader and the carbine version with an 181/2-inch barrel. The fancy-stocked Model 700 CDL bolt-action with a 24-inch barrel is available in .35 Whelen as well. Strangely, Remington has not brought back the Whelen in its Model 7600 pump.
Remington and Federal are the only manufacturers turning out factory ammunition for the Whelen. Remington currently offers 200-grain Core-Lokt PSP loads with a muzzle velocity of 2,675 fps. The company also recently brought back the 250-grain PSP with a muzzle velocity of 2,400 fps. Federal dropped the cartridge a few years ago, but is offering it again in the Premium line. The 225-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw load has a muzzle velocity of 2,600 fps.
So What Happened?
The Whelen was saddled from the beginning as a brush cartridge. That label meant sure death to any cartridge when hunters across the country were demanding flat-shooting magnums.
My brothers, cousins, friends and I started hunting in the 1960s. We didn’t want to hunt with hand-me-down .30-30s and .30-40 Krags. Nor did we want to buy newer cartridges like the .350 Remington Magnum or the .358 Winchester with slow bullet speeds. And why in the heck would anyone want a .444 Marlin? Never mind that we took mule deer and elk at 60 yards in the timber. We wanted cartridges with high velocity and flat trajectories for the long shot that might present itself.
Still, ammunition and rifle manufacturers kept ushering in short-range cartridges in hopes of keeping hunters in the fold. When Winchester introduced its .375 Win in its Model 94 Big Bore in 1978, the cartridge immediately became crow bait.
The yawns the .375 received should have let Winchester know all was not right in Brushville. Yet the .307 and .356 Winchesters in Model 94s that followed in 1983 were more of the same. They nearly duplicated the ballistics of the .308 and .358 Winchesters, at least at the muzzle. But the flat-nose bullets the .307 and .356 required to function safely in the Model 94’s tubular magazine reeked of short range. This is despite the fact that a blunt-nosed bullet doesn’t have all that much more drop than a sharp-nosed bullet until it reaches 300 yards and farther. Those two cartridges are noted for the vast number of hunters who ignored them.
The .35 Whelen was one of the last attempts at a brush cartridge. It had several strikes against it from the start. For one, except for the little .35 Remington, American hunters have an ingrained dislike of .35-caliber cartridges. Bolt-action rifles chambered for the Whelen and many magnum cartridges are about the same size and weight. So why buy a Whelen with its poky velocity when the rifle is available in a 7mm, .300 or .338 magnum or even the .30-06?
The introduction of premium controlled-expansion bullets also hurt the Whelen. Who wants to shoot a 250-grain bullet from a Whelen that drops like a rock past 300 yards when a premium 180-grain bullet from a .300 magnum shoots much flatter and penetrates just as well?
Shooting the Whelen
My Whelen is a Remington 700 BDL I bought new in 1988. Over the years, I’ve used it to take everything from cans to ground squirrels and antelope, whitetails and elk. Reloading .357 handgun bullets and cast bullets for practice and 200- to 300-grain jacketed bullets for hunting has made it more versatile.
When I first started shooting the Whelen, I never did much load development with the relatively lightweight bullets intended for handguns. I just loaded 158-grain bullets with H4895 powder and started shooting at targets and ground squirrels.
However, more concrete data was needed for this article. So I loaded Hornady 158-grain FP/XTP bullets with three different powders. The load chart shows they grouped very well at 100 yards. They also make for great practice because of their mild recoil and save me nearly a dime a shot compared to regular rifle bullets.
One note: These bullets were seated with their crimping groove even with the case mouth. That seating depth required a long jump for the bullets to reach the rifling, yet their accuracy was great. So much for bullets having to be placed right near the beginning of the rifling to provide the best
Over the last 10 years, I’ve shot lots of cast bullets in the Whelen. One time, I was going to be really cheap and shoot plain-base 150-grain cast bullets. But their accuracy was rather poor at velocities much more than 1,200 fps. A heavier bullet with a gas check that protects the bullet base from the powder gases is a much better choice.
I go for weight with jacketed bullets for big game. The 200-grainers look like round balls with a point and quickly shed velocity. The various 225-grain bullets look like abbreviated fireplugs and aren’t much better ballistically. There’s not much sense shooting these bullets in the Whelen when the .30-06 also shoots a 200-grain bullet, but with a much more streamlined form.
Only when the Whelen fires 250-grain bullets does it step above the .30-06. These heavier bullets pack more energy way out to 400 yards than the .30-06 shooting a similar-shaped 180-grain projectile. The Whelen’s heavy bullet does drop about 8 inches more way out there. But that’s okay, because the Whelen isn’t a 400-yard elk killer. Neither is the .30-06, nor 99 percent of hunters, no matter what sort of magnum rig they’re carrying.
Premium bullets have hurt the popularity of the Whelen, but they’ve also helped increase its performance. Controlled-expanding 250-grain .35-caliber bullets like the Swift A-Frame, Speer Grand Slam and Nosler Partition make the Whelen much more effective on big animals like elk. I’ve used the Nosler 250-grain load quite often. On close shots in timber, the bullet goes clear through elk, even with less than perfectly broadside hits.
Come to think of it, I have never recovered a single bullet from big game shot with the Whelen. They all passed through and sometimes hit a tree so hard, snow fell out of the branches.
The new Nosler 225-grain AccuBond may make me eat my words about the poor ballistic properties of .35-caliber bullets lighter than 250 grains. The AccuBond, with a muzzle velocity of 2,500 fps, drops only 10 inches at 300 yards when zeroed at 200. That’s slightly flatter-shooting than other 250-grain bullets.
Still, that bullet drop at long ranges, mostly seen by hunters on the pages of ballistic tables and not in the field at normal shooting distances, is what labeled the Whelen a brush cartridge. That supposed deficiency was at the front of my mind when I first hunted with my Whelen. In fact, I worried about it so much, I shot over the first antelope I aimed at with the rifle. The buck stood 175 yards across a sagebrush flat. I told myself the range looked long, and coupled with what I just knew was a steeply dropping bullet, aimed over the animal. After seeing dirt kicked up by the bullet right where I aimed, I got all that nonsense out of my head and aimed right on. The second bullet dropped the buck where
Ever since then, I’ve never allowed preconceived notions to cloud my judgment of the .35 Whelen. I just shoot and hunt with the Whelen and enjoy great success, just like Howe and Whelen intended.
Reprinted from the November 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.