The .35 Whelen
This Powerful Mid-Bore Round Is Suitable For All
North American Game.
The .35 Whelen was designed by Colonel Townsend Whelen in 1922 while he was commanding officer at Frankford Arsenal, the huge US Army ammunition plant near Philadelphia, Penn. James V. Howe served as chief toolmaker and gunsmith on the project, but left the next year for New York—at the recommendation of Whelen—to partner with stockmaker Seymour Griffin in forming the famous gunsmithing firm of Griffin & Howe.
It may seem odd for an Army arsenal to be involved in sporting rounds, but Frankford was also an experimental station, and almost any experiment had some potential military use. This continued after Whelen became director of research and development at Springfield Armory in 1929, and among the results was the .22 Hornet.
After Charles Newton’s .35 Newton collapsed along with his company during World War I, there wasn’t any powerful medium-bore cartridge for American bolt actions, which led to the design of the .35 Whelen. The .375 Holland & Holland Magnum had been around since 1912, but the .375 was considered too large for most American hunting—and also our bolt actions, despite the original .375 H&H rifles being built on opened-up 1898 Mausers. The 1903 Springfield could also have been modified, since it was essentially an American version of the 98, but the cartridge would still have been British.
Necking up the .30-06 to .35 was a simple solution, and the .35 Whelen had other advantages over the .375. Five rounds would fit in the magazine, instead of three, potentially helpful when hunting grizzlies or Alaskan brown bears, and the recoil was noticeably milder than the .375’s. This not only made shooting easier, but the .375 H&H often split unreinforced stocks, and the .35 Whelen didn’t. (A few years before the H&H appeared a German named Otto Bock developed the cartridge some Americans call the “metric .35 Whelen,” the 9.3×62 Mauser, specifically to fit in unaltered 98 Mauser actions. But when Whelen ran Frankford there was still considerable anti-German feeling in America due to the recent war.)
In those days there weren’t any truly controlled-expansion bullets, so the only way to insure adequate penetration on game larger than deer was heavier bullets of relatively modest velocity. The primary load of the .35 Whelen was a 250-grain bullet at around 2,500 fps, though some hunters preferred a 275-grain roundnose, notably a gun writer/guide/rancher named Elmer Keith, who in 1937 stopped a charging Alaskan brown bear with several 275-grain Western Tool & Cooper Works bullets from a .35 Whelen built on a Springfield action.
The Whelen became quite popular as a wildcat, but no company turned it into a commercial round until 1987. Remington had been making wildcats legitimate since 1935, when they bought out a slightly modified version of Ned Roberts’ .257. World War II interrupted further introductions, but from 1955 onward they brought out their .244/6mm (.240 Page Super Pooper), .22-250, .25-06, .280 (7mm-06) and 7mm Magnum. All were based on various wildcats, and became more or less successful, but the cartridges actually designed by Remington during the same period didn’t do so well, especially their 6.5 and .350 Remington Magnums. In fact the .35 Whelen probably put the last nail in the .350’s coffin, since it has almost exactly the same powder capacity and works in any action suitable for the .30-06.
Remington’s .35 Whelen rifles sold pretty well for the first couple of years, but after that sales slowed considerably. Apparently relatively few American hunters desire a cartridge larger than .30 caliber anymore, partly because the .338 Winchester Magnum had already filled the American medium-bore slot when it was introduced in 1958.
The .35 Whelen, however, has some advantages over the .338, just as it does over the .375 H&H. While the .338 doesn’t normally split wooden stocks, it kicks hard enough to affect the aim of some hunters. Velocities are also high enough to cause occasional problems with cup-and-core bullets, but 250-grain cup-and-cores at 2,500 fps from the .35 Whelen works just as well today as it did in the 1920s—and don’t cost $1 a bullet. (One of the loads listed with 250s, 59.0 grains Reloder 15, appeared in Alliant data for many years, then somehow was dropped to 54.0 grains recently, for only 2,284 fps. I don’t know why, 59.0 has never shown the slightest indication of high pressure in any of my rifles with any 250-grain bullet.)
Still, some 21st century hunters prefer lighter, premium bullets, since they kick less and can be driven faster to shoot flatter, at least at “conventional” hunting ranges. Today a number of companies make premium .35-caliber bullets from 175 to 225 grains. One of the bullets tested was the new 175-grain ESP Raptor from Cutting Edge, an all-brass hollowpoint bullet designed to shed the petals on expansion, hence doing more damage. The ESP can also be turned around to use as a flatpointed solid, or a separate plastic tip snapped into the hollowpoint to increase ballistic coefficient.
Many hunters prefer 225-grain premiums, such as the Barnes TSX or the Nosler AccuBond and Partition, since they can achieve up to 2,800 fps with modern powders, turning the Whelen into a 400-plus-yard elk and moose cartridge. Nosler’s most accurate listed load for the 225 AccuBond, 60.5 grains of Varget, shoots very well in most rifles, but I also decided to try Ramshot TAC. Ramshot doesn’t list data for the Whelen, but the Barnes manual shows very fine results with TAC and 200- and 225-grain bullets in the .350 Remington Magnum. Since the Whelen and .350 have the same powder capacity, I worked up cautiously to close to the same charges, and got excellent results with no indication of high pressure.
The slow 1:16-inch rifling twist of most .35 Whelens won’t stabilize any lead-cored spitzer above 250 grains, or monolithic spitzers heavier than the 225-grain Barnes Triple Shock. This isn’t a big deal since most .35-caliber bullets above 250 grains can’t be driven very fast and have relatively blunt noses, making expansion iffy except at very close ranges.
Over the years I’ve owned four .35 Whelens, including one .35 Whelen Ackley Improved, perhaps the most useless improved cartridge ever, since blowing out the tiny shoulder doesn’t result in any meaningful extra velocity. All had traditional 1:16-inch twists, so I’ve haven’t loaded bullets over 250 grains and never felt the need for anything heavier. Apparently not many other people do, since almost all load data maxes out at 250 grains.
True fans of the .35 Whelen often load .35-caliber handgun bullets for practice and smaller game, whether edible or varmint. A couple of those loads are included in the tables, and while neither shot close to where full-power loads did in my latest .35 Whelen, they grouped OK and sure don’t kick like the heavier loads!
The real niche of the .35 Whelen in North American is game larger than deer, but some whitetail hunters chose Colonel Whelen’s old round even if they never plan to hunt moose or brown bears. The big bullets put deer down solidly and don’t shoot up meat, so why not?
By John Barsness
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