Mid-Bore Workhorse

The Enduring .358 Winchester.

By John Barsness

The generation immediately after World War II saw enormous changes in American hunting rifles. Before the war relatively few hunters used telescopic sights, so most big game hunting took place at moderate ranges. Hunting bullets remained basically the same as those devised after the appearance of practical smokeless rifle powders in 1886, with a relatively thin jacket of copper alloy protecting a lead core.

Such simple “cup-and-core” bullets didn’t always hang together on big game animals at high velocity, so the solution for sufficient penetration was relatively heavy bullets started at modest velocity. Closer ranges also meant some animals were shot while moving, the reason many hunters preferred rifles capable of fast repeat shots, especially lever actions.

After the war scopes improved and more hunting rifles left factories ready for scope mounting, making accuracy possible at longer ranges. Consequently many manufacturers tried to provide both traditional and more modern rifles. The .358 Winchester appeared in 1955, right in the middle of this transitional period, based on the also-new .308 Winchester necked up.

On one level the .358 replaced the .348 Winchester chambered in the Model 71 rifle, a traditional lever-action with an outside hammer and tube magazine, soon to be discontinued due to lack of demand, offering factory loads with the same 200- and 250-grain bullet weights at similar velocities. The Model 71 was replaced by the Model 88, a modern “hammerless” lever action with a box magazine and 1-piece stock, but Winchester also chambered the .358 Model 70 Winchester for bolt-action fans. The Model 88 in .358 sold all right but the Model 70’s didn’t, the reason they’re now very expensive collector’s items.

Savage also chambered the .358 in their 99 lever-action, the reason I became acquainted with the cartridge in the mid-1960’s. My primary hunting mentor, a young friend of my father’s named Norman Strung, grew up in New York City, buying a new 99F .358 in the mid-1950’s, as soon as he was old enough to hunt. Believe it or not, back then he hitchhiked, the Savage over his shoulder, to the Catskill Mountains to hunt deer, because he was under the legal driving age in New York City.

After high school Norm entered what was then Montana State College, where he took freshman composition from my father. He found his .358 worked fine in the timbered mountains around Bozeman, but was often ineffective on the open plains of eastern Montana, especially for pronghorn hunting. This was partly because he preferred the 250-grain load, since it ruined less meat than the 200-grain and penetrated deeper on elk. He eventually bought a .270 Winchester for open-county hunting, but continued to use the .358 for timber elk.

Fellow gun writer Richard Mann used a New Ultra Light Arms Model
20 and a 225-grain Nosler Partition to take this nice Montana black
bear on a hunt with John more than a dozen years ago.

Big Bullets

About then Winchester dropped the 250-grain factory load. Norm only reloaded shotgun shells, but I’d started rifle loading so bought a set of .358 dies and some 250-grain Hornady Spire Points, since both Norm and I “knew” they’d shoot flatter. However, when started around the factory velocity of 2,250 feet per second they still didn’t shoot very flat, and sometimes didn’t expand well on deer, so we eventually switched to the 250-grain Hornady roundnose—like the discontinued 250-grain Winchester factory load.

When Norm passed away I inherited the 99, and eventually also handloaded for three bolt-action .358’s, a pair of Rugers and a New Ultra Light Arms Model 20. After some more hunting, I decided “premium” 225-grain spitzers got the most out of the .358 for game larger than deer, and shot flat enough to make 300-yard shots reasonably easy.

Various 200-grain bullets worked well on deer, though one reader from Maine contacted me for suggestions after a 200-grain Hornady Spire Point didn’t penetrate as much as he wanted on a big buck whitetail. The bullet didn’t exit and the buck traveled over 100 yards before falling, leaving a very skimpy blood trail. I suggested the 200-grain Barnes TSX, but the 200 Spire Point works great for deer where bucks don’t grow quite as large as in Maine.

I’ve used more 225-grain Nosler Partitions than anything else because they penetrate well on larger animals, yet open easily on smaller deer due to the soft front core. The 225 Barnes TSX and Nosler AccuBond also work, but work better in a longer magazine than standard.

The .358 is a little shy on powder space, partly because .35-caliber bullets take up far more room than smaller-diameter bullets. Seating bullets below the neck in a .243 or even .308 doesn’t make any significant difference in potential velocity, but does with longer .35-caliber bullets. Plus, when seated to fit in a short magazine, the 225 AccuBond is so long the curve of its ogive ends up down inside the case neck. The NULA Model 20 has a 3-inch magazine, and the Ruger 77 used here was custom-barreled on the “long” tang-safety action designed for .30-06 length cartridges, mostly as an experiment. (I eventually decided the .35 Whelen was a better solution for long-action bolt rifles.)

Spherical powders like Hodgdon H335 and Ramshot TAC take up less space inside the .358 case. I started experimenting with TAC in the .358 almost as soon as the powder appeared in 2000, even though Ramshot didn’t list any .358 data (and still doesn’t). Using starting loads for extruded powders of the same approximate burn-rate resulted in very good velocities, without the slightest hint of excess pressure—and Savage 99’s typically show such signs long before bolt-actions, through sticky extraction.

However, the brand-new Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading 10th Edition does list pressure-tested TAC data for the .358, and as my experiments suggested, it results in some of the highest velocities with both 200- and 250-grain bullets. Unfortunately Hornady doesn’t offer a 225, but splitting the difference in maximum TAC charges for 200-grain bullets (52.4 grains) and 250-grain bullets (48.2) suggest a maximum of about 50 grains.

Barsness’s primary .358 is a Savage 99F inherited from one of his
hunting mentors, who purchased it shortly after the cartridge
appeared in the 1950’s.

New Brass

Hornady also offers .358 Winchester brass, which is a good thing because apparently Winchester only makes .358 cases every other blue moon. I’ve collected a pile of Winchester .358’s over the decades so haven’t tried any of the Hornadys, but have had excellent luck with new Hornady cases in several other cartridges from the .250 Savage to .300 Weatherby. (Of course, .308 Winchester cases can also be necked up, and the elliptical expander ball on my Hornady .358 dies has easily necked up quite a few over the years.)

Very few rifle manufacturers still chamber the .358 on a regular basis. The major exception is Browning, which consistently lists it in the BLR. More often a limited run of .358’s appears, the source of the Ruger Hawkeye in the data section, purchased in 2008 at Capital Sports & Western Wear in Helena, Montana. However, today Ruger doesn’t even offer the stainless/synthetic model anymore, much less any .358’s.

One reason the .358’s popularity dropped off was a reputation as a “woods” cartridge, but it’s at least a mid-range round with today’s bullets and powders. When new it gained a reputation for kicking pretty hard with 250-grain loads, but back then real men preferred hard buttplates to recoil pads. Even 250’s don’t hurt with a layer of soft rubber or thick wool against your shoulder.

Half of John Barsness’s dozen books are on firearms and shooting. His latest is The Hunter’s Guide to Handloading Smokeless Rifle Cartridges, published in the fall of 2015 by Deep Creek Press. It’s available through www.riflesandrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644, (406) 521-0273.

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