It was 25 years ago, the fall of 1986, that I first used the .35 Whelen cartridge. Although it was just being added to Remington’s line as a factory cartridge, it was hardly new. As a wildcat it dates clear back to 1922. James Howe, of the New York custom firm of Griffin & Howe, has generally been credited with designing the cartridge and naming it after Colonel Townsend Whelen, the top gunwriter of the day. This is essentially true, except that apparently Whelen had considerable design influence in the cartridge that bears his name.
On the surface I wasn’t particularly impressed by the .35 Whelen. There was little recoil and accuracy was wonderful, which is good. On the other hand, Remington’s factory load featured a 250-grain Core-Lokt bullet at a very mild 2400 fps. This wasn’t impressive. Or, better put, Iwasn’t impressed. But, business is business, so I decided to try the new cartridge on an Alaskan moose. I got a sharply quartering-to shot in heavy cover, almost frontal, and as the rifle came down from recoil all I could see were four moose legs straight up in the air. Depending on what you’re comparing it with, paper figures for the .35 Whelen may not seem all that impressive…but don’t do as I did and underestimate this cartridge!
There is nothing complicated about the .35 Whelen; it’s a simple necking up of the .30-06 case to accept a .358-inch bullet. In the 1920s and early 1930s, before the Winchester Model 70 was chambered in .375 H&H, the .35 Whelen achieved considerable popularity among bear and moose hunters who wanted a bit more power than the then-world standard .30-06 could offer. In the postwar era, when fast magnums were so much in vogue, the cartridge languished.
I was actually very surprised when Remington took a chance on it as a commercial cartridge-and equally surprised when it took off like a rocket. Initial sales in both bolt action and slide action form greatly exceeded projections, and I suppose a whole new generation of shooters learned the same thing I did: Paper ballistics don’t always tell the whole story!
To be perfectly honest, that initial flurry of sales didn’t last. It would be an overstatement to describe the .35 Whelen as wildly popular. In fact, I suppose you could say it’s a bit of an “also ran,” retaining some regional following for big woods hunters, and competing somewhat with other solid performers like the .338 Winchester Magnum. Although I certainly don’t use the .35 Whelen all the time, I haven’t been without one since 1986!
It is not as good a general-purpose elk cartridge as the .338 Winchester Magnum, simply because its lower velocity limits its range. However, it doesn’t kick nearly as hard, and within its sensible range envelope, maybe 250 yards, it hits like a freight train. I’ve used the .35 Whelen for elk as well as moose, and in reasonably close cover it’s perfect for either. What I really love it for, however, is tough stuff that I’m extremely unlikely to encounter, or get shots at, at longer distances. For me the .35 Whelen is perfect for black bear and wild hogs, exceptionally hard-hitting but amazingly mild in both recoil and muzzle blast. In this role, and at closer ranges, it’s not substantially better than lever-action cartridges like the .348 Winchester, .358 Winchester, and .338 Marlin Express. However, a lot of us are bolt-action guys, and within 200 yards I have always figured the .35 Whelen to be indistinguishable in performance from the .338 Winchester Magnum…except it’s a great deal easier to shoot!
This past January I was hunting nilgai in the heavy brush country of coastal Texas. The nilgai is a big, short-horned antelope, originally from India but long-established along the Texas Gulf Coast. They’re tough, wary, and good eating, and although I love to hunt them I have tremendous respect for their ability to carry a bullet. Of course, nothing is bulletproof, and they aren’t any bigger than a medium-sized bull elk. However, the skin is extremely thick and they don’t leave much of a blood trail. Following a wounded nilgai in the dense oak mottes is a real problem, so we tend to use more powerful rifles than the simple size of the animal might suggest.
My current .35 Whelen is a left-hand bolt action by E.R. Shaw, a simple rifle I have mounted with an Aimpoint Hunter, a great close-range sight well-suited to the cartridge. Technically, my chamber is the .35 Ackley Improved, with the body taper blown out and a sharper shoulder. This case has about ten percent more powder capacity than the standard .35 Whelen, and certainly can be loaded faster. Honestly, the standard Whelen does what I need it to do, so I shoot a lot of standard ammo in it, fire-forming the cases.
So I was hunting nilgai, and I was carrying this .35 Whelen, loaded with Remington factory 200-grain Core-Lokt bullets. We’d been concentrating on getting my daughter Brittany a nilgai (she used her .405 Winchester, not a bad choice), and we were just about out of time when it became my turn. In fact, the hunt was pretty much over…until we glassed a big bull walking bold as brass along the edge of the road two little hills and maybe 300 yards in front of us.
We rolled the Jeep to a stop and took off running. By the time we caught him he was feeding on the far side of a bushy tree. Heck, I could hardly make him out, let alone shoot. So we eased slowly to the left, and at the same time the nilgai smelled something of a rat and started to walk. By the time I was clearly he was 20 yards out and walking straight away. That is no shot with a nilgai, not in broad daylight and certainly not with dark coming on. But he stopped, turned slightly, and looked back over his shoulder at me. Perfect. I put the Aimpoint dot on the base of his neck, and the .35 Whelen dumped him in his tracks. Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!
The .35 Whelen isn’t a cartridge that will be found in every corner gunshop, but there are three darned good factory loads. Remington still offers the 200-grain Pointed Soft Point at a fairly speedy 2675 fps, and a 250-grain Pointed Soft Point at 2400 fps. Federal has superb “compromise” load, a 225-grain Trophy Bonded Bearclaw at 2600 fps. Handloading with certain powders may increase this performance slightly, and of course I can exceed .35 Whelen velocities in my .35 Ackley Improved chamber. But why? The .35 Whelen shoots flat enough for most purposes…and hits hard enough for any and all purposes in North America. It will never become wildly popular, but it remains as useful as it was in 1922: A wonderful choice for someone looking for more power, without a lot more pain.