The study of rifle ballistics has fascinated me since I began reloading my first .30-06. Lyman was the first manual I purchased and put to good use, not only for the .30-06 but several others that eventually came along. As I reflect on that, I don’t think that the many additions to my ballistics library have greatly improved my personal knowledge and experience in handloading in a significant way over what that green, black and white Lyman with the green plastic spine initially provided. Of course, new powders, bullets and rifles/cartridges have been added over time and thickened most manuals to the point that some manufacturers have added a second volume to care for hand guns, of which I’ve owned one that was never fired under my ownership. It got invested into a shotgun or rifle; I don’t recall which. From that beginning, my personal growth in developing handloads for a variety of rifles came from “developing handloads for a variety of rifles”.
Basically, without going into too much boring detail, my interest in such matters stems from a bent to understand and know how rifle ballistics work and how to get the best they have to offer… safely.
That was, and is, a process over many decades. We don’t arrive at that destination because the more we think we know, the more we come to realize that half-way there is still a mile away! The destination keeps moving farther away as new products come on stream and ballistic science evolves. What was thought to be known for sure, now creates more questions than probable answers.
(From previous experience, I figured the powder on the left would work best in my then new 9.3 X 62. That is, until I tried RL-17 on the right. What a transformation. RL-15 gave expected results, but RL-17 gave results unheard of and totally unexpected!)
So, all I aim to do in this current theme is to debunk some “urban myths”, and provide some straight-forward, no- nonsense ways to compare and evaluate rifle ballistics for HUNTING purposes. For example: Often… no, VERY often a poster on one of the rifle/hunting forums will ask a question, for debate or information purposes, such as: “Is a .35 Whelen as good as a .338 Winchester Magnum for larger N. American game, including bears? I want to purchase a new rifle with the intent of some day hunting in Alaska and want to know your opinions and experiences.”
Whether or not the poster is serious or just curious doesn’t really matter because there may be 351 others reading the thread who have been entertaining similar questions… and doubts. The thread will then continue for several pages without any final answers because it’s like voting in a democracy, everyone has an opinion based on what they currently own and like to shoot, which begs the real issue of “Which is best?” And how does one evaluate “best”? And best for what, and under what conditions?
In starting this theme, my first priority is to establish some ground rules. The main problem with open and public forums is that they mostly degenerate into arguments, name calling and mud slinging! This is obviously not an open forum, nor an election. So, the first rule, imposed on myself, will be that information given and statements made must be proven and factual, that is, beyond reasonable doubt as far as my personal knowledge and experience is concerned. My knowledge and experience is both scholastic and real. And, I’m not expecting others to duplicate it, though others may have done so. Then, here we go as to ground rules:
First: Factual evidence only.
Third: No favoritism or prejudicial slants.
Forth: Any theoretical data must show soundness of reasoning.
Fifth: Conclusions and recommendations will reflect fairness and honesty in evaluations. (An H&R single-shot in .35 Whelen. My first handload for that rifle — 22″ barrel — gave 2566 fps/3655 ft-lbs — from a 250gr Hornady SP. Powder was RL-15. A 200gr Hornady SP attained 3000 fps/3996 ft-lbs from H4895 on the first try. The secret? Experience.)
So let’s commence The Medium-bore Cartridge Olympics by a comparison and evaluation of the .35 Whelen vs. the .338 Winchester Magnum, entirely without prejudice aforethought.
And just for the record, I have significant experience with each.
The .35 Whelen
It appears logical to me, and ballistic technicians who shoot countless thousands of bullets into ballistic gel, that a larger bore rifle will make a larger permanent “hole” in game animals than a smaller one assuming 5 factors: 1) Impact velocity is the same; 2) Bullet construction and profile are identical; 3) Sectional density is the same — or nearly so; 4) The “hole” is in the same place, and 5) The angle of bullet impact is identical, or nearly so.
Did I miss something? No?
Due to the silence, I’ll continue: If all of the above is true, then it follows that the larger bore rifle is shooting a heavier bullet with more momentum and kinetic energy. You are following my brilliant logic so far? Then, it should also follow that a .35 Whelen should be “better than” a .308 Winchester for particular species, other things equal, or nearly so — but in actual practice nothing is totally “equal”!
Assuming it’s the same hunter who is equally adept with his/her .35 Whelen as he/she is with their .308 Winchester, wouldn’t it seem logical to choose the .35 Whelen over the .308 Winchester for an Alaskan hunt involving “the great bears”? No red herrings, please.
In a best-case scenario, a 22″ barrel on a Whelen should make 2600 fps firing a 250gr Nosler Partition. That translates to 3752 ft-lbs/93 lbs-ft/sec momentum, as computed by Keith’s imperfect math for momentum — but at least it’s familiar and used by some well-known authors. At 100 yards (a generic range for bear), the Whelen is about 3200 ft-lbs/86 lbs-ft/sec momentum. The bullet would have an impact of around 2400 fps.
In comparison, the .308 Winchester shooting a 180gr Nosler Partition at 2600 fps MV would have an impact speed of about the same, or slightly more, at around 2420 fps = 2340 ft-lbs/62 lbs-ft/sec. As well, the Whelen has a slight edge in sectional density at .279 vs. .271 for the .308.
Then, in addition to those rather mundane numbers, there’s the matter of bullet diameter or, more appropriately, cross-sectional area of the bullets: The .358″ has a csa of .101 sq-in while the .308 has a csa of .074 sq-in. That’s a difference of 36.5% in favor of the Whelen.
Are there any arguments AGAINST the Whelen in favor of the .308 in such a scenario? The only possible legit argument would be in a case where the .308 is plenty for the game in question, while the “power” of the Whelen is superfluous.
Yet, this is really about comparing the .35 Whelen with the .338 Winchester Magnum. But I had to establish the principles enunciated above in order to offer a more equitable comparison.
Yet, the .35 Whelen can easily be made into a “plinking gun” up to a “Monster Masher”. So, it’s not merely a common “.35-Something-or-Other”!
It truly can be made into a varmint rifle, a fine deer firearm or a grizzly cruncher:
For varmints a 158gr/.357-cal. pistol bullet at 2000 fps/1403 ft-lbs of kinetic energy at the muzzle could be a worthy choice. With a good bullet, that could become a fair deer combo at woods ranges as well.
But for big buck whitetails — 250+lbs — I’d choose a quality 225-grain — in particular the Nosler AccuBond — at about 2500 to 2700 fps . That would surely be adequate for the largest of bucks at up to 250 to 350 yards without angst.
However, the .35 Whelen was created by Col. Whelen (some say James Howe) in 1921 to perceptibly increase ballistics over the .30-06 on larger game, such as those found in Alaska (the .35 Whelen is merely the .30-06 case expanded to accept .358″ bullets). So, I’m compelled to realistically evaluate the performance of a 22″ Whelen on such game animals as a mature grizzly or brown bear, as well as a mature Alaska/Yukon moose. A mature male brown bear (or Kodiak bear) may attain a stature of 12-feet from nose to tail and weigh well over 1000 lbs! As well, a mature Alaska/Yukon bull moose may have similar dimensions, only higher up, and carry approximately the same weight up to 3/4 ton! All of that equates to some serious flesh and bone for a relatively small piece of metal alloy to topple! (Photo credit: USFWS)
Yet, we are not left to our imagination or ballistic calculations, though for comparative purposes that may help. The .35 Whelen has more than enough credentials in Alaska, and has earned its keep there. And all of that long before better bullets and powders were forthcoming, which has raised the bar for all smokeless powder big-game rifles. It’s resume is sterling! So why all the questioning and debating of that issue on the forums? Well, it seems like there’s a whole generation or two of hunters who only know about “The Magnums” that are hyped on the Internet or gun magazines, by some professionals. They may very well think that the .35 Whelen (some write or type “Whelan”) just arrived a few years ago when Remington legitimized it in 1988! Therefore, in no way could it be “as good as” a .338 Win Mag, or even something else like one of the .300 magnums. So, in our next blog, I’ll make some realistic comparisons and evaluations.
See you then!
Final thot: God doesn’t disappear because we ignore him!