Born in the early 1920s, the .35 Whelen is one of the most successful wildcat cartridges descended from the .30-06 Springfield.
Colonel Townsend Whelen was one of America’s foremost gun writers and had a hand in designing a number of different rifle cartridges in the early 20th century. Of these, the .35 Whelen is probably the most famous and most widely used. Interestingly enough, his role in designing the cartridge is disputed with many historians believing that James Howe (later of Griffin & Howe fame) designed the .35 Whelen and simply named it after Townsend Whelen. Regardless of who designed it, the cartridge quickly caught on with American hunters and still remains very popular in some circles to this day.
Note: some of the links below are affiliate links. This means I will earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you make a purchase. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue to create free content that’s useful to hunters like yourself. Thanks for your support.
.35 Whelen History
The .35 Whelen has a relatively simple design: it’s a .30-06 Springfield case necked up to use .358″ instead of .308″ bullets (the exact opposite of the .270 Winchester in other words).
Common loads fire a 200-grain bullet at 2,800 fps (about 3,480 foot pounds of energy), a 225-grain bullet at around 2,600fps (3,380 foot pounds of energy), or a 250-grain bullet at approximately 2,500fps (3,470 foot pounds of energy).
It’s considerably more powerful than the .30-06 Springfield, but still fits in a standard length action with the same size bolt face as the .30-06. It also filled a gap that existed at the time between the .30-06 originally developed for the Army and the relatively expensive and difficult to obtain (back then) magnum cartridges like the .375 H&H.
This is how the cartridge got the nickname “The Poor Man’s Magnum.”
Hunters particularly appreciated the effectiveness of the cartridge on large animals like moose and brown bear. While cartridges like the .45-70 Government were (and still are) valued for their effectiveness on these same animals, the .35 Whelen had several attributes that helped set it apart from other “big hitters” of the day.
First, the .35 Whelen has a relatively flat trajectory almost on par with the .30-06. Next, the cartridge also has very good terminal performance out to several hundred yards. Finally, it also has a surprisingly mild recoil.
That being said, limited sources of ammunition and rifles resulting from the “wildcat” roots of the .35 Whelen restricted the appeal of the cartridge to a narrow segment of the population. For many years, factory loaded ammunition was essentially nonexistent. At the same time, rebarreled Mausers or Springfields made up the vast majority of .35 Whelen rifles until the 1980s when Remington started producing factory ammunition as well as rifles chambered in the cartridge.
These factors, along with the “neither fish nor fowl” nature of .35 caliber cartridges in general, help explain why the cartridge never made it into more widespread use in the United States.
.35 Whelen Ammo
Thanks to legitimacy that Remington gave the cartridge in the 1980s, many of the major gun manufacturers now produce factory loaded .35 Whelen ammunition and most gun stores keep some in stock. For instance, Barnes, Federal, Hornady, Nosler, and Remington all manufacture at least one load for the cartridge.
At the same time, Barnes produces a 180gr load in their VOR-TX line-up, Federal Premium offers a load featuring their 225gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Nosler makes a load with their 225gr AccuBond, and Remington also produces a 250gr Core Lokt load.
Some modern factory-loaded .35 Whelen ammo has slightly improved ballistics compared to the original loads from the 1920s. For instance, Hornady advertises a velocity of 2,910fps for their 200gr Superformance load.
Before .35 Whelen factory loads were widely available, handloaders were the primary source of .35 Whelen ammo. For this reason, there are still lots of quality .358 bullets in production like the 200gr Barnes TTSX, 225gr Barnes TSX, the 200gr Hornady FTX, 200gr Sierra Pro Hunter, and the 225gr Sierra Game King.
.30-06 Springfield vs .35 Whelen vs 9.3x62mm Mauser
So how does it stack up to other cartridges? Well, the .30-06 Springfield and the 9.3x62mm Mauser are the two cartridges most often compared to the .35 Whelen.
The differences between the three cartridges are most apparent in the table below comparing Federal Premium’s Vital Shok 165gr Nosler Partition and 225gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw loads for the .30-06 and .35 Whelen to Federal’s 286gr Cape Shok load for the 9.3x62mm Mauser.
As you can see, though the .30-06 is no slouch, the .35 Whelen is significantly more powerful, particularly at close range. On the other hand, the .30-06 has a flatter trajectory. The .35 Whelen and 9.3x62mm Mauser have very similar ballistics with the 9.3×62 having a slight edge in power and with the Whelen having a slightly flatter trajectory.
.35 Whelen Rifles
Due to its wildcat roots, few American gun manufacturers made rifles chambered in .35 Whelen until the 1980s. The cartridge still remains almost unheard of outside the United States. Prior to Remington opening the door for large scale production of .35 Whelen rifles, virtually every rifle in existence chambered for the cartridge was some sort of custom conversion (primarily 1898 Mausers and 1903 Springfields).
However, .35 Whelen rifles are a lot easier to find now than they used to be. Remington has produced bolt-action Model 700, semi-automatic Model 750, and pump-action Model 7600 rifles chambered in the cartridge off and on over the years. Additionally, among others, it’s also possible to find Ruger No 1, CVA Scout, and Nosler M48 rifles chambered in the cartridge. Thompson/Center also offers .35 Whelen barrels for their Encore rifles.
Hunting With The .35 Whelen
One of the reasons the .35 Whelen first became popular among American hunters was because it was so effective on really big species of North American game. That hasn’t changed and it remains a wonderful choice for grizzly/brown bear and moose hunting. If anything, the cartridge is even more effective on those animals now because of advances in bullet design. The .35 Whelen is also something of an underrated cartridge for elk hunting.
Additionally, it’s also a great cartridge for hunting medium sized game like whitetail deer, feral hogs, and black bear.
The same goes for most species of African plains game (like impala, kudu, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebra, and even eland) as well as animals that you’ll encounter on a New Zealand hunting safari like fallow deer, rusa deer, sika deer, sambar deer, or red stag.
The cartridge packs a heck of a punch and has a flat enough trajectory that it’s suitable for hunting most species of big game out to several hundred yards without too much trouble. Honestly, the only critters I don’t recommend using it on are extremely large species of African game like cape buffalo, elephant, and hippopotamus.
Though the .35 Whelen cartridge topped out well short of the top echelon of the most popular hunting cartridges like the .30-30 Winchester or the .30-06, it’s still great medium bore cartridge and is arguably one of the best .35 caliber cartridges ever made. Say what you will about the .35 Whelen, but that cartridge has been a solid performer for nearly a century now with no end in sight.