351 Winchester and 401 Winchester: Auto-Loading Pioneers

Here’s what you need to know about the 351 Winchester and 401 Winchester Self-Loading cartridges.

I’d submit that for most shooters and hunters, cartridges like the .40 S&W and the 10mm Auto are the first things that come to mind when they think of semi-automatic .40 caliber cartridges. The same probably goes for the AR-15 when they think of a semi auto police patrol rifle. However, the .401 Winchester Self-Loading, which was itself proceeded by the .351 Winchester Self-Loading, and the Winchester Model 1907 and 1910 rifles that fired those cartridges, all filled those roles many decades before anyone ever heard of the 10mm Auto, the AR-15, or the Ruger Mini-14.

In today’s post, my dad will go over the history of the .401 and .351 Winchester Self-Loading cartridges in detail and cover why they were initially developed and why they eventually fell by the wayside.

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History Of The 401 And 351 Winchester

The story of the .351 Winchester and the .401 Winchester Self-Loading cartridges began with the Winchester Model 1903 rifle chambered in the unique .22 Automatic Winchester Rimfire cartridge. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of the Model 1903 rifle and its later larger brothers was its “blowback” action.

A blowback action in the most basic autoloading action. In firearms with a blowback action like the Model 1903, the breech is not locked and depends on a balance between the cartridge pressure characteristics, the heavy breechblock, and a powerful recoil spring for reliable functioning. Upon firing, the breechblock is delayed in its opening by its weight and spring pressure until the rising chamber pressure overcomes the inertia of the bolt.

Since .22 caliber cartridges of that time period were not loaded to uniform ballistics, Winchester specifically developed the .22 Automatic Winchester Rimfire cartridge for reliable functioning in the Model 1903 rifle. This cartridge was different from, but looked similar to, standard .22 Long and .22 Long Rifle cartridges. This understandably led to mistakes and confusion among the buying public regarding the proper ammunition for the rifle and hampered sales of what should have been a very popular rifle.

Even so, the Model 1903 rifle was fairly popular and sold approximately 120,000 examples over a production life of 33 years.

During the early 1900s, the folks at Winchester learned that their main competitor, Remington, was working on a centerfire autoloading rifle suitable for hunting big game. The leadership at Winchester realized that a large untapped market existed for the winner of the autoloader race, so they were determined to beat Remington to the punch and release their self-loading rifle first.

However, Winchester experienced great difficulty in the development of their autoloading rifle and the unique calibers designed for it. Specifically, they had a significant problem developing a caliber powerful enough to be suitable for big game, yet usable in the 1903 type “blowback” autoloading action.

After two years of development, Winchester did beat Remington to market with the Winchester Model 1905 rifle. However, the calibers available in the Model 1905, the .32 Self Loading (.32 SL) and the .35 Self Loading (.35 SL), were realistically pretty underpowered for satisfactory use on big game.

The .32 Self-Loading fired a 165 grain bullet at 1,390 feet per second (708 ft-lbs of energy) and the .35 Self-Loading fired a 180 grain bullet at 1,390 feet per second (772 ft-lbs of energy). The performance of cartridges paled in comparison to the .32 Remington (170gr bullet at 2,180fps for 1,794 ft-lbs of energy) and .35 Remington (200gr bullet at 2,080fps for 1,922 ft-lbs of energy) cartridges Remington introduced with their new autoloading rifle, the Remington Model 8.

Neither Winchester cartridge was truly suitable for anything larger than small deer, and that might have been pushing it. Realistically, the Winchester Model 1905 was only useful to control vermin around the farm or for taking small game. Due in large part to the limited utility of those cartridge, the Model 1905 was not a major commercial success. Winchester only sold about 29,000 Model 1905 rifles from 1905 to 1923.

That being said, some good did come out of the money and time spent on the development of the Model 1905 and the accompanying cartridges that would help the company in the future. Indeed, Winchester used the .32 Self Loading as the basis for development of the .30 Carbine cartridge in the early 1940’s.

Winchester took the lessons learned from the Model 1905 in stride and incorporated some changes into the new Winchester Model 1907 rifle and the accompanying .351 Winchester Self-Loading (.351 WSL) cartridge they released a few years later.

The .351 Winchester fired the same 180 grain bullet as the .35 SL, but at a considerably higher velocity of 1,850 feet per second (1,368 ft-lbs of muzzle energy). This was about as powerful as the original .30-30 Winchester load of a 160 grain bullet at 1,970 feet per second (1,379 ft-lbs of energy) and quite a bit more powerful than a .357 Magnum load. Winchester sold both soft point and FMJ ammunition for the .351 SL cartridge over the years.

Finally, Winchester had developed an autoloader powerful enough to truly be used on North American big game. Commonly known as the Model 07, the Model 1907 rifle was also popular for law enforcement use. Equipped with 10 round magazine to go along with a slightly beefed up forened and buttstock to resist cracking, many Model 1907 semi-auto rifles were acquired by many police departments to serve alongside the Thompson submachine gun in .45 ACP in an effort to give their officers more firepower.

The Model 1907 enjoyed a long production run of over 51 years and Winchester finally stopped manufacturing it in 1958. During that time, Winchester produced over 49,000 rifles, including over 8,000 produced during World War I and World War II. Probably well over half of the production for the last ten years went to police organizations in the United States.

351 winchester 401 winchester

As commercially successful as the Winchester Model 1907 and the .351 Winchester Self-Loading were, Winchester was still not quite satisfied. For that reason, Winchester decided to build what would become the biggest brother to the preceding lines of self-loaders and the only one that truly was capable of taking big game or of competing on equal terms with Remington’s recently introduced Model 08.

Using basically the same action, they introduced the Winchester Model 1910 semi-automatic rifle along with the .401 Winchester Self Loading (.401WSL) in the spring of 1910. The .401 WSL fired a 200 grain .406”caliber soft point bullet at 2,140 feet per second for a walloping 2,034 ft-lbs of energy. Winchester also produced a load firing a 250 grain bullet at 1,870 feet per second (1,942 ft-lbs of energy). These ballistics were far better than the .351 WSL and even put it slightly above the .35 Remington in terms of kinetic energy.

Unfortunately for Winchester, the Model 10 was not a good seller and the company only produced about 20,000 produced before dropping it from production in 1936.

Final Thoughts On The 401 And 351 Winchester

Though Winchester Self-Loading Rifles in .351 WSL and .401SL are not in the same league as bolt action rifles chambered in .308 Win or .30-06 Springfield, that’s not really a fair comparison. Having owned several different rifles chambered in .351 WSL and .401 WSL over the years, I can attest to the fact that they are quite good at what they were designed to do: cleanly take North American deer and black bear size game when hunting in close cover where quick shots might be called for. It puts down Whitetail deer and wild hogs quite nicely.

Having said that, it must be noted that the rifle and caliber combination is certainly not perfect. Due to its blowback action, the rifle kicks like a mule. At the same time though, the Remington Model 8 also kicks a lot more than you would expect considering the rather mild calibers they were chambered for.

In both cases, the recoil is the result of the action types used on these early autoloaders. It feels like you get an initial kick when the gun goes off, which is then followed immediately by even harder hit when the heavy movable actions parts slam to the rear of the rifle.

The Model 1910 rifles were also prone to cracking of the forearm. Probably over half the Model 1907 and 1910 rifles I’ve examined over the years have a cracked forearm. I’ve repaired several successfully. They also balance rather far forward due to the very heavy breechblock extension that looks like an operating rod under the barrel. Finally, they are on the heavy side at 8.5 pounds.

All that being said, if one were interested in hunting with a very unique rifle that you would be very unlikely to encounter in the woods in the hands of another hunter, the Winchester Model 1907 and Model 1910 autoloaders in .351 Winchester or .401 Winchester would be a great choice.

They are still around, although finding a pristine example will be tough. Most have had an active life in the woods earning their keep, not being just stored away in the closet. Unfortunately, finding .401 or .351 Winchester ammo is also pretty difficult as well, though it’s still possible to find the odd box of factory ammunition and the necessary reloading supplies from places like Buffalo Arms. Both cartridges use an unusual bullet diameter (.352″ and .406″ respectively), but it’s still possible to find soft point, FMJ, or cast lead bullets to use for reloading.

If you’d like to read some of the other posts my father has written for this blog, visit the links below:

The .219 Zipper: A Good Cartridge That Didn’t Quite Pan Out

One Man’s Attempt At Explaining Hunting To Non-Hunters

405 Winchester: Roosevelt’s Medicine Gun For Lions

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The Rifle In America (p728, 730-731, & 733) was used as a reference for the history of the cartridges discussed as well as their ballistic data.

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NEXT: 9 BEST DEER HUNTING CALIBERS

9 thoughts on “351 Winchester and 401 Winchester: Auto-Loading Pioneers”

  1. These are a fun gun to have , shoot and collect. I have been able to get one of each of the calibers ( models) and without too much trouble or expense. the 32 was the hardest one to come up with, There are a lot of 351 out there and some very nice ones, Thanks for this article and the information in it.

    Reply
      • I have quite a bit of money into these guns now but I have one of each. Just bought the 22 sl. I have a 32 sl, 2 x 35 sl,351 and a 401. I have fired them all except the .22…waiting for some ammo. Hard to find here in Canada.

        Reply
  2. Good information on these rifles. I have a 35 wsl and am going to pick up a 351 wsl next week. I would like some information if possible on approximate value if in good usable condition.

    Reply
    • On some collecting sites, prices range around $100.00 box of 50, but earlier pristine condition boxes and with ammo go much higher.

      Try Buffalo arms in Idaho for brass and bullets for reloading.

      It’s too bad that no other companies picked up the 32 WSL, 35 WSL, 351WSL and 401 WSL . They would probably still be around today.

      I read Thompson made a experimental rifle in 351 WSL.

      During WW2, when army brass asked Winchester to make up a light, handy rifle to replace 1911 pistols, Winchester wanted to use either the 351 WSL or 32 WSL, but army brass wanted a 30 caliber. Either cartridge would have had better knock down power than 30 Carbine. The 32 WSL duplicated the 32-40 ballistics.

      I wonder if some army brass had a 32-20 lever action rifle and thought that a semi auto rifle in 30 caliber would be good for combat?

      Does anyone know if any gunsmith ever converted a 30 Carbine to 32 WSL? I read back in the 1980’s a couple of gunsmith were doing conversation of 30 Carbine rifle’s to 45 Win. Mag.

      The AR 15 would be good for the 401 WSL.
      with a 30 round magazine!

      Reply
      • I think if enough people went online and contacted Winchester and Hornady, and asked them to make up a run of ammo in 351 WSL and 401 WSL in 20 round boxes, perhaps they would make a limited run.

        And with Winchester, Ruger, Mossberg and other companies making bolt action rifle in 350 Legend and 450 Bushmaster, maybe they could make a run of rifles in 351 WSL and 401 WSL too., with 5 and 10 round magazines.

        Reply
  3. Good article on the forgotten Winchesters.
    I think that the semi auto rifles were ahead of their time
    . Back in the day, shooters were just transitioning from black powder to smokeless powder. They shot lever actions and bolt actions, and probably didn’t understand semi auto rifles.

    Even the Standard gas operated semi auto rifle didn’t sell well.

    Even the military wouldn’t use semi or full auto ( hand held) fearing soldiers would shoot too much ammo.

    I did read a article that said in the 1920’s, the military tried experimented using a Remington model 1908 in 25 Remington and soldiers liked shooting it as compared to bolt action 30-06. But the military has hundreds of millions of 30-06 ammo from WW1, and didn’t want a new caliber.

    Another article, said at first Winchester wanted to use the 32 WSL for WW2, but military brass wanted 30 caliber, so Winchester designed the 30 Carbine, still popular today.

    One would think the 32WSL, 35 WSL, 351 WSL and 401 WSL would still be in use today. But unfortunately, only rifles made for these cartridges was Winchester, no one else chambered them, how come?

    I wonder if any gunsmith has made a AR 15 in 351 WSL?

    The 401 WSL would seem to have been a good choice for a large caliber AR 15, but they came out with the 450 Bushmaster instead.

    I can remember reading that years ago in hunting magazines that the Model 1910 was popular in Alaska, that even Barnes Bullets made .406 bullets for reloading the 401 WSL. Other articles said reloaders would resize 41 Magnum bullets (.410), down to .406 to use in the 401 WSL.

    Prices have skyrocketed on the Models 05, 07, 10. Check out GunBroker.

    Reply
  4. After reading about the Winchester self loaders, I decided to look online to get more information and see what I could find out

    It seems like most writers complain about the Winchester self loaders action, but this was a new product. You can’t compare it to today’s AR 15’s

    Many have complained about the cartridges themselves saying that they were way under powered and useless and only good for squirrels to coyotes, they must be talking about the 22LR.

    The 32 WSL fired a 165 gr SP at 1390 fps, this duplicated the 32-40 ballistics, the 32-40 was considered good for deer.

    The 35 WSL fired a 180 gr SP at 1390 fps, this duplicated the 38-40 ballistics. The 357 Magnum fired a 158 gr SP at 1240 fps.

    The 351 WSL fired a 180 gr SP at 1850 fps, this is much higher than the 357 Magnum fired out of a lever action rifle, a 180 gr SP at 1500 fps.

    When the 357 Magnum revolvers came out, hunters used it to take an assortment of big and dangerous game. There are photos of hunters taking a polar bear with a 357 Mag revolver! It was even used in Africa.

    Grizzly bears have been shot with 357 Mag. revolvers, so why wouldn’t a 35 WSL or 351 WSL not be good for hunting?

    The 10mm Auto semi auto pistols is being used to hunt deer and wild hogs, and it equals the 35 WSL ballistics.

    Rifle Carbines are available in 40 S&W, and some use it to hunt deer and wild hogs, but even the 32 WSL and 35 WSL beat it in ballistics.

    Townsend Whelen wrote back 100 years ago that the 32 WSL and 35 WSL were good deer cartridges for their ranges

    It seems to me that this would be a good time to bring back these cartridges in a modern semi auto or compact bolt action rifle.

    Reply

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