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.35 Whelen: The Colonel’s Cartridge

.35 Whelen: The Colonel’s Cartridge

’’It was a pretty good morning,” I mumbled mostly to myself, as I unwrapped a sandwich for a late lunch.

“Damn right,” came the reply in a French accent. “Any morning you shoot an 8-pointer is a good morning.”

Clearly, this Anticosti Island guide was the master of pointing out the obvious.

That whitetail was not only my best buck at the time, but shooting him launched a long love affair. It was my first game animal with a cartridge that grew to become my favorite: the .35 Whelen.

The first .35 Whelen rifle I saw belonged to Mike Slivchak, a co-worker at the telephone company back in the mid-’80s. Mike bought an old Remington Model 30 Express in .35 Remington and had a gunsmith lengthen the chamber. A few months later he dramatically swatted a Vermont whitetail into submission and I knew I had to have a Whelen.

Money was tight in those years, but when Remington made an honest cartridge out of the old wildcat in 1987 I ordered a Model 7600 pump-action rifle. I sent it to Larry Kelly so he could Mag-na-port it. Then I had the metal Parkerized. I cut down the stock and installed a Pachmayr recoil pad, removed the shiny finish from the wood and replaced it with a subdued oil finish. I smoothed the action, improved the trigger and bolted a 1.5X-5X Leupold on top. It was the nearest thing to a custom rifle I owned for years.

A year later, well before the sun melted the frost on a November morning, I was easing along a remote trail on Quebec’s Anticosti Island. I caught a flash of movement and froze long enough for mountains to erode into flat plains. Finally, I eased forward a step and down the trail was a whitetail’s head rising above the brush to stare back at me. Just the head, nothing more. That head had a nice set of antlers above it and a white throat patch below. With no other target, and wobbling off balance on tilted, quivering legs, I put a 200-grain Remington factory load through the center of the white patch. That Whelen has been my “go-to” Eastern whitetail rifle ever since. In fact, as I was doing the “field research” for two of my books, Big Bucks the Benoit Way and Benoit Bucks, more often than not that was the rifle in my hands. It influenced the Benoits to begin using scopes on their rifles.

Colonel Townsend Whelen, “Townie” to his friends, was born March 6, 1877, and died Dec. 23, 1961. He was a military man, big-game hunter, firearm expert and author. From an era that spawned the giants of gun writing history, he is thought by many to have been the best.

The origins of the cartridge that bears his name are controversial even today. The long-accepted story was that James V. Howe developed the cartridge in 1922 and named it in honor of his friend, Col. Townsend Whelen. That version of the story is in some dispute. There is evidence that Whelen himself developed the cartridge or at least worked with Howe on its development. All we know for sure is that it was either Howe or Whelen, or both, who necked up the .30-06 to take a .358-inch bullet. Soon enough, somebody dubbed it “the poor man’s magnum.”

Back then, true magnum-length rifle actions were expensive, European and difficult to find, but the .35 Whelen would fit in a standard .30-06 rifle action. Often that meant a Springfield M1903 rifle, which was common and easy to find by comparison. This cartridge brought “magnum”-level performance to the standard-length rifle action.

In 1987, Remington followed a long tradition of legitimizing popular wildcat cartridges and made the .35 Whelen an “official” factory-loaded cartridge. Over the years Remington has chambered several rifles in the Whelen, including multiple models of the Model 700 bolt-action, the Model 7600 pump-action and Model 750 semi-auto. Ruger briefly chambered its M77 rifle in .35 Whelen, and Winchester made a few Model 70s for it, too. Also, H&R 1871 Inc. offered single-shot rifles in .35 Whelen from 1994 to 1996.

In keeping with the .35-caliber curse, the .35 Whelen never caught the fancy of the mainstream American hunting public. For a while rifle makers abandoned the cartridge. Even Remington had given up and was no longer offering rifles in .35 Whelen. But currently, the Colonel’s Cartridge is making a bit of a comeback. Nosler Rifles and CVA offer guns in the Whelen, and now Remington has again placed it in its lineup, at least for this year.

Remington has offered ammo since the introduction. Federal has had ammo for years. Hornady, Barnes and Nosler load it, too.

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There have been several more .35 Whelen rifles in my vault over the years including a pair of 7600 rifles owned by my son and son-in-law. (It’s become a family favorite.) I had a Ruger M77 I let go, and I have regretted that decision for decades. I also had a Remington 750 that I don’t miss a bit. I own an H&R single-shot, and I have another 7600 that is new in the box and has never been fired. A gun that sees a lot of use is a Remington Model 700 BDL that has been restocked with a McMillan Hunter’s Edge Ultralight stock. It's a bit of a legend in my small circle of Vermont deer-hunting friends as the go-to rifle when we are tracking a wounded deer. More than once that big Whelen bullet has proven its competence at instilling a cooperative attitude.

The first critter I shot with the Model 700 was a bull moose. He had his head turned when I put a handloaded 225-grain Barnes X through both shoulders. It exited, passed through his head and went off to its final resting place somewhere in the wilds of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. That’s the kind of penetration and power I like in a rifle cartridge.

My next critter was a month later. It was a Texas whitetail well out in a wheat field, which proves the versatility of this cartridge. The Whelen is not the “close-range brush gun” so many wrongly believe it to be. Big bullets can shoot just as flat as little bullets. It’s all about muzzle velocity and the ballistic coefficient of the bullet. The difference is the bigger bullets hit much harder and make a bigger hole. Over the years, I have teamed with the .35 Whelen on a multitude of whitetails, hogs, black bears, a bobcat and that Vermont bull moose. I have also watched others shoot a bunch more animals, including several more moose, a few bears and an elk or two. I have never seen it fail. (Well, there was one New Brunswick bear that got away. A good friend missed it at 25 yards, so you really can’t blame the gun!)

With a 200-grain Barnes TTSX, the .35 Whelen’s trajectory is almost identical to the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet, which means the Whelen is fully capable of longer shots. The two have nearly identical muzzle velocities. The bigger .35-caliber bullet produces more energy, but the .30 caliber has a slight advantage in ballistic coefficient. With a 200-yard zero, the Whelen impacts 8.38 inches below the line of sight at 300 yards, which is .6 inch lower than the .30-06. At 400 yards the Whelen impacts 24.65 inches below the line of sight, only 2.45 inches lower than the .30-06.

The 200-grain .35 Whelen has 3,483 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, which is 350 ft.-lbs. more than the .30-06. At 300 yards, the Whelen still has nearly 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy remaining. The .35 Whelen doesn’t drop below 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy until almost 600 yards. This is a cartridge that is every bit as capable of ethical long-range hunting as most of the other popular hunting cartridges in its class.

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When I heard that Remington was going to bring back the .35 Whelen in its Limited Edition Model 700 CDL for 2016 I knew I needed another rifle. The new rifle has a 24-inch barrel, which milks a bit more velocity out of the cartridge than the traditional 22-inch barrel. The CDL’s walnut stock has an ebony fore-end tip and pistol grip cap. It has a 1.25-inch rubber recoil pad and nicely done checkering at 18 lines per inch. The stock is a “classic” design with a straight comb and a small cheekpiece. The magazine has a hinged floorplate engraved with the words “Limited Edition.” There is an engraved .35 Whelen cartridge with the words “35 Whelen” overlaid on it. The trigger on mine breaks a bit stiff at 5.25 pounds, but that is easy to fix. The rifle is unlike any other Remington has offered in the .35 Whelen, which makes it attractive to hunters and collectors alike.

I took the opportunity presented by this new rifle to lobby Thad Stevens at Barnes Bullets to produce a new load in conjunction with the rifle introduction. Barnes has long offered a 180-grain TTSX .35 Whelen load. Thad argues that it’s all you need for anything short of mastodons and that the extra velocity helps boost energy and flatten trajectory. He has one of the sharpest ballistic minds in the business and is right, but I argued that the 200-grain bullet is even better.

I believe all rifle cartridges have a bullet weight that achieves balance. With the .35 Whelen it is 200 grains, at least for critters that weigh less than a thousand pounds. I also argued that .35 Whelen owners don’t buy their guns to shoot light bullets. From a marketing standpoint 200 grains is a better bullet weight.

I have been loading the 200-grain Barnes TSX and TTSX bullets in the .35 Whelen and its ballistic twin, the .350 Remington Magnum, for decades. I have used the bullets on a wide range of game including hogs, black bears and a lot of whitetails. I argued the .35 Whelen has a soulmate with the 200-grain Barnes TTSX bullet and that Barnes really needed to load it in its Vor-Tx ammo.

Thad agreed. Probably just to get me to shut up, but I’ll take it. At the 2016 SHOT Show, Barnes introduced a new Vor-Tx load with the 200-grain TTSX bullet.

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I had already booked a hunt in one of my favorite places for late-season deer hunting: Mississippi. I figured that would be a great opportunity to wring out this new rifle and load up on some Southern venison. Of course, true to Towsley’s luck, it all crashed and burned.At the last minute we lost access to the property we were planning to hunt. With just a few days before my plane ride south, I panic-called my friend Mike Jones at Mississippi Tourism, who used his connections to hook us up with some guys in the Mississippi Delta.

The first night we hunted, my buddy Tony Kinton used his Whelen to clobber a huge Delta 8-point. The buck was facing him at about 100 yards and when that Barnes hit him, it was one and done—he dropped on the tracks his feet had been occupying. The buck was big with thick antlers and I was extremely happy for my old friend, but I was also green with envy.

What I was not, was worried. I assumed, based on Tony’s early success, that this was a slam dunk. Of course I was wrong. Over the next three days I hunted hard from some outstanding stands and in some of the best whitetail country I have seen. There were plenty of big bucks; the trail cameras confirmed that, as did the conventional sign like tracks, scrapes and rubs. But they all chose to become invisible. I saw a few does and some small bucks, but no shooters.

Let me define “shooters” in this circumstance where I wanted to test the rifle and to stock my depleted freezer with venison. I had hoped for a brute like Tony’s buck, but would've been happy with an adult whitetail buck representing his species with pride. Still, none seemed interested.

We had planned to hunt Tony’s property an hour away for the last few days of my trip, but we delayed that until it was nearly too late. We finally called it and headed to Tony’s place with a day left.All hunters know the frustration when it’s just not breaking your way. There is nothing you can do except hope it changes, which it did. Finally it was a whitetail morning. If you have hunted much you know the kind I'm talking about.

In the first light of dawn a parade of bucks started by my stand. First was a spike, then a forkhorn, then a 6-point. It was as if a giant hand was releasing them onto the trail and teasing me with a far too logical progression of size that simply does not occur in the real world.

Five or six bucks into it, the parade stopped. For the next hour I saw nothing. I fought the return of depressing thoughts until, behind me and to my left, a movement caught my eye. The first thing I saw was the antlers, which was all I needed.

The buck was moving fast and was almost past me before I could get on him. When he finally stopped it was behind a big oak tree. He needed only a few steps to reach safety, and if he kept the tree between us it was over. Could the hunting gods really be this cruel? This was the last of more than 30 mostly disappointing days of deer hunting and finally I had a good buck in front of me. Could he really escape? Could my season end in defeat?

I kept the crosshairs of that bright Swarovski scope on the opening until my eyes were watering and my left arm started doing that sewing machine thing. He finally showed but was angling away hard. Elmer Keith called it a “raking” shot where you need to penetrate a lot of deer to reach the important parts. It takes a good bullet and a powerful cartridge to reach those parts with enough retained energy to do the job that needs doing. It is, in many ways, the worst-case scenario and it’s why Elmer and I both favor bigger bullets. The upside is that it’s the shot the Whelen was born for and exactly why I prefer it over a lesser cartridge.

I put the crosshairs just ahead of his haunch and unleashed the Barnes. It traveled the length of the deer and exited the other side of his neck. The buck never disputed a thing.

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