In 1922, British archaeologists discovered the entrance to King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Russia and allied republics formed the USSR. James Joyce published Ulysses. Ava Gardner and Lizabeth Scott were born in small towns 487 miles apart. Col. Townsend Whelen and James Howe invented the .35 Whelen cartridge, affectionately known by some as “The Colonel.” To date, not one of these mysteries has been solved.
The lion and leopard sit with their paws crossed at or near the top of the Big Five list of the most dangerous game in Africa and therefore the world. They’ve sat there from the moment someone thought to devise such a ranking. The big cats are the only thin-skinned animals on the list, sharing it with the monster pachyderms -– the African elephant, the Cape buffalo and, moseying back toward active status, the black rhino.
North America’s potential candidates are limited to the great brown and grizzly bears, certainly big and dangerous but not quite dangerous enough. A thousand-pound bear may decide to dismember you if it suspects you’re carrying a Sierra Club membership card instead of a pistol in your pocket, and it may eat you if it’s hungry enough. But an African cat’s toughness, vitality, tenacious grip on life and ruthless predatory mindset place it in a higher danger zone entirely.
Even a well-fed lion, if it disapproves of your Chanel No. 5 or Hoppe’s No. 9, would as soon kill you and toss you in the recycle bin for the hyenas to squabble over. It happens often enough that a lion will pad into a camp of hunters in the middle of the night, carefully sniff out one particular individual for no reason known to man, chomp through the victim’s skull to switch off his dreams and silently carry him into the darkness never to be seen again. Man’s original nightmare. The leopard’s joy in killing for his own personal amusement is well known. A leopard who enters a pen of goats or sheep may slaughter all thirty or forty of them in a matter of minutes, indulge in a delicate taste of liver with his bloodbath and disappear. Cats are not content to pick berries for a living.
Man-eating lions and leopards are documented in volumes of African literature. No other beast, no matter how deadly it may be at any given moment, has ever shown such professional tendencies. Considering the big cats’ essential view of man as morsel, plus the fact that their muscles are as hard and dense as their skin is soft and thin, one is well advised not to approach a lion or a leopard with a deer rifle. Ernest Hemingway’s hunter-in-search-of-his-courage in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber shot his lion five times with a 30-06 and you heard where that got him. Even scarier real-life stories concerning inopportune meetings between big cats and small bullets are written every year in Africa.
On the other hand, the big-bore Nitro Express cartridges loaded with huge solid bullets intended for extreme straight-line penetration in the thick-skinned members of the Big Five are not ideal lion or leopard killers either.
A witchdoctor of my acquaintance once leaned over one of those little tables in the bar at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and told me that the best medicine for thin-skinned dangerous animals is a heavy-for-caliber, controlled-expansion, premium bullet loaded in a mature, moderate-velocity, medium-bore cartridge. This brew delivers the proper combination of penetration and expansion, momentum and hydrostatic shock, shooter control and reliable performance. It is a highly effective way to inject lethal energy into a hard-wired bundle of claws and fangs.
He named his poisons. The 9.3x62mm Mauser, developed by German Otto Bock in 1905. The .350 Rigby Magnum, developed by John Rigby of London in 1908. The .35 Whelen, developed by Americans Col. Townsend Whelen and James Howe in 1922. Case capacities differ slightly among these cartridges, as do maximum possible loadings. But maximum loads are never a good idea in Africa, where elevated chamber pressure combined with high air temperature and direct sun on brass and steel can wreak havoc on reliable functioning. In reality, all are loaded to near identical ballistics. In premium factory loads, any variations between them are not enough to drop a pebble in your boot.
The witchdoctor included the short, fat, belted .350 Remington Magnum, ballistic twin of the .35 Whelen introduced in 1965 to work through short actions. If our rendezvous at the Ritz had been a year later, he would have added the .376 Steyr, developed by the Steyr factory in Austria in 2000 to match the ballistics of the .350 Remington Magnum which Jeff Cooper chose to define his big-bore “Lion Scout” rifle.
If you’ve hunted with any one of these “Fatal Five” you may as well have hunted with them all. Each has proved so useful for so many things and so perfect in so many ways they have all become cult cartridges treasured by aficionados. Two of them have, over the years, held the coveted title of Most Widely Used Sporting Cartridge in Africa. A couple have become particular darlings of expensive custom gunmakers. One has been generally ignored by its country of origin and left to stand in the corner and gather dust.
The .35 Whelen is still standing there, as good as it ever was, even though I would venture to say that a shocking number of American hunters have never even heard of it. It was this country’s first and perhaps best attempt to design an international cartridge, not only for North American elk, moose, bear, boar and bison, but also for Africa’s big antelope and other plains game including the eland which is the size of a horse, and the big cats of all continents, counting the tiger before he retired from the game and the jaguar before he left the Amazon and headed north to the Rio Grande. The actual fact is, the .35 Whelen has been used quite successfully on Cape buffalo and elephant as well.
Perhaps the cartridge has been overlooked and underrated by the masses of hunters because its creation was so simple anybody could have done it.
Col. Townsend Whelen and his friend James V. Howe got together in New York with big game in mind. American hunters were beginning to think beyond the back forty and dream of Alaska and Africa. Both Whelen and Howe were firearms sophisticates. Whelen was commanding officer of the government arsenal at Frankford, later to author the classic book, Mr. Rifleman, and write the much-quoted statement, “only accurate guns are interesting.” Howe was a talented if temperamental metalworker, toolmaker and gunsmith who worked for Whelen and who would briefly become the Howe of Griffin & Howe, America’s pioneering custom rifle shop. Whelen and Howe looked around at the African and European success of the 9.3 and the .350, then looked at the 30-06 case, of which there were millions lying around between world wars. They decided to neck up the 30-06 brass from .308” to .358” and load it with enough powder to drive a bigger, wider, heavier bullet of 250-275 grains at about 2400 fps, the optimum velocity for penetration in big, tough game. With new loading data, trajectories were about the same as the 30-06 firing smaller, lighter bullets.
What a simple idea. And how brilliantly it worked. The .35 Whelen instantly achieved a level of performance equal to the Mauser and Rigby mid-bores and vastly superior to the smallbore 30-06 as a big-game hunting round in every way.
The new cartridge even had certain advantages over the heavier and still quite exotic .375 Holland & Holland Magnum to which it was kissing close in power. Since the 30-06 was originally designed to fit the standard Mauser action, a simplified version of which was the foundation of the 1903 Springfield, the .35 Whelen fit just as well. That meant it could be chambered in even lighter and handier rifles than the long, belted .375, characteristics deemed important because quickness in bear brawls and cat fights is one of the basic rules of the game.
Initial reception of the wildcat was positive. Custom gunmakers embraced the new chambering like a mother gorilla with a first-born son. Griffin & Howe built some beautiful and expensive Whelens on Springfield and Mauser actions. And a lot of old shot-out 30-06s were rebored or rebarreled for the .35, which is one of the reasons it remained a wildcat until Remington finally started producing factory ammunition in 1987. Ammo makers, as always quaking with terror in the face of their hysterical liability lawyers, were afraid that if they loaded the .35 Whelen to its full potential they would be deafened by the sounds of rusty Springfields spontaneously detonating all across the country.
Currently, Remington offers two loads, with 200- and 250-grain Core-Lokt bullets, Federal offers a 225-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw load, and Nosler loads .35 Whelen ammo with their 225-grain Ballistic Tip, 225-grain Partition and 250-grain Partition bullets. Of course, you can always load your own, properly headstamped and labeled for the African customs clerks, or let a quality custom loader like Superior Ammunition do the loading to your specifications. The most important component for dangerous game is the bullet, which should be a heavy premium with modern controlled expansion characteristics unheard-of in 1922. It wasn’t until the late ‘40s that John Nosler began to penetrate the mist surrounding that new planet, thus initiating a voyage of discovery that has improved the terminal performance of every big-game cartridge in the world.
Gunwriters have generally approved of the .35 Whelen over the years, though they’ve always been reticent about breaking the news to their readers that there’s a whole world of over-30-caliber cartridges out there. Most writers of the deer-hunting persuasion have seen the .35 Whelen as nothing more than a big deer cartridge, an outsize 30-06 suitable mainly for “brush busting,” something you can shoot your whitetail with when he’s standing behind a tree. This limited view of the cartridge by myopic gunwriters has done more to divert The Colonel’s potentially powerful flow into the mainstream of American cartridges than anything else.
Jack O’Connor, the recoil-allergic smallbore maven who, with a straight face, recommended the .270 for grizzly bear, admitted to Elmer Keith confidant Truman Fowler that he planned to take a .350 Remington Magnum to India for tiger, though I don’t know if he actually made that trip. Elmer Keith himself used the .35 Whelen for big bull elk on the Idaho-Montana border. When Jeff Cooper decided that his .308 Scout Rifle needed a big brother to take on African game, especially and specifically the lion, he nominated the .350 Remington Magnum because it matched .35 Whelen ballistics in a short action which he wanted for his ideal seven-pound rifle. When Steyr went into production on the “Lion Scout” they developed the .376 Steyr cartridge instead, same ballistics as the .35/.350 with a .375” diameter bullet. Their reasoning was that several African countries had mandated an arbitrary minimum .375 caliber for thick-skinned dangerous game -– not lions and leopards, mind you, but elephant, buffalo and rhino -– which gives you an idea of how they thought the Austrian version of the .35 Whelen might appropriately be used.
I am not alone in declaring the .35 Whelen the best all-around rifle cartridge ever invented in America. The statement can be extended to include the .350 Remington Magnum, same capabilities in a different package. The statement does not apply to factory rifles chambered in either round.
Whelen and Howe envisioned the .35 Whelen as a rifle capable of dropping very large or very dangerous game, calling for a barrel with a 1-in-12” rifling twist to stabilize heavy bullets up to 300 grains. Such a rifle would naturally be built on an appropriate dangerous-game action –- that is, first and foremost, a Mauser ’98 type with controlled-round-feed including a self-locking spring steel extractor.
Remington and Ruger, the only factories to manufacture .35 Whelens and .350 Remington Magnums, set this vision aside and adopted the view of the aforementioned gunwriters who labeled The Colonel a brush-busting deer rifle. They built their guns accordingly. Barrels with a 1-in-16” rifling twist ideal for lighter bullets of 225 grains and under, push-feed actions, configured in lightweight rifles and carbines whose short American-style stocks gave full vent to the Whelen’s recoil which was considerably more than that to which smallbore shooters had grown accustomed and come to expect.
There was, and is, nothing wrong with these Remingtons and Rugers, in either .35 Whelen or .350 Remington Magnum, for use on non-dangerous game. To quote gunwriter Chuck Hawks, referring to Remington’s commercial loading of a 200-grain Core-Lokt bullet at 2,600 fps, “I have witnessed this load simply flatten big black bears, wild hogs, zebras and wildebeest in their tracks. It will also make the largest of whitetails crumple.”
None of those animals has a reputation for striking first and asking questions later. I don’t think factory rifles to date have fairly and completely represented The Colonel. I think they represent The Colonel’s less ambitious cousin who lives on a small farm in Pennsylvania.
Recent report from an American hunter in Zimbabwe: “After the shot the big male leopard moved about 15 yards up a small embankment into heavy bush and high grass. We found him dead. The bullet went through his left shoulder, destroying everything in between and exiting on the far side. ... It was very exciting to see a pride of lions approaching our bait. The 250-grain Nosler hit in the left shoulder and exited after penetrating diagonally through the animal. ... On this safari, five animals were taken with seven shots fired. ... My experience with this cartridge indicated to me that the .35 Whelen with appropriate bullets is a very fine choice for hunting in Zimbabwe.”
With the proliferation of new big-game hunting cartridges of all shapes and sizes over the last few years, along with the rebirth of the great English and German classics, does The Colonel, an octogenarian surviving in relative obscurity, still have a future? Are the claws of the leopard as relentless as always? Do men still dream of lions?