The Mystery of the .358 Winchester
By Rick Ryals
I have read several articles about the .358 Winchester, including Chuck Hawks' article on the Rifle Cartridge Page of Guns and Shooting Online. Based on what I have read, everyone who has used the cartridge has had nothing but high praise for it. From all accounts its killing power is outstanding, far in excess of what would be expected from its modest case size or its paper ballistics. Its recoil is modest for the level of power it provides. The expansion ratio for .35 caliber cartridges is ideal for shorter barreled rifles. This means that the .358 can realize its full potential in a 20 to 22 inch barrel rather than the 26 inch barrel needed for most magnum cartridges. The huge mystery about the .358 Winchester is its incredible lack of popularity.
I have considered the various reasons given for its unpopularity and for each reason offered I can name other cartridges for which the same could be said, yet these are popular cartridges. I would like to look at each of the reasons I have read for its failure in the market place, and discuss their merit.
Heavy recoil has long been cited for the failure of such cartridges as the .358 Winchester and the .350 Remington Magnum. However, there are other cartridges that recoil just as much or more and which sell extremely well. The various .300 magnums are prime examples. Heavy recoil is sometimes cited as a disadvantage in discussions of the .300's, but it certainly has not hindered their popularity.
The .300 Winchester Magnum with a 180 grain bullet at 2960 fps delivers 25.9 foot-pounds of recoil from an 8.5 pound rifle. As a comparison, the .358 Winchester with a 250 grain bullet at 2300 fps delivers 25.4 foot-pounds of recoil from a 7.5 pound rifle. So we see that even with a one pound lighter rifle, the .358 recoils slightly less than a .300 magnum.
Let's also compare the .358 with the other end of the spectrum. The .45-70 is another very popular cartridge. A 300 grain bullet launched at 1800 fps from an 8 pound rifle generates 22.5 foot-pounds of recoil. The 405 grain bullet at 1330 fps generates around 22.8 foot-pounds. These are the standard low pressure loads. With hotter loads for modern high strength rifles, the .45-70 will push a 350 grain bullet at 2100 fps, providing 36.4 foot-pounds of recoil from an 8 pound rifle. Even the light .45-70 loads are in the vicinity of the .358 recoil, while the heavy loads far exceed it.
We see that there are popular cartridges that generate recoil equal to or exceeding that of the .358 Winchester. Recoil alone does not keep a cartridge from becoming popular.
This is another criticism of the .358 Winchester. Let's see how it compares here with other popular cartridges. With maximum powder charges the .358 can provide the following velocities from various bullet weights:
.358 Winchester, 180 grain bullet at 2700 - 2800 fps
These are typical velocities for the various bullet weights and such loads are listed in several reloading manuals with a variety of powders. The .358 Winchester Super-X factory load drives a 200 grain Silvertip bullet at a MV of 2490 fps. How does this compare with the velocities of other cartridges?
.308 Winchester, 150 grain bullet at 2820 fps
The .358 runs anywhere from 100 to 300 fps behind the velocities of the .308 Winchester, approximately 600 fps behind the .300 Winchester Magnum and 250 to 350 fps behind the .338 Winchester Magnum. It is around 900 fps faster than the low pressure .45-70 loads and about 200 fps faster that the high pressure 350 grain load.
These comparisons are for bullets of comparable sectional density and/or intended usage. While the .358 comes in second place to the high intensity smaller bores and magnums, it clearly outdistances the increasingly popular .45-70 big bore in the velocity race.
Whenever I have considered the .358's unpopularity I have long believed it due to its moderate velocity, but then I noticed the .45-70 and its increasing popularity in recent years. How do we explain this, considering that the velocity of that old cartridge is anemic compared to the .358? It is a mystery to me.
Since velocity affects both trajectory and energy, let's look at them next.
Short range trajectory is another reason proposed for the .358's unpopularity. Let's compare its trajectory with other popular cartridges to see if this criticism is valid. To simplify things, we will compare the maximum point blank range of various cartridges to see how the .358 stacks up.
.308 Winchester, 150 grain at 2820 fps - MPBR 264 yards
With bullet weights for deer-sized game, the .358 doesn't do nearly as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. Using 180 grain bullets, a number of reloading manuals show loads that meet or exceed 2700 fps. This will provide a MPBR of around 255 yards, which is comparable to the .308 with a 150 or 165 grain bullet. The .308 is not usually considered a short range cartridge. Note also that this is only 30 yards shy of the MPBR of the .300 Winchester Magnum with 180 grain bullets.
Next up are bullet weights suitable for a combination of game. For the .358 this includes 200 to 225 grain bullets. A 200 grain bullet can be loaded in excess of 2500 fps, for a MPBR of 237 yards. This is about 23 yards behind the .308 with 165 grain bullets and 47 yards behind the .300 Winchester Magnum with 180 grain bullets.
Finally, let's look at bullet weights for the largest North American game. The .358 will push 250 grain bullets around 2300 fps for a MPBR of 227 yards. The .338 Winchester Magnum pushes a 250 grain bullet at 2660 fps for a MPBR of 265 yards. We see that the .338 has a 38 yard advantage.
The magnum fan will say, "See, my magnum has a much flatter trajectory." So what does this buy us? In other words, what advantage do we gain from the extra weight, barrel length, recoil, and muzzle blast of a magnum over our little .358? About 50 yards advantage in maximum point blank range with the .300 magnum. With a .338 magnum the advantage drops to about 40 yards.
What does this mean in the real world? Since the vast majority of game is harvested at 200 yards or less, it means very little. If you really plan on hunting at ranges exceeding 200 to 250 yards you should have a range finder. You should also shoot your rifle at these longer ranges to determine where it actually hits at various ranges. If you do this you can accurately determine the distance to the target (or animal), and you will know where to hold for a first shot hit. Since this method can be used whether you use a .358 or a .300 magnum, the supposed 40 to 50 yard advantage virtually disappears. If you are not willing to do this, you have no business shooting at live animals past 200 - 250 yards anyway.
I would also like to look at the trajectory issue from another perspective. The .358 has a much flatter trajectory than the venerable .45-70, but that cartridge enjoys great popularity. In fact, the .358 has close to a 100 yard advantage in MPBR over the old big bore. But apparently the .358 does not have the historical romance of the old big bore. It is truly one of the unsung blue-collar workers in the world of cartridges. It simply does the job and does it very well with a minimum of fuss. Meanwhile, everyone is oohing and aahing over the sexy magnums or playing Old West Buffalo Hunter with big bores.
Here is a comparison of the energy figures for various cartridges:
.308 Winchester, 150 grain at 2820 fps - 2648 foot pounds muzzle energy
The .358 has a 200 - 300 ft. lb. advantage over the .308. It has a 600 - 700 ft. lb. deficit to the .300 magnum and 900 -1000 ft. lb. deficit to the .338 magnum. It has a 600 - 1300 ft. lb. advantage over the low pressure .45-70 loads, and a 500 ft. lb. deficit to the high pressure .45-70 load.
The .358's energy level falls amazingly close to the middle of the pack compared to these other cartridges. All of these are fine hunting cartridges, each capable of providing a quick and humane kill within their range limitations. Compare the .358's energy and velocity to the 405 grain 45-70 load. Yet this 405 grain load was used to kill bison by the thousands by 19th Century hunters.
In fact, the .358's energy level is very close to the 30-06, while it throws medium bore slugs at moderate velocities. 2400 fps has long been advocated as an ideal velocity for penetration with medium to large bore African cartridges. So while the energy produced by the .358 falls below that of the large cased magnums, its bore size and velocity with the heavier bullets gives it killing power far in excess of its paper ballistics.
Keep in mind that the energy advantage of the small bore magnums is due to their high velocity. While there are a few high velocity cartridges intended for dangerous game, the great majority of these cartridges fall into the medium velocity, heavy bullet category. The fact that the .358 also combines these desirable traits should make us stop and think.
This criticism of the .358, unfortunately, is true. At the time of this writing, only the Browning BLR lever action and the Ruger M77 Hawkeye and Frontier bolt action rifles are chambered for the .358. If you like lever actions the BLR is an excellent choice. It is a strong, well designed action. It is also light and compact, which capitalizes on one of the major virtues of the cartridge. It has been available for several years with blued metal and walnut stock, and Browning has recently introduced a stainless steel version with a grey laminate stock. This gives you the choice of traditional beauty or greater weather resistance. Jon Wolfe has written an excellent review of this rifle that can be found on the Product Review Page of Guns and Shooting Online.
If you want a bolt action, the new Ruger Hawkeye would seem to be the way to go, as it is a more practical general purpose hunting rifle than the "scout" style Frontier. (The latter would be a good choice as a "guide rifle" type arm carried for protection, though.) The Ruger M77 action is an excellent one, offering push feed and the usual commercial Mauser 98 features that have made that type of action so well regarded.
If you don't like the BLR or the Ruger M77 you will either need to find your .358 on the used market, order a semi-custom rifle from a company like New Ultra Light Arms, or order a barreled action from a company like the Montana Rifle Company and put it in a stock. Or, you could choose to have an existing rifle rebarreled to .358 Win.
It turns out that .358 Winchester is a rare caliber in virtually all of the rifles that were once chambered for it (Win. M70, Win. M88, Savage M99). Because of this, in addition to the difficulty of finding a used .358 rifle, they demand premium prices that typically exceed $1000. A semi-custom rifle, such as New Ultra Light Arms builds, is going to set you back more than two grand.A barreled action from the Montana Rifle Company runs around $900. A finished stock from Boyd's is around $150. These are not bad but they do require some minor inletting, and the wood to metal fit is not perfect. A higher quality stock is available from Accurate Innovations. They can provide finished stocks in semi-fancy claro walnut for $355, or a brown or gray laminate for $325. (See Chuck Hawks' review of Accurate Innovations stocks on the Rifle Information Page.) This option will give you a complete, semi-custom rifle for around $1050 to $1250.
If you have an existing short action rifle that you can spare, a rebarrel job is a possible alternative. A barrel manufacturer like E.R. Shaw can install a new barrel on your rifle for less than $300. With this option you will likely have to re-inlet the barrel channel of your stock to fit the new barrel.
This seems to be one of those self-perpetuating problems. Due to the .358's unpopularity it is unlikely that most gun makers will chamber it in their rifles. However, its lack of availability in a variety of rifles in turn contributes to its unpopularity. We can only hope that the BLR and the Ruger bolt actions will sell well enough in .358 for other manufacturers to take notice.
This is related to the rifle availability problem. This has been a negative factor for the .358 from the beginning. As far as I am aware, Winchester has been the only major ammunition factory to load .358 cartridges. The availability of a variety of loadings from smaller companies like Stars and Stripes is a positive sign. However, such companies are not widely known to the average shooter. Until I read about Stars and Stripes on Guns and Shooting Online, I was unaware of their existence.
Because of the limited selection of factory ammunition, the .358 has long been a handloaders' cartridge. The handloader has a wide selection of bullets available from 180 to 250 grains. With this range of bullet weights one can load for anything from pronghorn to elk and moose.
180 grain bullets can be loaded to 2700 fps with a wide variety of powders, and there are a few powders shown to provide 2800 fps. This would be a relatively flat shooting load for pronghorn or deer out to 300 yards.
220 or 225 grain bullets can be loaded to between 2400 and 2500 fps with several powders. These bullets would be suitable for deer sized game on up through elk and moose.
With a 250 grain bullet loaded to 2300 fps, you could even take on the big bears of the north. The new super bullets like the Barnes TSX provide another alternative. The Barnes 225 grain TSX loaded to 2400 - 2500 fps might make the ultimate all-around large game load for North American hunting with the .358.
I believe this perception has done more to damage the .358's potential popularity than anything else. Many writers have tried to bury it with the epitaph, "It's a fine little woods cartridge." While it can certainly be used as a woods cartridge, the .358 is clearly, by any measure, more than a woods cartridge. The .338 or .375 magnums could also be used as woods cartridges, but no one would try to limit their use to such.
This is not to suggest that the .358 is in the same class as these cartridges. However, calling it a "woods cartridge" suggests that it is in the class of the .32 Special or the .35 Remington. While these are both excellent deer cartridges, attempting to include the .358 Winchester in their class does it a great injustice. The .358 is clearly a much more powerful cartridge, capable of taking a much wider variety of game, especially larger game, at longer ranges. It is within 100 fps of the .35 Whelen with all bullet weights and I have never seen that referred to as a "woods cartridge."
Gun writers have the power of life and death over rifle cartridges. They have often wielded this power to cripple enormously useful cartridges, and the .358 Winchester has been one of their victims. It has been depicted over and over, both in magazines and reloading manuals, as a short range woods cartridge. This perception, more than anything else, may explain the mystery of the .358's unpopularity.
The large-case magnums typically have the advantages of faster velocity, flatter trajectory and higher energy than standard cartridges. The magnums have been used by many folk to take a variety of game. It would be irrational to argue against their effectiveness.
Their downside is that they require longer barreled, heavier rifles and generate enormous recoil and muzzle blast. Since many install muzzle brakes to tame their heavy recoil, the muzzle blast can become literally deafening. Many hunters do not mind carrying long, heavy rifles and can endure heavy recoil and muzzle blast. For them the magnums may be a great choice. However, for many of us a shorter, lighter rifle is a welcome thing.
The .358 can be built as a short, handy rifle, unlike the .300 and .338 magnums. Yet the cartridge is powerful enough for the largest animals on this continent, while not being too much for deer. In fact, the .358 fits neatly between the standard .30 calibers and the grand old .45-70 and offers the best of both worlds. It provides killing power similar to the classic big bore and at the same time has a trajectory that is close to the .308 and .30-06. It will provide a maximum point blank range of 230 to 260 yards, which would be a long shot for me (and the great majority of hunters) under field conditions.
I believe it is an outstanding blend of bore size, killing power, reasonable trajectory and moderate recoil that can be had in a compact all-around rifle for North American hunting. To quote a famous Alaskan guide, Hal Waugh, the .358 Winchester is one of the "finest little big guns" ever to come along. The great mystery to me is why so few seem to agree.
Note: An article about the .358 Win. as well as comparisons involving the .358 Win. can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2006, 2008 by Rick Ryals. All rights reserved.