Compared: Winchester .350 Legend, .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf
By Gary Zinn
Here at Guns and Shooting Online, we have made something of a cottage industry of evaluating the performance of the recently introduced .350 Legend cartridge, compared with other relevant cartridges. Chuck Hawks started by giving an overview of the cartridge itself in The Winchester .350 Legend. Then I, with helpful editorial support from Chuck, compared the .30-30 Winchester and the .350 Legend and the .35 Remington and the .350 Legend. The purpose of these comparisons was to make a thorough evaluation of how the .350 Legend stacks up in performance against two cartridges long proven to be effective and efficient at taking deer and similar game animals.
In this article, the .350 Legend is evaluated against the .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf. These three cartridges are birds of a feather, in that they are straight wall case designs, sized to function in AR-15 rifle platforms. In the article noted above, Chuck Hawks explained the background and importance of the characteristics of these cartridges, as follows.
"It is my understanding that Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have mandated that rifles shooting cartridges of at least .35 caliber with straight wall cases between 1.16 and 1.8 inches in length are now legal for use in what I believe Michigan calls the "limited firearms deer zone." (Formerly 'shotguns only,' I believe, for deer hunting.)"
Chuck then commented that, "I have lived in the far west my entire life, so please forgive me if I find such detailed and restrictive regulations not only incomprehensible, but a huge over-reach of bureaucratic authority. However, for those affected (or afflicted) by such regulations, practically any rifle cartridge is more useful than a shotgun slug." I, too, have lived and hunted only in areas where normal game hunting cartridges are legal, so I am also baffled by these regulations.
Rifle cartridges with straight wall cases within the length range specified are not an everyday commodity. Presently, the .350 Legend, .450 Bushmaster, and .50 Beowulf are the only short (1.8 inches or shorter) commercial straight wall rifle cartridges, so are of prime interest to those who hunt in the jurisdictions noted above, plus anyone who may be interested in hunting with an AR-15 rifle chambered in a medium or large bore cartridge. (The .458 SOCOM is not included in this comparison, because its case is not straight walled.)
Some straight wall handgun cartridges are chambered in rifles, notably the .357 Magnum, .44 Remington Magnum, .460 and .500 S&W Magnums. These, though, are powerful handgun cartridges that have found something of a second home in rifles, rather than being designed from the ground up as rifle cartridges.
The characteristics compared include velocity and energy, maximum point blank range and far zero, trajectory, sectional density, killing power and recoil. At the end I will summarize results, muse about rifle platforms and make some concluding remarks. Here are the loads I will evaluate and compare.
.350 Legend load
Winchester has also announced 150 and 160 grain hunting loads for the .350 Legend. These are not included here because the 180 grain load is the best comparison against heavier bullets in the .45 and .50 caliber cartridges; I use one popular bullet weight in those cartridges, as follows.
.450 Bushmaster load
.50 Beowulf load
Velocity and Energy
Velocity flattens trajectory and makes hitting easier as the range increases. It is also the most important factor when computing kinetic energy. Energy is a measure of the work a bullet can do, which in this case means powering bullet penetration and expansion. Energy is an important component of killing power, as will be discussed below.
Winchester quotes muzzle velocity (MV) values for its .350 Legend loads from both 16 inch and 20 inch rifle barrels. The 16 inch barrel data are used here, along with .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf data from 16-inch barrels, because 16 inches is the most prevalent barrel length for AR-15 rifles.
Here are the velocity in feet-per-second (fps) and energy in foot-pounds (ft. lbs.) figures for our comparison loads at the muzzle, 100 yards and at the 5 yard increment nearest to maximum point blank range (see below). The loads are listed in descending order of their MV.
.450 Bushmaster, 250 grain FTX
.350 Legend, Winchester 180 grain PP
.50 Beowulf, Hornady 300 grain FTX
+/- 3-inch MPBR, Far Zero
I am a firm believer in sighting-in hunting rifles and loads for maximum point blank range. I feel that a +/- 3-inch MPBR is appropriate for rifles used to hunt Class 2 game, including the cartridges being evaluated here. My argument is that a prudent and responsible hunter should never attempt a shot at a game animal beyond the MPBR of the cartridge/load being used (and closer is always better).
The first number for each load is its MPBR yardage, the second is the far zero yardage associated with the MPBR. Results are in descending order of MPBR.
Winchester touts the .350 Legend as "designed for deer hunting out to 250 yards." The MPBR numbers say that this is an over-reach, for the 180 grain load, as well as the cartridges and loads with which it is compared. These large diameter, straight wall cartridges should not be sighted-in and used for shots at or beyond 200 yards, as the trajectory data, below, confirms.
Trajectory matters, because the flatter a bullet flies the easier it is to hit a target down range. Bullet placement is the most important factor in achieving quick, humane kills, so anything that makes hitting easier is desirable.
Here are the 100, MPBR (nearest five yard increment) and 250 yard trajectory figures in inches, for each load, sighted-in for a +/- 3 inch MPBR, computed for a scope mounted 1.5 inches over the bore. Trajectories are rounded to one decimal place; yardage is noted in parentheses. Results are in descending order of MPBR yardage.
The most significant thing about these numbers is that trajectory of all loads deteriorates quickly at ranges beyond 200 yards, with bullet drop at 250 yards roughly three to four times that at 200 yards, for all loads. This may be the only good reason for hunting regulations dictating short, straight wall cases with large caliber bullets. Bullets from the three cartridges being evaluated, fired at a target within 200 yards, will go to ground by the time they fly 300 yards or less downrange. This is a safety benefit, for it lessens the chance of an errant bullet striking a person or property somewhere far down range.
To me, the trajectory data indicate that taking hunting shots at ranges of 200 yards or more would be both irresponsible and futile with any of these loads. Given the looping trajectories, a self-imposed range limit of about 150 to 165 yards, depending on the cartridge/load combination, would be better. (I base this on the far zero ranges of the loads, as detailed above.)
Note that all five loads, sighted-in for +/- 3 inch MPBR, shoot right at three inches high at 100 yards. This is typical of medium velocity cartridges in general.
Sectional density (SD) is the ratio of a bullet's weight in pounds to the square of its diameter in inches. SD affects penetration, as all other factors being equal (bullet construction, for example) the bullet with the highest sectional density will penetrate deepest. Obviously, to kill cleanly, any hunting bullet must penetrate into the animal's vitals, so hunting bullet SD is important. For Class 2 game, a SD of .200 has long been considered about the minimum acceptable for medium range rifle cartridges. Here are the SD numbers for our comparison bullets, in descending order.
A longer, smaller diameter projectile penetrates better than a shorter, fatter projectile of the same weight and construction, which only makes sense. The abiding problem with medium and large bore bullets is that they must be quite heavy to have high sectional densities. To illustrate, the 180 grain, .357" diameter bullet (SD .202) barely meets the minimum SD .200 rule of thumb; compare that with a 120 grain, .284" (7mm) diameter bullet, with a SD of .213.
The .45 and .50 caliber loads have SDs that fall short of the .200 benchmark. This does not bode well for these bullets penetrating deeply on heavy bodied animals. This may not be a great concern on deer and similar sized thin skinned game, because these large diameter bullets are going to deliver a lot of shock energy to the target, even if they do not always penetrate well. However, if one were tempted to use these bullets on Class 3 or large Class 2 game, then potential poor penetration of low SD bullets becomes a real issue. The killing power analysis, below, sheds more light on this.
Killing power is the most difficult factor to estimate, as there is no definitive scientific formula to apply. Various systems have been created to estimate the killing power of rifle cartridges, with varying results in terms of accuracy. Unfortunately, many such systems have no correlation with reality at all.
One of the best, in terms of positive correlation with reality, has proven to be the G&S Online Rifle Cartridge Killing Power Formula. Not only is it generally consistent with results in the field, it can be used to compare any load at any range and includes the factors of energy at impact (which includes velocity), SD and cross-sectional area in an easy to use formula to arrive at a Killing Power Score (KPS) for a given load at a given distance, via the formula:
KPS at "y" yards (you pick the yardage) = (impact energy at y yards) x (sectional density) x (cross-section area), or simply: KPS @ y = E @ y x SD x A
(Cross-section areas are .1001 sq. in., .1605 sq. in., and .1964 sq. in. for .357 inch, .452 inch, and .500 inch diameter bullets, respectively.)
Note that this is a comparative system. We estimate a rifle cartridge should generate a KPS of at least 12.5 at the range the bullet impacts to be a viable hunting cartridge for common Class 2 game, up to roughly 150 - 175 pounds (e.g., deer and pronghorn), while a KPS of 15.0 gives a margin of killing power for larger Class 2 game (up to 300 pounds).
I calculated the killing power of these loads at 100 yards, as most whitetail deer, blacktail deer and feral hogs are killed at 100 yards or less. KPS values at the five yard increment closest to each load MPBR are included, to document the power of the loads near the longest range at which a responsible hunter should use them. Loads are listed in descending order of 100 yard KPS values.
The results are clear. All three loads get MPBR yardage and KPS scores that are adequate (greater than 15.0) for use against Class 2 game in general. These loads should be fully Class 2 capable out to their MPBR distances.
The KPS scores of the Beowulf and Bushmaster loads indicate that they are suitable for use against Class 3 game. (Generally, a KPS of 30 to 32 may be considered a threshold power level for hunting Class 3 game.) However, I caution against making too much of this, given the submarginal sectional densities of the .45 and .50 caliber bullets. I would not trust the penetration of those bullets on large animals at distances much beyond 100 yards. Low extended range velocity of these loads also works against both penetration and bullet expansion. I do not consider these to be Class 3 cartridges, KPS scores notwithstanding.
Our KPS parameters and results assume vital area hits, of course. A game animal hit somewhere other than in the vitals is not likely to go down cleanly, no matter the size, weight and impact energy of the bullet. This is why I preach the, "never take a shot beyond MPBR, and closer is always better" doctrine. Shorter range shots improve the likelihood of placing a bullet in the right place.
Evaluating recoil of the .350 Legend is shaky right now, because there is no body of reloading data that can be consulted to get load powder charges, a necessary variable in recoil calculations. Winchester has published some vague promotional material with numbers that suggest that the .350 Legend generates about 12 percent lower recoil than a .30-30. The loads being compared are not clearly specified, which is why I say the information is vague.
I came up with a tentative recoil estimate that may or may not be accurate for the .350 Legend, 180 grain load, but it is the best I can do without verified powder charge data for the new cartridge. My guesstimate is that this load will generate about 9 ft. lbs. of recoil in an eight pound field weight rifle. By comparison, recoil of the .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf loads calculate as 19.5 ft. lbs. and 23.1 ft. lbs., respectively, in eight pound rifles.
These numbers clearly show that the Legend is a powder puff, compared with the heavy recoiling .45- and .50- caliber cartridges. Neophyte, small statured, and recoil adverse shooters would find the .350 Legend much more pleasant to shoot, so would shoot it better. Conversely, the abuse the Bushmaster and Beowulf heap on the shooter is not well rewarded by downrange performance.
Additional Thoughts and Conclusions
To summarize, the .350 Legend, 180 grain load, fits neatly between the Bushmaster and Beowulf loads in velocity, MPBR, and trajectory. The 180 grain Legend load does not generate the killing power (KPS) of the larger, heavier loads, but the Legend generates much lower recoil and so will be easier for most of us to shoot accurately.
All in all, the .350 Legend has potential as an effective hunting cartridge, especially when fed 180 grain bullets that have adequate sectional density for deer and hog hunting. The Legend looks like a prayer answered for those who hunt in areas where rifles are restricted to short, straight-walled cartridges. AR15 fanciers, long saddled with marginal deer cartridges, are likely to jump all over the cartridge.
This leads to the issue of rifle platforms for the cartridge. Winchester has announced that the Winchester XPR bolt action rifle will be chambered in .350 Legend. CMMG has announced an AR15 carbine (with a 16 inch barrel) in the cartridge, plus 5 and 10 round magazines. Winchester notes, "several other firearm manufacturers are gearing up" to produce rifles chambered in .350 Legend.
Producing bolt action rifles in .350 Legend should be a snap. Any short-action platform that handles the .223 Remington can be easily reworked to handle the .350 Legend cartridge. Ditto for AR15 platforms, whether complete rifles or uppers.
For old school deer hunters (like me) the lever action is perhaps the best all-around platform for a hunting cartridge. (I say this even though I have carried compact, short-action bolt rifles on the majority of my deer hunts.) Lever action rifles, such as the Winchester Model 94, Marlin Model 336 and Henry Lever Action .30-30, carry and mount well and cycle fast when more than a single shot is needed.
A well designed bolt rifle also carries and mounts well, but cycles slower than a lever gun. Meanwhile, my limited experience with AR15s in the field is that they are unwieldy to carry and awkward to mount, but that may be just me.
Unfortunately, the traditional lever rifle designs, with rear-locking bolts, cannot handle the .350 Legend cartridge, for the simple reason that its MAP is 55,000 psi, well above what most rear-locking lever designs were meant handle. (An exception is the Savage Model 99.) This high-intensity MAP is no problem with bolt action and AR designs, but a lever rifle chambered in .350 Legend should have a front-locking bolt, such as the Browning BLR and Henry Long Ranger designs.
I have studied the non-proprietary, small and large caliber cartridges designed to work in the AR15 platform. (See Are AR-15 Type Cartridges Good for Hunting Deer?).
Only a handful of them are any good for hunting, but the medium caliber .350 Legend may be one that prospers, not only in restricted cartridge areas, but in general.
Copyright 2019 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.