The .356 Winchester

By Chuck Hawks

Introduced in 1982, the .356 Winchester was developed in parallel with the .307 Winchester. They are both based on the same case; the .356 version, despite its nomenclature, accepts standard .358" diameter bullets. The .307/.356 case is a semi-rimmed version of the rimless .308/.358 Winchester case. The .356 has the same rim diameter as the .30-30 Winchester, which means it matches the bolt faces of traditional lever action rifles. Reloaders should note that the .356 has stronger and thicker case walls than the .358, to which it looks almost identical except for its rim, and consequently somewhat less powder capacity. This allows the .356 to operate at exactly the same pressure as the .358, 52,000 cup. It is therefore one of the highest pressure cartridges intended for use in traditional lever action rifles.

The .356 was designed for use in Winchester's strengthened Model 94 Big Bore rifle. Marlin has also chambered their strong Model 336 lever action rifle for the .356 Win. Unfortunately, neither Marlin nor Winchester currently chamber rifles for the .356.

When they introduced the .356 in 1982, Winchester offered factory loads with 200 grain and 250 grain Power Point (flat point) bullets. However, the 250 grain bullet was quietly discontinued during the second half of the 1990's.

That load drove its 250 grain bullet with a sectional density (SD) of .279 at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2160 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2591 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the figures were 1682 fps and 1571 ft. lbs. The trajectory of the 250 grain factory load was as follows: +2.5" at 100 yards, -3.7" at 200 yards, and -22.2" at 300 yards. It was a deadly load for large game out to about 200 yards, but many shooters found its recoil in the Model 94 Big Bore rifle unpleasant.

As currently factory loaded the .356 launches a 200 grain Power Point bullet (SD .223) at a MV of 2,460 fps and ME of 2,688 ft. lbs. At 100 yards the figures are 2114 fps and 1985 ft. lbs., and at 200 yards the velocity is 1797 fps and the remaining energy 1434 ft. lbs. Its trajectory looks like this: +2.5" at 100 yards, -1.8" at 200 yards, and -17.1" at 300 yards.

Because additional bullets are available to the handloader, the flexibility of the .356 can be enhanced by reloading. In addition to 200 grain and 250 grain bullets from Sierra, Hornady, and Winchester, Speer offers their excellent 180 and 220 grain flat point bullets, which are particularly well suited for lever action rifles.

The Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 shows that the Speer 180 grain Hot-Cor bullet (SD .201) can be driven to a MV of 2310 fps by 44.0 grains of H322 powder, and to 2569 fps by 48.0 grains of the same powder. The trajectory of this bullet at a MV of 2500 fps is as follows: +3.1" at 100 yards, 0 at 200 yards, and -13.6" at 300 yards. This makes the .356 about a 250 yard deer rifle.

The Speer Reloading Manual Number 13 also shows that their 220 grain Hot-Cor bullet can be given a MV of 2143 fps by 45.5 grains of W748 powder, and 2328 fps by 49.5 grains of W748. This deadly missile has a ballistic coefficient of .316 and a sectional density of .245. At a MV of 2300 fps the ME is 2583 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity would be 1807 fps and the energy 1595 ft. lbs. The trajectory should look like this: +3" at 100 yards, +2.3" at 150 yards, -0.6" at 200 yards, -3.1" at 225 yards, -6.3" at 250 yards, and -15.1" at 300 yards. With this load the .356 is at least a 225 yard big game cartridge. This is the bullet I would choose for elk hunting.

Handloaders wanting a heavier bullet can load a round nose 250 grain bullet to a MV of around 2160 fps. and ME of 2591 ft. lbs., thus duplicating the discontinued Winchester factory load. The reloader must be careful to choose a bullet with a blunt nose profile, however, as Winchester has warned that the recoil of the .356 makes it dangerous for use in tubular magazines with bullets that don't have an adequately flat tip.

The .356 has not been a sales success, although it gives lever action rifle fans a powerful medium bore cartridge suitable for elk and other heavy game at reasonable ranges. A campaign among Marlin 336 fans to get the .356 reintroduced in that rifle is quietly gaining momentum. Perhaps the Company can be convinced to give the .356 a second chance if enough shooters lobby the powers that be at Marlin. Another question is how long Winchester will continue to offer factory loaded .356 ammunition.

My feeling is that to ultimately be successful Marlin would have to make a long term commitment to producing .356 rifles, similar to what they have done with their .444 rifles. It is not reasonable to expect a reintroduced .356 to become an immediate commercial success. Long term success would probably depend primarily on word about the efficiency of the M-336/.356 combination on large game filtering through the shooting community over time.

It would also be very desirable if a reintroduced Model 336 in .356 Win. caliber had a reshaped pistol grip buttstock with a nearly straight and relatively high comb designed primarily for use with telescopic sights. This would go a long way toward minimizinging the substantial recoil of a .356 rifle. The new rifle should also have a 20" barrel, a Decelerator type recoil pad, and weigh about 7.25 pounds empty. In other words, it should resemble the standard Model 444 rifle with a slightly shorter barrel, a straighter stock, and a more effective recoil pad. Perhaps it should be made of stainless steel, like the 336SS, or have the option of a synthetic stock. Those sorts of things could be determined by market research.

I think such a long term investment might ultimately prove worthwhile, assuming that Marlin can convince Winchester to guarantee a continuing supply of .356 ammunition. It would enhance the image, as well as the capability, of the Marlin 336/1895 as a big game rifle (as opposed to a "deer rifle"). The recent introductions of the .45-70 "Guide Gun" and the .450 Magnum cartridge, of course, have already made great strides in that direction, and I think the presence of a powerful medium bore caliber in the line would likewise help to advance the process of revitalizing the traditional lever action rifle.

Unfortunately, one of the problems that must be overcome in order to convince Marlin (or anyone else) to reintroduce rifles for the .356 is the dismal failure of big bullet fans to support the products they have been offered in the past. (The commercial failure of the .356 is only one example among many.) It is undeniable that while medium bore rifle fans have been extremely vocal and have gotten a lot of ink in the firearms press, in the past they have proven very reluctant to actually spend money on the rifles for which they have clamored. During the last few decades Browning, Marlin, Norma, Remington, Ruger, Savage, and Winchester (among others) have all been burned producing .35 caliber rifles and cartridges for medium bore fans unwilling to put their money where their mouth is. One can understand why the firearms industry is skeptical about the demand for .35 caliber rifles in North America. Whether renewed demand for the .356 Winchester cartridge in the Marlin 336 rifle can begin to reverse this situation remains to be seen.

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Copyright 2002, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.