The Best Big Game Cartridge You’ve Never Heard Of

The Best Big Game Cartridge You’ve Never Heard Of

A gun store employee surprised me recently when he said he’s noticed an uptick in requests for rifles chambered in .35-caliber cartridges. And he wasn’t just talking about the .357 Magnum or the .350 Legend. Requests for the .35 Whelen and .35 Remington are also on the rise, he said, but he couldn’t point to any compelling reason for the trend.

One gun shop in East Texas does not a movement make (as the old saying goes), but not long after, a reader wrote in to suggest I cover another .35-caliber cartridge: the .358 Winchester.

The .358 Win. was introduced in 1955, enjoyed some popularity in the decades that followed, but has since languished in relative obscurity. This is somewhat puzzling because it was (and still is) by all accounts an excellent big game cartridge.

It occupies a middle space between a .308 Winchester and a .45-70 Government, offering both whomping power (that’s the technical term) and medium-to-long-range capabilities. Why such a cartridge isn’t more popular in a time of hybrid cartridges like the .300 Blackout is a question worth asking.

What’s a .358 Winchester?

The .358 Winchester is, essentially, a necked-up .308 Winchester. It was developed for Winchester’s Model 70 bolt-action and Model 88 lever-action, and it’s also been chambered in Savage’s Model 99, Ruger’s Model 77, and Browning’s BLR.

Loading data indicates it can push a 180-grain bullet about 2,700 feet-per-second (fps) at the light end and a 250-grain bullet about 2,200 fps at the heavy end. The most common bullet is a 200-grain pill, which it can eject from a 22-inch barrel about 2,500 fps.

By comparison, a .308 Winchester moves a 175-grain bullet about 2,600 fps, and a .30-06 Springfield shoots the same bullet about 2,700 fps. These numbers are variable, of course, but it’s safe to say that the .358 can compete with some of the most popular .30-caliber cartridges while producing a similar amount of recoil.

The .358 can also shoot much heavier bullets than either the .308 Win. or the .30-06. Those 250-grain projectiles traveling 2,200 fps offer 2,687 foot-lbs. of energy at the muzzle, which is likely why Frank C. Barnes said in “Cartridges of the World” that the .358 is “better than the .30-06 on heavy game at close ranges.” That’s high praise.

It’s also more powerful than the .45-70 while still being chambered in handy, short-action rifles. A .45-70 can fire a 250-grain bullet a little over 2,000 fps, which produces about 15% less energy than the .358.

A larger diameter bullet traveling about as fast as a .308 with more power on tap than a .45-70? It’s not hard to see why Barnes also points out that the .358 is “adequate for any North American big game,” including moose and grizzly bear.

So, Why Isn’t the .358 Winchester More Popular?

Despite this excellent load data and Winchester’s brand-name recognition, the .358 Win. probably isn’t on your go-to list of cartridges for this fall’s big game season.

A lack of rifle and ammo availability is certainly a reason more hunters don’t opt for the .358 in 2023, but that’s true of virtually every cartridge at some point in its history. The real question is why the cartridge hasn’t been popular enough to warrant better rifle and ammo selection.

One reason for that apparent discrepancy might be that “middle-ground” cartridges often have a tough time competing in the free market (the .257 Roberts and other quarter-bore cartridges are prime examples). Cartridges have to offer enough variation to justify the expense of the gun. Since a .308 Win. can do most of what a .358 Win. can do, for example, it doesn’t make sense to purchase both of those cartridges along with a more powerful magnum cartridge for longer ranges or larger game. A .243 Win., a .308 Win., and a .300 Magnum can cover virtually any hunt in North America. Adding a .257 or a .358 in those middle slots isn’t worth the expense for most folks.

The .358 also suffers from a serious lack of bullet availability. Likely due in part to the U.S. military’s preference for .30-caliber cartridges, there have been significant R&D efforts around .30-caliber projectiles. You can find a huge range of bullet weights and constructions along with the long, high-BC bullets so favored by hunters and competitive shooters. Reviewing bullet options and factory-loaded cartridges for the .358 feels like looking back in time. Most are short and fat, and not ideal for longer ranges.

That doesn’t mean the .358 Win. is exclusively a short-range or “woods cartridge,” and I think gun writer Rick Ryals is right to point out in his defense of the .358 that most hunters never take a shot beyond 250 yards anyway. Still, in a time when long-range hunting is all the rage, hunters would rather own a cartridge more capable of that occasional 400-yard shot.

To take just one example, these 200-grain .358 Win. loads drop about 50 inches at 400 yards with a 100-yard zero. These 165-grain .308 Win. loads from Sig Sauer, by contrast, drop half that–24 inches–at 400 yards and are packing double the energy. A hunter would have to correct holdover for either shot, but a flatter trajectory and a higher-BC means the bullet will be less affected by wind, which is the real enemy of a long-range hunter.

Last Shot

Some still maintain that the .358 would have been a popular cartridge if not for the machinations of uninformed gun writers.

“Gun writers have the power of life and death over rifle cartridges,” opines the aforementioned Ryals. “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.”

I’m not sure why being a “woods cartridge” would hurt the .358’s popularity (see: the .30-30 Win.), but Ryals is right about another thing: the .358 is a useful and effective hunting option. It may not have been able to stay afloat in the blast and swirl of the modern cartridge ocean, but taken at face value, it may be the best big game cartridge you’ve never heard of (and likely never will again).

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