The .400 Whelen
By Michael Petrov ©2011
Major Townsend Whelen was instrumental in the development of a line of cartridges that were based on the 30 Government Model 1906 cartridge case. In this article I will try to trace the history and development of the Whelen-named cartridges until 1923. Much has been written about the Whelen-named cartridges as well as the many different adaptations of them in the last 80 years. I wish to return to the original source material as much as possible for the history on these cartridges. Much of the contemporary published material, especially on the .400, differs from what my research has turned up.
In the early 1920's Whelen tested some of the big bore British bolt guns and although he was impressed with the power of these rifles he was unhappy with their accuracy. He believed a rifle could be built in America with a more powerful cartridge than what was on the market following the First World War. At the same time he wanted to use the 1903 Springfield and the standard length Mauser action without going to the expense of using the larger and more expensive Magnum length actions. His first experimental work on these was before either of the two big gun companies had introduced a bolt action in .30-06 caliber (Remington M-30 1921 & Winchester M-54 1923). From 1923 to 1925 Griffin & Howe only offered their proprietary Whelen cartridges as their largest caliber rifles and not any of the English cartridges such as the .375 H&H. A .375 H&H bolt action rifle From Holland & Holland would have set a sportsman back $400 In 1922.
.38 WHELEN: (.375 Whelen)
The first reference I can find that discusses the idea of necking up the .30-06 case is in a letter (illustrated) from Townsend Whelen to the gunmaker Fred Adolph of New York dated August 23, 1919. Whelen is trying to get a barrel for the .38 Whelen cartridge that he and Adolph O. Niedner are working on. The .38 Whelen is the .30-06 necked-up to use the Winchester 275-grain .38-72 W.C.F. bullet re-formed with a spire point. In the January 1923 American Rifleman Whelen is sending people to Niedner at Dowagiac, Michigan because Niedner is now making the .38 Whelen. By April 1st of 1923 Whelen announces that Winchester is stopping the production of the 275-grain .38-72 WCF bullets and suggests that no more .38 Whelens be made. I am not sure if any of these rifles survived the last eighty years but it’s not because I have not looked for them. This cartridge was re-introduced in the 1950's and named the .375 Whelen. I have often wondered what the outcome of the .35 & .400 Whelen would have been if there had been a supply of good .375" bullets back in 1923.
The first notice I find of the .400 Whelen is in Arms And The Man on June 15, 1922 where Whelen tells about his work on this cartridge. The .400 Whelen is the 30-06 cylindrical case necked down to take the .405 Winchester 300gr. .411" diameter round nose bullet. Four test rifles were being made up, two on the 1903 Springfield and two on the Mauser action. Whelen estimates the velocity of the 300-gr. bullets at 2350-2600 fps. These test rifles, as well as the loading tools, were made by James V. Howe then of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The barrels for these where made and installed by A.O. Niedner in Dowagiac, Michigan. By November 15th, 1922 Whelen was offering a circular by mail with information on the 400. Anyone know where one of these circulars is to be found?
I can not think of another cartridge with as bad a reputation as the .400 Whelen. From Cartridges of the World 6th Edition "The .400 Whelen was not a very successful development because when the 30-06 case neck is expanded to this size it leaves only a very slight shoulder and this gives rise to serious headspace problems." I have also read several reports of the firing pin driving the case forward over the shoulder.
I am not going to list all the negative things I have read about the .400 or there would be room for little else. As I began to collect information there were two distinct schools of thought on the .400; One was by people who used the .400 and thought it was a fine cartridge; The other was by those who did not, telling you how bad it was. The first praise I read for the .400 was by, (and it should be no surprise to the readers), Elmer Keith. A quote from Big Game Rifles by Elmer Keith , Samworth 1935. “ I have used this rifle over a period of eleven years and have a lot of respect for it.” “ Much criticism has been passed on this rifle and cartridge, some claiming that the front shoulder of the case was insufficient to hold its headspace against the blow of the firing pin. Such is not the case, and that forward shoulder is ample in correctly chambered rifles and used with correctly necked cases.”
The biggest challenge I faced in learning about the .400 was to find and record chamber dimensions of the older original rifles. Although it was not a popular cartridge there have been several .400's made over the last 78 years. Most of the problems with this cartridge I have been able to trace to one factor. The .30-06, .25 Whelen (.25-06), .35 Whelen and .38 Whelen all have a shoulder diameter of .441. “The ORIGINAL .400 Whelen shoulder is .458". When and how this information got lost to modern riflemen and writers I have no idea. Many .400's that were made in later years for which I have measurements have the .441" shoulder; this is also true of many resizing dies.
I have wanted a .400 Whelen rifle for some time and my search for an early .400 Whelen has not been easy. The rifles I found either had been modified or the price was well out of my reach. Which brings up a good point. If these things are no good why are they so expensive? Sorry. Back to the story. By the time I had resigned myself to the fact that I might never find what I was looking for a chain of events began that you only dream about as a collector. Not only was I able to acquire what I believe to be the second .400 Whelen Made by Griffin & Howe in their first year (1923), it showed up unfired with a box of G&H cartridges. These early G&H's had blued bolts and there was not so much as a brass rub mark on the bolt face. The icing on the cake was when friends Mark Benenson and Russell Gilmore of The Rifled Arms Historical Association sent me Townsend Whelen's case-forming and loading tools for his .400 to use and take measurements from. These early loading dies are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "Pound Dies". Nothing could be further from the truth. They are not meant to be hit with anything, but instead are to be used in an arbor press. The way Whelen made the cases for the .400 was to neck down cylindrical brass, and I was going to do it the same way. Today there are several sources of cylindrical brass. The one I chose because of past experience with their work was Buffalo Arms Company (99 Raven Ridge, Sandpoint, ID 83864, (208) 263-6953.) They do a great job of reforming brass from Remington .35 Whelen brass. With gun and loading tools at hand, but impatient while waiting for brass, I made a die for my lathe to hold annealed .35 Whelen brass. Using a tool that looked like a boring bar with a rounded side I ironed some cases out straight. Using feeler gauges with Whelen's die I found that when the case was .006" from bottoming out I could not force the bolt home on an empty case. At .005" I could get the bolt closed with resistance. No way is a firing pin going to drive this case forward.
I then trimmed the cases to a length of 2.470". When you are using cylindrical brass they are full size out of the die and fire forming is not needed. I dumped in some IMR-3031 topped with a 300gr. DKT round nose bullet. I also loaded a few with the last of my supply of Barnes originals (the ones they no longer make), that shot so well in my .400 Niedner. As luck would have it the Barnes Originals worked much better than the DKT's but in all fairness to DKT I have yet to try their spitzer bullets. A local store did have some of the Barnes X-Bullets .411" diameter in 300gr. so I gave them a try only to shoot a 5" group at 50 yards with them. If I had spent some time doing research on the X-bullets I would have known that they work best when seated .050" off the lands. New loads and back to the range with the X's; Results are close to MOA.
The loaner dies of Colonel Whelen's were perfect for the rifle and everything worked great. Dreading the day that I would have to return the dies, I put out the word that I was looking for a set of .400 Whelen dies. A set was located and when I received them I resized a case only to find the dies had reduced the shoulder diameter back to .437". After sending a Cerrosafe™ cast of the Whelen's dies and two fired cases to RCBS I received a set of dies made perfectly for this rifle. If you have a .400 ANYTHING I suggest that a chamber cast is in order and that .30-06 brass with the .441" shoulder never be used to fire form brass. In one case a person I was corresponding with was having all the problems that I have ever read about with his .400. It turned out he has the original .458" shoulder chambered rifle but his set of dies was for the 06 shoulder. (Update 10-2000; I just got off the phone with the owner of an early G&H .400 Whelen who is having this exact problem. A quick check of a resized case showed the dies put it back to 06 size.)
How did all this get so mixed up over the passing of time? Did no one ever take the time to measure an early .400 Whelen? One bit of information I have looked for in the early articles written by Whelen was his telling about the larger .458" diameter shoulder. So far I have not found it. Whelen did suggest that only G&H, Hoffman or Niedner make the .400 Whelen so maybe this was their trade secret. I have cataloged pre-1940 sporters in caliber .400 Whelen made by Griffin & Howe, Fred Adolph, Niedner, Hoffman Arms Co. and Krieghoff of Suhl, Germany. Because of all the bad press many of these rifles have been rebarreled or modified in some way. An early engraved G&H I know of was re-chambered to a belted magnum case so it would have the belt to headspace on. With the proper chamber and loading dies to match, my rifle has performed flawlessly and is a tribute to Townsend Whelen, James V. Howe and the gunmakers of Griffin & Howe. I'm sorry, but I am not going to list loading information. What I can do is, if you will get in touch with me I will help in any way I can to get your .400 Whelen shooting safely. I am going to know that you have the proper chamber-die combination before I share this information.
This was introduced by Whelen on September 15th, 1923 in the American Rifleman in an article titled American Heavy Caliber Rifles for Large Game. Whelen reported that they were getting 2834 fps with a 200 grain bullet and 2635 fps with a 250 grain one. In this article Whelen tells us about both the .400 & .35 Whelen. "I think that time will show that this rifle (.35 Whelen) and its cartridge are very ideal for the sportsman who wishes a powerful and accurate weapon for the larger American game. It has not the power or bone smashing qualities of the .400, but it certainly is ample in this respect for all of our game, and one can probably assure a larger proportion of hits at a very long sporting ranges than he could with the .400. In other words, the .400 is more of an African rifle, and this .35 is more of an American rifle."
Griffin & Howe of New York City introduced this cartridge in 1923. This is listed in the early G&H ads as well as in their catalog. It appears to be nothing more than the .25-Niedner (.25-06). I have never examined a G&H rifle marked .25 Whelen and I am not sure if G&H ever made one. This is the only Whelen-named cartridge I have found so far without a solid connection to Whelen.
Speaking again about the .35 & .400, Whelen says "I have had a lot of pleasure in developing these two cartridges and the rifles for them, and I now turn them over to American riflemen for their benefit. It has been remarkable to see how much could be done to improve a rifle when one had interested workmen of the finest skill to assist him. While, as I say, no attempt was made to make the most powerful cartridge and rifle in existence, yet we did attempt to give ample power in combination with the very best accuracy, reliability, finish, balance, and adjustment, and I think that is all these respects we turned out something that it will take the world a long time to beat."
(Part 2) Link