The .400 Whelen Story

Part 2
By Michael Petrov ©2011

It was naive of me to think that I could write an article (PS February, 2001) for a magazine called Precision Shooting about a rifle and cartridge and not publish loading information. I received enough inquires about chamber dimensions and loading data that I had to do something. The fact was I wanted to play with this cartridge in a rifle that had a scope; what I did not want to do was modify my little-used Griffin & Howe rifle, so I built a new one. For this project I chose a pre-64 Model 70 Winchester (1951) action and my favorite classic scope, the Lyman Alaskan. This scope was introduced in 1937. It is a 2½ power scope made with Bausch & Lomb lens, has a 5” eye relief and is perfect for the .400 Whelen. Why this scope was ever discontinued is beyond me. In my opinion this scope will work fine for 90% of all Alaskan hunting. Plus, I think having the windage adjustment in the scope is a handy addition. To explain that, I will say most of my classic custom rifles have the windage adjustment in the mount and this is the most modern rifle and scope combination I own.

 Barrel mark 400b1 -

In building the new rifle my objective was to duplicate as nearly as possible the original Griffin & Howe rifle. The G&H has a 24” barrel, 1-14” twist and .411” groove diameter. There was no question but that I wanted my friend and gunsmith John Wills to do the work. John is one the most careful workmen I know and everything by him is done right. Word spread fast about the new project and two friends, Dennis P. & Bob Z., wanted a .400 Whelen built as well.

 Stock length L400e-

I was delighted to learn that Winchester was reintroducing the .405 Winchester and that Hornady was to make the ammunition as well as the bullets for reloading. I saw my first Hornady bullets made for the .405 at the Shot-Show in Las Vegas 2002 and was relieved to learn that they were .411” in diameter and 300 grain like the originals. What I was not ready for was that they made them with a flat nose. The original bullets had a round nose. The Winchester Model 95 has a box magazine so there is no need for a flat nose. No one at the Hornady Shot-Show booth could tell me why they had a flat nose. In a reply to a follow-up letter to Hornady I was told that the final decision was made by Mr. Hornady with no reason given for the flat nose.

I was surprised at the number of barrel makers who either did not know or had a different idea of what a barrel for the .405 Winchester should be. The original barrels were .411 groove diameter with a 1-14” twist. Luck was on our side because of a call to Shilen, Inc. Not only do they make a textbook barrel, as far as dimensions they had three on hand. My barrel also had to be chrome-moly, I could not justify a custom stock but it would be rust blued, with real wood.
400 Headstamp

Before we ordered a chambering reamer it was decided that we would have everything on hand such as the barrel, bullets and brass we were going to use. Bob ordered basic brass from Quality Cartridge (PO Box 445, Hollywood, MD 20636) with the .400 Whelen headstamp. I believe this is the first batch in the eighty year history of the .400 Whelen to have the Whelen headstamp. When the brass arrived I necked some down and trimmed them to length and made several .400 Whelen rounds we could measure. From the loaded ammo and using the measurements from several original .400 Whelen rifles the new reamer was drawn up. The chambering reamer was then ordered from Dave Kiff at Pacific Tool. The chamber was cut for a case with an over all length of 2.501”. I adjusted the neck-forming die until the bolt would just close on a case and trimmed it to an OAL of 2.495”.

Reamer Drawing-

I was determined to do everything by the book and that included following the break-in instructions that came with the barrel. Most of my sporting rifles are fifty to eighty years old and breaking in a barrel was new to me. The new and rebarreled guns I have worked with have all been lead bullet guns where breaking in is not needed. The sheet called for cleaning the barrel after every shot for the first five shots, then cleaning for the next fifty shots after every five shots. “Cleaning the Barrel” means using a bronze brush saturated with solvent making 20 passes through the bore, letting it soak for ten minuets, then saturate the brush for 20 more passes, finishing up by pushing three patches through the barrel to clean it.

I got the original loading data for the .400 Whelen from a Dupont IMR-3031 pamphlet, a Griffin & Howe box of loaded ammo and Philip B. Sharpe’s “Complete Guide to Handloading” all listed 61 grains of 3031 a 300 grain Winchester or WT&C bullet for 2300fps out of a 26” barrel.

The first go round I loaded 58 grains of 3031 and a Hornady 300 grain bullet. Shooting at 50 yards I was amazed to see the very first bullet print, then the next four print lower into a .320” group. I adjusted the scope and got ready for the next fifty rounds of barrel break-in. The brass was well-formed and I had no problems other than recoil. I was glad that my project was not a 505 Gibbs. During break-in I tried a couple different powders but from what I could see at 50 yards, 3031 was doing a fine job. H-4895 held a lot of promise and I’m sure if I had worked with it more I could have improved velocity. My intent was to work with the reported velocities circa 1920’s. I had no intention of ringing the last FPS out of this cartridge. This is a fine cartridge with a 300 grain bullet at 2260- 2360 fps. Besides I am only shooting at paper bears. If I were to need more I could grab my .400 Niedner which shoots the same bullet at 2700 fps. I had located a small supply of original Winchester bullets which I loaded to the same specs as G&H used; Five-shots at 100 yards into a 1.650” group. If I had a larger supply of these bullets and worked with OAL I’m sure I could have improved on this. I used the RCBS full-length sizing die for sizing down the neck the first time on new brass. After that I necked sized only.

It was apparent right from the start that this rifle likes a cold clean barrel and Hornady bullets. With the barrel and me both broke-in it was time to move to 100 yards. The problem with the Lyman Alaskan 2 ½ power scope at 100 yards is that the cross wire was so big that it covered up the X-Ring of a standard 100 yard target. I had to use 200 yard targets to be able to see some white around the cross wire. Now was the time to try some different bullets. I decided right off that three shot groups should be sufficient for a big-bore hunting rifle. I also was worried that I would develop a flinch, so I wanted to streamline the bench time as much as possible. My shooting friends did comment that they could not decide which was worse, the report of the .400 Whelen or my whining about the recoil.

Both Dennis and I used pre-64 Model 70 actions originally chambered for the .30-06. Once the actions were barreled and chambered Dennis worked over my original model 70 stock. The barrel channel was relieved and floated approximately .030 -.035 back to the "bell" on the barrel. A channel was milled in the wood directly behind the recoil lug on the receiver to receive a quarter-inch threaded rod. A slot was also milled in the stock directly in front of the trigger slot. A threaded rod was also placed therein. This was done for re-enforcement; Micro-bed was used for bedding compound. The milled slots were filled with compound and a small amount of it was placed in the recoil lug slot, under the bell of the barrel, behind the magazine well and the tang area of the stock.


The underside of the rails had to be opened up slightly for the spire-pointed bullets to feed properly, but the Hornadys would come off the left rail and hit the extractor cut in the barrel. This was not a problem for me because the Hornadys are fine for barrel breaking-in and paper punching but with that blunt nose I would always be worried about a failure to feed. Dennis, on the other hand, wanted to shoot them, so John worked on both the rails, feed ramp and the extractor cut until they would feed reliably in his rifle. Bob’s rifle was made on a Husqvarna action and only a little work was needed for proper feeding.

I belong to an older school that believed a hunting rifle equipped with a telescope should have a precision adjustable rear sight as well. In Alaska, like other places it can be a long way to the local gunsmith if your scope is broken or damaged. I removed the scope and mounted a Lyman 48 which I then zeroed for this rifle. I can remove the scope, replace the receiver sight slide and be right on target. After I removed the rear sight and remounted the scope I headed back to the range to re-zero the scope. For this I used some of the Hornady bullets and also loaded three cases with the North Fork bullets. I knew the rifle liked a clean cold bore. I wanted to try a three shot group using North Fork bullets with the rifle fouled and the barrel warm. Keeping in mind that the largest group to date (see chart) at 100 yards with NF bullets was .848”. After firing several Hornadys the barrel was fouled and warm. I fully expected to see something around an inch or more. Much to my surprise after firing three shots with North Fork bullets all I could see with the 2-1/2 power scope was one black hole that turned out to be a .325” group.

Townsend Whelen wrote in Wilderness Hunting & Wildcraft 1927 “Confidence.-A big-game hunter should have that confidence with his rifle which comes only through perfect familiarity with it.” I can say that I have owned few hunting rifles that I have felt as confident with as I am with this one. It has turned out to be one of the most accurate big-bore rifles I have worked with. It’s rewarding to see the first bullet out of a cold and clean barrel go exactly where I place the crosswire. I have a lot of respect for the work of Townsend Whelen. I believe he helped the advancement of the American sporting rifle more than any other single person. The .400 Whelen has for many years been a dark cloud over his name. I hope these two articles have let in a little light.

Whelen 400  Tools-

WARNING! This loading data is for MY Winchester Model 70 only! There are so many incorrectly chambered .400 Whelen rifles or dies that reduce the shoulder diameter you need to make sure what you have before you proceed.

.400 Whelen 24" Barrel
Bullet Bullet Powder Powder Average 3-Shot 5-Shot Make Weight Type Weight Velocity Yards Group Group Notes
Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2260 100 1.100

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2260 200 1.080"

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2260 100 0.880"

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2260 100 0.855"

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2260 100 0.415"

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 61 2312

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 62 2337

Winchester 300 IMR-3031 61 2260 100 1.650

Hawk 300 IMR-3031 60 2210 100 0.960" 1.700

Barnes "X" 300 IMR-3031 56 2040

North Fork 300 IMR-3031 60 2385 100 0.400" cold & clean barrel

North Fork 300 IMR-3031 60 2385 100 0.482" 22 º F

North Fork 300 IMR-3031 60 2385 100 0.618" 22ºF

North Fork 300 IMR-3031 60 2385 100 0.848" 15ºF

Hornady 300 H-4895 60 2543 100 1.145" 22ºF

Hornady 300 IMR-3031 60 2282 100 0.971" 15ºF

Hornady 300 H-4895 61 50 0.410"

North Fork 300 H-4895 61 50 0.341"

North Fork 300 IMR-3031 60 2362 100 0.325" 50º F Dirty Barrel