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One Rifle, One Scope Setting, All North American Game Animals
.358 Norma Magnum – One Rifle, One Scope Setting, for all North American Deer and Large Game
By Dave Whitney
I get fixated on things. It has always been like that. A few years back I saw a beautiful Sako rifle for sale that was chambered in .358 Norma Magnum. It was beautiful and I fell in love with it. While doing some research prior to purchasing it, I became intrigued by the concept of utilizing light weight 35 caliber bullets to create lower energy loadings for this big game cartridge. The concept was to down load the magnum cartridge to energies suitable for smallish California deer, and in the end have a rifle and ammunition combination suitably equipped for any medium to large game in North America. Unfortunately, I thought about it long enough to let the opportunity pass me by. When I called to make the deal, the rifle had been sold to someone heading to Africa on safari.
But, like I said, I get fixated. The idea had settled into that part of my brain where ideas are continuously circling. These ideas don’t go away quickly; they just keep circling. So, two years later when I saw another beautiful .358 Norma Mag rifle for sale the idea started circling again but with increased intensity. This rifle was even more beautiful than the one I had missed, custom made on a Czech BRNO VZ24 action by a superlative craftsman with a gorgeous English walnut stock. It was well outside of my price range and something I did not even remotely need, but I approached the seller with an offer to pay in increments over an extended period of time. I guess that in my mind a little pain in small increments was more tolerable than one larger pain that would be difficult to explain to my wife, who was not in the loop on the unnecessary project and who just might have other priorities for the money. To my surprise, the seller graciously accepted the offer and I was very quietly committed.
Since it would be several months until the rifle was paid off, there was ample time to develop the downloads so that they would be ready when the rifle arrived. That is when the fun and frustration began. I cataloged the various 35 caliber bullets available, started working with available on-line ballistics calculators, determined desired velocities for bullets of various weights and ballistic coefficients, and asked for recommendations for good custom ammunition manufacturers. But then everything came to a standstill. A local ammunition manufacturer said “he would be happy to help, but he was very busy”. In the end it took several months to get the cases and initial bullets and to get first loads delivered. Several calls and e-mails to other ammunition suppliers who had been recommended were unanswered. The one other custom manufacturer I did reach said my concept couldn’t be done with the following comments:
The cartridge you are asking about is at the top of the list in its respective category and was designed to deliver a powerful punch. When you start loading down, especially under recommended values, you run into an issue with excessive case capacity and pressure spikes which can lead to a catastrophic failure in the chamber, which is something you don’t want to experience. The 358 Norma Magnum is at the top of the 35 caliber family, a large round that with a 250 grain bullet has the velocity and energy that’s is almost equal to 300 grain bullet from a 375 H&H round. So there is only so much you can do to slow that one down.
This last feedback seemed fundamentally wrong and I couldn’t understand how a .30-06 Springfield could have enough pressure to seal its brass against chamber walls and transfer 2,700 ft-lbs of energy to its bullet but similar pressures would not be effective with the .358 Norma Magnum brass combined with a bullet of similar weight. Part of my confusion was an outgrowth of my ignorance about powder ignition dynamics but another part seemed to be rooted in the industries best practices.
Everyone was using the same published load information which was very limited for the .358 Norma Magnum cartridge. This was aggravated, first, by the fact that most of the available custom loads were intended to duplicate or increase the power of factory loads, and second, because industry safe practice recommendations kept people from experimenting with light powder loads that could potentially result in a dangerous or even catastrophic failure. In hindsight, when the custom manufacturer said “my concept couldn’t be done” it could be interpreted as “there is no published loading data that matches what I was trying to achieve”.
While trying to understand this industry dynamic, I came in contact with Rob Behr with Accurate Reloading Powder. Rob was very gracious and showed interest in my project. In fact, Rob showed enough interest to dedicate adequate telephone time to recommend one of their powders and calculate appropriate starting loads for several bullets to achieve the ballistics I was looking for. He also recognized that if I was going to be successful on the project I would need to buy a reloading press and start developing these loads myself. He also graciously offered to provide the guidance I would need to get my efforts started.
Over the next couple of months all of the essential equipment and components needed to load custom .358 Norma Magnum ammunition was purchased and put in place in my garage. I had read up on reloading and started to develop a working process and rudimentary skills. Also, the local custom ammunition manufacturer I had started working with some months earlier delivered his first loading with a relatively light weight (180 gr.) bullet designed for the velocities I had requested. Then, most importantly, my final instalment payment was made and the rifle arrived.
You know how it is when you receive something that was purchased sight unseen, you are almost always disappointed because reality rarely lives up to the image that the mind has created. In this case the experience was wonderfully the opposite. The custom BRNO VZ24 made by master gun maker Nick Von Flue was gorgeous in every way. The beautiful marbled stock was unmolested with perfectly sharp checkering and the metal work converting the robust Czech action into a fine sporting rifle was flawless. So much so, that it was difficult to take it out of the safe and onto the range. But, out I went, armed with a brand new chronograph, a brand new led-sled, factory ammunition, the first custom rounds from the local supplier, and my rifle, which, although not sold as such, appeared essentially unfired.
After some considerable set up time; getting the chronograph in place and aligned with the target, adjusting the lead sled and rough bore sighting the scope, everything was ready for initial sight-in and testing. I am sure I looked like a real newbie with all of my brand new gear. But the range owner “Billy” was accommodating and willing to offer some needed advice.
But back to those important first shots. As the Model 98 style action uses a controlled feed mechanism, a lone cartridge was loaded into the magazine and with a silky smooth movement the bolt was driven forward and the first round was…… firmly jammed halfway between the magazine and the chamber. Brutal!!! It took me 15 minutes, the whole time trying to be patient, to get that jammed round out of the action. A second round was more carefully loaded and when the bolt was brought forward it also jammed halfway home. I then tried Norma factory ammunition with the same result. Again, Brutal!!! I had been waiting for almost a year to get to that point in time when the rifle, purchased ammunition, reloading equipment, my own custom ammunition, range equipment and myself were all ready to go. There was obviously a problem with the rifle.
A little bit about the seller of this seemingly flawed firearm!
The seller of the rifle is Roger Rule, the author of The Rifleman’s Rifle (the definitive book on the Winchester pre-64 Model 70’s) who had graciously agreed to my many month long purchase process. https://www.amazon.com/Riflemans-Rifle-Winchesters-Model-1936-1963/dp/1438999054
I sent Roger an e-mail asking for his recommendation for a good rifle-smith who could be trusted to work on what I considered a “work of art”. But Roger is used to working with firearms of this quality and gave me a short list of highly qualified gunsmith’s who could do the work without significant risk. I talked with a couple of them and after further consultation with Roger selected a good competent gunsmith to work with. Almost immediately, I received a note from the gunsmith saying that Roger had contacted him and that he would be picking up the tab for the work. I let them both know that it was my rifle now, and I would be paying the price of ownership. The simple truth is that I was so happy with the quality of the rifle, there were no hard feelings about the feed problem at all. I had also developed an increasingly friendly relationship with Roger and learned that he had many admirable qualities. I found Roger to be honest, engaging and always willing to share the benefits of his long experience. I was clearly getting the better end of the bargain we had struck. In fact, as it turned out, the jamming was proof positive that the custom rifle was new and unfired. It was in fact, unfinished. The gunsmith confirmed that the final finishing steps from the custom build process had not been completed, adjusting the feed and fine-tuning the fit between the bolt face and chamber. Also, in spite of my protest Roger picked up the charges for the work to finish the rifle.
One final word on Roger Rule. I would buy another firearm from him without the slightest hesitation. In fact, he would be my first choice because he buys only the highest condition product he can find and he is honest in the description of his offerings. Roger is a first rate firearms dealer and after this experience working together I consider him a personal friend.
A couple weeks later, after a few hours across the gunsmith’s bench the rifle was ready to go and the project was now fully in my own hands. The short version of the plan was to develop loadings with 180, 200, and 225 grain bullets with energy levels that were staggered to deliver 60% of factory magnum loads for the lightest bullets, up to 80% of factory loads for the heavier bullets. Living in California, with a looming ban on lead bullets, it made sense to select Barnes copper alloy bullets alongside a leading lead core bullet. The project goals were further refined to fine tune muzzle velocities to match the ballistic coefficients of the selected bullets so that the resulting impact points would be within an inch of each other out to 300 yards. (With the scope setting zeroed at 200 yards, each of the progressively lower energy loads would deliver the bullet to the same point of impact (plus/minus 1 inch) from 50 yards out to 300 yards.
Selecting Barnes bullets was fortuitous because the relatively low specific gravity of the copper alloy meant that the ballistic coefficient of the bullet would be superior to a lead core bullet of similar weight. Also, as the bullet got heavier it got longer and the ballistic coefficient got better. So heavier bullets could be launched at lower velocities and still match the path of lighter bullets fired at higher velocities.
The following table lists the initial goals of the project including predicted 300 yard drop for the various bullets selected for testing along with Norma’s factory .358 Norma Mag Oryx specification included for reference:
As can be seen from the chart, the targeted muzzle energies and associated recoil were well below the factory load and the bullets would still retain more than adequate energy at 300 yards for hunting whitetail deer, mule deer, wild pigs, and any other medium size game one might take in the US. If hunting moose or dangerous bear, take the factory load which is well suited to the larger game.
The process of developing these loads was a little more tedious than I had expected. Four rounds of loading and range trips were needed to fine tune velocities and to develop consistent hand loading technique. A fifth round of loading was needed to produce adequate number of rounds for final testing. A sixth round was needed to confirm results. If I had a range in my back yard, had nothing but time on my hands, and the work was carried out during the summer months this all might have taken a couple of weeks. However, due to weather delays, work schedule and occasional setbacks associated with the development of consistent loading techniques, the time required was more like 6 months.
Rob Behr with Accurate Reloading Powder gave me starting powder loads using his recommendation of their Accurate 5744 powder. In order to increase my chances of success I also contacted Hodgdon Powders and spoke with Dave Campbell, who recommended using their H4895 and their Trail Boss, both of which were safe and suitable for downloading with clear, easy to understand minimum load guidelines.
An additional aspect of my initial goals were to use a ballistic filler to take up empty space in the cartridge and to keep the powder pressed in the bottom of the cartridge against the primer. My thinking was that this would be important to assure repeatable ignition of the powder when low case fills were used.
To make a six month story short, the following is an overview of what I discovered while developing the various loadings:
- Good results were obtained using both the Accurate 5744 and the H4895. Trail Boss was dropped after the initial trials because it yielded too extreme of a download. While obviously suitable for cowboy action shooting, initial loads delivered only a fraction of the velocity obtained from the other two powders with a point of impact over a foot lower at 100 yards. Since both the Accurate powder and the H4895 yielded acceptable results the Trail Boss could be eliminated to reduce the number of variables being explored.
Robs Behr’s load recommendations made it possible to hit target velocities quickly using fine adjustments. The broad guidelines provided by Hodgdon made it necessary to produce more variants and extrapolate from more disparate results.
- The ballistic filler was dropped after the first round of testing. Pufflon lubricating ballistic filler was used per the manufacturer’s instructions. Velocities were slightly reduced compared to the same powder weight loading without the addition of a filler. Observed accuracy was also worse than the unfilled load. What was troubling was that after shooting the first Pufflon filled rounds, all of the subsequent loads without filler also yielded reduced velocities. My first thought was to stop testing and clean the barrel of fouling caused by the filler. However, on inspection it turned out that the barrel was exceptionally clean. After discussion with Rob Behr, at Accurate Powders, it appears that the lubricating effect of the Pufflon reduced the pressures needed to propel the bullet down and out of the barrel resulting in lower maximum pressures and lower velocities. Additionally, it was clear that this lubrication remained in the barrel and effected the velocities of subsequent non-filled rounds. It took multiple cleanings and firing of many unfilled rounds to eliminate this lingering barrel lubrication.
In fairness, I believe that the filler would have been effective if used in all loads and if powder weight was adjusted as needed to achieve the target velocities. The diminished accuracy that was observed is still a lingering issue that goes against the manufactures own observations. I suspect I was seeing transient effects and the lubricating characteristics of the filler would stabilize and a level of equilibrium would be reached after firing a more sizeable number of filled rounds.
Unfortunately, while trying to understand the effect of the filler on velocities I had received advice from multiple sources not to use ballistic fillers for safety reasons. While I personally believe that the ballistic filler is safe to use if used properly. After hearing this repeated more than once I started asking myself the question, “Is the filler really necessary?”. In the end the answer was no it is not necessary, both the Accurate 5744 and the Hodgdon H4895 were performing consistently at the necessary case fill levels without use of the filler.
- The Nosler partition bullet option was dropped after the second round of testing due to relatively poor group size. While the Barnes bullets were all delivering 1 MOA patterns (or close to that) the 225 grain Nosler Partitions were yielding 2-3 MOA. Not disqualifying for a hunting round to be used at typical distances, but you wouldn’t want it in the gun when the 300 yard shot was needed.
- The 225 grain Sierra Game King bullet was substituted for the Nosler partition bullets with excellent ballistic and grouping results. It proved to be accurate and streamlined, requiring lower velocity to achieve the desired trajectory and with greater retained energy downrange. However, in the end, this bullet was not as consistent from day to day as the Barnes bullets. It was accurate but displayed more day to day trajectory variation than the other loadings tested.
- Loads from the local ammunition manufacturer were dropped after the second round due to relatively poor group size. Like the partition bullets, not disqualifying for a hunting round but not what was being achieved on the other custom loads and not capable of achieving the plus/minus 1 inch consistency goal. I suspect the performance could easily be improved but at a higher cost associated with a more meticulous loading process.
- Best accuracy results were obtained using Accurate 5744 compared to Hodgdon H4895. While the difference was not large, Accurate’s powder consistently delivered tighter groups with smaller velocity deviations than the 4895. Both are suitable for hunting where variable environmental conditions and imperfect shooting ergonomics will have a greater impact on accuracy. Accurate’s 5744 is the clear choice for best out of the press accuracy.
- Barnes TTSX bullets were much preferred over their TSX offering. Like the Sierra Game King, this is simply the result of the better Ballistic Coefficient allowing a lower muzzle velocity required to achieve the desired trajectory with the added benefits of lower recoil and better retained energy downrange.
In the tables that follow numerical results of two separate days of final range data are summarized. On both days the wind was relatively light but variable and was strongest when shooting the longer distances just because it was later in the day. The wind was particularly troublesome when shooting the 200 yard targets on June 4, 2016 as is evidenced on the target map for that date and range. It seemed like every time I put my head down to shoot the right to left wind would increase. Perhaps I should have just called it a day and come back another day, but range time has been a little hard to arrange of late. In any event the data speaks for itself. It is important to note that the bullet drop data is still orderly in spite of the wind because it was blowing almost directly across range.
Another variable impacting these data is that I changed scopes between these two rounds of testing. During the second round the scope had a .5MOA offset to the right. In both cases 100 yard targets were shot using a lead sled, while 200 yard and 300 yard targets were shot from bags.
The project was upliftingly successful and my initial goals were all achieved with only minor deviations. The Barnes 180 gr TTSX, 200 gr TTSX and the 200 gr TSX came very close to matching the trajectories predicted by the “basic” ballistics calculator that was used, and also met the goal of having trajectories delivering the same point of impact (plus/minus 1 inch) from 50 yards out to 300 yards.
The Barnes 225 gr TSX exhibited a greater drop than predicted by approximately 2 inches at 200 yards and 4 inches at 300 yards. So, it didn’t meet the plus/minus 1-inch goal. However, increasing the velocity of this bullet to approximately 2,625 should yield results close to the 1-inch goal, albeit with the penalty of higher than desired delivered energy and recoil. Also, it can clearly be used as is for the hunting I plan to do with only a small holdover adjustment.
The Sierra Game King (SGK) surprised me with a significant trajectory difference between the initial testing and the follow-up confirmation test round. This difference was particularly surprising because the muzzle velocity measurements were almost identical for both days. Throughout the load development and previous testing the SGK typically shot a little high and usually slightly to the left. But on the final test day it impacted lower than normal at 200 and 300 yard distances. While the environmental conditions were different between the two test dates and the wind was variable, I think it likely that it was my set up and variable shooting technique that was to blame for the confusing result. If you look at how this round performed on the impact maps you will see that it grouped well with the other rounds but was impacting at the top of the groupings on the first day and more toward the bottom on the final day. In any event, as with the Barnes 225 gr TSX this loading is just fine for hunting out to 300 yards.
In general I was very happy to achieve 1.5 MOA or better three shot group sizes for all of the loadings even in sometimes windy conditions. In total there were 50+ different combinations of bullet, powder, crimping, and ballistic filler. Almost all of them delivered 1.5 MOA or better, the best were at 0.3 MOA and over half of the groups measured at or under 1.0 MOA.
The lightest loads developed were delivering approximately 58% of the energy of the factory .358 Norma Mag Oryx at 300 yards and 63% at the muzzle. The heaviest loads delivered 75% at the muzzle and 78% at 300 yards. While the factory loads would certainly be too much gun for California deer and wild pigs one of the various downloads would be suitable for anything from smallish California deer to big mule deer and large hogs. To put that in a more recognizable perspective the lightest loads delivered roughly 80% of Hornady’s 180 gr “White Tail” 30.06 ammunition and the heaviest loads were just a little higher in delivered energy than the Hornady “White Tail”.
Now, with an understanding that I have an engineering and a tool and die background and that I am also a bit OCD, everything I do becomes a “process” and that process is in a state of continual refinement. Keeping this in mind, the following are my thoughts reflecting upon my initial foray into load development, hand loading, range testing and evaluation of results.
What Worked Well
The rifle was everything I could have expected.
RCBS reloading station and dies were easy to use and understand and online demonstrations were easy to find.
The Competition Electronics ProChrono Digital Chronograph appears to be reasonably accurate and is reliable and easy to use.
Each powder load was individually measured using a Franklin Armory digital scale. I believe this was a key to superior precision and repeatability. The more accurate my powder weighing process became over time the lower were the observed velocity standard deviations.
Using a lead sled for the range work was a great help. First, it aided in achieving the necessary precision and repeatability to the 100-yard range work that accounted for 80% of the shots fired over the course of the project. It also greatly reduced shoulder fatigue. Even with the reduced loads, in the final two sessions my shoulder was tender after 50 plus shots per session taken from bags used at the longer ranges.
I made custom targets for each of the distances to maximize point of aim visibility. This was a takeaway from advise given by John Paul at JP Rifles. High contrast, 1 inch grid pattern, easy to align crosshairs on bullseye.
The Hornady ballistics calculator was used for predicting trajectory at given muzzle velocities. While I suspect it is a bit crude compared to other available software, it was easy to use and sufficient for the task.
I ended up using a Wilson cast trimmer after trying a RCBS and an almost identical Lyman unit that at best had poor repeatability. The Wilson unit is robust and, after getting a feel for it, repeatable to 0.001 inch.
Circle S Ranch and Shooting Range in Petaluma, CA was convenient and well run. The owner’s son, Billy Souza, who is a proficient marksman, was helpful and willing to give some needed advice when he recognized opportunities to help me improve my technique. It was his advice that led indirectly to use the lead sled so I was evaluating the load and rifle combination with reduced scatter resulting from poor technique.
What Could Be Better
The scope that is now on the rifle is a Swarovski Habicht 3-10 X 42, which is great out to 300 yards. However, utilizing a more modern high end scope with a 6 times magnification range (like 2-12X) would provide a better close in as well as better long range sight picture and performance for a wider variety of hunting conditions and game.
As I said before, each powder load was individually measured using a Franklin Armory digital scale. This was a tedious and time consuming process made more difficult by this scales lack of precision. I had to weigh individual loads multiple times, repeatedly lifting the powder tray on and off the scale in order to get a repeatable measurement and achieve +/- 0.1 grain precision. Without this repetition the scale would only deliver +/-0.3 grain repeatability. A scale delivering +/-0.05 grain precision would have sped things up considerably and delivered results with reduced uncertainty.
A RCBS full length sizing die was used to initially size new brass and to resize previously fired brass. This full length resizing was unnecessarily hard on the brass. I now have a neck sizing die and will use it for all used brass going forward.
The RCBS sizing die is not as precise a die assembly as it could or should be. The thread specs are too coarse to achieve even visually repeatable centration of the expander/deprimer. There is clearly room for improvement in the precision of this important tooling and I, for one, would be willing to pay a premium for a higher spec tool.
It is clear from my data that bullet retention forces (neck tension and crimping) have a noticeable impact on muzzle velocity. This is only coarsely controlled in the hand reloading process and I could feel significant cartridge to cartridge differences during the bullet seating process. Again, more tooling precision and suitable metrology could make this process step much more precise and repeatable.
The ProChrono digital chronograph I used, while effective, is difficult to set up at the range and there is no sure fire calibration step to assure it is reading accurately. It was also the cause of a day wasted at the range due to its sensitivity to shadows crossing the sensors. I have my eye on the doppler radar units that are now on the market.
While taking range measurements of muzzle velocity I took the opportunity to add control groups (repeat measurements of the same batch at different times) to check for process repeatability. What I noticed was that velocities are not very repeatable just after cleaning the barrel. To address this, I added a step of firing several rounds before beginning the test regimen.
Another related observation is that the results varied over the course of a few hours (or many firings). I suspect a good part of this is temperature related (cartridge temp, barrel and action temp), but another part seems to be related to the barrel cleanliness. To address temperature, I shot from the shade, shot slowly, took repeated breaks, coarsely monitored barrel temp, all in an attempt to keep temperatures low. No real effort was expended to keep the barrel condition stable, but I did notice changes in control group measurements as the day progressed.
Noticeable dimensional variability was observed in the pressure relief rings one particular batch of Barnes TSX bullets. I was crimping into the top ring and noticed the position of the ring was inconsistent by over 0.02 inch. Surprising for a precision CNC turned component.
Shooting technique was impacting results. When using the lead sled, precision was improved but technique was still important. As time progressed I started adopting a process where the sled was initially aligned low and a little right of target and then load was applied to the rifle to put the crosshairs on target. Shooting with bags was much more technique and setup dependent. Also, on some days I was just better at it than others. I have a lot to learn to get good at this and will need a mentor to develop anything better than mediocre skills.
As mentioned I used two different scopes. Initially a Nikon Monarch 3 2-8X scope was used. It served well when the crosshairs were left in position. However, ¼ MOA click adjustments were not at all accurate and click adjustments were more like ½ MOA. Toward the end I switched to a reconditioned Swarovski 3-10X with better but still less than what I would call precision results.
I have no real experience with windage and the results were definitely impacted by wind. This is a real opportunity area for improvement.
Bullet groupings seemed to get bigger as the project progressed. I suspect the barrel is still in the process of being broken in. I am cleaning it after every session but perhaps copper fouling is accumulating. I need a bore scope.
Early on a decision was made to use Federal match primers. It took me several weeks to find them and receive them through people reselling them at a premium. This is thanks to our political leadership. (I could go on here but will refrain)
The limited number of times a belted magnum can be reloaded was observed prior to my reading about it. I had already disposed of a significant number of cases because one had cracked near the base and several had a light shiny ring around the case in the same area. Better safe than sorry. Then I read about the problem in a reloading handbook. In truth I am not so much concerned with reloading spent brass as I am achieving custom performance. So, this is not a serious issue and from now on I will limit brass to 2 or 3 firings.
Barnes does not currently produce a 35 caliber 225 grain TTSX bullet. I sent in a request for them to add this product to their line.
Related to this there is a very limited number of 35 caliber bullets available relative to other more popular calibers. The same hold true for .358 Norma Magnum brass. These facts were limiting to the project.
Finally, as I think is demonstrated, the .358 Norma Magnum is a very versatile round that has a valuable place in the market. Unfortunately, it was beaten out by the .338 Win Mag and never really caught on. This is a pity!
Was it worth it?
Absolutely! While anyone could rightly argue that I should have purchased a 30.06 or a .270 Winchester rifle to begin with if I wanted to hunt the game that these cartridges are suited for. I on the other hand, can now say that my .358 Norma Magnum is well suited to anything larger than a varmint to large and dangerous North American game as well as anything other than the very largest African game. But more importantly, that fixation has been put to rest that took hold when I first saw that .358 Norma Magnum on Guns International, and the idea that a single rifle with one scope setup could be used as an all-round hunting solution entered my mind. In the process new friends have been made, new skills were developed and my life has been enriched by the experience.
Also, during one of the range sessions there was a guy at the bench beside me shooting a booming .338 Lapua Magnum at 300 yards cutting a circle on his target one forth the size of what I was cutting. That started me thinking about the potential of the .338 Lapua Magnum if the rifle could be lightened and the rounds could be tailored for ……..