Sunday, May 30, 2010

Loaded For Bear, The .348 Winchester

It was the last of Winchester's heavy American Game lever guns, the Winchester Model 71 in .348 Winchester. Not quite up to Africa's biggest game, the .348 was for America's big critters, the Moose, the Elk, the Grizzly Bear and Alaskan Brown Bear. When loaded with it's heaviest bullets at full charge the saying went: "Kills on one end, wounds on the other." The checkered steel buttplate did not help there. It's very rare to see a 71 with the original steel buttplate.

I first fired one of those when I was a boy weighing about 120 pounds. Firing from the prone position the recoil lifted both elbows off the ground and I dropped back hard enough to bruise and skin both of them. My Mama gave me a little grief for the bloodstains on my shirt, if I recall. I finished shooting from kneeling and offhand where my body could rock back with the recoil, it wasn't so painful that way.

Those were the Winchester 200 grain loads, or handloaded equivalents. If those had been the 250 grain bear loads I probably would have taken up astronomy for a hobby instead of shooting. Maybe needlework or knitting.

The 71 Winchester was the last modification of John Browning's famous 1886 Winchester rifle. By 1936 when the '71 was developed, the 1886 was too expensive to manufacture as well as being pretty well non competitive with other hunting rifles due to weight and the difficulty in putting those newfangled telescopic sights on board. The tube magazine prevented using the sharp pointed spitzer bullets, too.

Few hunters used the old big bore cartridges by then, like the .45-70, .45-90 and .50-110 anymore, except in Alaska, Canada and the Grizzly country of the American western mountains. The only '86 Winchester Cartridge suitable for the lighter deer of the rest of the country was the .33 Winchester but it was considered a little light for the great bears.

So the internal changes in the 71, combined with the better steels available from the 1900 nickel steel of the smokeless era 1886 Winchesters brought us the 71. The stronger rifle needed a stronger cartridge so they took the old .50-110 black powder case and necked it down to .348. They first loaded it with 150 grain bullets for deer and 200 grain bullets for bigger game. This, with the improved stock by Colonel Townsend Whelan kept the rifle manageable, at least to men weighing more than 120 pounds! Of course, few ever shot that rifle much from prone, anyhow.

A couple other of the mid-century giants of shooting had much to do with the rifle and cartridge, Phil Sharpe and Elmer Keith.

This rifle has not been made since the 1950s, except for a short run made by the Miroku people in Japan. This was for the Browning line. Most, though, are still in use by men in Alaska and Canada's bear country and a few folks still hunting the dark woods for moose.

There isn't much factory ammo left for the .348, Winchester loads a 200 grain Silvertip, Buffalo Bore loads a 250 grain load that is just the thing for someone in the great bear country. Although at $83.00 for a box of twenty I'd have to think long and hard if it wouldn't be a little cheaper to let the bear chew on me a while.

The only mass produced component bullet around is the Hornady 200 grain flat point. Barnes makes a 220 and 250 grain and there is a company in Alaska, the Alaska Bullet Works I believe, that makes a 250 grain bullet reputed to be a dandy for the big bears. Hawk Bullets also makes a 250 grain.

There have been several attempts to blow out the .348 to make it a bit more powerful, although I don't know why.Parker Ackley's .348 Improved being the most famous. Trouble is that the .348 is already powerful enough for it's intended purpose, plus the "improved" cartridge is a bit more fussy in making the trip between the magazine tube and the chamber. Me? I'd rather have the sure feeding of the parent round than the extra 100-150 feet per second, if, of course I decided that I'd rather shoot the four dollar+ cartridge than let the bear chew on me.

There were not that many 71 Winchesters made, it started, of course atthe very end of the lever action era, in thend of the great depression. Then, of course, the war came along, Winchester quit making guns for the civilian market. then, in late 1945 when civilian stuff came back online many, perhaps most, of the skilled craftsmen who made these fine rifles did not come back to Winchester. Winchester discontinued this fine rifle in 1958 and I never got to own one.

*Photo of rifle shamelessly stolen from Paco Kelly's essential site, Leverguns. If my blog-fu were better I would have a proper linkage. I'm pretty sure they'll forgive me, I was a rifleman, not an electronicalwockel expert.

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