January 04, 2011
By Layne Simpson
If you don't push its limits, this old favorite is still a good deer cartridge.
By Layne Simpson
The .25-35 Winchester, along with the .30-30 Winchester, was introduced in the Model 94 lever-action rifle in August 1895. Those were the first two sporting cartridges of American design to be loaded with smokeless powder. The Model 94 had been introduced the previous year, but only in .32-40 and .38-55, both loaded with black powder at the time.
This buck is one of several whitetails the author has taken with his Model 94 in .25-35.
The .30-30 case is basically the .38-55 necked down for a .30-caliber bullet, and the .25-35 is a necked-down version of it. Other members of the same family are the .32 Winchester, .22 Savage High-Power, .219 Zipper and .375 Winchester. Industry maximum average chamber pressure for the .25-35 and .30-30 is 38,000 copper units of pressure (cup), but I would not be surprised to learn that the ammunition companies have backed off on the throttle a bit out of respect for rifles now celebrating 100 years or more of use.
As far as I know, Winchester has offered only two .25-35 factory loadings: 117-grain softnose and FMJ bullets at a muzzle velocity of 2,250 fps and delivering 970 ft-lbs of energy at 100 yards. Depending on the bullet weight it is loaded with, the .30-30 delivers 1,300 to 1,400 ft-lbs at 100 yards, and Winchester's current loading of the .38-55 is rated at 674 ft-lbs at that range (the old high-velocity loading of the .38-55 churned up 1,055 ft-lbs at 100 yards).
Back in the old days the ammunition manufacturers spent a lot of time and money developing cartridges of the same caliber and similar performance levels that differed just enough in dimension to prevent them from being used in a competitor's rifle. The .25-36 Marlin and .25 Remington were loaded with 117-grain bullets, and while the Marlin cartridge was slower than the .25-35 Winchester, the Remington cartridge was actually faster at 2,350 fps. Unlike the .25-35, the .25 Remington case was made rimless, so it would feed smoothly in a couple of Remington rifles, the Model 8 autoloader and the Model 14 pump gun.
There was a time when no small number of American woodsmen considered the .25-35 adequate for use on deer, and it may have enjoyed even more popularity among European hunters who used it in drillings and other types of combination guns. Over there it is known as the 6.5x52R.
In this age of deer cartridges powerful enough to stop a cement truck in its tracks and scopes as big as sewer pipes, very few hunters would look twice at the mild-mannered little cartridge. This is a bit sad since it works quite nicely on whitetails inside 100 yards and most are killed no farther away from the muzzle than that. When shopping for either factory ammo or bullets for reloading, the owner of a rifle in .25-35 Winchester will find pickings quite slim, but enough are there to get the job done.
Winchester still offers ammo loaded to 2,230 fps with a 117-grain softnose bullet, and the roundnose bullet of the same weight from Hornady was designed specifically for use in the .25-35 as well as the .25-36 Marlin and .25 Remington. The 60-grain flatnose bullet made by Hornady for the .25-20 can also be loaded in the .25-35, and while its performance on varmints is quite spectacular out to 100 yards or so, I have never found it to be as accurate as Hornady's 117-grain bullet.
Due to the scarcity of factory loads, the .25-35 is an excellent candidate for handloading. Remember that pointed bullets should be single-loaded directly into the chamber and not in a tubular magazine.
The .25-35 has long been considered an inherently accurate cartridge, and this explains why it was popular among varmint shooters before cartridges such as the .22 Hornet and .22-250 came along and stole its thunder. Back in those days most varmint shooters preferred various single-shot rifles for the .25-35, and while they were surely more accurate than the Winchester 94, the old lever gun was and still is capable of turning in same rather impressive accuracy.
A Model 94 in .25-35 I owned until a few years ago had a tang sight and a 26-inch octagon barrel with a pristine bore; it was built sometime during the mid-1920s, and yet it would consistently shoot five 117-grain Hornadys inside two inches at 100 yards. The .25-35 sitting in my rifle rack today was built only a few months before U.S. Repeating Arms ceased production of the Model 94, and it averages 1 1/2 inches and less with not only the 117-grain Hornady but with several spitzers that I load single-shot.
So how good is the .25-35 as a deer cartridge? I found the answer to that question not long ago when several friends and I headed to a South Texas ranch that was just about overrun with whitetails. In addition to being allowed to take two bucks each, we were encouraged by the ranch manager to participate in his population-management program by taking several does. What makes that trip fit into this story is that we used nothing but Winchester 94s, and that made it a great opportunity to compare the performance of the .25-35, .30-30 and .38-55 in the field. Prior to that hunt I had taken only a couple of hogs and one deer with the .25-35, so I was especially interested in hunting with it.
During the hunt I used a Winchester Model 94 in .38-55 to take one of my bucks and then switched to another Model 94 in .25-35 to take a second buck, four does and three coyotes. All tolled, our group took 16 bucks and 21 does, all inside 100 yards, and all but two were one-shot kills. Several dropped in their tracks, while the rest gave up the ghost after running anywhere from 20 to 60 yards. Only one deer that was shot got away. I was watching the doe through my binocular when another hunter's bullet from his .30-30 rifle just barely grazed the top of its back enough to clip off a few hairs; the hit was so light it didn't even leave blood behind. I am sure the animal recovered from such a minor scratch.
It might be of interest to mention that I used the Winchester .25-35 factory load on deer, but when calling in coyotes with a Burnham Brothers digital CompuCaller II, I switched to a handload with the Hornady 75-grain V-Max (which I single-loaded directly into the chamber). The traditionalist side of me enjoys using an aperture-style sight when hunting with one of the lever-action hammer guns, but nothing I tried worked due to the great difference in points of impact of the 117- and 75-grain loads.
I solved the problem by mounting a Burris 3-9X Quad scope on my Model 94. Designed for use on the Sako Quad rimfire rifle with its four interchang
eable barrels in .17 Mach 2, .17 HMR, .22 LR and .22 WMR, the scope is capable of memorizing up to four different zeroes. Burris engineers accomplished this by installing four indicator bands of different colors on the windage and elevation adjustment knobs, and each band can be rotated independently of its adjustment knob to record a specific zero.
As I discovered, the new scope worked as perfectly on the Winchester rifle as it had on the Sako Quad rifle I had used on a Wyoming varmint shoot. I used the lower bands on the windage and elevation adjustment knobs to record a 100-yard zero for the 117-grain Winchester factory load and used the second bands for zeroing my 75-grain varmint load.
When I needed to switch from one .25-35 load to another during the hunt, I simply dialed the scope to the zero that corresponded with the load I intended to use. And since I had discovered back home at the range that the Model 94 was plenty accurate for shooting coyotes at long range, I utilized the first and second tick marks of the Ballistic Plex reticle in the Burris scope for holdovers at 200 and 300 yards.
It worked like a charm; after taking five deer with the Winchester 117-grain factory load, I switched to my varmint load and bagged three coyotes within a couple of hours on the last day of our hunt. As unlikely a coyote rifle as the Winchester 94 in .25-35 might appear to be, it proved to be an excellent choice for the job. I found it to be light, handy, compact and plenty accurate for surprising a yodel dog out to any reasonable range.
Through the years, I have taken several deer with the .30-30, and on shots inside 100 yards I see very little difference in performance between it and the .25-35. But due to its heavier bullet of larger diameter, the .30-30 has a noticeable edge in effectiveness on longer shots. During the Texas hunt four of us took most of our deer with the .25-35 and then compared notes after all the fun was over. We all agreed that shots should be restricted to 100 yards with Winchester's littlest deer cartridge, which is saying a lot more than you might think when we consider that most whitetails are taken at half that distance and less.
|A DOZEN .25-35 WINCHESTER LOADS|
|BULLET||POWDER||ACCURACY (ins.)||VELOCITY (fps)|
|Hornady 60-gr. FN||IMR-4198||22.0||1.61||2,448|
|Hornady 60-gr. FN||IMR-4320||31.0||2,30||3,011|
|Hornady 60-gr. FN||H4895||31.0||2.15||2,980|
|Hornady 75-gr. V-Max*||Varget||29.0||1.49||2,671|
|Sierra 75-gr. HP*||BL-C (2)||32.0||1.33||2,710|
|Hornady 117-gr. RN||IMR-4320||26.0||1.77||2,289|
|Remington 117-gr. SFC L**||IMR-3031||26.0||1.61||2,317|
|Hornady 117-gr. RN||H380||27.0||1.40||2,288|
|Hornady 117-gr. RN||H380||29.0||1.53||2,301|
|Hornady 117-gr. RN||H380||30.0||1.44||2,356|
|Winchester 117-gr. FN***||H380||30.0||1.35||2,350|
|Winchester 117-gr. FN||Factory Load||1.17||2,149|
| *This bullet is for single-loading directly into the chamber of lever-action rifles. It must not be loaded in a tubular magazine.|
**This bullet is no longer available to handloaders.
***This bullet was pulled from Winchester factory ammo.
Winchester cases and Winchester WLR primers were used. Accuracy shown for each load represents an average of three or more five-shot groups fired at 100 yards. Velocity is an average of 10 rounds clocked 12 feet from the 20-inch barrel of a Winchester Model 94.
Aim true and keep your shots inside 100 paces and you will love the .25-35 as much as I do; try to stretch its reach too far and you might just regret bringing it to the woods.