A Father’s Gift
By Michael Arnold
“Popular or not, however, the .35 Whelen is a great cartridge…Shame on me, to this day I have not taken a .35 Whelen to Africa, but I haven’t changed my opinion: Loaded with 250-grain bullets, it would be one of the very best choices for thornbush hunting.” (Craig Boddington, Safari Rifles II)
“You can hunt anything in North America with this rifle.” With those words, my Dad gave me his lovely custom-built, .35 Whelen Improved rifle. Stocked by a man named Bill Hall, it was emblazoned with a ‘Diamond-H’ insignia below the beautifully-engraved, silver pistol grip cap. I honestly could believe that my Dad was giving away this rifle. He had begun collecting Bill Hall rifles many years before, and had accumulated quite a stash. In fact, my Dad had mentioned over the years that Ruger management had tried to recruit Bill to come and work in their custom-rifle shop. I don’t know if this was legend or not, but like my Dad, I had fallen in love with Bill’s workmanship as soon as I held my first Diamond-H rifle.
Though almost always a gruff and serious person, my Dad could also be very generous. As I sat entranced by a detailed examination of ‘my’ rifle, he handed me something that meant as much as the firearm itself. He presented me with a set of custom dies and a handwritten sheet containing reloading instructions garnered from many years of his own experimentation with the rifle. Included in the instructions were the steps he used to neck-up .30-06 brass to .35 caliber. He had also noted that I could skip the use of .30-06 brass by simply purchasing .35 Whelen ammunition and fire-forming it in the rifle.
As far as I know, my Dad never shot an animal with the .35 Whelen Improved. I know for a fact that, during his many years of hunting, he never killed anything larger than a Texas Whitetail, and that his deer hunting was done with a Belgian-made Browning chambered to 7mm Remington Magnum. So, his declaration of the effectiveness of this .35 caliber rifle for large, tough, and sometimes aggressive animals must have been derived from his own knowledge of ballistic coefficients, etc., as well as information garnered from gunwriters such as O’Connor, Keith, Page and Boddington. Many years later, I found that he was very accurate in his assessment when I watched a 6-point bull elk quickly succumb to a single shot fired from this rifle. That elk represented what I like to think of as a ‘heritage-quest’. My Dad once told me of an unsuccessful elk hunt in Colorado. Though he did not see a bull, he did describe watching cow elk coming out of a fog that limited visibility to mere yards. After many decades, my Dad was still saddened by his failure. So, my pursuit of a bull elk, with the rifle given to me many years before, was just as much a quest to fulfill my Dad’s dream as it was my own. Sadly, my Dad passed away a number of years before I was able to complete his and my dream of collecting that trophy bull.
Fast forward over a decade, and I was planning my first African safari. As suggested by my older brother, we were heading to South Africa to hunt with Blaauwkrantz Safaris. Very early in the planning stage, I decided I wanted to take my Dad’s rifle to Africa. I don’t know if he ever considered trying to organize an African safari, but I know that he voraciously read of the exploits of those who did. So, his rifle would go where he never could, or would. And, to prove my Dad’s conclusion concerning the capability of the caliber to handle big-boned, muscular animals, I wanted to take a zebra – a species that writers from Ruark to Boddington have pointed to as one of the toughest of the tough.
The goal of taking an African animal using my Dad’s – and now my – .35 Whelen Improved rifle was fulfilled late on the afternoon of May 19, 2018. Like the two elk before, the effect on the 800-900-pound animal was immediate. In fact, as I came down out of the recoil, chambering a cartridge as the muzzle dropped, I found that the zebra had literally dropped-to-the-shot. The 250-grain Nosler Partition impacted high on the animal’s shoulder, and according to my PH, Arnold Claassen, it collapsed without a twitch.
Dad, you were right. This caliber is amazingly effective on large, tough species. I really wish you were still around, so that I could tell you that in person.