Browning BLR .358 Winchester Levergun
 

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn

April 10th, 2004

 

 

 

The Browning BLR lever action rifle has been  in production now for over 25 years. The .358 Winchester cartridge has been around for almost fifty years. The BLR is about as modern as a lever gun can get, and the .358 Winchester is a highly efficient and powerful cartridge, which has killing power all out of proportion to its compact size. In terms of power, efficiency, accuracy, and recoil, the .358 Winchester should be one of the most popular hunting cartridges extant, but it just ainít so. In Europe, it enjoys a bit more popularity as the 8.8x51mm, but in the United States, the only mass-produced rifle available chambered for the .358 is the Browning BLR, and that is stretching the term "mass-produced".

It is not the gun makersí fault. Savage, Ruger, Mannlicher-Schoenauer, and Winchester have all produced rifles chambered for the .358, but sales were sluggish, so they were discontinued.  The .358 Winchester is based upon one of the most popular and abundant cartridge cases in the world, that being the .308 Winchester case, which itself is a shortened .30-06 case. With a .358 Winchester, a hand loader can propel a 200 grain Hornady Spire Point in excess of 2600 feet per second, and I have safely exceeded that. The .358 Winchester, when introduced, was a short to medium range hunterís dream come true. It could send a 200 grain bullet downrange about 350 feet per second faster than the old .35 Remington could, and the 250 grain load was perfection for elk hunting in the timber. It should have been an instant success, but it wasnít. I canít explain it. If one of our large ammo makers introduced a new .35 caliber Super Short Atomic Ultra Magnum tomorrow, with similar real-world ballistics, shooters might scramble to get oneÖ.but I doubt it. It seems that the only .35 caliber rifle cartridge that keeps hanging on is the good old .35 Remington, and that is chambered in just one lever action rifle. The .358 Winchester and the .35 Whelan cartridges offer great performance on large game, but are ignored with a passion by most hunters. For some reason that defies explanation, the thirty-five caliber rifle cartridges have all but died. In handguns, the thirty-five is one of our most popular calibers, but in rifles, it is largely ignored.

One of the best, most efficient, and handiest of the thirty-fives is my beloved .358 Winchester, and only Browning keeps it in production.  The good news is that the Browning BLR is arguably one of the best lever action rifles ever produced.  It is certainly one of the strongest.

Browning has chambered their BLR off and on for the .358 for many years. I have searched many gun shows over the last two decades  looking for one, but none were to be found. It seems that shooters who have been able to find a .358 BLR never let it go, and for good reason. Now that Browning is cranking out the .358 BLR once again, I figured it would be a great time to procure one for testing.

The newer BLRs are built with a detachable magazine body that does not protrude significantly below the receiver as it did on the older rifles.  The newer BLRs also are built with an aluminum alloy receiver, which does shave a few ounces off of the weight. The .358 BLR that I have here weighs six pounds and eleven ounces empty. It has a light twenty inch barrel, straight stock, and an overall length of just under thirty-nine and one-half inches; all of which makes for a quick handling, well-balanced rifle. Many hunters burden themselves with a rifle that is too heavy and ill-balanced for a quick shot at game. I hunted some last season with a .25-06 Remington Sendero that was very accurate, flat-shooting, and powerful, but handled like a pig on a shovel. From an elevated stand, it worked well. In the woods, it was a handicap. I sold it. A deer rifle should feel lively but steady in the hands, much like a good twenty-gauge bird gun. The short-action BLR has this unique feel. It comes to the shoulder instantly and naturally. It wears a straight grip stock, and looks like a traditional Levergun. Mechanically, the BLR differs greatly from other lever action rifles on the market. The BLR is in reality a lever-operated bolt action. The bolt has a rotating head which locks into the breech of the barrel, allowing the rifle to be chambered for high pressure belted magnum cartridges.  The smooth operation of the action is attributed largely to the rack and pinion gear drive of the bolt. The trigger rides with the lever, eliminating the possibility of pinched trigger fingers, and speeding the operation for quick second or third shots. The detachable box magazine allows the use of aerodynamic spitzer shaped bullets for better downrange power and a flatter trajectory.

While on the subject of trajectory, many who are ignorant on the subject proclaim that the .358 Winchester is a short range cartridge only. That just ainít so. For example, with the excellent 200-grain Barnes X bullet sighted in at 200 yards, bullet impact is only 2.4 inches high at 100 yards, and only 4 inches below line of sight at 250 yards. The Barnes 250-grain bullet shoots almost as flat. Leaving the muzzle at 2300 feet per second and sighted dead on at 200 yards, the bullet is only 3.1 inches high at 100 yards, and just 4.8 inches low at 250. Even out at 300 yards, the bullet has dropped only a foot, and still has nearly a ton of kinetic energy left. Even if a hunter is no good at all at range estimation, the bullet will never be more than three inches high or low out to 225 yards. The trajectory of the 200-grain bullets closely follows that of a 180-grain bullet from a .308 Winchester; which no one regards as a short range only rifle. For medium to large game, the .358 pokes big holes with excellent penetration, with a trajectory that allows reliable hits at 250 yards and beyond. If deep penetration and bone breaking power are needed, I really like the Barnes 225-grain XLC bullet. It offers a flat trajectory and plenty of power for elk-sized game out to 300 yards.

Besides the ability to accurately handle these heavy bullets, the .358 BLR is capable of being hand loaded with pistol bullets of .357 to .358 diameter for explosive performance on vermin and predators. The .358 can push a 125-grain hollowpoint to 3000 feet per second, offering excellent off season practice on groundhogs and such, and leaves nothing but feathers and mist from a crow.

For strictly deer hunting, my favorite bullet is the 200-grain Hornady Spire Point. It demonstrates perfect expansion on whitetails along with good penetration, and excellent accuracy. I have used this bullet for many years, first using it in an old Savage model 99. It is one of those bullets that has no gimmicks or fancy names, but just works very well, every time. Also good for whitetail hunting is the only factory load available at this time; the Winchester 200 grain Silvertip.

I recently tested the BLR with some excellent cast bullets from Mt. Baldy Bullet Company. They are perfect for slightly reduced loads, or for use where good penetration with minimal meat damage is desired. I have not tested them on large game, but they are, like all Mt. Baldy bullets, cast  from quality alloy  with known performance characteristics. In testing this BLR, Hodgdonís Varget and 322 powders, along with IMR 4064, proved to be both accurate and efficient. Primers used with all loads were Winchester WLR.

Back to the rifle. The BLR is, as I have come to expect from a Browning centerfire rifle, very accurate. It is capable of grouping any of the bullets listed above with the exception of the 250 Barnes under the one inch mark at 100 yards, for three shots. The 250 Barnes X grouped right at one and one-quarter inches. The light barrel heats up quickly, but three shots clustered together is all the accuracy that anyone needs for hunting big game.  The trigger pull on my sample BLR released crisply at just over six pounds, which is a bit heavier than I like, but the crispness  and the wide trigger made it feel lighter. The BLR employs a unique and clever manual safety. As can be seen in the picture, at half-cock the hammer rotates forward to prevent contact with the firing pin, yet is instantly ready to fire by simply thumb-cocking the hammer as one would with any lever action. The wood on the BLR is very good-looking American walnut, is checkered on the forearm and grip area, and is finished in a gloss urethane, which is a bit shiny for my tastes, but is nonetheless handsome and durable. The BLR wears a good set of open sights, and is drilled and tapped for scope bases.  The detachable magazine on my .358 held four cartridges, plus one in the chamber for a capacity of five rounds. The magazine will accept cartridges with an overall length of 2.8 inches, and has shoulders built into the mag body to protect the bullet points from recoil damage. The buttstock wears a good rubber recoil pad. While on the subject of recoil, the .358 BLR is not at all punishing to fire. While the heavy bullets are traveling at a respectable speed, the cartridge is very efficient, and uses relatively modest powder charges to propel the big slugs towards the target.

The Browning .358 BLR is a very practical rifle. It offers the power to take Americaís largest big game animals with reliability, using the right bullet. It offers quick handling in the heavy lodge pole pine thickets or Southern swamps, along with a flat enough trajectory for the occasional long shot down a clear cut or power line. It offers accuracy for deer and predator hunting across open fields, and the lightning quick repeatability of a lever action. It offers cheap and effective varmint practice in the off season, which can only serve to make a hunter better with his rifle come fall.

The Browning BLR also offers one intangible feature that is hard to describe, but is more of a feeling; that being pride of ownership. It is a Browning. For many decades, that has meant something. It identifies the owner as someone who knows what he wants, and wants the best. The .358 BLR lives up to the Browning reputation for quality. For anyone wanting a quality rifle capable of taking any North American big game, I highly recommend it.

Check out the BLR and other fine Browning products online at: www.browning.com.

 Jeff Quinn

 

For a list of dealers where you can buy this gun, go to:

 

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

Browning's BLR in .358 Winchester - a great gun and a great cartridge!

 

 

 

 

The BLR features a rotating bolt head, just like a bolt-action rifle, for maximum strength and safety.

 

 

The BLR's bolt rides on a unique and ingenious rack-and-pinion gear drive, resulting in a very smooth and fast action.

 

 

This picture shows the hammer in its safety position.

 

 

The BLR's detachable box magazine allows it to use pointed bullet designs that cannot be used in other lever-actions, while only minimally affecting the classic lines of the gun.

 

 

Some of the author's favorite bullets for one of his all-time favorite calibers, the .358 Winchester. Top picture L-R: Hornady's 200-grain Spire Point, Barnes' 200-grain X-Bullet, and Barnes' 225-grain XLC. Bottom picture L-R: Mt. Baldy's 275-grain FN gas-check, and Mt. Baldy's 230-grain WLN gas-check.

Jeff has always loved the underrated and versatile .358 Winchester for its power and its accuracy, and considers the Browning BLR an excellent choice for any North American big game.