September 02, 2020
Following my recent column on the .35 Remington cartridge, I received an astute inquiry from a reader about the safety of centerfire cartridges and tubular-magazine rifles. His thoughts were triggered by my mention of the old 150-grain pointed softpoint factory loads.
I’ve read the cautions about pointed bullets and tubular magazines since I was a pup. The concern is that the recoil of normal firing can bounce the cartridges against each other end to end. In theory at least, a pointed bullet acts as a firing pin for the cartridge in front when recoil rattles the cartridges together. Today, having worked as a firearms professional for nearly 50 years, including investigating many alleged accidents, I can put this in context.
I never worked a case that was suspected of being a recoil-induced, in-magazine cartridge activation. However, through reliable contacts, I knew of two cases involving other cartridges where this was alleged. After thorough investigation, both were determined to be a bullet-in-bore condition that burst the barrels downward, deforming the magazine, and setting off a cartridge. They were not caused by bullet shape and recoil.
The reader wanted to know if the old pointed .35 Remington 150-grain factory load was discontinued because of accidents in tubular magazines. I have to conclude that was not the reason.
First, that load was used for so many years. In my reference library I have a 1960 edition of Gun Digest that lists the load and a 2014 ammo catalog that also lists it. That’s 54 years, and from old books and old hunters who talk about it, I know the pointy load was around before 1960.
Then there is the specific design. The .35 Remington’s 150-grain pointed softpoint bullet has a bulge of soft lead above the jacket, and the jacket opening at the nose is about 0.130 inch in diameter, roughly twice that of most firing pins. The more the force is spread out, the less likely it is to set off a primer. That jacket also thins dramatically to the tip, meaning the jacket metal is likely to deform under pressure and make the tip even bigger. And remember, firing pins are made of steel, not lead or gilding metal.
I do a “droop” test for ammo going into tubular magazines. I line the bullets end to end in a shallow trough. If you think about it, bullets are not going to align on-axis in a magazine when gravity is pushing the heavy end down. Even if they are on-axis when first loaded, they will not be once the first shot’s recoil momentarily takes the spring tension off the column of cartridges. The end with the heavy bullet is going to droop to the bottom of the magazine tube. That puts the bullet tip low on the cartridge in front of it. This is more pronounced in rimmed cartridges.
I used a lot of factory 170-grain .30-30 loads that had full-length jackets and a little hollowpoint. The jacket made partial contact with the primer pocket of the cartridge ahead in the droop test. No problems, and that product also has been on the market for decades.
There are far more .35 Remington rifles in service that have a conventional tubular magazine than have the “spiral” magazines used in slide-action Remington Models 14 and 141 that were supposed to keep bullet tips from contacting the primer ahead. If conventional magazine design induced a hazard with that load compared to the spiral mag tubes, I’m not finding the evidence in accident reports, product-specific warnings, or availability of a particular bullet design.
Bullet designs and their popularity have shifted like sand on a beach since John Douglas Pedersen patented the magazine spirals for Remington in 1912. In the early 20th century, most sporting rifle cartridges could be bought factory loaded with FMJ bullets. Those put hard jacket metal all the way to the bullet tip. An early “tipped” bullet design had a pointy nose insert made of hard, non-ferrous metal. Could the concern that inspired the Model 14 and Model 141 spirals and warnings be for .35 Remington ammo that is no longer factory loaded?
Let’s look at other factors. The industry spec for primer seating is 0.001 to 0.010 inch below flush with the case head; most are in the 0.003- to 0.005-inch range. In the “drooped” position, it is possible for a bullet tip to be fully supported on the edge of the primer pocket without touching the primer.
Another issue is energy. The .35 Remington cartridge in the popular rifles chambered for it conceivably doesn’t produce enough recoil energy to initiate a primer in the magazine.
The .35 Remington case is rimless with little body taper, meaning the cases line up rather straight in the droop test, yet history shows not a hazard trend but rather a long history of surviving in the factory hunting ammo lineup. There is no warning on the box I have nor in a 2014 catalog.
For me, all the patterns I see tell me the bullet’s engineering was done right—the hazard was designed out of the product. The little bulge of lead and thin jacket seem to do the job for this cartridge. All indicators point to its demise being due to market pressure and customer and writer reports about it not being as effective on big game as the heavier bullets.
That said, let me state that I use flatnose or roundnose bullets in lever guns and always will, partly because I like them and partly because I don’t take chances—even tiny ones—with much-loved old Winchester rifles I cannot replace.