October 02, 2020
Growing up, most rifles I saw in stores or out at the range were made from blued steel and featured wooden stocks. It was the 1980s and ’90s, and America’s taste in rifles was traditional. In fact, my first adult-sized centerfire rifle was a pre-64 Model 94 Winchester chambered in .30-30. I loved that rifle because it was fun to shoot and could do just about everything from plinking and hunting to self-defense. It made me feel like a cowboy, and that was awesome, too.
Fast-forward 30 years, and America’s taste in rifles has changed considerably. I don’t see much blued steel at the range and wooden stocks are few and far between. In their place, I see AR-15s more than anything else. This makes sense. America’s riflemen are much more familiar with the AR-15 than with any other type of rifle.
With this evolution, I wondered if I could ever recreate the feelings for my ol’ .30-30 in an AR. This piqued my curiosity and the quest was on. I hate it (not really) when that happens.
I wasn’t too long into my search when I came across the Wilson Combat Ranger in .350 Legend. I’ve long been a fan of Wilson Combat firearms because they are some of the most finely finished and well-made rifles available. They’re easy to shoot, accurate right from the box and they look and feel so good they can even cheer you up after a tough day at the office.
Thinking the Ranger could be the modern-day equivalent of the venerable Model 94 Winchester, I ordered one.
The .350 Legend
Why do I think the .350 Legend is today’s .30-30? Well, the .350 Legend got its start thanks to some firearms laws on the books in the Midwest. One of those laws limits hunting to only straight-walled cartridges. This is an attempt to limit how far the bullet will travel by making the bullets heavy and slow relative to the cartridge’s case capacity. High-velocity bottle-necked cartridges are strictly verboten.
These laws are what gave rise to the popularity of the .450 Bushmaster for Midwest rifle hunting. Winchester couldn’t help but notice that hunting whitetail with a .450 Bushmaster is kind of like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. So, they set out to develop a more shooter-friendly and appropriately powered cartridge to do the job.
Winchester realized they could pull .223 Remington brass out of the brass-forming machines just prior to the third draw that gives the case its bottleneck. This gives them a straight-walled case that’s about .35 caliber while still allowing them to benefit from the large economy of scale that comes with the .223 Remington.
Winchester also realized they could use some of the tooling from their 9mm bullet line to form projectiles for the .350 Legend. This was another huge cost-savings.
Since it didn’t cost a ton of money to develop or make, Winchester is able to pass along those savings to the consumer. The ammunition is readily available and costs about $1 per round for hunting loads and about 55 cents per round for blasting/practice.
Performance-wise, the .350 Legend and the .30-30 Winchester are almost identical. They both generate about 1,800 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) of energy at the muzzle, and both cartridges decisively beat the .300 BLK.
An AR-15 chambered in .350 Legend is fully capable of doing everything and anything the .30-30 Winchester can do. In addition to matching the old .30-30 ballistically, an AR-15 chambered in .350 Legend is easier to maintain, faster to load, unload and reload, holds more rounds and easily accepts any number of optics.
When the Ranger arrived from the factory, I could tell the rifle was made with the same “do-everything” attitude that gave us the .350 Legend. The company starts with a set of billet receivers that are as functional as they are beautiful. They spend a lot of machine time removing excess material on the upper receiver, including removing the forward assist. The AR’s original designer, Eugene Stoner, was never a fan of the forward assist, and neither is Wilson Combat’s owner, Bill Wilson.
Another thing Wilson loathes is sloppy construction. I’ve spent a lot of years subscribing to the theory that upper-to-lower receiver fitment had no measurable impact on how an AR-15 performed during accuracy testing, but I have softened on that stance over the past couple years.
I dry-fire each rifle I’m about to accuracy test once I’m in position and ready to shoot for groups, and I watch to see if the reticle moves in the process. I’ve noticed that the reticle seems to jump less on an AR-15/10 if the receivers fit tightly together.
If the reticle moves during dry-fire, the rifle is showing the shooter that there is still unwanted movement in the rifle somewhere. Movement anywhere in the rifle as it fires destroys group size. If there is no movement between upper and lower receivers, it makes sense that the reticle moves less when dry-firing the rifle.
Wilson Combat gets that tight receiver fit by machining the billet receivers to fit closely together, but they also put a thick rubber O-ring in the lower receiver that sits under the upper receiver’s takedown pin lug. Putting the two receivers together and sliding the takedown pin into place compresses the rubber and eliminates receiver movement.
While there’s no match ammo for the .350 Legend, the Ranger performed like a tuned precision piece. I attribute part of that performance to the tight upper-to-lower receiver fit.
Attached to the upper receiver is Wilson’s own 12.6-inch M-LOK handguard. It’s the right length for general field use. It’s small-ish diameter makes it comfortable in the support hand, and the length gives the shooter plenty of options when using field rests or when positional shooting.
The barrel is 16 inches long and has a carbine-length gas system. Given this is the Ranger model, the barrel tapers down to a straight mid-weight contour just forward of the chamber. The barrel is a good choice if you want to shoot a lot but still carry it in the field. It measures .71 inch just forward of the chamber and carries that diameter all the way to the muzzle, except where the gas block sits.
I called Bill Wilson to ask him about some of the rifle’s more unique features, one of which was why they went with a 1:15-inch twist rate. The SAAMI specification for the .350 Legend calls for a 1:16-inch twist rate, so I figured Wilson had his reasons for making the change.
“We found out the 1:16-inch twist rate was borderline unstable when shooting the heavier 180-grain bullets in cold climates,” Wilson said. “We didn’t want a guy to have problems if he was chasing critters up in the Yukon.”
I’ve been to Wilson’s place in east Texas a few times, and I’ve done my fair share of hunting with him. I don’t know anyone who has shot more hogs than Wilson, so few hunters will have better insight into what works in the field when shooting the .350 Legend.
“The .350 Legend is a lot like the .458 SOCOM. It’s a 200-yard gun, and it does a hell of a job inside 200 yards,” said Wilson. “I’ve killed about 40 hogs with it, and it’s done a really good job for me. I think it compares well to the old .35 Remington.”
When I asked him what is his favorite load, he didn’t hesitate.
“Hornady’s 170-grain Interlock is my go-to bullet,” he said. “I stuff all the CFE BLK I can into the case, run a compressed load and it consistently shoots .5- to .6-inch groups. It also kills hogs really well.
“You can’t get enough CFE BLK in the case to cause pressure problems. I talked to Hornady about my load, and they agreed I was well below SAAMI maximum pressure for the .350 Legend,” added Wilson. “It’s also about 100 feet per second (fps) faster than Hornady’s factory load.”
I’d like to state for the record that anyone reloading the .350 Legend should follow the manual and avoid exceeding the maximum listed load for any reason. Hodgdon’s maximum load for CFE BLK is 30 grains, which generates about 31,000 pressure per square inch (psi) of chamber pressure, well below the SAAMI maximum of 55,000 psi.
At the range, the Wilson rifle performed well, as I expected it would. The load it liked the best was Hornady’s 165-grain FTX with a best group of .66 inch for five shots at 100 yards and an average group size of .84 inch. Considering there is no “match” ammunition for the .350 Legend, and every load tested is a hunting load, I’d call that exceptional accuracy.
The .350 Legend may have gotten its start because of specific game laws in the Midwest, but it’s a fantastic hunting cartridge anywhere, provided the shots don’t exceed 200 yards. When chambered in Wilson’s Ranger rifle, the .350 Legend is accurate, handy and flawless by any mechanical or aesthetic metric.
If you’re looking for a hunting rifle that could do just about everything in a pinch (without going broke paying for ammo), take a look at this Ranger from Wilson Combat.
Wilson Combat Ranger
- Type: Direct-impingement semiautomatic
- Cartridge: .350 Legend
- Capacity: 5, 10, 20 rds.
- Barrel: 16 in.; 1:15-in. twist
- Overall Length: 33.5 in. (collapsed), 36.5 in. (extended)
- Weight: 6 lbs., 6 oz.
- Stock: Wilson/Rogers
- Grip: Wilson/BCM
- Length of Pull: 11.75 in. (collapsed), 15 in. (extended)
- Finish: Type III, hardcoat anodized and Armor Tuff
- Sights: None
- Safety: Two-position selector
- MSRP: $2,300
- Manufacturer: Wilson Combat, wilsoncombat.com
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