Will The .338 Federal Make The Grade?

Introduced almost two years ago, the .338 Federal has a lot going for it, but its fate is in the hands of hunters.

Lane's converted M-38 Mauser (top) is chambered for the .338-08 wildcat cartridge, while his Ruger M77 Mark II Frontier model is chambered for the .338 Federal factory round, which is similar to but not interchangeable with the wildcat loading.

To answer the question of whether or not the .338 Federal will gain widespread popularity in the shooting community, let's look at a few facts. First of all, the .338 Federal is derived from the venerable .308 Winchester, so along with several other cousins, its heritage is impeccable. Federal Cartridge has fielded four different factory loads, three topped with proven-performance premium bullets from Barnes and Nosler. Ballistic performance easily exceeds the .308/.30-06 standard for most big-game hunting situations. And since it debuted two years ago, at least five major arms makers are chambering rifles for the new cartridge.


It sounds like a pretty good start for a nonbelted, nonmagnum round in a recent market that's seen a dozen new ultra-short- and super-short-magnum rounds.

Actually, the .338 Federal's story is not uncharacteristic of several popular factory rounds. That's because it's another wildcat round that many shooters--including myself--experimented with long before one of the big munitions companies domesticated it.


Curry, Alabama, Gunsmith John Gallagher has built several custom rifles for me. Several years ago, he converted a World War II-vintage


M-38 Husqvarna carbine into a scout rifle. He chambered the 20-inch Lothar Walther barrel for the well-known .338-08 wildcat cartridge, which is simply a necked-up .308 Win. Because the Swedish Mauser's magazine is longer than the typical short-action box, it accommodates handloads with 180- to 215-grain bullets without having to seat them into the case so deeply.

I recall our conversation a few days after I picked up the new rifle. Gallagher had asked me to provide some test ammo so he could check the rifle out at his range. "It was too dark to pull the targets last night when I finished shooting," he remarked as he handed me the rifle and a sack of empty brass. "Just repeat these loads; a couple of them grouped really well."

After loading and firing about 50 rounds that weekend, I had two excellent handloads that promised to serve me well during the upcoming deer season. I called Gallagher first thing the following Monday and, in mock seriousness, proclaimed, "I spent yesterday at the range shooting the new rifle. I'm not very happy!"

After a tentative moment, he asked, "What's the matter?"

"Well," I said, "this is the first wildcat project I've done for a while, and I was looking forward to spending the summer working up some good loads. I've only fired a few rounds and already found two that shoot like a house afire!"

I chuckled when he finally caught on and acknowledged my subtle gesture of satisfaction.

Actually, I was so impressed with the rifle's performance that I tried to get one of the arms makers interested in the cartridge. I even asked a munitions house how much it would cost to develop and obtain SAAMI approval of the proposed round. My source commented, "If they'll commit to making 5,000 rifles, we would probably develop the cartridge for free."

Even though the short-action .338 wildcat was an excellent prospect as a new factory loading, it didn't happen then. I concluded I was just a lousy salesman. The RUMs, WSMs, RSAUMs, and WSSMs were still the hottest items then. It would be a stretch to expect anyone to notice a rather mundane and conventional--i.e., nonmagnum--round.

The situation began to change a couple years later. Ruger introduced the short-barreled, blued Model 77 Mark II Frontier model, which featured a barrel rib to accommodate mounting an extended-eye-relief scope. The new Frontier was initially chambered in .243 and .308 Win., 7mm-08 Remington, and .300 WSM. I ordered one in .308 and began testing various factory loads and handloads. I recall thinking that it would make an excellent platform for the .338-08.

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Ruger M77 Mark II Frontier Rifle

Model:M77 Mark Frontier
Purpose:Big game
Manufacturer:Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc.
1 Lacey Place
Southport, CT 06890
203-259-7843
www.ruger.com
Action Type:Bolt-action repeater
Operation:Turn-bolt
Magazine type and capacity:Hinged floorplate; 4 rounds
Receiver material:Chrome-moly or stainless steel
Caliber:.338 Federal (tested)
.243 Win., 7mm-08 Rem.,
.308 Win., .358 Win.
Barrel length:16.5 inches
Rifling:Six grooves, 1:10 RH twist (.338), 1:9 (.243), 1:9.5 (7mm-08), 1:10 (.308), 1:12 (.358
Sights:None; rings included for scope mounting on foward barrel rib
Metal Finish:Blued, stainless
Saftey:Reciever-mounted, three-position manual
Trigger type:LC6
Pull weight:3.1 pounds
Stock material:Black laminated wood, checkered
Stock finish:Satin
Recoil pad:Black rubber
Sling-swivel studs:Fixed
Weight, empty:6.75 pounds
Overall length:35.5 inches
MSRP:$799 (blued), $900 (stainless)

Federal offers four excellent .338 Federal factory loads with premium bullets: (left to right) Nosler 180-grain AccuBond; Barnes 185-grain Triple Shock; Federal 200-grain Fusion; and Nosler 210-grain Partition. The factory ammo uses noncanistered, high-energy propellants to provide maximum ballistic performance.

A little while later, several writers and I were invited to visit the ATK RCBS operations in Oroville, California. During the tour, we photographed interesting items and production processes for future publication. I was preparing a feature on the new .325 WSM, for which RCBS had just started making dies, so I took a couple of shots of the new reamer with the tooling drawing as background.

When I left the room, I tried to review the images and discovered there weren't any. My escort and I returned to the grinding area to take more pictures. I retrieved the drawing that the tech had apparently returned to the rack, removed the reamer from its protective tube, and laid it just above the title block. After carefully rechecking the camera settings, I took a few photos and started to review the images.

Only then did I realize I'd inadvertently pulled the wrong drawing and had just photographed a .338 Federal chambering reamer. Sworn to secrecy, I never mentioned the event until months later when an engineer at Federal called and asked for my .338-08 loading data.

Then Federal and Sako launched a new rifle/cartridge package, and I test-fired the new round at the SHOT Show that year. I asked a Sako engineer at the range if he had tried any handloads yet. With a big smile, he held up his hand with thumb and forefinger curled tightly together to form a small circle. As he peeked through the hole, he said that VihtaVuori N135 behind Speer 200-grain Hot-Cor bullets yielded "tiny groups like this!"

Later that day, I won a 4H-sponsored auction for a Tikka T3 chambered in .338 Federal. I picked up all the brass I could at the range and asked the Federal reps to send some factory ammo. It arrived before my new rifle cleared all the paper hurdles, so I took the custom Mauser scout rifle from my gun vault and tried to chamber a round or two. Federal had cautioned that the new cartridge probably wouldn't be compatible with wildcat .338-08 rifles because of the many possible chambering variations.

Although the factory rounds would chamber in my custom .338-08, the bolt closed with excessive effort. I looked at several cartridges after cycling them through the action, and they weren't scuffed or marred at all, but something was causing them to bind. Finally, I noticed the case mouths were obviously crimped.

I carefully inspected a fresh factory round before and after chambering it. Sure enough, the Mauser rifle's throat was too short and was crimping the case mouth into the bullet as I closed the bolt. Fortunately, I'd avoided a dangerous mishap that would surely have occurred if I'd gone ahead and test-fired the factory ammo in my wildcat-chambered rifle. Federal's warning was justified!

I called a marketing contact at Ruger and suggested the Frontier model would be an ideal platform for the .338 Federal. His response was encouraging, but he pointed out that Sako had exclusive production rights for a year. I commented, "That's good. You'll have plenty of time to do whatever development testing is required, buy new tooling, and revise your ads." Sure enough, just about a year later, Ruger announced it would be making .338 Federal rifles.

Of course, I ordered a Frontier model immediately.

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Ruger Mark II Frontier .388 Federal Accuracy

BULLETPOWDERVELOCITYEXTREME SPREADSTANDARD DEVIATION100-YARD
ACCURACY
(Type)(grs.)(fps)(fps)(fps)(Inches)
Ruger Model 77 Mark II Frontier, 16.5-Inch Barrel
Nosler 180-gr. Ballistic TipReloader 1546.0239929111.80
Barnes 185-gr. MRXVarget46.5234631131.30
Barners 185-gr. TSXVarget46.02375521401.60
Hornady 200-gr. Interlock XMR-249545.524022791.70
Speer 200-gr. Spitzer SPVV N13545.0253850161.70
Nosler 210-gr. PartitionW74845.7229076251.50
Swift 210-gr. SciroccoBL-C(2)46.5246652192.10
Sierra 215-gr. Spitzer BTIMR-489545.023821961.70
Federal 180-gr. AccuBondFactory load267229111.90
Federal 185-gr. TSXFactory load248041132.50
Federal 200-gr. FusionFactory load256839102.60
Federal 210-gr. PartitionFactory load24942492.10
NOTEs:Accuracy is the average of four, five-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at 100 yards.Velocity is the average of 20 rounds measured 6 feet from the gun's muzzle. All handloads used Federal 2110 primers and Federal brass.

Again, the previous success developing wildcat loads for the custom Mauser made working up suitable handloads for the Ruger easy. By this time, Hodgdon and Speer had lab-tested reloading data that I could compare with my earlier efforts. Coincidentally, the case volume conveniently limits several of the maximum loads of the medium-burn rate propellants.

I mounted a Burris 2.75X scout scope in the factory-supplied rings. The low-magnification scope and my aging eyes trying to focus on the small details of my targets hindered achieving the most precise results. The rifle with scope and rings weighs less than 7.5 pounds, but even so, I found the recoil to be tolerable.

As expected, I couldn't achieve factory velocities with comparable-weight bullets. However, I was surprised to find that almost every handload I tried grouped as well and usually even better than the corresponding factory load. I could only surmise that the milder handloads somehow disturbed bullet flight less as they exited the barrel.

I also believe Ruger's new LC6 trigger was a significant contributor to the consistent accuracy I obtained. After firing several rounds to get acquainted with the trigger pull, I could almost "will" it to break at the instant the sight picture looked right.

The Ruger Frontier in any caliber is definitely not my first choice for a beanfield whitetail shooter. However, for the hunter in a tree stand or shooting house deep in the Eastern forests with a limited field of fire, this handy package could be the modern-day deer rifle. While showing the .338 Federal to friends at our club's range, we discussed the cartridge's ballistic specs. A couple of experienced hunters suggested it would be a great elk load.

Even with its excellent heritage and demonstrated performance, the .338 Federal faces a real challenge. Any round over .30 caliber falls into the less-popular category of rifle cartridges. And even though a half-dozen companies now chamber rifles for this round, Federal r

emains the only munitions maker.

So, despite its excellent credentials, the .338 Federal's fate is still undetermined, and I am still left wondering if it will make the grade.

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