Despite the enormous sales success of the now-ubiquitous .223/5.56, in terms of big-game rifles, the United States is a .30-caliber country—and probably has been since the Model 1894 Winchester. The .35 (.358) caliber has never really gotten a serious toehold here, although the occasional item like the .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, or .358 Winchester roils the waters every now and again. But starting in the late 1950s, the .338 bore size gained considerable traction—thanks to the emergence of the .338 Winchester Magnum. Why? Because U.S. hunters are often after game bigger and tougher than whitetails, mule deer, and pronghorn antelopes.
Since then, bigger, badder .338 cartridge offerings have piled up—most excelling at the type of long-range performance that’s gone hand in hand with advances in rifles, optics, and reticles. Maybe the .338s haven’t kept pace with the never-ending avalanche of .30s, but they look to be running a close second (well, at least until the 6.5 breakthrough). But let’s take a look at the 8.6mm (that’s .338 for the metrically challenged). I’ll list them in the chronological order in which they were introduced because the more potent ones are close enough together ballistically to try to arrange them by power level would be kind of tough—and sure to cause no end of argument!
The .33 WCF can pretty much be considered the godfather of American .338 cartridges. It was introduced for Winchester’s Model 1886 lever action in 1902 and perished commercially when the rifle was discontinued in 1936. (That’s when its niche was filled by the new Model 71 lever action in the more powerful .348 Winchester.) But the .33 WCF was a fine medium-range choice for medium-size game. It featured a 200-grain factory load at a velocity of 2,200 fps, a figure that handloaders could—and did—improve upon by nearly 200 fps or so. The closest thing we have to that long-gone factory load today—ballistically speaking—is the .35 Remington.
.338 Winchester Magnum
First unveiled in 1958, this powerhouse is what put the .338 bore size on the map big time. Since it appeared five years prior to its .300 Win. Mag. proprietary stablemate, it pretty much was conceived as a compromise between the existing .30 magnums at the time (.300 H&H and .300 Weatherby) and the great .375 H&H. In other words, it offered a combination of velocity, range, and throw weight sure to appeal to big bear hunters in Alaska, moose hunters, and elk hunters who simply wanted more bullet diameter and weight than was feasible in a .308 bore size. But one thing they didn’t want to give up on was velocity. And that is what the .338 Win. Mag. provided as well.
When introduced, it had a reputation for recoil. But compared to bigger, badder .338s that’ve come down the pike since, it seems almost quaintly civilized, provided it’s not chambered in some flyweight “mountain rifle” (such combos are why muzzle brakes came into vogue on bolt-action sporters). One of the newest offerings for this old favorite is available in Hornady’s Outfitter line—a 225-grain GMX at 2,800 fps. But for really big game, 250- and 275-grain loads can be had, although advances in bullet technology have somewhat made sheer weight less of a factor than before.
.340 Weatherby Magnum
Don’t let the “.340” fool you. This one still features a .338 bullet, but it pushes bullets a bit faster than the .338 Win. Mag. It was introduced in 1963, about five years after the groundbreaking Winchester round hit the marketplace. The parent case is the belted .300 Weatherby Magnum. Current loadings include a 225-grain SP (3,066 fps), a 225-grain Barnes TSX (2,970 fps), a 250-grain SP (2,963 fps), and a 250-grain Partition (2,947 fps).
Early in my days as an associate editor at Guns & Ammo (we’re talking mid-1970s here), I was “asked” to zero a Weatherby rifle so chambered for one of the higher-ups. Of course, in those days the rifle was one of the old high-gloss walnut-stocked, high-comb Mark Vs with the rollover cheekpiece. It was hard on me back then. And I’d be even less enthusiastic about repeating the experience now! I managed to dial it in—mercifully—in about five or six rounds. I suspect the company’s newer rifles with “less aggressive” stock configurations (not to mention better recoil pads) would tame things a touch. Still, if you want to shoot big game at big yardages, the .340 Weatherby Magnum is tough to beat.
.338 Lapua Magnum
This long-range powerhouse—first produced in 1989—has gotten a lot of awed response thanks to its military employment as a sniper round. And according to several reports, it has set some fairly impressive distance records for sniper kills in Iraq and Afghanistan. A couple of commercial offerings should give you an idea of its capabilities. Hornady offers a 250-grain BTHP at 2,860 fps and a 285-grain ELD Match at 2,745 fps, while Black Hills offers a 300-grain loading at 2,625 fps. The parent case is a strengthened .416 Rigby. The military rationale for the .338 Lapua Magnum? To split the difference (roughly speaking) in effective range between the 7.62 NATO and the .50 BMG and do so in a rifle platform with less weight and bulk than those chambered to the .50 BMG. By all accounts, it succeeded.
Based, as the name implies, on the .30-06, this efficient number was produced by A-Square beginning in 1998 and later by Nosler. It features 200-, 225-, and 250-grain bullets at velocities ranging from roughly 2,550 fps to 2,750 fps and will handle just about anything in North America.
This monster was officially introduced in 1998, but Elmer Keith and others had been fooling around with a .338-378 wildcat decades prior. This one really ups the ante in the 8.6mm sweepstakes. Not surprising when you stop to consider this proprietary powerhouse has a case length of 2.905 inches and a 125-grain (water) capacity when compared with the .338 Win. Mag.’s 2.5-inch case and 86-grain capacity. Current factory offerings include a 250-grain Nosler Partition at 3,060 fps and a 225-grain Barnes TTSX at 3,180 fps. Incidentally, the 225-grainer is still packing 2,621 foot-pounds of energy at 500 yards. So you can pretty much take the company’s claims of the .338-378 being designed for big game at very long range at face value. But there’s no free lunch, and physics are tough to cheat. The free recoil is very nearly three times that of the .30-06. As a proprietary specialty item, the price tag is equally impressive—around $120 per box of 20. But, heck, if you can afford to go and hunt the game that requires that sort of ballistic muscle, paying $6 a pop is the least of your worries.
.338 Remington Ultra Mag
Introduced in 2000 for the heavy-barreled Remington Model 700 Sendero during the Remington/Winchester RUM-RSAUM-WSM-WSSM marketing tussle, the .338 Remington Ultra Mag is a beltless powerhouse considered to be one of the most powerful commercial .338 offerings to be had. Based on a blown-out .404 Jeffries case, it pushes a 250-grain Core-Lokt—Remington’s lone factory offering—at an advertised velocity of 2,860 fps. However, other companies offer other weights, such as Nosler (a 200-grain AccuBond at 3,150 fps) and Federal (a 210-grain Nosler Partition at an advertised 3,030 fps). Nosler even offers a 300-grain loading. Either of the lighter-bullet offerings shoot flat and hit hard.
This one’s my hands-down favorite of all the .338 rounds. The .338 Federal—like most of our great short-action standards—is based on the .308 Winchester case. Recoil is very manageable, and it has all the real-world reach most anyone is going to be able to take advantage of. It doesn’t seem to be as popular as it should be, and that’s a shame. Most factory loads feature a 200-grain bullet at around 2,700 fps in just about every Federal flavor you can think of—Trophy Bonded, Fusion, Power-Shok, Trophy Copper. Federal even has a 185-grain Fusion offering for AR-type guns.
I hunted with it shortly after it was introduced in 2006 (a joint introduction with Sako) and saw it perform very successfully on whitetail and large hogs down in Texas. Everyone on the hunt was impressed with the rifle/cartridge combo with the initial Fusion introductory loading. I hope this one manages to hang on. Sako has since discontinued chambering it, but Savage still has .338 Federal 110 Scout Rifles and Bear Hunters. It covers the niche left by the semi-moribund (but excellent) .358 Winchester and covers it a bit better in the opinion of many who’ve used both.
.338 Ruger Compact Magnum
Introduced in 2008, this short-action number (case length is 2.01 inches) churns up some pretty impressive numbers—a 200-grain Hornady SST at 2,950 fps and a 225-grain InterBond at 2,750 fps. It was the product of a joint effort between Ruger and Hornady. To give you an idea of its performance potential, despite its relatively short case length, its 200-grain velocity figure exceeds that of the .338 Federal by about 300 fps. And from a 20-inch barrel! The chambering was initially offered in Ruger Model 77 Hawkeye bolt actions and was based on the proprietary .375 Ruger case. At a recent perusal of the Ruger catalog, the .375 Ruger was still offered in the Hawkeye line, but the .338 RCM was not.
.338 Marlin Express
This one’s a bit of an anomaly in our bolt-centric .338 lineup. It was developed in 2009 as a joint Hornady-Marlin project. The goal was to offer .30-06-type ballistics in Marlin’s long-barreled 336 XLR lever action. This it does, featuring a 200-grain Hornady Flex Tip at an impressive 2,656 fps, putting it in the class of the fine .338 Federal. The parent case was the .376 Steyr, which was necked down and given a thicker web. Last time I checked, however, Marlin doesn’t currently offer the XLR so chambered. But this might be one to keep your eyes peeled for when scanning the used racks.
Introduced in 2017, this proprietary number joined a growing menu of loaded-ammo offerings from one of our preeminent bulletmakers. Its 3.340-inch overall length permits its use in standard-length actions. Like its stablemates—the .26, .28, and .30 Noslers—the .33 is based on the .300 Remington Ultra Mag case. Efficiency appears to be a hallmark of the .33 Nosler, as it is said to beat the velocity of the .338 Lapua Magnum while burning 18 percent less powder. In a 2018 article for Shooting Times, Steve Gash achieved eye-opening results with a handload, stating, “The highest velocity and muzzle energy were with the Hornady 185-grain GMX over 79.0 grains of IMR 4831. Velocity was 3,208 fps, and muzzle energy was 4,229 ft-lbs.”
Nosler currently offers three grades of factory loads for it: Match Grade (a 300-grain bullet at 2,550 fps), Trophy Grade (a 225-grain AccuBond at 3,025 fps), and a Trophy Grade Long Range (a 265-grain AccuBond at 2,775 fps).
There you have it, my take on 11 great .338 cartridges. Like I said at the beginning of this report, if you want more long-range knockdown power than a .30-caliber round offers, you can find it under the .338 umbrella.