January 04, 2011
Perhaps it is a result of all the time I've spent in Africa, but at least for big game, tiny bullets driven at high speeds have never appealed to me.
Mild-mannered, medium-bore cartridges get the job done. The .338 Federal, for example, is a great round for hunting black bear. The author (left) and Federal's Jason Nash pose with this fine B.C. blackie that Greg downed with the .338 Fed.
And the more time I spent hunting the bigger African plains-game species, especially in thick brush, the more I came to value a bit more bullet weight and frontal area than the average .30 packed. Lots of research and some trial and error led me to moderate-velocity, medium-bore cartridges early in my hunting career.
My medium-bore love affair began with an old Remington Classic in .35 Whelen. It drove tacks and hammered game up to 750 pounds with its favorite 225-grain Partition at 2,620 fps. Over the course of several seasons, I used it on kudu and wildebeest in Africa, black bears in B.C., and hogs and whitetails here in Texas. It wasn't a fancy gun, and its ballistics sure didn't spark a lot of interesting campfire conversations, but that rifle flat out got 'er done.
My current .35 Whelen is a custom number I had built on a Charles Daly Mauser action. That action is notoriously rough, and locktime is best measured with an hourglass than a stopwatch, but it usually makes a pretty good shooter. So I slapped a 22-inch, medium-contour Benchmark barrel on it and bedded the whole thing into a sand-camo McMillan stock. With its Kaps Optics 2-8X 42mm riflescope, it's a bit too heavy to tote in the high country, but it points and balances beautifully.
Nothing about my Whelen screams "precision," but it is one of the most accurate over-thirty-caliber guns I own. I've never bothered to handload for it because the first load I tried--Federal's 225-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw--prints half-inch, five-shot groups with astounding regularity. I haven't hunted that much with it, but I've used it to slay a pile of pigs, and I have come to love that rifle, rough edges and all.
I let my moderate medium-bore fascination fall by the wayside until I began testing the then-top-secret .338 Federal cartridge in 2005. The new cartridge's short case and lethal ballistics were immediately appealing to me. If you have a need for speed, it may not be for you, but a 200-grain Fusion bullet at 2,700 fps will do for the majority of North American hunting out to as far as most folks should be shooting. Heck, its 3,237 foot-pounds of muzzle energy are more than enough for most African game, too. Considering its considerable punch, it's a mild-recoiling cartridge, producing only 22 to 23 ft-lbs of recoil when fired from an 8-pound rifle.
On paper, the cartridge had much to recommend it, so I was anxious to test it on game. In Texas, my clients and I shot a dozen animals from small-bodied deer up to big hogs and a large bison cow. In B.C., I used it to take a stocky black bear. Two caribou bulls fell to the short .338 cartridge in Quebec a few months later. Though it didn't belch fire or bruise my shoulder, the .338 Federal folded game and was easy on my shoulder and ears. Once again, a mild-mannered medium-bore cartridge stole my heart, though I still needed to find the perfect rifle to launch it.
The only factory gun chambered for the .338 Federal I could get my hands on back then was a T/C Pro Hunter. It was accurate, weatherproof, and a blast to shoot, but I envisioned a short, handy bolt-action carbine as the perfect platform for the powerful new cartridge. Since one wasn't available, I decided to build one on a Remington Model 700 action.
To minimize weight, I used a 21-inch, number three-contour barrel from Benchmark. The .338 Federal is efficient enough that I didn't think I would lose enough velocity to matter by lopping off an inch of barrel, but the gain in the handling department would, in my opinion, more than offset any velocity loss. I had the rifle bedded into a McMillan fiberglass stock with the ultralight Hunter's Edge fill.
I really wanted iron sights on my .338 rifle. Ostensibly, this was for "backup," but I really did it because I thought a barrel-band front sight would look cool on the little carbine. For the rear sight, I used a pop-up peep sight built by Jim Brockman that attaches to the rear Talley scope bases. Talley rings secure a Kahles 1.5-6X riflescope with an illuminated reticle.
I ordered an illuminated dot reticle because I planned to use my new rig primarily for black bear and hog hunting. Though the 3-MOA dot makes it hard to shoot tiny groups, it shines in the field. At last light, that bright, red dot stands out beautifully against a dark boar's hide. And despite the oversize reticle, I've shot enough half-inch groups with Federal's 200-grain Fusion load to know the rifle is capable of much more. The few preproduction samples of Federal's new Tipped Trophy Bonded Bear Claw load I could get my hands on shot equally well, and that is the load I toted on my recent B.C. black bear hunt.
Though I've only had it a few months, I've toted my new rifle afield 20 days. I carried it far more than I shot it, but I did shoot a black bear and an axis deer with it. The .338 Federal worked as well as I expected, and my new custom rig proved to be the perfect match for the little cartridge. It is compact and light enough that it is a joy to carry, but it shoots like a target rifle and hits like a hammer. Its manageable recoil is another plus.
I shouldn't be shocked at the .338 Federal's mediocre reception. After all, moderate-velocity mediums have never sold all that well. Still, its popularity seems to be growing steadily enough that I am quite confident it's here to stay. And that's a good thing because, in my humble opinion, Federal's proprietary cartridge is a standout among those marvelous mediums.