October 27, 2017
In all the year's I've worked in the gun industry (it's 40-plus years), until now, I had never had a rifle built to my own specs. Sure, I had a bunch modified, but none were built from the get-go based on my preferences. I've owned a few custom-made handguns, too, but I always purchased them new or secondhand but without having the opportunity to have them made specifically my way. That all changed a few weeks ago, when E.R. Shaw Inc. built one of the company's Mk. VII bolt-action rifles specifically for me.
Now, before you stop reading this article, let me say right up front that having the folks at E.R. Shaw build a Mk. VII rifle isn't all that expensive. In fact, prices range from $950 to $1,525. I realize the upper end of that range is not in everyone's budget, but a lot of us can manage to swing the lower end of the range. Come to think of it, you'll pay pretty close to the upper end of that price range for any number of off-the-shelf, standard-catalog bolt actions from Ruger, Remington, Browning, Winchester, Kimber, Savage, and others, so even that doesn't seem exorbitant.
Choosing the Chambering
My first step with the custom build was choosing the chambering. E.R. Shaw offers more than 100 chamberings, so after much consideration, I selected the .338 Federal. Here's why.
The primary purpose of my Mk. VII rifle is big-game hunting, but I decided early on that I didn't need - or want - a magnum cartridge. I did want a short-action cartridge that's larger than .30 caliber. I enjoy handloading, so I wanted a caliber for which plenty of component bullets are available.
And I also wanted a chambering for which enough factory-loaded options are offered to allow me to hunt game ranging in size from whitetails to elk and moose. The .338 Federal meets all those criteria.
The .338 Federal was created in 2005 through a joint venture between Federal Cartridge Co. (now known as Federal Premium) and Sako. It was the first centerfire rifle cartridge to bear the Federal name. Several months ago, while reporting on some new Savage rifles, I wrote that the .338 Federal was the first non-magnum .338-caliber commercial cartridge. That was incorrect. I found that statement in the third edition of Ammo Encyclopedia, but thanks to several Shooting Times readers who wrote in to set me straight, I now know that the .33 Winchester was the first .338-caliber non-magnum commercial cartridge. (According to Cartridges of the World, the .33 Winchester was introduced in 1902 but was dropped in 1940 and is now obsolete.)
Basically, the .338 Federal is the .308 Winchester necked up to .33 caliber. It was loosely based on wildcat .33-08 cartridges that appeared after the .308 Win. was introduced in 1952. Those various .33-08 wildcats accounted for untold numbers of whitetails, mule deer, elk, black bears, and even grizzly bears, so the .338 Federal was a big-game cartridge from the very beginning. The .338 Federal's overall cartridge length is 2.820 inches, which is slightly longer than SAAMI specs for the .308 Win., so it should not be fired in rifles chambered for those old wildcats.
Factory-loaded .338 Federal ammunition is currently available with 180-, 185-, 200-, and 210-grain bullets. The 180-grain loading is factory rated as having a muzzle velocity of 2,830 fps and a muzzle energy of 3,200 ft-lbs. The cartridge pushes a 185-grain bullet up to 2,750 fps for 3,106 ft-lbs of muzzle energy. The fastest 200-grain loading is rated at 2,700 fps and 3,237 ft-lbs. And the 210-grain offering has a muzzle velocity of 2,630 fps and a muzzle energy of 3,225 ft-lbs.
Those are published figures from the manufacturer. My actual velocities from shooting the various factory loads were slightly less, and they are listed in the shooting results chart on page 48. Regardless, the .338 Federal cartridge has been described by some as a light-magnum-performance cartridge wrapped up in a non-magnum, short-action package.
Ironing Out the Details
I prefer blued steel and wood stocks, so I had the technicians at E.R. Shaw give my custom-quality .338 Federal Mk. VII action and barrel a gloss blue finish. It is a very nice, rich, deep dark blue. I asked them to put the barreled action into a nice walnut stock, which they did. They pillar bedded it and free-floated the barrel, too. The stock has checkering on the fore-end and in the grip area, and it has a 0.25-inch-thick rubber recoil pad and sling-swivel studs. You can also choose stainless-steel barreled actions and laminated wood or synthetic stocks.
A few words about the barrel are in order. E.R. Shaw has been making high-quality barrels for quite some time, and the company is well-regarded for them. The barrel for my rifle is 16.25 inches long and extends beyond the stock's fore-end just 4.63 inches. It has a #2.5 contour with a muzzle diameter of 0.72 inch and a recessed crown. The twist rate is one turn in 10 inches.
I specified the short barrel length for a few reasons, but chiefly because I wanted a rifle that goes in and out of my truck easily and quickly. I see this rifle as my go-to gun, one that will travel with me much of the time. I also knew that back in about 2007 Ruger offered its Frontier scout-style bolt-action rifle in .338 Federal with a 16.5-inch-long barrel. And I have a friend who built an AR-10 chambered for .338 Federal with a 16.5-inch barrel, and I like the way it handles and shoots. My rifle fits perfectly in my aluminum gun case that I originally purchased for a 28-gauge over-under shotgun (the shotgun has to be disassembled to fit in the case), and it also fits in the short soft case that came with my favorite AR-15 carbine.
E.R. Shaw recommends breaking in the barrel by shooting one shot and then performing a cleaning routine consisting of running a cotton patch that's wet with solvent through the barrel, then running a wet brass or bronze bore brush back and forth eight to 10 strokes, following with another wet cotton patch, and then running a dry patch through the bore. That should be done after every shot for the first 20 shots. After that, they recommend shooting five, three-shot groups and doing the cleaning cycle, and then shooting one five-shot group and doing a cleaning. So that's what I did. Obviously, it took a fair amount of time and a couple boxes of ammo, but it was worth it.
Because the E.R. Shaw Mk. VII is based on a Savage action that the gunsmiths rework and tune up, the gun comes with a Savage adjustable AccuTrigger, complete with the built-in safety lever. My rifle's trigger pull was nice and crisp, averaging 3 pounds, 12 ounces over a series of 10 measurements with my RCBS trigger pull scale, so I didn't make any adjustments to it. It was easy to get used to right from the first squeeze. However, if one chooses to adjust the trigger pull on a Mk. VII rifle, it's easy to do after removing the stock.
The action has a three-position safety located on the tang. Most readers probably are aware that a three-position safety locks the bolt and trigger in the "Safe" position, allows the trigger to be squeezed and the bolt to be opened in the "Fire" position, and prevents the trigger from moving but allows the bolt to be opened in the middle position. Because my Mk. VII has a blind magazine with no hinged floorplate, it mustÂ be unloaded by cycling each round, and the safe way to do that is with the safety in the middle position.
Shooting My Prize Rifle
Maybe because I had a lot to do with the configuration or maybe just because the gunsmiths at E.R. Shaw make such a fine gun, but my Mk. VII was a joy to shoot from shot number one. I will admit it is very loud. That's not a problem for me because I always use earplugs, even in the field when hunting.
I really like the feel of the short rifle, and it comes to my shoulder quickly and easily. And I like its balance once it's shouldered. The balance point is just ahead of the trigger guard - three inches ahead to be exact.
The rifle weighs 8.5 pounds fully loaded, with my old Leupold 2.5-8X Vari-X 3 scope and an Allen Company sling installed, so felt recoil is not excessive. According to the online calculator I use, the ammunition I fired for this report generates between 14 ft-lbs and 18 ft-lbs of recoil in my gun. Compared to the .308 Win. loaded with the same bullet weights in a same-weight rifle, the .338 Federal has just about the same recoil. By the way, the .338 Federal 180-grain AccuBond factory loading was the most pleasant to shoot, and I achieved my best accuracy with that load, too.
Speaking of accuracy, I am very pleased with my range results. Overall average accuracy was 1.33 inches for five-shot groups at 100 yards. All six of the factory loads and the two handloads I fired averaged under 1.5 inches, and a couple hovered close to 1 MOA. The chart doesn't show it, but many of the five-shot groups I fired had two or three shots within an inch of each other with the other shots opening up the string.
I mentioned firing just two handloads, and I must give credit where it is due. Both recipes came from a Shooting Times article published in 2008 and written by Lane Pearce, but I used some brand-new Starline brass whereas Pearce used Federal brass. The new brass I used had the high-quality Starline is known for, and it's offered in quantities of 250 rounds (MSRP: $145), 500 rounds (MSRP: $270), and 1,000 rounds ($500).
I'm not suggesting that everyone rush out and have E.R. Shaw build them a .338 Federal Mk. VII with a 16.25-inch barrel and a walnut stock, but I'm sure glad I did. I would recommend that everyone check out the E.R. Shaw website and play around with the features you might want in a custom rifle. The options are numerous (about 75,000, according to the company), and I'm willing to bet you'll find one that's right for you.