First Look: The .338 Marlin Express Rifle Cartridge

By Chuck Hawks


.338 Marlin Express.
.338 Marlin Express ammo and Marlin XLR rifle. Illustration courtesy of Hornady.

Hornady and Marlin jointly announced in the fall of 2008 that they would introduce a new .338 caliber big game cartridge for the Marlin 336 XLR lever action rifle. Naturally, this was of great interest to me, since I had written an article proposing such a cartridge shortly after the successful introduction of the .308 Marlin Express. Roughly two years later, the .338 Marlin has come to pass, albeit in different form. (You can read that earlier article here: http://www.chuckhawks.com/338_marlin_express.htm)

Marlin/Hornady has taken their new .338 in a different direction than the version that I proposed, choosing to maximize performance rather than control recoil. This will make for better advertising copy, which we are already seeing. However, there is also a potential disadvantage. The price to be paid for higher performance is, of course, increased recoil. I am convinced that heavy recoil, more than any other factor, is what has limited the popularity of all the previous standard medium bore cartridges, including such recent short action examples as the .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .358 Winchester and .338 Federal.

.338 Marlin Express cartridge

On the plus side, the .338 Marlin Express is a well-balanced and effective hunting cartridge. Insights into the thinking of the folks at Hornady and Marlin is revealed in Hornady's published information, which is worth quoting at length:

"The 338 Marlin Express is the latest in a very successful, pedigreed family of cartridges that have been taking the hunting world by storm over the past three years. Hornady engineers were charged with getting every ounce of performance out of the Marlin platform, so they delivered a revolutionary medium bore cartridge based loosely on the 376 Steyr, a short action powerhouse. They added an abbreviated rim and shortened the cartridge slightly and necked it down to .338".

"The resulting cartridge delivers astounding ballistics; driving the very efficient 200 grain FTX bullet at an amazing 2,565 fps from a 24" Marlin XLR. The bullet has a B.C. of .430 and matches 180 grain 30-06 ballistics in terms of energy and trajectory out to 400 yards. The 200 grain FTX is built tough and designed for hunting large game like elk, moose and bear but would be equally at home hunting whitetails. The 338 Marlin Express is the first ever long-range, big game levergun specific cartridge to hit the market, and opens a new class of hunting to the levergun."

When they say "based loosely on the .376 Steyr," they mean LOOSELY. In reality, the new .338 Marlin Express bears almost no resemblance to the larger, longer, rimless and much more powerful .376 Steyr except that both cartridges were developed by Hornady

Here are the advertised ballistics (velocity/energy) of the new .338 Marlin Express in a 24" barrel:

  • 200 grain Hornady FTX - 2565 fps/2921 ft. lbs. at muzzle, 2365 fps/2483 ft. lbs. at 100 yards, 2174 fps/2099 ft. lbs. at 200 yards, 1991 fps/1760 ft. lbs. at 300 yards, 1820 fps/1471 ft. lbs. at 400 yards.

And here is the trajectory (in inches) of that load fired from a rifle with a scope mounted 1.5" over bore and zeroed to take advantage of the +/- 3" maximum point blank range (MPBR):

  • 200 grain Hornady FTX - -1.5" at muzzle, +3" at 100 yards, +1.2" at 200 yards, -7.8" at 300 yards, -25.9" at 400 yards.

Although Hornady ran their ballistics tables out to 400 yards, these ballistics clearly demonstrate that the .338 Marlin is, at best, a 300 yard cartridge with a MPBR in the vicinity of 250 yards. This, of course, makes it an eminently practical hunting cartridge, as not one hunter in 10,000 should attempt shots beyond 300 yards and most big game is killed at less than 100 yards.

Hornady recently developed the HITS (Hornady Index of Terminal Standards) system for estimating the killing power of rifle cartridges. The Hornady Index considers variables such as impact velocity, bullet diameter and bullet weight. The published Hornady H.I.T.S. ratings for rifle cartridges are based on 100 yard impact velocities, which is a reasonable choice, although the impact velocity at any range can be substituted when calculating a H.I.T.S. value. I believe that, unlike many previous killing power estimating systems, HITS actually has predictive value and a positive correlation with reality in the field.

Hornady divides game animals into four groups. These are: "Small Game" weighing less than 50 pounds, "Medium Game" weighing 50 to 300 pounds, "Large Game" weighing between 300 and 2000 pounds, and "Dangerous Game" (for which there are no weight limits). Examples of small animals would be squirrels, rabbits, marmots and coyotes. Medium size animals would include black bear, caribou, feral hogs, goats, sheep, deer and most antelope species. Large game would include such animals as red stag, elk, moose and the larger species of African plains game. Dangerous game includes lion, the great bears, elephant, rhino and buffalo. Here are the H.I.T.S. scores that Hornady recommends: Small Game, 500 or less; Medium Game, 501-900; Large Game, 901-1500; Dangerous Game, 1501 or more. Here is the 100 yard H.I.T.S. figure for the .338 Marlin Express, along with some other Hornady factory loads for comparison:

  • .308 Marlin Express, 160 gr. FTX - 933 HITS.
  • .30-06 Springfield, 180 gr. SP - 1215 HITS
  • .32 Win. Special, 165 gr. FTX - 810 HITS
  • .338 Marlin Express, 200 gr. FTX - 1183 HITS.
  • .338 RCM, 200 gr. SST - 1372 HITS
  • .35 Remington, 200 gr. FTX - 875 HITS
  • .376 Steyr, 225 gr. SP-RP - 1201 HITS (controlled recoil load)
  • .376 Steyr, 270 gr. SP-RP - 1755 HITS
  • .444 Marlin, 265 gr. FTX - 1071 HITS

According to the HITS formula, the .338 Marlin Express as factory loaded with the 200 grain FTX bullet is a viable elk, moose and general CXP3 game cartridge, as it scored between 901 and 1500 HITS. I think that the experience of most big game hunters with cartridges in this power class would confirm that finding.

I would like to see Hornady offer, in addition to their full power LEVERevolution loads, a reduced recoil load for the .338 Marlin Express (as they did for the .376 Steyr). The 200 grain FTX bullet at a MV of 2400 fps would still be a viable 200 yard deer, elk and black bear load and should result in recoil energy below the 20 ft. lb. limit when fired in a scoped Marlin XLR rifle. I think that such a "controlled recoil" load would enhance the cartridge's popularity with shooters.

The .338 Marlin is a logical extension of Hornady/Marlin partnership that has already brought us Hornady LEVERevolution ammunition, the Marlin XLR rifle and the .308 Marlin Express cartridge. The new .338 Marlin Express is a fine cartridge for hunting CXP2 class woods game as well as a powerful yet controllable medium bore for large game. Now, we are wondering if Hornady has read the Guns and Shooting Online article proposing a ".270 Marlin Express" (http://www.chuckhawks.com/270_express.htm). We hope so!

Note: This article is mirrored on the Rifle Cartridge Page. Cartridge comparison articles including the .338 Marlin Express may also be found there.




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Copyright 2008, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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