The Medium Bore Rifle Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.338 Win. Mag.
.338 Win. Mag. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The medium bore rifle cartridges are those for .33 to .39 caliber rifles. They are mostly intended for use on very large and/or dangerous game. The only really popular medium bore caliber in North America is the .338 Winchester Magnum, which is regarded as the perfect elk caliber in the West, and widely used for all Alaskan heavy and dangerous game. For use in short action rifles the .350 Remington Magnum provides similar capability and has a cadre of hard core fans.

The .338 Federal gives hunters a standard cartridge that is ideal for deer, black bear and elk at woods ranges without magnum recoil, while the proposed (by G&S Online) .338 Marlin Express does the same for traditional lever action fans. Between them, those four calibers do about all that needs to be done in North America with a medium bore rifle. I have written rather extensive articles about all of these cartridges.

As a group medium bore cartridges have never been very popular with most North American hunters and shooters, for whom one of the small bore cartridges (.22 to .32 caliber) has usually seemed sufficient. In Africa and parts of Asia, however, the medium bore rifle is the true "all-around" rifle, and cartridges like the .375 H&H Magnum are very popular.

There has always been a small, vocal minority of shooters in North America who like big, heavy bullets. These shooters dote on the medium bore cartridges. For years the late Elmer Keith, a prominent gun writer, was the best known spokesman for this group. His views, and the views of those who have come after him, have always gotten a lot of exposure.

The only real drawback to the medium bores is their considerable recoil, in most cases well beyond the 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy that most shooters can tolerate for any length of time. (The exception here, by design, are the wildcat .338x57 O'Connor and .338 Marlin Express.) I think that their heavy recoil, plus the fact that there are not many very large or dangerous big game animals hunted in North America, is why the mediums have generally not been more popular with the average shooter.

There are medium bore cartridges that are not intended for use on outsized or dangerous game, like the .357 Magnum revolver cartridge also used in rifles, the old .38-55 Winchester or the .35 Remington. These are considered small game or deer cartridges that just happen to be of medium bore caliber. They are generally ignored in discussions of the medium bore cartridges suitable for big game.

There are a series of articles that cover nearly all of the medium bore cartridges on the Rifle Cartridge Page. They start with the .33 caliber cartridges and go all the way up to the .375's. Wildcat medium bores are covered on the Wildcat Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2001, 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.