.338 Marlin Express Model MX Rifle
By Barr Soltis
I am not certain, but the impetus for the development of the .338 Marlin Express may have been partly the result of a suggestion made to Chuck Hawks by Guns and Shooting Online reader Jon Huffman. Mr. Huffman suggested the idea of necking up the .308 Marlin Express case to accept a .338 Hornady LEVERevolution FTX bullet. It was then that Mr. Hawks wrote an article for Guns and Shooting Online proposing a medium bore woods cartridge based on a .338 configuration that that would push a 200 grain bullet to 2400-2450 fps. No less an authority than Jack O’Connor, the Dean of American gun writers, had written that such ballistics would make an excellent brush cartridge for the deer and black bear hunter.
While we may never know for sure, perhaps Hornady was encouraged by Mr. Hawks back in 2006, as a few years later the .338 Marlin Express was introduced. While Hornady did not produce the exact cartridge that Jon Huffman and Chuck Hawks had suggested, they came close, albeit with a somewhat more powerful version.
I think that it is safe to say that any conversation about the Marlin Express line of rifles must include two distinct discussions, one about the rifle and the other about the ammunition. This is very important, as these Marlin rifles and their performance in the field is dictated in large part by the ammunition that is currently available. Remington is scheduled to add the .338 Marlin Express to their amunition line in 2010, but at the moment only Hornady produces factory loaded ammunition in the caliber. Therefore, the available ammunition must be included in any serious discussion.
The .338 Marlin Express is a true medium bore cartridge that is manufactured by Hornady for the Marlin 338. It was developed by adding an abbreviated rim to the .376 Steyr, shortening the case and necking it down to .338 inches. This LEVERevolution cartridge carries a 200 grain FTX spitzer bullet that boasts a sectional density (SD) of .250. Hornady claims the following:
“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 large plains game in Africa. The 338 Marlin Express is the first ever long range, big game, lever gun specific cartridge to ever hit the market and opens a new class of hunting to the lever gun—the only all-American rifle design.”
These velocity and energy figures were derived from the 24 inch barreled Marlin 338 XLR rifle (not the MX model with a 22 inch barrel). At the muzzle, the velocity is reported as 2565 fps and 2922 ft. lbs. of energy and at 100 yards the bullet is traveling at 2365 fps with 2484 ft. lbs. energy. At 200 yards, the bullet is clipping along at 2174 fps with 2099 ft. lbs. energy and at 300 yards the bullet has only slowed to 1992 fps, while retaining 1762 ft. lbs. energy.
The reported trajectory figures are as follows: when sighted 3 inches high at 100 yards, the bullet will strike 1.2 inches high at 200 yards and 7.8 inches low at 300 yards. Based on these numbers, the .338 Marlin express has a maximum point blank range of about 255 yards.
Hornady's Index of Terminal Standards (H.I.T.S) calculator provides a numeric value that can be used to determine the size and type of game that could be reasonably taken at 100 yards. The H.I.T.S. calculation for the .338 Marlin Express 200 grain bullet at 100 yards traveling at 2365 fps receives a numeric value of 1184. This indicates that the .338 Marlin should be suitable for 800 pound large game animals; however, these are simply arm chair statistics and the proof of the pudding will be found in the field.
The .338 Marlin Express has been compared to the 30-06 Springfield using a 180 grain bullet. The 30-06 has an advantage in terms of its sectional density of .271 and therefore it will theoretically penetrate deeper. However, the larger frontal area of the .338 will theoretically make a larger wound cavity. A larger frontal area may not necessarily be important for the average white tail deer, but it can make a difference when harvesting a large bear.
Both medium and large bore bullets create large wound channels and this is important, as large holes tend not to be enclosed by layers of fat. Large holes result in substantial blood loss and may be the reason why the .35 Remington is reputed as a better black bear cartridge than the .30-30 Winchester.
For now, Hornady’s .338 Marlin Express cartridge is chambered exclusively in the Marlin Model 338 rifle. There are two variations, the MX and the XLR. While the ballistic test figures were derived from the 24 inch XLR barrel, some may prefer the MX version. Even though its 22 inch barrel will produce lower velocity and energy figures, I believe that the 24 inch barrel of the XLR affects the fast handling characteristics of the lever action rifle, especially when hunting in wooded terrain. Sometimes squeezing out a little more velocity from a 24 inch barrel is not worth the trouble and added expense. Listed below are the basic specifications for the Marlin Model 338MX rifle.
The black walnut stock on the Marlin that I reviewed for this article is attractive and the wood to metal fit is acceptable, but the hooded covering the front sight appears to be cheap in every regard. It looks and feels cheap and is certainly less than secure. This should not be a problem for those who scope their rifles, but it could be for those who hunt with open sights and prefer to use the hood.
The factory solid rubber recoil pad on the Marlin 338 is minimal. It is very thin and while it should reduce felt recoil some miniscule amount, in reality it is probably not much better than a hard plastic butt plate. Marlin should outfit this rifle with a quality recoil pad; the same applies to their big bore rifles.
The trigger pull measured 6.5 pounds and was not acceptable for a hunting rifle. Other than these correctable flaws, I am quite pleased with my Marlin 338MX. Unlike a custom made rifle that fits like a glove, Marlin lever action rifles are like mittens, they fit almost every hand and this is a good thing.
This Marlin test rifle was topped with a heavy reticle Leupold VX-I 1-4x20mm scope that is ideal for hunting large game, even in low light conditions. The trigger was reduced to 3.5 pounds and a laced Kick Killer pad was installed. A trigger job and a recoil pad are added expenses, but if these two minor adjustments allow you to shoot more accurately, it is both acceptable and appropriate.
Since this is a hunting rifle, I limited my shooting to 100 yards and fired three shots per group as fast as reasonably possible from a bench rest. The barrel was allowed to cool between groups. My goal here is to make an honest attempt to duplicate conditions as they occur in real life hunting situations, with the exception of the bench rest.
I have been a fan of Marlin rifles and Hornady LEVERevolution ammo in terms of accuracy and I was not disappointed. The first three shot group measured .774 inches ( center-to-center), the second measured 1.17 inches, the third was 1.6 inches and the fourth measure two 2.23 inches. For any hunting rifle, these are tight groups. I am impressed!
I was surprised by the moderate recoil of the .338 Marlin MX rifle. Wearing just a tee shirt, I expected the recoil to be substantial, but nothing could be further from the truth. The recoil amounted to nothing more than a strong, but not sharp, backwards push and I found it to be more pleasant to shoot than my .25-06. This speaks volumes, considering that I was shooting from a bench where recoil is felt most. Personally, I do not enjoy shooting a hard kicking rifle, especially when there is a $35.00 lace-on recoil pad cure.
I am pleased to announce that Hornady has released reloading data for the .338 Marlin Express. These loads will afford reloaders the opportunity to load to lower velocities and reduce recoil. Hornady lists a variety of load data that will drive their 200 grain FTX bullet (#33104) from 2000 to 2400 fps per second from a 24 inch test barrel. A .338 bullet traveling 2400 from its barrel impacts a 100 yard target with a velocity of 2211 fps, resulting in a H.I.T. S. value of 1106. Such a load should reasonably harvest large game weighing at least 650 lbs. (such as elk) at 100 yards and is all most shooters will need.
In closing, I will say that heretofore, if you wanted high intensity, medium bore performance from a lever gun, you were limited to the expensive Browning BLR. Now, you can have it in a classic Marlin rifle manufactured in the United States of America. As Hornady continues to introduce their LEVERevolution line of ammunition, we just may be seeing the beginning of a new era of lever gun ownership and continue our pride in domestically manufactured products.
I hope that the .338 Marlin Express has found a niche that lever action aficionados will embrace. Only time, sales figures and success in the field will determine if this joint venture between Marlin and Hornady is a winning combination. I think it is!
Copyright 2009 by Barr Soltis. All rights reserved.