Sako Model 85 Hunter .338 Federal Rifle

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

Sako 85 Hunter
Illustration courtesy of Beretta USA, Corp.

As long time proponents of the .338x57 O'Connor wildcat, we found Federal's announcement of their conceptually similar .338 Federal cartridge very interesting. So much so that we have previously covered the .338 Federal in four separate articles on the Rifle Cartridge and Rifle Information pages. This time we not only have .338 ammunition from Federal, but what I believe is the first review of a production Sako Model 85 rifle in .338 Federal caliber.

The .338 Federal cartridge

As you know by now if you have read those articles (and if you haven't, we suggest that you do), the .338 Federal is based on a .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept .338" diameter bullets but otherwise unchanged. (Except that the Federal factory loaded .338 cartridges that we measured were loaded to a maximum COL of 2.821" instead of the 2.810" COL of the .308 Win.) That puts it in the same family of short action cartridges as the .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester, and .358 Winchester. So basically, any rifle that can be chambered for those cartridges could also be chambered for the .338 Federal.

The .338 Federal appears to be intended primarily for the deer and elk hunter. Factory loads have been announced with 180 grain Nosler AccuBond, 185 grain Barnes TSX, and 210 grain Nosler Partition bullets, all in Federal's Premium (read expensive) Vital-Shok line. We certainly hope that at some point in the not too distant future Federal Cartridge will see fit to introduce a couple of less expensive .338 Federal load in their standard priced Power-Shok line.

One of these should use the 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor spitzer bullet, which is produced by one of ATK/Federal's corporate partners, at a MV of about 2675 fps. This would be a good, full power, combination deer and elk load for the .338 Federal. It could easily (and probably should) replace the present Vital-Shok load using the 185 grain Barnes TSX bullet.

The other new load should be a reduced power and recoil load intended for woods and brush country deer hunting. That load should drive a new 200 grain round nose Federal Soft Point bullet at a MV of about 2450 fps. In fact, these two proposed Power-Shok loads are all that the great majority of .338 Federal owners would ever need.

The complete ballistics of all three existing .338 Federal Premium factory loads have been covered in detail in previous Guns and Shooting Online articles, so we are only going to repeat the basics here:

  • P338FA1 - 180 grain Nosler AccuBond, MV 2830 fps., ME 3201
  • P338FC - 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock, MV 2750 fps., ME 3106
  • P338FB - 210 grain Nosler Partition, MV 2630 fps., ME 3225

All three bullets are spitzer types with pointed noses. Here are their published ballistic coefficients (BC) and sectional densities (SD):

  • 180 grain Nosler AccuBond - BC .372, SD .225
  • 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock - BC .437, SD .231
  • 210 grain Nosler Partition - BC .400, SD .263

The useful trajectory of any rifle cartridge is best defined in terms of its maximum point blank range (MPBR). Here is the MPBR (+/- 3") for all of our loads. MPBR is the distance at which the bullet falls 3" below the line of sight, never having been allowed to rise more than 3" above the line of sight. In parenthesis is the zero distance needed to achieve the MPBR.

  • .338 Federal, 180 grain Nosler - 274 yards (zero at 233 yards).
  • .338 Federal, 185 grain Barnes - 271 yards (zero at 230 yards).
  • .338 Federal, 210 grain Nosler - 258 yards (zero at 219 yards).

The 180/.338 Nosler AccuBond is a boat-tail, plastic tipped bullet with a lead core bonded to a gilding metal jacket. In this caliber and weight, with a SD of .225 (ideal for deer) the AccuBond is presumable intended primarily for use on CXP2 class game.

The Barnes Triple-Shok is a homogeneous copper hollow point bullet. This bullet is noted for deep penetration for any given sectional density as it typically retains nearly all of its weight after expansion. However, with a SD of only .231 it can not be considered a heavy game bullet. We really don't see much point to this load and would happily trade it for the lower priced Vital-Shok loads suggested above.

The Nosler Partition is a dual core bullet design. Its partitioned lead core allows the front section of the bullet to expand much like that of a typical soft point bullet, while the internal partition positively stops expansion at that point to retain the rear core for deep penetration. Because of its superior .263 SD, this is the bullet that we would recommend specifically for hunting elk and other CXP3 game.

Objectionable kick is what has always plagued medium bore cartridges and kept all but the .338 Win. Mag. off the best seller lists. How does the .338 Federal stack-up? Here are some estimated recoil energy and recoil velocity figures from the recoil calculator for the Federal Premium factory loads when fired in an 8 pound rifle:

  • 180 grain, MV 2830 fps - 23 ft. lbs.; 13 fps
  • 185 grain, MV 2750 fps - 22 ft. lbs.; 13 fps
  • 210 grain, MV 2630 fps - 24 ft. lbs.; 14 fps

Despite being a short action cartridge, it would be a mistake to mate the .338 Federal with an ultra-light weight rifle. The reality is that a cartridge as powerful as the .338 Federal needs at least an 8 pound rifle--and 9 pounds would be much better--to keep recoil within tolerable limits. Light rifles and heavy recoil is the rock upon which most modern medium bore cartridges have foundered, including the 356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .350 Remington Magnum, .35 Whelen and .375 Winchester. If the .338 Federal is to prosper, it will need to be offered in 8 to 9 pound rifles. We are pleased to note that our Sako 85 Hunter test rifle weighs about 9 pounds with scope and mount.

The Sako 85 Hunter rifle

Sako of Finland has been making rifles for over 80 years. In the year 2000 the Italian based firm of Beretta made a substantial investment in Sako and now effectively controls the company. Beretta USA is the sole U.S. importer of Sako rifles.

Sako partnered with Federal to introduce the first rifles in .338 Federal caliber, and production rifles have finally arrived, along with factory loaded ammunition from Federal. Sako's rifle offerings in .338 Federal are exclusive to their new Model 85 line. This is similar to the previous Sako 75 bolt action, but incorporates certain improvements. The MSRP of the Model 85 Hunter reviewed here is $220 higher than a Model 75 Hunter.

I should point out that, to Sako's credit, the Model 85 was exceptionally well packaged for shipping. It arrived in the usual outer cardboard box, but inside of the heavy cardboard shipping container was a leather, synthetic fleece lined, Hunter soft case. The rifle itself was nestled inside of this case. I had requested scope rings to be shipped with the Sako 85, as Sako rifles have a grooved receiver that requires Sako combo base/rings and these are not easily available where I live.

Not only did the rifle arrive with the proper Sako mounts, it came with a fine Leupold VX-L 3.5-10x50mm scope already mounted! This happens to be the same VX-L model that we reviewed last year. (You can read that review on the Product Review Page.) That was the first VX-L scope review to be published anywhere, although a couple of months later one of the print magazines published a VX-L scope review that they claimed--incorrectly--to be an exclusive first. Anyway, the VX-L is a superb scope with which we are quite familiar. A first class rifle deserves first class optics, and Sako took no chances on the optics that would be used on the rifle they supplied to Guns and Shooting Online for review.

The Sako 85 action includes a front locking bolt with three lugs that cocks on opening. The bolt lugs are integral with the bolt body. Bolt rotation is 70 degrees. The biggest change in the 85 action (compared to the 75) is what Sako advertises as controlled cartridge feeding.

Sako describes the Model 85 Hunter rifle this way:

"Controlled-round feeding, silk-smooth bolt-travel movement, adjustable trigger and Total Control magazine-latch technology are only some of the amazing benefits incorporated in the new Sako 85. First off, the rifle’s stock features the classic lines and the high-grade walnut that premium-rifle owners appreciate. The comb is straight, American-style, while the left side of the stock sports a classic shadow-line cheekpiece reminiscent of the Safari rifles of the days of yore. Then, the barreled action is finished with a non-reflective satin blue."

Receiver is a machined steel, flat bottomed design. The ejection port is generous enough to allow cartridges to be single loaded directly into the chamber; this is always a desirable feature on a hunting rifle.

The back of the bolt is shrouded, and an extension at the end of the striker bearing a red dot protrudes from beneath this shroud when the striker is cocked. The bolt release is located at the left rear of the action; press in on the rear of the release to remove the bolt. It is not necessary to pull the trigger.

Be careful not to turn the bolt shroud while the bolt is removed from the rifle unless you intend to disassemble the bolt. A slight rotation of the shroud allows the bolt to spring apart. And it comes apart more easily than it goes back together. But, when you want to take the bolt apart for cleaning, it is certainly easy to do without the use of tools.

There is a user adjustable single-stage trigger that broke at a commendably clean 3 5/8 pounds on our test rifle. We left the trigger alone.

The safety is a two position slider (forward is "fire') at the right rear of the receiver, just behind the bolt handle. In its rearward position the safety locks the bolt closed, a pious idea intended to keep the bolt from being opened inadvertently by a snag in the field. But this feature can be overridden by depressing a small metal tab immediately in front of the safety that allows the bolt to be operated with the safety on. A good system that sounds a bit odd but works very well.

The extractor is a claw mounted at the front of the bolt, rather like a Weatherby Mark V extractor. The ejector is located at the rear of the receiver and is spring loaded, somewhat like a Ruger 77 Mark II in concept. The rate at which the bolt is pulled back determines how forcefully the case is ejected, just as with a Mauser 98 type fixed ejector. Both the extractor and ejector did their job well.

The Sako 85 feeds cartridges from a removable, staggered row, sheet metal box magazine with what appears to be an aluminum follower. This magazine should be seated firmly to insure that it is latched in place. The magazine latch is in front of the flush fitting magazine and must be pushed rearward to release the magazine. However, the latch will not move unless the magazine itself is pressed up (into the rifle). This irritating peculiarity makes magazine removal unnecessarily slow and difficult.

It is very easy to load the magazine when it is removed from the rifle, and it can also be loaded through the ejection port while in place, just like a rifle with an internal magazine. This can be a considerable convenience.

Sako claims that the Model 85 is a controlled feed action, and perhaps technically it is (although we don't agree). In any case, it lacks the advantages of a true controlled feed action. The bolt head mounted extractor is much smaller than the full length extractors on a Mauser 98, Winchester 70 or Ruger 77, and takes a smaller bite on the case rim. If you close the Sako's bolt about half way (until you hear the next cartridge in the magazine click up, ready to be fed) and then pull the bolt back and try to close it again, it will jam the rifle by attempting to double feed.

A true controlled feed action, in that situation, holds onto the first cartridge until the bolt is completely withdrawn and it is ejected. If the bolt is run forward again while still holding the first cartridge, the extractor keeps it in place and guides it into the chamber, preventing the bolt from attempting to pick-up the second cartridge and preventing a double feed jam.

Nor does the Sako 85 guide a fresh cartridge into the chamber like a controlled feed action. It simply pushes it forward and into the chamber like any push feed action. It is not until about the last 1/4" of forward bolt travel that the Sako's extractor actually gets a firm grip on the case rim. By that time the cartridge is almost all the way into the chamber, anyway, so being "controlled" at that late stage is pointless.

On the plus side, the Sako's extractor will easily over-ride the rim of a cartridge fed directly into the chamber, like any other push feed action, and its receiver mounted ejector lets a reloader deposit fired brass neatly to hand by opening the bolt slowly.

All that will matter to most users is that the Sako 85 operates smoothly and feeds reliably. Its action is noticeably smoother than a Remington 700, Ruger 77, or Winchester Model 70 Classic. It is not quite as smooth as a Browning A-Bolt II, Steyr Mannlicher, or a Weatherby Mark V, and its bolt rattles more when all the way open. All of these are good rifles. It just shows that there is no such thing as a perfect hunting rifle; each design has its strengths and weaknesses.

The floorplate iron and trigger guard are held in place by Torx head, rather than slotted, screws. In fact, Torx head fasteners are widely used throughout the Model 85.

The hammer-forged, free-floated barrel wears a target type crown. This is an advertising point, but it is more susceptible to damage in the field than a hunting crown. The barrel's breech end is flat, not coned to assist smooth feeding.

The walnut stock on our test rifle shows attractive grain with long, dark streaks. There is ample fine line cut checkering at forend and pistol grip, with a single line border. The checkering pattern is cleverly divided into several individual patches (four on the pistol grip and 5 on the forend). I say "cleverly" because the smaller the individual patch of checkering, the easier it is to cut. It is long, wrap-around lines that require the greatest amount of skill from a checkerer. The butt wears a solid black rubber pad, and there is an oval Sako medallion inletted into the bottom of the pistol grip. The stock finish is a matte lacquer. Detachable sling swivel studs are provided. This stock is attractive and well shaped.

Inletting around the action is good except for an excessive gap in the top rear tang area. The free floating barrel hovers over what seems like a wider than necessary channel in the stock. The latter appears to be a matter of design rather than sloppy inletting.

A free floated barrel can shoot as good as a properly bedded barrel (although it is not necessarily more accurate), and it is certainly cheaper and easier for the manufacturer than carefully inletting the entire length of the barrel into the stock. However, a tightly inletted, carefully bedded barrel looks nicer, and helps to keep foreign material out of the barrel channel.

The Sako Model 85 Hunter is the first production .338 Federal rifle to become available and the model reviewed here. Later this year Sako intends to offer the Model 85 Grey Wolf (a stainless barreled action in a laminated stock) and Model 85 Stainless/Synthetic in .338 Federal. Here are the specifications of our Sako Model 85 Hunter test rifle:

  • Catalog code - JRS1A43
  • Caliber-.338 Federal
  • Action - Three locking lug bolt action, 70 degree bolt lift
  • Barrel length - 22 7/16"
  • Finish - Wood/Blued
  • Magazine capacity - 5 rounds
  • Rate of twist - 1 turn in 10"
  • Weight - 7 3/4 lbs. (bare); 9 lbs. with Leupold VX-L scope mounted
  • Overall length - 42 1/16"
  • Length of pull - 13 3/4"
  • 2006 MSRP - $1,595.00 (rifle only)

The layout and controls of the Sako 85 test rifle are simple and straightforward. No one familiar with the operation of bolt action rifles should have much problem adapting to the Sako 85, although the operation of the safety and magazine are a bit unusual.

Sako rifles come with a 100 yard, 1" accuracy guarantee. For many years Weatherby was the only company offering an accuracy guarantee on all of its centerfire rifles sold in the U.S. (they still do, of course). As far as I know the Weatherby Vanguard MOA models (guaranteed to shoot groups smaller than 1 MOA at 100 yards) are the only rifles guaranteed to shoot as well or better than the Sako 85. Of course, there are many Savage, Browning, Ruger, Winchester, Remington, Steyr-Mannlicher and other rifles that will shoot such groups right out of the box. But those rifles are not guaranteed to do so, and their various manufacturers are not compelled to make perform to that standard if they happen not to.

Of course, lots of shooters cannot shoot well enough with any rifle to reliably produce 1" groups at 100 yards. And working on a firearms publication does not automatically make one a Daniel Boone or Annie Oakley. (Although reading some of the print magazines would make one think so.)

With that in mind, Guns and Shooting Online staffers Jim Fleck, Bob Fleck, Rocky Hays, and Chuck Hawks all gave the Sako 85 a try from the bench rest at 100 yards. As usual, we did our shooting at the Izaak Walton gun range south of Eugene, Oregon. This is an outdoor range with covered firing positions, sturdy shooting benches, and target stands at 25, 50, 100, and 200 yards. We did all of our bench rest shooting for record at 100 yards, using a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest weighted with 50 pounds of lead shot.

We fired groups with of all three types of Federal Premium factory loaded ammunition. Each shooter fired 3-shot groups at Outers Score Keeper targets using all three bullet weights. Here are the shooting results:

  • Federal 180 grain Nosler AccuBond - smallest group 3/4"; largest group 1 3/8"; mean average group = 1.125".
  • Federal 185 grain Barnes TSX - smallest group 1 7/8"; largest group 3"; mean average group = 2.29".
  • Federal 210 grain Nosler Partition - smallest group 1 1/4"; largest group 2"; mean average group = 1.71"


This time out Rocky shot the smallest individual group. It is hard to quibble with those results. While the average group sizes fired with this rifle did not meet Sako's accuracy guarantee, the 180 grain AccuBond load came pretty close. The averages show that the Sako 85 is entirely adequate for big game hunting, and that is its purpose. A couple of individual groups did meet or exceed the Sako accuracy guarantee, but if you shoot enough groups with practically any rifle you are bound to get lucky once in a while.

We would be remiss if we did not mention that the Leupold VX-L 3.5-10x50mm scope elicited favorable comments from all shooters. This bright, sharp scope provided exceptionally clear views of the target. Its 1/4 MOA finger tip adjustments and fast focus eyepiece were much appreciated since our test rifle was used with three different loads by four different shooters. The VX-L got a pretty good workout in the course of this review.

The Sako 85 rifle functioned perfectly at the range. Cartridge feeding and the extraction and ejection of empty cases were smooth and sure. We all found it easier to load the magazine from the top, just as with any normal bolt action rifle, and ignore the detachable magazine feature.

We at Guns and Shooting Online have long campaigned for a cartridge on the order of the .338 Federal, both as a woods and brush country deer cartridge and a manageable elk caliber. Many readers have e-mailed us expressing their support for such a cartridge. Now, thanks to the Federal Cartridge Company, the .338 Federal is a reality and Sako is offering good factory made rifles in the new caliber. So what are you waiting for?


  • Make and Model: Sako Model 85 Hunter
  • Type: Hunting Rifle
  • Action: Bolt, repeater (removable magazine)
  • Stock: Select walnut
  • Caliber Reviewed: .338 Federal
  • Best Features: Adjustable trigger; 70 degree bolt rotation; Flat bottom receiver with integral recoil lug; Generous loading/ejection port; Handy safety; Smooth action
  • Worst Features: Phony controlled feed; Difficult to remove magazine; Failed to meet accuracy guarantee
  • Overall Grade: B- (Good)

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