Compared: The .338 Federal and .358 Winchester
By Chuck Hawks
As interest in the new .338 Federal builds, comparisons with the earlier .358 Winchester are inevitable. Both are medium bore cartridges based on the .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept a larger bullet (.338" and .358" respectively). Any rifle chambered for one of these cartridges could be chambered for the other.
It is unlikely that the market can support both cartridges indefinitely, so choices will inevitably have to be made. Ultimately the buying public will decide between the two cartridges. Here is the information needed to make that decision. Remember that you read it first on Guns and Shooting Online!
The .358 Winchester
The .358 Winchester was introduced in 1955, along with its sibling the .243 Winchester. These were the second and third commercial cartridges based on the then new .308 Winchester case, designed specifically for use in short action rifles. The new cartridges were intended for use in bolt action rifles, of course, but also for lever action rifles such as the Winchester Model 88 and Savage Model 99, and autoloaders like Winchester's Model 100. In fact, the .308 parent case was specifically designed for use in the U.S. Army's M-14 autoloading rifle.
Designed to fill the perceived need for a brush busting cartridge suitable for both deer and elk (or moose) hunting, the .358 was introduced with Winchester/Western factory loaded ammunition using 200 and 250 grain bullets. The 200 grain Silvertip was loaded to a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2530 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2840 ft. lbs., while the 250 grain Silvertip was loaded to a MV of 2250 fps and ME of 2810 ft. lbs.
Gun writers of the heavy bullet school had beaten the drums long and loud for medium bore cartridges. Even Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American gun writers and the most influential gun scribe of his time, praised the .358 as an ideal woods cartridge for deer and elk hunting.
However, the sales of .358 rifles languished. The anticipated demand for the .358 Winchester simply never materialized. Other ammunition companies, noting that fact, declined to offer the cartridge. Uncommitted rifle manufacturers decided not to chamber for the .358.
Soon, most of the rifles that had initially been chambered in .358, including such popular numbers as Winchester's Model 70 and the Savage Model 99, were no longer offered in the caliber. Some rifles, like the Winchester Model 88 and Mannlicher-Schoenauer, were discontinued altogether. Winchester eventually dropped the 250 grain bullet from their loading list due to lack of sales and there matters stood.
Perhaps surprisingly, in recent years the .358 Winchester has experienced a modest revival. During the 1970s Ruger turned out a few Model 77 bolt action rifles in .358 and these are now highly sought after and command premium prices on the used market. Custom builders put together .358 rifles for knowledgable customers. Ultra Light Arms offered rifles in .358, as does the New Ultra Light Arms. In 2003-2004 Browning kicked over the traces and began offering their BLR lever gun in the caliber and included it in the new for 2007 takedown version of the BLR. (See the Product Review page for a review of the BLR Takedown .358.) Ruger recently reintroduced the .358 in their Model 77 bolt action. The .358 Winchester, nearly given up for dead, lives!
Today, Winchester offers a single factory load for .358 in their Super-X line. That is a 200 grain Silvertip bullet at a MV of 2490 fps, a load rated for hunting CXP3 game. Additionally, .358 factory loads using other bullet weights and styles are available from some of the custom ammo providers, including Stars & Stripes.
Stars & Stripes, for example, offers three .358 Win. factory loads. These include a 200 grain Barnes X-Bullet at a MV of 2653 fps, a 200 grain Hornady SP Interlock bullet at a MV of 2512 fps and a 250 grain Hornady SP InterLock at a MV of 2300 fps.
There is an adequate selection of .358" bullets for reloaders from the major bullet manufacturers. The most popular weights are 180, 200, 220-225 and 250 grains. The SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) for the .358 Winchester is pegged at 52,000 cup.
The .338 Federal
Announced at the end of 2005 for introduction in the spring of 2006, the .338 Federal is the first cartridge ever to bear the Federal name. Like the .358 Winchester, the .338 Federal is a short action medium bore cartridge based on a necked-up .308 case. Sako of Finland partnered with Federal and is offering rifles in .338 Federal. Rifles from T/C, Ruger, Kimber, Tikka, and Steyr/Mannlicher are also chambered for the cartridge.
Federal is offering three bullet weights in their Premium ammunition line. These include a 180 grain Nosler AccuBond bullet at a MV of 2830 fps, a 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock bullet at a MV of 2750 fps and a 210 grain Nosler Partition bullet at a MV of 2630 fps. A more popularly priced Fusion factory load using a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2725 fps is also available.
Federal is keeping the MV of their .338 cartridge high by not offering the popular 215 and 225 grain bullet weights in factory loads. (250 grain bullets are, practically speaking, too long for the case.) The 215-225 grain bullets intrude deeper into the case than lighter bullets, decreasing the available powder space and consequently the MV. However, Hodgdon Powder Company reloading data shows that a 215 grain bullet can be launched at over 2500 fps and a 225 grain bullet can be driven to around 2450 fps by readily available canister powders.
Like the .358 Winchester, the .338 Federal appears to be intended primarily for the deer and elk hunter. It can be chambered in any short action rifle suitable for its parent .308 Winchester cartridge. It is a mistake, however, to mate the .338 Federal with an ultra-light weight rifle. The reality is that a cartridge as powerful as the .338 needs at least an 8 pound rifle to keep recoil within reasonable 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 needs to be offered in 8 to 9 pound rifles. And ATK/Federal would do well to introduce and aggressively market a Low Recoil factory load.
Since there are three Federal Premium factory loads for the .338 Federal, those are the loads we will compare. To represent the .358 Winchester we will use the three equally premium Stars and Stripes production factory loads. The latter use the 200 grain Hornady Interlock bullet, 200 grain Barnes X-Bullet and the 250 grain Hornady Interlock bullet.
All of these loads can take CXP2 (deer) and CXP3 (elk) class game. However, it seems that the best choices for CXP2 game would be the 180 grain Nosler AccuBond Bullet in .338 and the 200 grain Hornady bullet in .358. For combination hunts, the Barnes X-Bullets of 185 grains in .338 and 200 grains in .358 should be viable choices. And for the largest game, or potentially dangerous game, the 210 grain Nosler Partition in .338 and the 250 grain Hornady Interlock in .358 would probably be the best choices.
We will compare the two cartridges on the basis of velocity, energy, trajectory, sectional density, bullet cross-sectional area, killing power, and recoil. And we will conclude with a few pertinent comments.
Velocity above some certain impact velocity may or may not have "shock" value to an animal's system, but for sure higher velocity flattens trajectory. Velocity is also a major factor in computing kinetic energy. Here are the claimed velocity figures (in feet per second) at the muzzle, 100, 200, and 300 yards for our selected factory loads:
As expected due to its higher muzzle velocity and the generally superior BC of its bullets, the .338 Federal is the speedier of our two cartridges downrange.
Energy delivered to the target, bullet diameter and bullet penetration are the keys to medium bore killing power. The bullet's remaining energy at impact powers bullet penetration and expansion. Kinetic energy is essentially a function of mass and the square of velocity and is expressed in foot-pounds.
In this important category the higher velocity of the .338 Federal yields higher energy. The generally heavier bullet weights of the .358 Winchester cannot make up for the .338's advantage in velocity, although both cartridges hit plenty hard enough for hunting large North American game.
Trajectory is important because a bullet that shoots flatter is easier to place accurately as the range increases. And bullet placement is, by far, the most important factor in killing power. The following trajectory figures are predicated on scoped rifles with the line of sight 1.5" above the center of the bore. Each load is zeroed to take full advantage of its maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 3".
It is not surprising that the .338 Federal, given its higher velocity and generally superior bullet BC, also has the flattest trajectory across the board. Notice, however, that the .358 with the 250 grain bullet drops only 1.7" more at 200 yards than the .338 with the 210 grain bullet. That is really not a great price to pay for such a hefty increase in bullet weight and diameter.
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. In (parenthesis) is the zero distance needed to achieve the MPBR.
If you average the MPBR of all three loads in each caliber, the .338 Federal averages a 27.66 yard advantage in MPBR over the .358 Winchester.
The sectional density (SD) of bullets is calculated by dividing a bullet's weight (in pounds) by the square of its diameter (in inches). Note that the shape, material or ballistic coefficient of the bullet has no bearing on SD, only weight and diameter count. If you compare bullets of the same weight in different calibers, the smaller caliber will have superior SD for any given weight.
Sectional density is important because, given bullets of identical design at identical velocity, the bullet with the greatest SD will penetrate the deepest. A crude example would be that a long and slender shape like a needle penetrates better than a round ball (short and fat) of the same weight at the same velocity. The deeper the wound channel (of any given diameter) in a game animal the more tissue is destroyed and the greater the killing power. Here are the SD numbers for our selected bullet weights:
The 180 grain .338 bullet is about equal in SD to the 200 grain .358 bullet. SDs in the .200-.240 range are considered appropriate for deer and other CXP2 class game. All of the lighter bullets for both calibers fall into that range.
The 210 grain .338 bullet and the 250 grain .358 bullets are a different matter. Medium bore bullets with a SD of about .270 or better have proven adequate for all North American game and all thin-skinned game, including the great bears and big cats, worldwide. The 210 grain .338 bullet falls slightly short of that standard, but Nosler says that the Partition will handle "everything up through the moose category." Never the less, the .358 has the advantage in sectional density which, coupled with a heavier bullet, should result in deeper penetration.
Bullet cross-sectional (frontal) area is important because the wider the wound cavity (of any given depth), the more tissue is destroyed and the greater the killing power. Bullet cross-sectional area is independent of bullet weight. (A 180 grain .35 caliber bullet is the same diameter as a 250 grain .35 caliber bullet.) The actual diameter of a .338 bullet is .338" and the actual diameter of a .358 bullet is .358". Here are the bullet cross-sectional areas for our two calibers:
The .358 bullet will, given the same percentage of bullet expansion, always punch a larger diameter hole than a .338 bullet. The advantage in cross-sectional area (and wound cavity diameter) belongs to the .358 Winchester.
Optimum Game Weight (OGW) is a system devised by Edward A. Matunas to express the killing power of rifle cartridges in terms of distance and the weight of the animal. We needn't go into the formula itself here, suffice to say that while not perfect, the OGW system does seem to have a higher correlation with reality than most other systems for estimating killing power. The figures below represent game weight in pounds and distance in yards.
The .338 Federal has a slight advantage in theoretical killing power. Comparing the heaviest (and deadliest) bullets in each caliber, the .338 has a 77 pound advantage in OGW at 100 yards and an 85 pound advantage in OGW at 200 yards. The 300 yard figures hardly matter, since 300 yards is well beyond the MPBR for all loads of both cartridges.
Perahps more important in a practical sense, these OGW figures indicate that either cartridge should be suitable for shooting Rocky Mountain elk within the MPBR of its most favorable loads.
Recoil or "kick" is far more important than it is usually given credit for. Everyone shoots better with a gun that kicks less. That has been proven time and time again.
Bullet placement is, by far, the most important factor in achieving a humane, one shot kill. Get almost any reasonably appropriate bullet into the vitals and you're in business. A solid hit in the heart/lung area of a Roosevelt elk with a 130 grain .270 bullet is far preferable to putting a 250 grain .338 Magnum bullet a little too far back. Power will not make up for bad bullet placement and flinching (due to anticipating the recoil and muzzle blast) is the single biggest cause of bad bullet placement.
Heavy recoil has been the commercial downfall of almost all mediums in the North American market. Shooters simply find them unpleasant to shoot. Lighter bullets mean less kick than heavier bullets at the same higher velocity. Here are the approximate recoil energy figures (in foot-pounds) for our factory loads in an 8 pound rifle:
What we see here is that there is not much difference in recoil between these two calibers with premium factory (essentially maximum) loads. All are over the 20 ft. lb. maximum limit and way over the 15 ft. lb. comfort limit for most shooters. And that is in 8 pound, medium weight rifles. Lower the rifle weight to 6.5 or 7 pounds and the recoil figures go through the roof.
What both calibers need is a load that kicks less. The Hornady Handbook, for example, shows loads for the .358 Winchester using 200 grain bullets at MVs from 2200 to 2600 fps and the velocity range for the .338 Federal is similar. A 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2400 fps will still kill decisively out to 200 yards, is easily available from both cartridges and drops the recoil to sustainable levels (around 19 ft. lbs.).
Reloaders can easily assemble such loads, but the big loading companies need to offer medium power loads for everyone else. Federal should make such a load available for the .338 in their standard Power-Shok ammunition line. The Speer 200 grain Hot-Cor bullet would be an excellent choice for such a load. That would do more for the long term popularity of the .338 Federal than all the four color ads they will run in the next five years. Likewise, if Winchester chose to offer their 200 grain Power Point bullet at 2400 fps in the .358, it just might improve the sales of that cartridge.
Both of these high intensity, medium bore cartridges are pretty close to ideal for the hunter of both deer and elk. They lack the long range punch of a .338 Magnum, but the fact is that most big game animals are killed at less than 100 yards and very few are actually killed beyond the MPBR of these cartridges. Instead of long range capability that will hardly ever be needed, these cartridges offer bullets of substantial diameter and weight with more manageable recoil than the magnums.
Either cartridge can be loaded to less than maximum velocity with 180-200 grain bullets to reduce recoil to tolerable limits. That is their principle advantage over larger standard cartridges such as the .338-06 A-Square and .35 Whelen, which with their greater case capacity require more powder for any given velocity and thus generate more recoil for the same level of performance.
One factor that is not compared above is the case design of our two calibers. The fact is that necking a .308 case up to .35 caliber doesn't leave much shoulder on which to headspace. It leaves enough, but the small shoulder can cause headspace problems in rifles with an excessively heavy firing pin blow. The .338 Federal avoids potential problems by having more shoulder area.
Since both the .338 Federal and .358 Winchester can be chambered in lightweight, short action rifles with fairly short 20"-22" barrels ("guide guns"), they are natural choices for protection in the field. At short range, either cartridge can be effective against large predators, including lion and the great bears. In this role, the .358 Win., loaded with an appropriate 250 grain bullet, offers superior cross-sectional area and superior SD and is probably the preeminent choice, particularly in an affordable, easy to operate, fast shooting rifle like the Browning BLR Lightweight.
For the woods and brush country hunter, a 200 grain round nose or flat point bullet from either of these calibers will get through leaves and twigs better than small bore, high velocity bullets. It is hard to beat the .338 Federal for such use and the .358 Winchester is, if anything, slightly better. For such purposes, these are optimum cartridges.
The .358 Winchester is an excellent cartridge and no one with a .358 needs to run out and buy a new .338 rifle. However, the .338 Federal can drive bullets of the same SD at higher velocity if needed, or bullets of the same weight and superior SD at similar velocity. The exception would be for hunting (or protection from) very large or dangerous game. There the .358's ability to accomodate a 250 grain bullet of substantial sectional density and greater diameter gives it the advantage. Whichever cartridge you choose, you will not be disappointed by its game getting performance.
Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.