The .338 Federal

By Chuck Hawks

.338 Federal ammo.
Illustration courtesy of Federal Cartridge.

The .338 Federal represents the first time in its long history that the Federal Cartridge Company has put its name on the headstamp of a cartridge. Federal's offering is based on a .308 Winchester case necked-up to accept standard .338" diameter bullets. The fundamental specifications and dimensions of the .308 case remain the same, meaning the .338 Federal brass can easily be formed from .308 Winchester brass. The rim diameter is .470", rim thickness .049", base diameter .470", shoulder angle 20 degrees and case length 2.015." The maximum cartridge overall length is supposed to be 2.86", rather than the 2.81" of the .308, but Federal factory loaded ammo is reportedly being loaded to a length not greater than 2.80".

The new .338 Federal can be adapted to any rifle suitable for the .308 Winchester. Thompson/Center offers the .338 in their Encore single shot rifle and Sako, Kimber, Ruger and Steyr/Mannlicher offer repeating rifles in the caliber at the time of this writing.

Hunters who feel a need for a medium bore rifle cartridge will find that the .338 Federal kicks a little less than the .338-06 A-Square with the same weight bullet at the same velocity, because the .338 Federal burns less powder to achieve the same pressure. Naturally, it kicks a lot less than the .338 Win. Mag. in rifles of the same weight, so it is more shooter friendly than either of the two older .338 cartridges.

The heavier 225 and 250 grain .338 bullets popular in the .338 Win. Mag. are pretty long and the Federal engineers felt that they took up too much internal space in the case, unacceptably reducing powder capacity. As a result, ATK/Federal's factory load options are confined to bullet weights of 180, 185, 200 (in the Fusion brand only) and 210 grains.

Reloaders can extend that range to include at least some 225 grain bullets, but due to the restricted capacity of the basic .308 case it is probably wise not to exceed that weight. If you choose to go with a 225 grain bullet, avoid boat-tail and plastic tipped designs, which are inherently longer than flat base soft points.

Here are the published ballistics for the Federal Premium factory loads (taken in a 24" test barrel):

  • 180 grain Nosler AccuBond - 2588/2676 at 100 yards, 2359/2224 at 200 yards, 2143/1835 at 300 yards.
  • 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock - 2547/2664 at 100 yards, 2353/2275 at 200 yards, 2169/1932 at 300 yards.
  • 210 grain Nosler Partition - 2415/2719 at 100 yards, 2211/2279 at 200 yards, 2016/1895 at 300 yards.

As you can see, the ballistics of the new cartridge are impressive. The most common bullet weights available to reloaders that are suitable for the .338 Federal are 180, 200, 210, 215 and 225 grains. 200 grains is particularly popular and this bullet weight is a good match for the case capacity of the .338 Federal. It represents a happy medium between the factory loaded offerings of 180 and 210 grains. Good 200 grain bullets are offered in .338 caliber by practically all of the major bullet makers. One of the nice things about the .338 Federal is that its velocity envelope does not require premium bullets. Standard offerings from Speer, Sierra, Hornady and Nosler will perform very well.

While working up .338 Federal reloads for a Kimber Model 84M Classic rifle, I tried the 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor, Hornady Interlock SP and Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets; also the 210 grain Nosler Partition, 215 Sierra GameKing and 225 Hornady Interlock SP bullets. I didn't use any bullets lighter than 200 grains, as bullets below that weight don't make much sense to me in a .338 rifle. Most .30-06 rifles, for example, shoot 180 grain bullets very well. A variety of medium burning speed powders are suitable for the .338 Federal, including IMR 3031, IMR 4064, IMR 4895, H335, BL(C)2, Varget, W748 and similar offerings.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, after trying dozens of bullet/powder combinations, I finally settled on the Speer 200 grain Hot-Cor bullet and IMR 3031 powder. In the course of telephone conversations with friends at ATK (parent company of both Federal and Speer), I learned that they also favor this bullet for reloading the .338 Federal.

For decades there has been a perceived need for a medium bore woods and big game cartridge more powerful than the .35 Remington, but with less recoil than the .338 Win. Magnum. If that demand is real and consumers step up to the plate with their hard earned dollars, the .338 Federal may be around for a very long time.

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Copyright 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.