First Look: The .338 Federal Rifle Cartridge

By Chuck Hawks

.338 Federal ammo.
Illustration courtesy of Federal Cartridge.

Federal's announcement that in the spring of 2006 they would release a new .338 caliber cartridge based on a necked-up .308 Winchester case was of great interest to me. As regular readers of Guns and Shooting Online know, for some time now I have been promoting a .338 wildcat cartridge based on the 7x57 Mauser case first proposed by Jack O'Connor. I fleshed-out Mr. O'Connor's proposal in my first article on the subject, "New Woods Cartridge: The .338x57 O'Connor." (You can read it here:

O'Connor's proposal was for a medium bore brush/woods cartridge of moderate recoil that would appeal to the average deer (and possibly elk) hunter. This concept appealed mightily to me, and I have done what I can to promote it.

Someone at Federal Cartridge Company apparently had a similar idea for a new non-magnum .338 cartridge, but based on the slightly shorter .308 Winchester case. (It should be remembered that O'Connor proposed his .338 well before the invention of the .308 cartridge.) This case has the considerable advantage of having been designed to work in short action rifles. Its disadvantage is that the .308 case has a shorter neck than the 7x57 and to function in short action rifles the relatively long .338 bullets must be seated pretty deep in the case.

Regardless of the pros and cons of their cases, the overwhelming advantage of the new .338 Federal is that it is a SAAMI standardized cartridge from a major ammunition manufacturer for which factory made rifles will be available. (Initially, Sako is providing the rifles.) A factory loaded cartridge is always more desirable than a wildcat. The .338 Federal is the first rifle cartridge to bear the Federal name on its headstamp, so it is an important step for the Company.

Federal took their new .338 in a different direction than the .338x57 O'Connor, choosing to maximize performance rather than control recoil. This will make for better advertising copy, which we are already seeing: "200 feet per second more velocity than a standard .308," and "provides the energy of a 7mm Rem. Mag."

But there is potential danger in that course. The price to be paid for higher performance is, of course, increased recoil. I am convinced that heavy recoil, more than any other factor, is what has limited the popularity of all the previous standard medium bore cartridges, including the .33 Winchester, .348 Winchester, .35 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, and .35 Whelen. It is my hope that the new .338 Federal can escape the same fate.

Advertising hype aside, the .338 Federal is potentially a well-balanced and effective hunting cartridge. Despite all of the discussion about long range shooting and long range rifles, the reality is that most deer are killed at less than 100 yards in North America. And a brush bucking .338 cartridge is superior for woods and brush country deer hunting to a high velocity small bore.

The .338 Federal was created by the engineering and ballistics staff at Federal in collaboration with Sako rifles. As Federal's initial infomercial advises, "It gives big game hunters a larger diameter bullet for more weight and overall energy on target without magnum recoil . . . The round delivers devastating performance on game, including deer, bear and elk and we're proud to put our name on it."

Three Premium load offerings became available from Federal in the spring of 2006:

  • P338FA1 - 180 grain Nosler AccuBond at 2830 fps.
  • P338FC - 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock at 2750 fps.
  • P338FB - 210 grain Nosler Partition at 2630 fps.

A fourth factory load, in the less expensive Fusion line, has been announced. This is supposed to drive a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2725 fps. When it becomes available it will probably be the most popular of the Federal factory loads.

Let's take a closer look at the three Federal Premium factory loads, starting with the bullets. All are spitzer bullets 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 180/.338 Nosler AccuBond is a boat-tail, plastic tipped bullet with a lead core bonded to a gilding metal (copper alloy) jacket. It opens reliably against light resistance, creating a wide wound channel. Its bonded core eliminates core/jacket separation, thus retaining more weight for deeper penetration than a similar Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet.

In this caliber and weight the AccuBond is primarily intended for CXP2 game. I see this as Federal's .338 deer load.

The Barnes Triple-Shok is an improved all copper hollow point design with terminal performance like that of its famous predecessor, the Barnes X-Bullet. The small hollow point in the streamlined nose of the bullet initiates expansion, which is accomplished by folding back the nose of the bullet in four copper "petals." Expansion stops when the bottom of the hollow point cavity is reached.

This bullet is noted for deep penetration for any given sectional density as it typically retains nearly all of its weight after expansion. It might be a viable choice for a combination deer/elk hunt.

The Nosler Partition is the original dual core bullet design. From the outside it looks much like a typical jacketed soft point bullet. And its partitioned lead core allows the front section of the bullet to expand much like that of a typical soft point bullet, creating a wound cavity of considerable diameter. But expansion positively stops at the internal jacket partition, which retains the rear core for deep penetration.

This is one of the best known and most successful premium hunting bullets of all time. The .338/210 Partition is entirely adequate for both CXP2 and CXP3 game. Because of its superior SD and proven performance, this is the bullet that I would choose specifically for hunting elk and other CXP3 game, or any sort of dangerous game, with the .338 Federal.

Here is the downrange velocity/energy (in fps and ft. lbs.) of the three .338 Federal factory loads based on the BigGameInfo ballistics calculator:

  • 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.

And here is the trajectory of those loads fired from a rifle with a scope mounted 1.5" over bore and zeroed to take advantage of the +/- 3" maximum point blank range (MPBR) of each load:

  • 180 grain Nosler AccuBond - +2.7" at 100 yards, +1.6" at 200 yards, +/-0 at 233 yards, -5.6" at 300 yards; MPBR = 274 yards.
  • 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock - +2.7" at 100 yards, +1.5" at 200 yards, +/-0 at 230 yards, -5.9" at 300 yards; MPBR = 271 yards.
  • 210 grain Nosler Partition - +2.8" at 100 yards, +1.1" at 200 yards, +/-0 at 219 yards, -7.8" at 300 yards; MPBR = 258 yards.

Optimum Game Weight (OGW) is a method of estimating the killing power of rifle cartridges developed by Edward A. Matunas. It describes killing power in terms of range and live animal weight. I believe that OGW has a higher correlation with reality than most other killing power formulas. Here are the OGW figures for the Premium .338 Federal factory loads:

  • 180 grain Nosler AccuBond - 1102 lbs. at muzzle, 842 lbs. at 100 yards, 638 lbs. at 200 yards, 478 lbs. at 300 yards.
  • 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock - 1068 lbs. at muzzle, 848 lbs. at 100 yards, 669 lbs. at 200 yards, 524 lbs. at 300 yards.
  • 210 grain Nosler Partition - 1203 lbs. at muzzle, 931 lbs. at 100 yards, 715 lbs. at 200 yards, 542 lbs. at 300 yards.

According to the OGW formula, shooting the 210 grain Nosler bullet the .338 Federal is a 200 yard grizzly/brown bear load and a 300 yard Rocky Mountain elk load. That much power ought to satisfy any rational hunter.

Here are some estimated recoil energy (in ft. lbs.) and recoil velocity (in fps) figures from the recoil calculator for those 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

It has been estimated in various places that about 20 ft. lbs. is the maximum amount of recoil energy that the average shooter can tolerate. Certainly anyone can shoot more accurately with a rifle that kicks less. Recoil is the problem that has plagued medium bore rifles since the invention of smokeless powder. While the .338 Federal generates less recoil than the magnum medium bore cartridges, it is still in excess of the theoretical 20 pound limit and very similar to the existing .338-06 A-Square in rifles of average weight. In a lightweight rifle, the recoil will be considerably greater, and probably quite unpleasant to the vast majority of shooters.

If I were reloading the .338 Federal, probably the first thing I would do is to develop a reduced power handload that duplicates the ballistics suggested by Jack O'Connor many years ago. This would be primarily intended for hunting deer, feral hogs, black bear and similar size game in wooded or brushy country. Such a load would also offer less recoil and be noticeably more fun to shoot.

For this purpose I'd want a 200 grain bullet at a MV of approximately 2425 fps (+/- 25 fps). At the target velocity a conventional soft point bullet will offer all the penetration I'll ever need, and probably kill quicker and shoot more accurately than a premium bullet. The Speer 200 grain Hot-Cor bullet, for example, would suit my purposes.

Here are the downrange velocity/energy figures for such a load using the 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor spitzer bullet (BC .448, SD .254) at a MV of 2425 fps (ME 2611 ft. lbs.):

  • 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor - 2242/2232 at 100 yards, 2066/1896 at 200 yards, 1898/1600 at 300 yards.

Here are the trajectory figures for that load:

  • 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor - +2.9" at 100 yards, +0.4" at 200 yards, +/-0 at 206 yards, -10.3" at 300 yards; MPBR = 242 yards.

Here are the OGW figures for that load:

  • 200 grain Speer Hot-Cor - 865 lbs. at muzzle, 676 lbs. at 100 yards, 529 lbs. at 200 yards, 411 lbs. at 300 yards.

What we have is a 200 yard elk cartridge and a 300 yard caribou cartridge in terms of optimum game weight killing power. For deer and black bear it is limited by its trajectory, not its killing power. And this is the reduced recoil .338 Federal woods load!

Most important, here are the approximate recoil figures for that load when fired in an 8 pound rifle:

  • 200 grain, MV 2425 fps - 18 ft. lbs., 12 fps.

Note that this load, unlike the Premium factory loads, is below the 20 ft. lb. maximum theoretically sustainable by the average person. This would be an excellent general purpose hunting load for the .338 Federal cartridge. One could always go to one of the more powerful factory loads when a flatter trajectory or more power were needed, and that shouldn't be very often.

I would like to see Federal offer, in addition to their Premium loads, a lower priced Power-Shok load that essentially duplicates the ballistics proposed above. As we have seen, this would still deliver plenty of power for all CXP2 game while generating considerably less recoil than the Premium factory loads. It would also be more affordable to the deer hunter who is not a reloader. I believe that such a factory load could be one of the keys to the long term success of the .338 Federal Cartridge.

I hope that the U.S. arms makers will soon start offering rifles in .338 Federal. That is also essential for the long term success of the cartridge. It is a natural, not only for the myriad of short action bolt guns, but also for modern single shot, lever, pump, and autoloading hunting rifles. T/C, Kimber, Ruger, and Steyr/Manlicher have already said that they will offer rifles in .338 Federal.

In their new .338 Federal has offered hunters a nearly ideal cartridge to fill the perceived need for both a useful woods cartridge and a powerful yet controllable medium bore. We have asked for such a cartridge for many years, and now Federal has provided it.

The .338 Federal should be particularly attractive to reloaders, who can tailor loads to their specific needs. There are a variety of good .338 bullets available, and I am sure that soon reloading data will be available from all of the usual sources.

It is now up to us hunters to show our appreciation by purchasing .338 Federal rifles and ammunition. I feel that those who do will be pleased with the new caliber.

Note: Articles covering the .338 Federal in detail as well as comparing it to other cartridges can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

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Copyright 2005, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.