The .338 Federal: Its Potential in the Henry Long Ranger Rifle

By Gary Zinn with Chuck Hawks

.338 Federal ammo.
Illustration courtesy of Federal Premium.

When the Henry Repeating Arms Co. ( introduced its Long Ranger lever action carbine, we immediately saw the potential for it to be chambered in short action cartridges beyond the .223 Remington, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester cartridges that were announced as the initial offerings. So did the folks at Henry Arms and they promised more chamberings would be on the way.

The Long Ranger design is amenable to chambering for any modern, high intensity cartridge that does not exceed the .308 Winchester C.O.L. of 2.810 inches and rim diameter of 0.473 inch. Therefore, any cartridge that is based on the .308 Winchester case is a potential chambering in the Long Ranger, as are some other short action cartridges not based on that case (e.g., the .223 Remington and .257 Roberts).

Our initial suggestion for an additional chambering was the .257 Roberts, as detailed in The .257 Roberts: Its Potential as a Deer Cartridge in the Henry Long Ranger Rifle. We feel the Long Ranger chambered in .257 Roberts will be an excellent choice for hunting deer and similar Class 2 game, since the cartridge has good range and killing power with very mild recoil.

Chambering the Henry Long Ranger for the .338 Federal cartridge would yield a rifle with expanded capabilities, suitable for hunting Class 2 and Class 3 animals. With 185 to 200 grain rapid expansion bullets, the cartridge is exceptionally deadly on all Class 2 game. With 200 grain or heavier controlled expansion bullets, the .338 Federal is adequate for all Class 3 game, including North American elk and moose, as long as the average shot is not beyond the MPBR of the specific load. About the only North American animals we would not choose it for would be Class 4 dangerous game, such as Alaskan brown/grizzly bears, polar bear and bison, although It would probably do the job if one did not have a .338 Magnum.

The performance of selected .338 Federal factory loads

Currently, all commercial .338 Federal loads are produced by Federal Premium, the company that commercialized the cartridge in 2006. The product line includes two loads with 185 grain bullets, four with 200 grain bullets and one with a 210 grain bullet. We will closely examine two loads with 200 grain bullets. One of these is a Class 2 game load, while the other features a bullet suitable for use on Class 3 game.

Load specifications and external ballistics of these two loads are summarized below. Note that MV is estimated for a 22 inch barrel, not the 24 inch test barrel used to derive published factory load ballistics; the choice of a 22 inch barrel will be explained later. MPBR (+/- 3 inches) and far zero (zero) distances are rounded to the nearest five yards.

We use the Guns and Shooting Online Rifle Cartridge Killing Power Formula to calculate downrange Killing Power Scores (KPS values). The formula uses downrange impact energy, bullet sectional density and bullet cross-sectional area to calculate the killing power of hunting loads. (The cross-sectional area of a .338 inch diameter bullet is 0.0897 sq. in.) For a given load, the formula is:

KPS at y yards = (Impact Energy at y yards) x (sectional density x cross-sectional area), or simply:

    KPS = E x (SD x A)

Federal Fusion 200 gr. BT bullet: SD .250, MV 2660 f.p.s. (22 inch barrel), ME 3143 ft. lbs., MPBR = 260 yards (zero at 220 yards)

  • 100 yard KPS = 59.7 (Energy = 2664 ft. lbs.)
  • 200 yard KPS = 50.3 (Energy = 2244 ft. lbs.)
  • 260 yard KPS = 45.2 (Energy = 2018 ft. lbs.)

Federal asserts that Fusion bullets are specifically built for deer hunting, designed for rapid expansion with high weight retention (little bullet fragmentation). Whatever the bullet diameter and weight, Fusion ammunition is ideally suited for use on Class 2 game.

The ballistic analysis of the 200 grain load clearly shows that it is pure poison for the largest Class 2 game animals, particularly caribou and big black bears. The KPS of 45.2 at the 260 yard MPBR is three times the minimum KPS judged adequate for dependable kills on deer sized game! (Chuck pegs the minimum KPS for deer at 12.5, while Gary prefers 15.0). Indeed, this load could be used effectively on Class 3 animals, particularly Rocky Mountain elk, provided the hunter avoids raking shots and drives the bullet directly into the animal's heart/lung area.

Besides the 200 grain Fusion load, there are .338 Federal loads with 185 Fusion and jacketed soft point bullets, plus a 200 grain JSP load. The MPBRs, downrange energy values and KPS scores for these loads vary little from the performance of the 200 grain Fusion load. All four of these loads are more than adequate for the largest and toughest Class 2 game.

.338 Federal, Vital-Shok Trophy Bonded Tip 200 gr. BT bullet: SD .250, MV 2590 f.p.s. (22 inch barrel), ME 2980 ft. lbs., MPBR = 255 yards (zero at 220 yards)

  • 100 yard KPS = 57.0 (Energy = 2544 ft. lbs.)
  • 200 yard KPS = 48.4 (Energy = 2160 ft. lbs.)
  • 255 yard KPS = 44.1 (Energy = 1969 ft. lbs.)

This is one of three .338 Federal loads designed for use on Class 3 game. The Federal Trophy Bonded Tip bullet features bonded construction for controlled expansion, a solid copper core for deep penetration, a poly tip to initiate expansion and a boat tail to enhance ballistic performance.

To put the performance of this load in perspective, consider the 180 grain .30-06 load, which has been used effectively on Class 3 game for over a century.

.30-06 Springfield, Vital-Shok 180 grain Nosler Partition bullet: SD = .271, MV 2700 f.p.s. (24 inch barrel), ME 2914 ft. lbs., MPBR 270 yards (zero at 230 yards)

  • 100 yard KPS = 51.0 (E = 2524 ft. lbs.)
  • 200 yard KPS = 43.9 (E = 2176 ft. lbs.)
  • 255 yard KPS = 40.4 (E = 2001 ft. lbs.)
  • 270 yard KPS = 39.5 (E = 1956 ft. lbs.)

Although having a lower MV, the 200 grain .338 bullet, fired from a 22 inch barrel, generates more downrange killing power (KPS) than does the 180 grain .308 bullet from a 24 inch barrel. Downrange energy values for the two loads are very similar, while the .338 load averages a 10 percent higher KPS over the 100, 200 and 255 yard distances. The only advantages of the .30-06 load are in MPBR, 270 vs. 255 yards, and a higher bullet sectional density (.271 vs. .250).

Conversely, the .338 Federal is certainly not capable of performing up to .338 Winchester Magnum standards. Throwing a 200 grain bullet, the .338 Win. Mag will generate downrange energy and KPS values that exceed those of the .338 Federal by about 30 percent, with a MPBR of some 285 yards. Also, the .338 Win. Mag will handle heavier bullets (up to 250 grains) much more effectively than the .338 Federal.

Nevertheless, we would suggest the .338 Federal has sufficient power and MPBR to be adequate for hunting Class 3 game, while the .338 Win. Mag is overkill on all but the largest and toughest Class 3 animals. (It was originally designed primarily for hunting Class 4 North American game and introduced in a Winchester Model 70 rifle named the "Alaskan.")

Federal also offers a 200 grain .338 Federal load with a Federal Trophy Copper bullet and a load with a 210 grain Nosler Partition bullet. There is little difference in the external ballistics and killing power of these loads, compared to the 200 grain TBT load. Any of the three can be used with confidence on Class 3 game.

The Henry Long Ranger rifle

Henry Long Ranger
Illustration courtesy of Henry Repeating Arms Co.

Just as Federal Premium is the sole producer of .338 Federal commercial ammunition, Savage Arms is currently the only US rifle maker chambering hunting rifles for the cartridge. Savage offers a handful of their Model 11 and Model 16 bolt action rifle variants in .338 Federal. Having the cartridge chambered in a modern lever action rifle would be a welcome option, especially for woods hunters. (Armalite and DPMS Panther have offered AR-10 type rifles in .338 Federal. However, we do not consider AR type rifles to be nearly as useful, for hunting, as bolt or lever actions rifles.)

Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online staff recently did a review of the Henry Long Ranger. Based on personal inspection and range testing, Chuck wrote the following summary assessment of the rifle:

"The Long Ranger is an ideal woods rifle, as it has a fast, smooth, rack and pinion action with a six lug, front locking, rotary bolt. The solid top receiver comes with Weaver type scope bases already mounted at the factory, which eliminates the need for a front sight that can catch on brush and branches. Detachable, steel sling swivel studs and a contoured, effective recoil pad are standard equipment."

"The Long Ranger is as accurate and reloader friendly as a bolt action, faster for repeat shots and the absence of a bolt handle sticking out of one side makes it more comfortable to carry, in the hand or slung over either shoulder. It balances between the hands and points naturally. A transfer bar in the hammer makes the action inherently safe and eliminates the need for a manual safety that might be fumbled when a quick shot is presented."

We suggested to Anthony Imperato, the owner of Henry RAC, that a rifle version of the Long Ranger with a 22 inch barrel would be a good idea. The longer barrel would be particularly advantageous for high velocity cartridges, such as the .243, and more powerful cartridges, such as the .338 Federal.

We recommend that a Henry Long Ranger chambered in .338 Federal have a 22 inch barrel, with a 1-10 twist rate. Currently, all Long Rangers are carbines with 20 inch barrels, but we believe the longer barrel is more suitable for a .338, as it would increase the ballistic efficiency of this powerful medium bore cartridge. In addition, the added barrel length and weight would help dampen recoil and muzzle blast.

The .338 Federal is a high intensity medium bore cartridge, so it generates significant recoil. Assuming a typical Long Ranger field ready weight (rifle, scope and cartridge load) of 8.5 pounds, the .338 Federal loads cited in this article will each produce recoil of 20 ft. lbs., give or take about a foot pound. For context, here are recoil data for some cartridges and loads with performance characteristics which bracket those of the .338 Federal. (These data are from the Guns and Shooting Online Expanded Rifle Recoil Table; all assume rifle weights of 8.5 pounds.)

  • 15.8 ft. lbs.: .308 Winchester, 180 gr. bullet at 2620 f.p.s. MV
  • 18.5 ft. lbs.: .30-06, 180 gr. bullet at 2700 f.p.s. MV
  • 19.3 ft. lbs.: .338 Federal, 200 gr. bullet at 2660 f.p.s. MV
  • 22.5 ft. lbs.: .338-06 A-Square, 200 gr. bullet at 2800 f.p.s. MV
  • 25.9 ft. lbs.: .300 Winchester Magnum, 180 gr. bullet at 2960 f.p.s. MV
  • 32.8 ft. lbs.: .338 Winchester Magnum, 200 gr. bullet at 2950 f.p.s. MV

A sensible medium bore cartridge/rifle pairing

The .338 Winchester Magnum has dominated the .338 caliber slot since its introduction in 1958. A handful of even more powerful .338 magnums have achieved very limited market penetration, likely because the .338 Win. Mag already represents overkill in the caliber for most applications. The .338-06 A-Square and .338 Ruger Compact Magnum cartridges are lower power alternatives that have not caught on with the hunting community, even though these cartridges have ballistic performance that approaches that of the .338 Win. Mag. (See Compared: .338 Winchester Magnum, .338-06 A-Square and .338 Ruger Compact Magnum.)

The .338 Federal cartridge is a sensible alternative to the .338 Win. Magnum and its ilk. As Chuck explained in Sensible Rifle Cartridges, "sensible" cartridges are those that are well balanced. They are usually not the top performing cartridges in their caliber, but to exceed their performance you have to burn a lot more powder and suffer significantly more recoil to achieve a relatively minor increase in killing power.

The sensible cartridges in any caliber combine very good performance in the field with relatively moderate recoil and good accuracy. They are easy to reload and are suitable for normal size and weight hunting rifles, the kind of rifles that are not a great burden to carry in the field.

The .338 Federal was designed specifically for hunting North American big game from deer and black bear through moose, although it undoubtedly works just as well on game of similar size worldwide. It drives a 210 grain Nosler Partition bullet at a MV of 2630 f.p.s. and ME of 3225 ft. lbs. for outstanding game stopping power with recoil below that of most other medium bore cartridges. For flatter trajectory when hunting Class 2 game, there are 185 grain loads at 2680 to 2750 f.p.s. MV. The .338 Federal is a true medium bore cartridge, but unlike most such cartridges it does its job efficiently, with no more fuss than necessary.

That job is to provide medium bore killing power in a non-magnum cartridge suitable for all short action (.308 length) rifles. The .338 Federal has much less recoil than the .338 Magnum cartridges, yet it provides a very high level of performance. It will flat get the job done and from a shorter rifle with less recoil.

The .338 Federal has some inherent advantages over larger caliber medium bore cartridges. It has a larger shoulder that provides more than adequate area for accurate head spacing and to resist the blow of the firing pin. Its 200 grain bullet has a SD of .250, compared to a SD of .223 for the 200 grain bullets commonly used in .35 caliber cartridges. The .210 grain .338 bullet has a SD of .263. These better SD figures allow superior penetration (other factors being equal). Reloaders can reasonably use bullets as heavy as 225 grains (SD .281) in the .338 Federal case. The .338 Federal is perhaps the most sensible of all currently produced medium bore cartridges and it is adaptable to nearly all modern centerfire rifles.

It makes sense to chamber the .338 Federal cartridge in the Long Ranger rifle. The design of this rifle makes for comfortable carry and nimble handling in the field, plus a quick repeat shot when needed. This thoroughly modern lever action rifle is a natural fit with short action cartridges. The woodland hunter who may have opportunity to pursue game animals from deer and black bear to elk and moose would be hard pressed to find a better all purpose rifle and cartridge combination than the Henry Long Ranger chambered in .338 Federal.

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Copyright 2017 by Gary Zinn and/or All rights reserved.