The Jack O'Connor Medium Bore Woods Rifle
By Gary Zinn with Chuck Hawks
In my youth, much of what I learned about rifles, cartridges and big game hunting came from reading Jack O'Connor's columns and feature articles in Outdoor Life magazine. His experience, practical knowledge and critical thinking about rifles and their use has never been equalled. Thus, when someone dusts off one of his ideas, it piques my interest.
One such idea was for a medium bore rifle cartridge of moderate recoil. The O'Connor concept has been summarized by Chuck Hawks in Guns and Shooting Online as follows, from The 338 Marlin Express: A Proposal:
"Sometime after World War II Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American gun writers, proposed a new .33 caliber cartridge. He wanted to drive a 200 grain flat point or round nose bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2400-2450 f.p.s. O'Connor's concept was a medium bore cartridge with moderate recoil that the average woods and brush hunter could use for shooting deer, feral hogs, black bear and possibly elk. If the new cartridge's recoil could be kept below 20 ft. lbs, the average deer hunter could take advantage of its benefits."
Jack O'Connor suggested using the 7x57mm Mauser case, necked up to .33 or .35 caliber, as the basis for such a cartridge and left it at that. O'Connor made this suggestion before the introduction of the .308 Winchester and the resulting popularity of the modern short action rifle. Unfortunately, the 7x57's cartridge overall length is a bit too long to be adaptable to short action rifles, limiting the available action choices. However, Chuck Hawks fleshed-out O'Connor's concept in some detail in his article The .338x57 O'Connor.
Chuck then recounts how, after the advent of the .308 Winchester cartridge, there were missed opportunities to create a woods cartridge incorporating O'Connor's idea when the .358 Winchester, the .356 Winchester and .338 Federal were developed. In all three cases, the cartridges were factory loaded for the maximum muzzle velocity available.
The problem with this, in terms of the O'Connor concept, was that these cartridges all produced recoil levels well above the deer rifle level. Speed sells in the cartridge world, but sometimes it can be too much of a good thing, with undesirable side effects, especially excessive recoil and muzzle blast.
Then, in 2007, Hornady introduced a new cartridge, the .308 Marlin Express, and Marlin produced a version of their Model 336 lever action rifle for it. The .308 Marlin Express was designed to use a 160 grain bullet and produce ballistics very close to those of the .308 Winchester.
To Hawks, the .308 Marlin Express case looked like a natural to neck-up to fire .338 bullets fitting the weight/velocity/recoil profile envisioned by Jack O'Connor over half a century earlier. Accordingly, he wrote his article The 338 Marlin Express: A Proposal, in which he suggested a ".338 Marlin Express" to shoot 200 grain bullets at a MV of 2400 to 2450 f.p.s, and sent it along to Hornady and Marlin.
The 338 Marlin Express arrives . . . Or not
Hornady and Marlin did, indeed, develop a .338 Marlin Express cartridge and rifle package. Marlin tweaked the Model 336 platform to fire the Hornady designed cartridge and the resulting rifle was designated the Model 338MXLR.
However, the cartridge was not a necked-up .308 Marlin Express, but was instead based on the .376 Steyr cartridge. The critical difference being that the new .338 Marlin Express case was .028 inches larger in diameter at the base than the .308 Marlin Express case, thus increasing powder capacity. The purpose of the fatter case was to, once again, wring maximum velocity out of the new cartridge.
The factory load uses a 200 grain Hornady FTX bullet at an advertised muzzle velocity of 2565 f.p.s. and muzzle energy of 2921 ft. lbs. from a 24 inch barrel. Conservatively estimating a 50.5 grain powder charge is needed to drive a 200 grain bullet at that speed, the recoil energy would be about 22.5 ft. lbs. in a 338MXLR rifle. Ouch! Darn!
However, suppose a reloader reduces the MV to about 2365 f.p.s, which is the velocity the factory load achieves at 100 yards. This would create a new ball game for the cartridge in terms of recoil and terminal performance.
To compute recoil, I assumed a field equipped rifle weight of 8.25 pounds and I also assumed a powder charge of 49.3 grains of H414 powder. This yields a MV of 2364 f.p.s. with a 200-grain .338 bullet, so that is what I used. These input data yield a recoil value of 19.9 ft. lbs., a MPBR (+/- 3 inches) of 234 yards and retained energy of 1723 ft. lbs. at MPBR.
Is this the woods rifle cartridge envisioned by Jack O'Connor and championed by Chuck Hawks? It would seem so, given the variables involved. MV is below 2400 f.p.s., but not enough to matter, given the MPBR and terminal ballistics produced, along with an acceptable recoil value. Plus, the cartridge is chambered in a classic lever action rifle.
However, I hear a disembodied voice saying, "Houston, we have a problem; the rifle does not work correctly." A Guns and Shooting Online review of the rifle/cartridge combo shortly after its introduction found serious functioning problems. The complete review, Marlin Model 338MXLR .338 Express Rifle, details these. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. Other reviews also sharply criticized the fit, finish and, most importantly, function of the rifles.
I do not want to get into a digression about the problems that have plagued Marlin firearms since its acquisition in 2007 by Remington Arms. Co. Rather, focusing specifically on the 338MXLR rifle, I will only say that there are two likely reasons for the bad reputation the rifle has gained.
First, the geometry of the .338 Marlin Express cartridge is only marginally compatible with the Marlin 336 platform. In particular, the large diameter of the case makes for a very tight fit in the receiver, which might help explain the reported feeding problems.
Second, when Remington acquired Marlin, they closed the existing Marlin facilities and moved production to new locations, with new management and production personnel, but using the old, worn production equipment. Marlin rifles produced under these conditions have had poor fit, finish and function across the board, according to numerous reviews and complaints. As things stand, the .338 Marlin Express cartridge is not viable, because the only commercial rifle made for it has potential functioning issues.
Renewing the search
Given that the .338 Marlin Express is perhaps not the answer to the question at hand, I rebooted. To guide a renewed look at possible fits for the O'Connor woods rifle concept, I broadened the criteria slightly, as follows.
I think that I only need to comment on the first and last of these criteria. O'Connor's concept called for a 200 grain, .338 or .358 inch diameter bullet. However, I felt it would be reasonable to expand the parameters to include .30-.32 caliber and a somewhat wider MV range, as indicated above.
Concerning rifle action type, I grew up with lever action 30-30 deer rifles, so a lever action just seems right to me for a woods rifle. However, over a lifetime of deer hunting, I have taken more deer with bolt action rifles than with lever actions and I have never felt at a disadvantage when using a bolt rifle. Autoloaders or pump actions are limited alternatives, for reasons I will note later. With those parameters set, here is what I found when I renewed the search for a woods rifle/cartridge package.
Although O'Connor's concept was for a medium bore rifle, I wanted to see what the possibilities were for a .308 caliber rifle to meet the other criteria. The .308 is a true short action cartridge, making it ideal for a handy woods rifle, as its receiver can be about 1/2 inch shorter than a receiver for a standard length cartridge, such as the .30-06. Here is what can be done if the .308 Winchester is loaded with our woods rifle parameters in mind.
Hodgdon lists a load with 42.7 grains of IMR 4166 powder under a 200-grain Swift A-Frame semi-spitzer bullet. In a Browning BLR rifle with 20-inch barrel, this load would achieve a MV of 2452 f.p.s. and a MPBR of 243 yards with 1771 ft. lbs. of retained energy. Recoil in a 7.75 pound field weight rifle would be 20.3 ft. lbs.
I was surprised at the performance of this load. I have always thought that the .308 Win. is at its best with 150 or 165 grain bullets and no more than adequate with 180 grain bullets. I had never really looked at it in terms of throwing a 200 grain bullet. However, this load has quite respectable MPBR and retained energy values. This all comes out of the relatively light weight (6.5 pounds) 20-inch barreled Browning BLR rifle, with a level of recoil just 1.5 percent above the 20 ft. lb. target value. Reduce the MV to 2400 fps and the recoil drops below the 20 ft. lb. limit.
If the .308 Winchester is good, then the 30-06 must be better and indeed it is. A load with 45.2 grains of IMR 4166 powder and a 200-grain Speer spitzer bullet is listed by Hodgdon. This load yields a MV of 2456 f.p.s., a MPBR of 248 yards and retained energy of 1934 ft. lbs. at MPBR. This is in a 22-inch barreled Browning BLR rifle, generating 19.2 ft. lbs. of recoil with a rifle field weight of 8.5 pounds, but many bolt action rifles of similar weight and barrel length are available. Clearly, this load is more than adequate for all Class 2 game, plus it is capable for Class 3 critters up to the size of moose.
The 8mm Mauser uses a .323 inch diameter bullet, the largest of the standard small bore bullet diameters. Like the .30-06, it requires a standard length action. Norma offers factory loads using their various 196 grain bullets at a MV of 2395 fps and reloaders can essentially duplicate these loads using 195-200 grain bullets from Hornady, Speer and others. The MPBR is approximately 240 yards and such loads have proven deadly on Class 2 and Class 3 game around the world.
According to the Speer Reloading Manual #14, a 200 grain Speer spitzer bullet in front of 54.0 grains of IMR 4831 powder yields a MV of 2395 fps. The recoil energy of this load is about 19.1 ft. lbs. when fired in an eight pound rifle.
New 8x57mm rifles are not common in the US, but a few are offered by European manufacturers. Much more common on this side of the pond are surplus military rifles using Mauser 98 actions and used "sporterized" versions of the same. The quality and condition of these rifles varies from excellent to "wall hanger only." Buyer beware.
Starting with the idea of a .338 caliber, 200 grain bullet, I first focused on the .338 Federal cartridge, which is a short action cartridge based on a necked-up .308 case. The Federal Fusion load is my point of reference. Federal lists this load at 2700 f.p.s. from a 24-inch barrel, but I deducted 20 f.p.s. from this (see The Rifle Barrel) to adjust the MV for a 22-inch barrel, which is a more practical length for our purposes.
The key variable I wanted to establish for this factory load was recoil. I assumed a field equipped rifle weight of 8.25 pounds (starting with a seven pound rifle and adding a conservative 1-1/4 pounds for scope, sling and cartridges). The estimated recoil of this package would be 22.6 ft. lbs.
This factory load yields a level of recoil thirteen percent above the target value of 20 ft. lbs, so the cartridge needs to be loaded down to meet the recoil goal. I turned to online load data resources to find a load that would balance the bullet weight/velocity/MPBR/recoil parameters I had established.
Nosler lists a .338 Federal load of 45.0 grains of Hodgdon Varget powder under the 200 grain Nosler AccuBond tipped/boat tail bullet. Adjusting the published MV of this load for a 22 inch rifle barrel, the MV would be 2463 f.p.s. Recoil calculates at 19.8 ft. lbs. with an 8.25 pound rifle (field weight). MPBR would be 242 yards with 1731 ft. lbs. of retained energy. These numbers fit our woods rifle parameters.
Currently, Savage offers virtually the only readily available commercial rifles chambered for the .338 Federal cartridge. At present, Savage offers six variations of their Model 110 bolt action in .338 Federal. Of these, the Model 16 FCSS Weather Warrior, which comes with a 22-inch barrel, would be my first choice.
Shaw Precision Guns (a.k.a., E.R. Shaw Barrels) will build their Mk. VII rifle to your specifications. They offer a wide range of barrel options and walnut, laminated hardwood or synthetic stocks. The Shaw rifles are built on Savage 10/110 bolt actions and come with the excellent Savage AccuTrigger. A Mk. VII rifle will run from $775 to $1250, depending on the options selected. You can build your rifle on their website (www.ershawbarrels.com) and immediately submit the specs for a price quote. Guns and Shooting Online has requested a Shaw rifle in .338 Federal caliber for a future review.
The dark horse: .338-06 A-Square
The .338-06 intrigues me. Many decades ago, wildcatters created it by simply necking-up the .30-06 case to accept .338 caliber bullets. In 1998, the cartridge was SAMMI standardized as the .338-06 A-Square, but then the bullet and cartridge company that had it standardized went out of business. I guess its current status is that it is a standardized, orphaned wildcat, if that makes sense.
I wanted to look at it here, because it is the only notable non-magnum .338 cartridge that has not been covered. I knew the .338-06 could be loaded to performance levels approaching the .338 Ruger Compact Magnum, but can it be loaded down to perform within my woods rifle parameters? Yes, it can.
I chose a 23-inch barrel for the .338-06. I vacillated over the barrel length, unable to decide whether a 22 or 24 inch barrel would make more sense. Finally, I split the difference, since getting a .338-06 would require a custom barrel in any event.
A load load using 44.0 grains of Hodgdon H335 powder and a 210 grain Nosler Partition spitzer bullet yields a MV of 2448 f.p.s. and a MPBR of 240 yards, with 1764 ft. lbs. of retained energy at that distance. Recoil in a 8.75 pound rifle would be 19.5 ft. lbs. (44.0 grains of H335 is listed as a starting load by Hodgdon.)
Just for fun, I checked out what the cartridge would do with a 225 grain bullet. Nosler data shows that a 225 grain Partition bullet over 45.5 grains of IMR 4320 powder generates a MV of 2311 f.p.s. in a 23-inch barrel. This yields a MPBR of 230 yards with 1842 ft. lbs. of retained energy. Nosler notes that this was the most accurate load they tested with 225 grain bullets in the .338-06. Recoil of this load in an 8.75 pound rifle is 20.2 ft. lbs.
To my knowledge, no commercial rifle maker currently offers a .338-06 rifle, although Weatherby did when A-Square was still offering factory loaded ammunition. If you want a .338-06 today, there are basically three ways to get there. First, you can have a barrel built for a .30-06 action you already have. Second, you can order a semi-custom rifle from Shaw Precision Guns. Finally, you can have a true custom rifle built.
As explained in the .338 Federal section above, semi-custom Shaw Mk. VII rifles are available with a nice range of options and will run from $775 to $1250. I used the "build your rifle" function on the E.R. Shaw website (www.ershawbarrels.com) for a .338-06 rifle in matte stainless steel, with a 23 inch sporter weight barrel and laminated stock. I got back a price quote via e-mail the same day, for just over $900 including shipping to my FFL. The only caveat in the Shaw deal is that they are not into instant gratification. The e-mail I got from them noted that, "The average turnaround time on a Mk. VII rifle build is in the 12 month area."
Like the .338 Federal, the .358 Winchester is a short action cartridge based on a necked-up .308 case. For our purposes, the two cartridges are essentially equal, as with medium pressure loads both can drive a 200 grain bullet at 2400 fps from the muzzle of a 20 or 22 inch barrel, the perfect load for a Jack O'Connor woods rifle. Both, of course, are factory loaded to higher velocity (and hence recoil) than we desire.
I had never paid much attention to the .358 Winchester, having formed the impression that it was no more than a step beyond the 35 Remington. However, I thought I should look at it for this project and I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.
Hornady lists a factory load featuring their 200 grain spire point bullet. Adjusting the muzzle velocity for a Browning BLR rifle with 20 inch barrel gives a MV of 2435 f.p.s., MPBR of 229 yards and retained energy of 1450 ft. lbs. at that range. Estimated recoil of this load in a 7.75 pound field weight rifle is 21.8 ft. lbs.
The .358 Win. has a longer MPBR and greater retained energy than I had anticipated. Recoil of the factory round is nine percent above the target value of 20 ft. lbs, which is undesirable. However, the recoil can be reduced to acceptable limits by either modestly lowering the velocity of the 200 grain bullet, or by going to a heavier bullet, driven slower.
In the former case, 43.1 grains of IMR 3031 powder should drive a 200 grain Hornady InterLock round-nosed bullet at about 2340 f.p.s. from the BLR's 20" barrel. This drops the recoil to a calculated 16.8 ft. lbs. with some sacrifice in trajectory, but it should still serve nicely as a brush-busting load.
Alternatively, using what is listed by Hodgdon as a starting load of 42.0 grains of H4895 powder under a 225 grain Sierra GameKing bullet, the MV is only 2183 f.p.s. out of a 20 inch barrel. However, the retained energy at 225 yards (10 yards beyond the MPBR of this load) of this low drag spitzer/boat tail bullet is 1516 ft. lbs, which is 66 ft. lbs. more than for the 200 grain factory load. Recoil energy is 20.1 ft. lbs.
Since the .358 cartridge is offered in the excellent Browning BLR rifle, it merits consideration for our woods rifle. It does not have quite the MPBR and retained energy numbers of the other cartridges in this article, but it is a legitimate 200 yard slugger (1597 ft. lbs. of energy) with a 220-225 grain bullet. Realistically, what more does one need?
.35 Whelen (.35-06)
The .35 Whelen was devised around 1922 by necking up the .30-06 case to accept .358 caliber bullets. It remained a popular wildcat until it was standardized by Remington in 1988. In the days before the wide distribution of bolt action rifles with magnum length actions that would accept the "Queen of Medium Bores," the .375 H&H, the .35 Whelen was sort of the poor man's alternative in a powerful medium bore cartridge.
The .338-06 and .35 Whelen are both standard length cartridges based on necked-up .30-06 cases with the same shoulder angle and identical powder capacity to the base of the shoulder. Both are typically loaded with bullets in the 180-250 grain range, so the two cartridges are very similar in application and capability. The .338-06 has the advantage in sectional density with any given bullet weight, while the .35 Whelen has the advantage in cross-sectional area. (For a full comparison, see Compared: North American Medium Bore Rifle Cartridges.
Like the .338-06, the .35 Whelen can be loaded down to drive a 200 grain bullet at 2400 fps. For example, the Hornady Handbook shows a MV of 2400 fps from a 22 inch barrel with 50.5 grains of H4895 powder and a 200 grain bullet. In an eight pound rifle, the recoil energy of that load is 18.4 ft. lbs. At 2400 fps with a RN bullet, the MPBR is about 211 yards.
In terms of the O'Connor woods rifle concept, there is little to choose between the .338-06 and .35 Whelen. If loaded to the same velocity with the same weight bullet and fired in rifles of the same weight with the same length barrels, the recoil of the two cartridges will be virtually indistinguishable. Ditto their effectiveness on Class 2 and Class 3 game.
Compared to the .358 Winchester, the .35 Whelen, with its roughly 10% larger case, requires more powder to achieve a given velocity with the same weight bullet and therefore kicks a little harder. Since both cartridges can drive a 200 grain bullet at 2400 fps from a 22 inch barrel, for our purposes the .358 would seem to have a modest advantage in lower recoil. If both cartridges are loaded with the same bullets at the same velocity, the trajectory and MPBR will, of course, be identical.
New and used commercial rifles are available in .35 Whelen, as Remington offered it in their Model 700 line for many years and a few other rifle makers have also occasionally chambered for the cartridge. There are certainly more .35 Whelen rifles available today than .338-06 rifles and probably more than for the .358 Win. However, the .35 Whelen has never been a strong seller and rifles so chambered are not thick on the ground. The situation is better in factory loaded ammunition, as among the Big Four, Remington, Hornady and Federal offer .35 Whelen ammo.
Autoloading and pump actions
The application of these action types is quite limited in both model and cartridge terms. The only models available are the Benelli R1, Browning BAR Mk. II, Merkel SR1 and Remington 750 autoloaders, plus the Remington 7600 pump action. Among these, the only available cartridges among our brush rifle candidates are .308 Win. and .30-06. I do not know what more to say.
I learned some things from this exercise. I will group my conclusions by the calibers of the cartridges covered.
The Small Bores (.30 to 8mm caliber): If one already has a rifle chambered for 8x57, .30-06 or .308 Winchester, then an adequate woods load can be built using the recipes I listed above, or something similar. If I were buying a dedicated woods rifle, I would think first of a Browning BLR in either .308 or .30-06.
It is perhaps worth noting that the only cartridge considered in this article for which factory ammunition is loaded to our approximate bullet weight, velocity and potential recoil specifications is the 8x57. All of the other cartridges must be reloaded to meet our standards. Unfortunately, although closer than a .30 caliber bullet, the .32 caliber 8x57 is still not a medium bore caliber.
.338 caliber: I think it would be great if Browning were to chamber the BLR in .338 Federal, with a 22-inch barrel. Then, someone should offer a factory loaded cartridge with a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2400 to 2450 f.p.s. Call it the ".338 Federal O'Connor Special" and shooters would pay attention. I cannot think of a rifle/cartridge combination that would better fit the medium bore woods rifle concept.
Perhaps Remington will get their Marlin line straightened out and produce a Model 336 variant that functions reliably with the .338 Marlin Express cartridge. In that case, this promising rifle/cartridge combination would be back in the game.
Failing either of the above, a Savage 16 or Shaw Mk. VII rifle with a 22 inch barrel in .338 Federal would make a very good woods rifle. The cartridge just needs to be hand loaded to meet the recoil limitation.
The .338-06 should not be overlooked. This versatile cartridge can be loaded down to woods rifle performance levels, or loaded up to rival the .338 Ruger Compact Magnum and .350 Remington Magnum in killing power. Shaw offers their Mk. VII rifle, which can be tailored for specific applications, in the caliber.
.358 caliber: I had ignored the .358 Winchester cartridge, but I am over that now. A .358 Browning BLR is a potent woods rifle when firing 200-225 grain bullets hand loaded to not exceed our 20 ft. lb. recoil limit. Two G&S Online staff members own .358 Win. rifles and can testify that the fat bullet has excellent terminal effect.
The .35 Whelen could also serve as the basis for an O'Connor woods rifle, but other things being equal, it must always kick a little harder than the .358 Win. In addition, the standard length receiver of a .35 Whelen rifle will normally be about 1/2 inch longer than the short action required for the .358 Win. Shorter is usually better for a woods rifle. Either cartridge must be hand loaded with medium velocity loads to meet our recoil limitation and then the external ballistics become identical in velocity, energy and trajectory.
I cannot help but wonder how Jack O'Connor would weigh in on the cartridges that more or less fit the concept of the woods rifle he conceived so long ago. I have a feeling he would endorse one of the medium bores and say, "Why did this take so long?"
Copyright 2015 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.