The Alaskan: .338 Winchester Magnum

By Chuck Hawks

.338 Win. Mag.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

The .338 Winchester Magnum is the one really successful medium bore cartridge in North America and it can be reasonably argued the .338 Win. Mag. is the best medium bore magnum cartridge ever designed. More new .338 Win. Mag. rifles are sold than all the other medium bore rifles combined. The cartridge was tenth in sales on a CF rifle cartridge list I recently read.

The .338 Magnum was introduced in 1958 in a special Winchester Model 70 rifle named the Alaskan, and indeed it is just about the perfect caliber for the moose and the great bears found in the 49th state. It has become the caliber used most by Alaskan guides to "back up" clients hunting the great Alaskan bears. North American hunters took their .338 Win. Mag. rifles to Africa and Asia, where the .338 Mag. proved to be fine medicine for large and dangerous game animals in those places as well. Today the .338 Win. Mag. has a worldwide reputation, and ammunition can be purchased almost everywhere large or dangerous animals are hunted.

Because the .338 Mag. is a standard length cartridge, it is adaptable to a great many rifles. It is chambered in more rifle models than any other medium bore cartridge. In fact, almost all single shot, bolt action, and double rifles that chamber the 7mm Rem. Mag. and .300 Win. Mag. also chamber the .338 Win. Mag. Recoil energy in a conventional 9 pound rifle shooting the 250 grain factory loaded bullet at 2,700 fps is about 29 ft. lbs. This is right up there, but considerably less than the 44 ft. lbs. of a 9 lb. rifle in .375 H&H Mag.

The semi-automatic Browning BAR Mk. II rifle is also available in .338 Win. Mag. This rifle is worth considering for hunting large or dangerous game. It offers 4 shots (3 in the magazine plus one in the chamber) faster than any other rifle that is suitable for dangerous game. The BAR's gas operation noticeably reduces the perceived recoil of the .338 Magnum cartridge, even without the optional BOSS muzzle brake. To me, it feels like it is delivering about 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy instead of 29.

Factory loads for the .338 Win. Mag. offer bullet weights of 200, 210, 225, 230, and 250 grains. Reloaders have all of these, plus bullets of 175, 275, and 300 grains in addition. Solids for thick-skinned dangerous game are available, usually in 250 grain round nose style.

The Barnes Reloading Manual No. One makes the following recommendations regarding .338 bullets: for antelope, deer and elk the 200 grain bullet; for elk, moose, and bear the 225 grain bullets; and for bear, moose, and dangerous game, the 250 grain bullets. This makes sense to me. I would add that I think a medium weight bullet that both expands and yet is guaranteed to retain a substantial amount of its weight, like a Nosler Partition or a Barnes X bullet, would make a pretty good general purpose bullet for a .338 Mag. rifle. For maximum penetration on thick-skinned dangerous game the 250 grain solid (FMJ) bullet may be indicated.

To conserve space I am going to limit ballistic information to bullets of 200, 225, and 250 grains. Velocities are all taken in a 24 inch test barrel. The maximum point blank range (MPBR) for the factory loads mentioned below is figured for a maximum mid-range rise of 3 inches above the line of sight, and is the distance at which the bullet falls 3 inches below the line of sight of a rifle with a scope mounted 1.5 inches above the center of the bore.

Winchester loads their 200 grain (Nosler) Ballistic Silvertip spitzer bullet (BC .415, SD .250) to a MV of 2,950 fps and a ME of 3,864 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 2,509 fps and the energy is 2,794 ft. lbs. The MPBR (+/- 3") for this load is about 289 yards.

Remington loads drive a 225 grain Core-Lokt spitzer bullet (BC .435, SD .281) at a MV of 2,780 fps and a ME of 3,860 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 2,374 fps and the energy is 2,815 ft. lbs. The MPBR of this load is around 270 yards.

Federal's Premium Safari Rifle load pushes a 250 grain Nosler Partition spitzer bullet (BC .473, SD .313) at a MV of 2,660 fps and a ME of 3,925 ft. lbs. At 200 yards the velocity is 2,300 fps and the energy is 2,925 ft. lbs. This load has a MPBR of approximately 265 yards.

The Barnes Reloading Manual Number One shows that 69.0 grains of H4350 powder can drive a 200 grain bullet to 2873 fps, and 74.0 grains of H4350 can drive the same bullet to a MV of 3017 fps. A 225 grain bullet can be driven to a MV of 2713 fps by 67.0 grains of H4350, and 2844 fps by 72.0 grains of H4350. A 250 grain bullet in front of 65.0 grains of H4350 can be driven to a MV of 2574 fps, and to a MV of 2730 fps by 70.0 grains of the same powder. All of these velocities were chronographed in a 24" barrel.

The Barnes Reloading Manual Number One also shows that if their 225 grain X-Bullet (BC .482) at a MV of 2,800 fps is zeroed to strike 3.05 inches high at 100 yards, it will be about 4 inches high at 200 yards, and 4.05 inches low at 300 yards. These figures apply to a rifle with a scope sight mounted 1.5 inches over the bore. Incidentally, that bullet still has 2,083 ft. lbs. of energy at 300 yards!

Clearly, the .338 Win. Mag. is a superior long range cartridge for heavy game. It has earned its place as the most popular medium bore cartridge in the U.S.

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Copyright 2002, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.