The .338 Federal

By Chuck Hawks

.338 Federal ammo.
Illustration courtesy of Federal Cartridge.

The first big cartridge news of 2006 was Federal's announcement of a new .33 caliber medium bore rifle cartridge to be known as the .338 Federal. This is the first time in their long history that the Federal Cartridge Company has put their name on the headstamp of a cartridge.

Federal's new 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 heavier 225 and 250 grain .338 bullets popular in the .338 Win. Mag. are pretty long and would take up too much internal space in the case, unacceptable reducing powder capacity, so Federal's factory load options are confined to bullet weights between 180 and 210 grains. The initial Federal loads, all of which are in their Premium line, include:

  • P338FA1 - 180 grain Nosler AccuBond (BC .372, SD .225) at 2830 fps.
  • P338FC - 185 grain Barnes Triple-Shock (BC .437, SD .231) at 2750 fps.
  • P338FB - 210 grain Nosler Partition (BC .400, SD .263) at 2630 fps.

There are also supposed to be a load using a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2725 fps forthcoming in Federal's more popularly priced Fusion ammunition line. This would be a welcome addition to the available factory loads.

The downrange ballistics of the Federal Premium loads look like this:

  • 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.

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 would be as follows:

  • 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.

As you can see, the ballistics of the new cartridge are pretty impressive, but what sort of game is it good for? One indication of that can be gleaned from the Optimum Game Weight of the various .338 Federal loads. As regular readers of Guns and Shooting Online doubtless already know, Optimum Game Weight (OGW) is a method of estimating the killing power of rifle cartridges developed by Edward A. Matunas. 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.

There really isn't too much difference in OGW between the three loads. All appear suitable for large animals (CXP3 class game) within their MPBR. But OGW isn't the whole story, of course. The sectional density and design of the bullet are also key factors in load selection.

The 180/.338 Nosler AccuBond is a boat-tail, plastic tipped bullet with a lead core bonded to a gilding metal jacket. It opens reliably against fairly 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, with a SD of .225 (ideal for deer) the AccuBond is presumable intended primarily for use on CXP2 class game.

The Barnes Triple-Shok is a homogeneous copper hollow point 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. However, with a SD of only .231 it can not be considered a heavy game bullet. It might be a viable choice for a combination deer/elk hunt.

The Nosler Partition is a dual core bullet design. 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. According to the folks at Nosler Bullets, the 210 grain Partition is adequate for both CXP2 and CXP3 game up to and including moose. Because of its superior .263 SD, this is the bullet that I would choose specifically for hunting elk and other CXP3 game.

It is a bit light for the big bears, where a SD of at least .270 is recommended, but would undoubtedly do the job given proper bullet placement. Anyone carrying a .338 Federal rifle for protection in bear country would be wise to choose this load.

All well and good, but how about recoil? Objectionable kick is what has always plagued medium bore cartridges and kept all but the .338 Win. Mag. off the best seller lists. How does the .338 Federal stack-up? Here are some estimated recoil energy and recoil velocity figures from the recoil calculator for the Federal Premium factory 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

Compared to the .338 Win. Mag. in a typical 8.5 pound rifle shooting a 200 grain bullet at a MV of 2950 fps (about 33 ft. lbs.), the recoil of the .338 Federal is much lighter. However, most potential .338 Federal buyers probably don't already own a .338 Magnum rifle. More likely their standard of reference is a cartridge along the lines of the .308 Win. Shooting a 180 grain bullet (SD .271) at a MV of 2600 fps, a typical 8 pound .308 rifle belts the shooter with about 18 ft. lbs. of recoil energy.

Few casual hunters really enjoy shooting 180 grain bullets in the .308, and they are going to enjoy shooting a .338 Federal rifle a lot less. It is well over the 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy estimated to be the maximum endurable by the average hunter.

On the other hand, the hunter who feels the need for a medium bore 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.

The cartridge to which the .338 Federal is most likely to be compared is the .358 Winchester. The .358 is also based on a necked-up .308 case and the recoil of the two cartridges should be pretty much identical when shooting bullets of the same weight at the same velocity.

The .358 Winchester, long ignored, has made a minor come back in recent years, so it will be interesting to see how it and the .338 Federal fare in the market place. It is hard to believe that there will be enough demand for medium bore cartridges and rifles to support both calibers, so something will probably have to give. (For more on that subject, see "Compared: .338 Federal and .358 Winchester" on the Rifle Cartridge Page.)

For any new cartridge to be successful the rifle manufacturers must support it. New cartridges from Remington and Winchester automatically appear in rifles of the same name, an advantage that the other ammo companies, including Federal, do not have. But because the new .338 Federal can be adapted to any rifle suitable for the .308 Winchester, there are many possibilities. Thompson/Center has offered the new .338 in their Encore single shot rifle, and Kimber, Ruger and Steyr/Mannlicher are rumored to have rifles in the works. It would be nice to see entries from Savage, Remington, Weatherby, and Browning (hint, hint!).

Other "infrastructure" is also necessary for any newly introduced cartridge to succeed. Reloading dies are one example. I hope that RCBS, Hornady and others will quickly offer dies in .338 Federal. Fortunately, there is already a good selection of .338" bullets due to the popularity of the .338 Win. Magnum. And most of the powders suitable for the .308 Win. and .358 Win. will also be suitable for the .338 Federal. Load development should not be a problem. Hodgdon/IMR, in particular, is usually quite prompt about adding reloading data for new calibers to their web site.

Overall, the .338 Federal is going to be an easy cartridge to adopt. Its design and ballistics are such that it could easily become "every man's" medium bore hunting cartridge. 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. This is the very niche that the .338x57 O'Connor wildcat, about which I have written extensively, was designed to fill. 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 2006, 2015 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.