The .338 Lapua is unlikely ever to be considered as a viable hunting calibre in the UK, although it is being used for long-distance target shooting. As you might expect, though, the Americans haven’t shied away from harnessing the impressive ballistics on live quarry.
Despite the .338 Lapua being a relatively recent addition to hunting vocabulary, it has actually been on the go since 1982. Its life began as a request by the US Marine Corps to Research Armaments Industries for the development of a long-range rifle for sniper applications. With this, it became the first rifle to be developed solely for military target shooting; previously, sniper rifles had essentially been modified hunting rifles. This initially produced a .50 calibre version, which is still used today, along with a .300 Win Mag version, which allowed for an interchangeable barrel in .308 Win.
The .300 Win Mag didn’t fulfil army penetration requirements, so they continued their research, intent on projecting a heavier bullet at the same kind of velocities. Initial tests began using the .378 Weatherby Magnum case necked down to .338, but the design caused a multitude of feeding problems. They then turned to a well-known big game calibre as the parent case, taking the .416 Rigby down to .338. The new calibre was born as the .338/.416, loaded with a 250-grain Hornady HPBT bullet.
This still didn’t satisfy the US military – owing, it is believed, to the bullet choice. As contract deadlines grew nearer, Lapua was approached to help finish development of both the case and bullet. By 1985, final test products were shipped to the United States Army. A year later, the calibre went on to win the 1,000-yard Navy Rifle competition, but military selection parted company with the design, instead opting for a .50 calibre version.
With the lack of a potential government contract, Lapua was left with the remnants of the new .338. With management of Lapua opting to continue with development, the first test rifles were built on Sako L61 and Weatherby Mark V actions. The case dimensions underwent minor alterations, resulting in it being shortened by almost 2mm. The internal structure was also strengthened to withstand higher chamber pressures. Although it had started life some years before, the overall changes were substantial and a new cartridge was born.
The first mass-produced version of the .338 Lapua came from the now famed Accuracy International. It was soon followed by Sako, chambering the cartridge in its renowned TRG-41. At the time AI had the British military contract to supply sniper rifles, but the .338 Lapua was not included in this list. This came later, in 2008, when the first batch of L115A3s arrived in Afghanistan to help curve the insurgents’ enthusiasm. Today most Western armies use the awesome power of the .338 Lapua in their sniping armoury.
It was never designed to be a hunting rifle, but as with many things in life, its original purpose doesn’t stop people from experimenting. Although it is far more at home in a Barrett, in 2011 Weatherby offered its Mark V in .338 Lapua with a 26in barrel and built-in muzzle break. This was, of course, intended for the long-range hunting that is so popular in America. There are now a number of other manufacturers chambering hunting rifles for the cartridge, including Savage, H-S Precision and McMillan.
As is the trend with smaller, flatter, faster calibres, the .338 Lapua had the same treatment as the .284 Winchester, with a 6.5-338 wildcat version coming into existence sometime after. This produced some spectacular ballistics, although information is difficult to find. Lapua gives stats of a 139-grain bullet producing muzzle velocities of 3,780fps. By comparison, the acclaimed 6.5-284 would project the same bullet at about 3,000fps. Of course, barrel life is something that has to be whispered quietly, as you’re likely to change your socks less often.
The .338 Lapua is unlikely ever to be considered as a viable hunting calibre in the UK, although it is being used for long-distance target shooting. As you might expect, though, the Americans haven’t shied away from harnessing the impressive ballistics on live quarry. Of course, there are ethical considerations at play here. The application of the .338 Lapua tends to be for super long-range hunting, where 1,000 yards is often passed. This aside, it is interesting to note, if only academically, what can be achieved.
Accuracy is in no doubt, with it already proving itself on human-dimensioned marks at ranges over a mile on a regular basis. The practicalities of a hunting rifle do prove tricky, mainly owing to the long barrel required to get the most out of this large-cased calibre. Loaded with slow burning powder, it needs a full 26in of barrel, which makes for an ungainly rifle when fitted with a moderator. You will need strong arms too, with even the lightest rifle weighing 9.5lb. That said, you will be glad of the weight when it comes to shooting it, and a moderator or muzzle brake is a must. BP