The .338 Win Mag may just be the most usable and versatile calibre around – certainly a serious contender for North American big game.
The .338 Win Mag was introduced in 1958, based on a necked-down version of the .458 Winchester, and saw its first appearance in the Winchester Model 70 ‘Alaskan’ bolt-action rifle. It was designed with the heaviest of North American game in mind – to be able to grass the biggest moose with ease, and tame the most ferocious bear with calculating efficiency. Indeed, it lived up to its on-paper potential, and although initially slow to gain popularity, its success spread halfway around the world to Africa, where it became widely used for larger plains game. Although it also bagged considerable numbers of dangerous game – dispatching buffalo, lion and leopard with little fuss – the minimum calibre restriction of .375 in many countries prevented the calibre from being widely used for anything beyond plains game. Among professionals, its ability to drop big buffalo has never been in question, especially after Barnes introduced the 300-grain soft nosed bullet in .338 at 2500fps. This was serious ballistic medicine for these bovine brutes. Interestingly, the heaviest bullets loaded by Federal for the two calibres (250-grain for .338 and 300-grain for .375) show that although the muzzle energy of the .375H&H is some 570ft/lb more than the 50-grain lighter .338Win Mag (4,502ft/lb and 3,929ft/lb respectively), both deliver downrange muzzle energy at 200 yards of around 2950ft/lb.
The potential of the .338 calibre was quickly tapped into by Roy Weatherby, the dean of ‘velocity at all cost’ syndrome, when introducing the .340 Weatherby Magnum in 1962. This surpassed the original design’s MV by some 150fps in the 250-grain offering. However this was largely a pointless exercise, and achieved very little except compound the short- to medium-range bullet failure problems at the time, which were due to the bullet construction being unsuitable for muzzle energies in excess of 4,000ft/lb. Impressive muzzle and downrange energies are of little use if penetration is inadequate.
This temporarily held back the calibre, before brass and gunpowder was married with Nosler Partition bullets, allowing its popularity to surge again. Soon the major manufacturers piggybacked onto an accelerating following, adding the .338 Win Mag to model lines from Remington, Savage, Sauer, Sako and Tikka.
Comparing it directly to other offerings, it is unsurprising to find that with the extra case volume and higher MV, the 180-grain .338 Win Mag sports a considerably flatter trajectory than the same bullet weight in .308 Win Mag, falling some two inches less at 200 yards.
What is most evident from the graph is the ability of the newer and arguably improved Remington Ultra Magnum to blast a 210-grain bullet downrange with an almost identical trajectory as the 180-grain Win Mag. Like the even more modern .338 Lapua Magnum, Remington’s version pushes a hefty 250-grain bullet at almost 3,000fps, and benefits from a case design without a belt, which is said to provide better head-spacing and longer case life. Furthermore, the impeccable accuracy of the .338 Lapua Magnum blows the older Winchester .338 out of the water as far as far as printing groups on paper is concerned.
So the question really is: Has the .338 Win. Mag. become redundant? This is answered by asking another question: Do people now regularly shoot game at 500-600 yards? The answer to that is no. The newer versions of the .338 are long-range calibres, and do an excellent job at it. But considering the game that would be hunted with such a calibre, and that 200 yards will probably be the longest shot taken nine times out of 10, this is probably unnecessary overkill. Analysing the graph again shows little advantage at this range, and I would suggest that the calibre still remains a potent option to this day, enjoying a respected reputation in the US and across Africa.
The recoil of the older design is noticeably less than the more modern variations, but unmoderated it is unlikely you would like to spend a day firing it on the range. Having said that, it is perfectly manageable for most people, with 1¾in groups regularly achieved with off-the-shelf rifles.
Regulations on minimum calibres aside, the .338 Win Mag may just be the most usable and versatile calibre around – certainly a serious contender for North American big game. BP