|"For what I want to eat on the right, and for what wants to eat me on the left..."|
The first thing I hate about the .338 is the recoil. It hits hard and it hits fast and while recoil isn't something I get wrapped around the axle about- most shooters just don't shoot their best with something that unpleasant to fire. When one adds in the considerable cost of ammunition you have a very unpleasant and expensive rifle to fire. The result is predictable- most folks just won't practice as much as they should with one. I've shot with a number of folks who would have been better off shooting something more reasonable in both recoil and economy. There are certainly a number of barely used models on the used racks from folks who finally gave up and went back to the '06. Most guides just dread a client rolling into camp with a .338 so new the tags are stilling hanging on it and most will suggest keeping the '06 or .270 and buying plenty of ammo for practice and some top notch ammo for the actual hunt. Time on the range and in the field trumps a ballistic table in these guy's eyes every time.
From personal experience I find the .338 incredibly unpleasant. Far more so than the .375 or even my .416 Rigby. A custom lightweight .340 Weatherby I had the misfortune of testing out still brings a tear to my eye. Here's a video of me shooting the mighty .416 Rigby, a true "elephant gun". Considerable gun weight coupled with a relatively low muzzle velocity and it's a shootable package- still a hard kicker but a not terribly so considering it's capable of shooting through even a big bear from any angle. The gentleman I purchased this from shot a 9'-4" bear end to end- chest to rump with it.
The second thing I hate about the .338 is how it's been marketed. It's been hawked from the beginning as an Alaska cartridge- capable of bears and big moose and equally as the elk hunter's cartridge. In short- it's for guys who want more "oomph" in their killing stick for those pesky big critters. While I certainly have no beef with folks wanting to "use enough gun", the variation in the size of critters here gives us a couple of points to consider. Just what is "enough gun" for what you're hunting? Keep in mind that in the last two decades bullet technology has evolved considerably- enough so that a friend punched a single 110gr .25 caliber bullet through both shoulders of a bull elk last year. 50 years ago it might not have even been possible. Something to ponder.
The overwhelming majority of hunters in Alaska are chasing just two species- the moose and the caribou. While moose are surely big, I've said before, they are surely soft for their size and readily succumb to lung shots with almost any standard cartridge. Moose are big enough that impressing them with sporting rifles is hopeless- I've seen them hit with some pretty big numbers and not even flinch. A hunter is better armed with a smaller rifle that he (or she) shoots really well and one of the modern controlled expansion bullets that will penetrate through a lot of critter. I've seen moose cleanly taken with .270s and a good friend of mine has knocked a train load of them down with a 7x57 shooting the 160gr Partition at plodding velocity. He has patience, knows where to shoot one and gets close, like Bell and the elephants, and gets his game.
Likewise, caribou are hunted in the wide open mountains and tundra, while the .338 will easily do the trick- it's certainly not the ideal round for a 200-300 pound animal. Given the terrain, a caribou hunter is better served with a flat shooting rifle that he can shoot very accurately at longer than normal range. While the .338 is a good cartridge, I've met few hunters that I'd describe as really good shots with one. Most quickly move down the bullet weight scale to something like the 210 Partition or 180gr in the .338 to flatten trajectory and lessen recoil. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but my .300 will zip a 180 grain out about as flat as a body can hope to shoot and the .270 shoots flatter with less recoil and expense yet.
As much as we don't need the .338 to shoot critters like caribou and moose, I'd be willing to accept that since overkill still winds up in the freezer provided the hunter can shoot straight. It's the other end I don't like.
No doubt about it- bears are tough animals. Tough enough in fact, that after a couple of scrapes with some biggish bears that my criticism of the .338 in Alaska mirrors how Cooper felt about the .375 in Africa...."Far too big for 90% of our hunting and too small for the remaining 10%." A common practice in Africa is to take the .375 for everything plains game- shoot one load and then throw a handful of solids in the case for shooting your Cape buffalo. It was a near disaster with a Cape buffalo shot by his friend with a .375 that soured Cooper on the .375 as an "all a rounder" for dangerous game on the Dark Continent. He really felt that a hunter was better armed with an '06 or .308 the he shot lights out for the huge variety of antelope and then going to some heavier artillery for dangerous game. Amen to that.
In the Alaska genre I completely agree. Once we start talking big coastal brown bears I start to lose faith in the .338 and think the .375 makes a good starting point and bigger is not all that unreasonable when you think about how big and dangerous bears are and how close you generally come into contact with them. Many of the guides I know carry the .375, the .416s and the .458s. None that guide for coastal bears carry a .338 at all, which should speak volumes in itself. A great many moose hunters are packing the .338 "just in case" they run into a grouchy bear while moose hunting. While it does happen, I'm not sure a bigger stick at bayonet range really changes the equation all that much when you consider the handicap you deal with all the times you're shooting game and not running into a bear.
For the meat hunter a good .300 probably represents the top end of what folks shoot well and at spitting distance is plenty for flattening Yogi since his mouth is likely going to be on the muzzle when the trigger is pulled.
While I admit the .338 offers the "one gun hunter" a truly versatile piece to hunt about anything in the North- it's only true if the shooter doesn't close his eyes before yanking the trigger (and I've met plenty who do). A true two rifle battery is probably more practical if the hunter wants to pursue all of the diverse species the state has to offer to include the great bruins. Something on the order of a .270, .308 or '06 up to a 7mm Remington mag or one of the "lesser" .300s coupled up with a .375 and on up makes a very flexible and compelling combination.