Friday, June 28, 2013

The Case Against the Medium Bore....or Why I Hate the .338 Winchester Magnum

"For what I want to eat on the right, and for what wants to eat me on the left..."
It's long been said that the .338 Winchester Magnum is the .30-06 of Alaska. While it's certainly very popular here, it is of course not the '06 of Alaska....that title rightly goes to the actual .30-06 which is considerably more popular here than even the much ballyhooed .338 Win Mag.  I'll say at the onset that I think the .338 is a very fine hunting cartridge- no doubt about it, it will kill game "deader than fried chicken" with aplomb. Deadly in the field or not- it's a cartridge I just can't cozy up to no matter what. I guess you could say that I've got some real prejudices against it after owning (and disposing of) two. So  my criticism comes from experience.

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. 

Big Bears.

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.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Interesting post, here in blighty the .338 Lapua has quite a following amongst long range target shooters, but is probably over kill even for the biggest Reds.

You mentioned a friend shooting a .25, the 25-06 is getting more popular here, similar bullet weights to the ubiquitous .243 but they tell me a little harder hitting. I'd love to hear your thoughts?


hodgeman said...

SBW- I believe the .338 Lapua is popular with the long range crowd because of the good ballistic coefficients available in .338 projectiles and the velocities are high enough to make true long range shooting effective. Certainly a specialist's rifle.

I've messed with .25s comparitively very little, mostly the .257 Weatherby- on deer size game the bigger .25s shoot very flat, have little recoil and new bullet designs like the TSX and Accubonds make them more effective than ever before. I can imagine over there where you lack really big game they are a great choice as the are in whitetail and mule deer country.

A friend of mine talked me out of the .257WBY before I could shoot any critters, but it was a laser beam to 400yds. It was Roy Weatherby's favorite cartridge- and that says a lot in itself.

Phillip said...

Good stuff, once again. The point about the .338 being more than many hunters can handle accurately is probably the most critical aspect of the whole discussion.

I fell into a personal love affair with the .325wsm. It's not a round I'd recommend for the sole reason that it's fairly hard to get ammo, but for the handloader it's a pretty sweet (and mostly valid) blend of .300 trajectory and .338 terminal performance. Recoil is completely manageable, even without the brake... although the brake makes it one of my favorite rifles to shoot.

As to the .25, I've seen a lot of hogs killed with the 25-06 and they're pretty tough critters. The round is easy to shoot and accurate as hell at reasonably long ranges too.

I don't have the memory to compare ballistics, but anecdotally I do think it hammers critters a lot harder than the .243 (with which I've also killed a couple of hogs and lots of deer).

Should Fish More said...

Like many cheechakos, I got a .338 in 1974 when I moved to Alaska. I remember what my inside shoulder looked like after firing 20 rounds at the first shooting. No pads or anything like that.

I never used it, got a caribou on my dad's .270 with no issue, and the only moose I might have shot was one that, on the second year, I snowshoed up Quartz Creet 6 miles, got a decent bull in the scope, then thought....'what do I do with this afterwards, alone, not sufficient, planning. I walked back to the rig and drove home.

Anonymous said...

The .338 Lapua is pretty ridiculous.

If you look at the load data, velocity of the .338 Lapua drops to the muzzle velocity of the .338 WM in about 200 yards, using the same bullets. If the .338 LM is a 1500-yard cartridge, the .338 WM must be a 1300-yard cartridge... using 30 grains less of powder...

The Lapua is also probably not carried very far!

There is nothing wrong with the .338 WM that can't be fixed by either more weight or a nice loud brake, just like the .338 LM. Or a soft-shooting semi-auto action. Of course it still probably falls short for bears...

Maybe the 9.3x62 makes more sense for a one-size-fits-all rifle in Alaska?

Eric Strabel said...

Hodge, what are your thoughts on the 338-06 chambering for Alaska?

hodgeman said...

I think the .338-06 is a wonderful cartridge- easy to shoot and hits very hard. Basically a "modern" .35 Whelen. It doesn't share the .338WM's bad manners and typically is a lighter rifle with 4 or 5 in the magazine as a bonus.

I've messed with several and all shot great. The fastest way to a .338-06 is to send any old -06 or .270 you have laying around and send it to JES for a rebore job. Reasonable and fast.

kenneth said...

the 338 win mag does not kick nor does the 340 wby but every one has their recoil limits to some they cant take it every one is diferent the 458 win mag kicks but I can still put the bullet where it needs to be. look at it this way you are going to get smaked anyway you might as well make the frist shoot count.

Chris Valerio said...

From my actual hunting field experience... I've hunted The World from Europe, Africa, Alaska, Arctic... obviously depending on shot placement, bullet choice and other many variables, I believe big game hit with a 338 Winchester go down much faster than any lesser cartridge. Especially when shooting 210/250 Nosler Partitions. Shoot a 300 Winchester, a round I like, you might as well be shooting a 30-06 for most hunting situations. The 338 is a big step up in performance when hunting Moose, Elk, Bear... I once shot a bull elk at 175 yards with a 338 250 NP, chest shot with a solid bullet smack and this bull dropped like the carpet was jerked out from underneath! I've never seen a 30-06 do that. A 375 H&H did the same to a moose at 50 yards. At the shot the moose simply vanished in the tall grass! A 7 Rem Mag/30-06 and 300 Win will also kill moose/elk but not as quick in my experience. A 375 H&H is not really a stopping cartridge as one angry moose at 30 feet took 5 well placed 375 shots to stop him from charging! Were that a Buff, I would have been in real trouble! Still in my opinion the 338 and 375 are among the best all-use hunting rounds and I favor the 338 for shots out to 400 yards on big game. I like to pair the 338 with the 7 Remington Magnum for hunting most big game. If there is a good chance what I hunt can bite/claw up/trample, I prefer my 416 Remington Mag. I also like the 243 Win and 30-06, especially with recent DRT frangible hunting bullets, which most cover their eyes and ears over. They just do not understand the potential new technology, where a 95 grain 243 Win drops elk and way out there! I love the 338 Win and it's my 1 gun pick, but DRT bullets in 30-06/300Win may take away some 338 Thunder? I recall when the Berger VLD hunting bullets first came out many complained about/laughed at the new technology. These days Berger's are popular for hunting/long range. Today many scoff at DRT hunting bullets. Soon DRT style bullets could change everything regarding caliber choice for hunting?

Unknown said...

Man up the 338 win
Mag kills big bears like the 270 kills deer