Long ago, in a land far, far away, a young man found himself within spitting distance of a cranky grizzly bear while carrying a borrowed 7mm Remington Magnum. By some miracle, he was not converted to bear scat, and his heart did eventually restart. Upon his return to civilization, he promptly went out and bought a .338 Winchester Magnum and has never looked back.
In 1958, Winchester shortened the .375 H&H case to fit in .30-06 length actions, necked it down to .338 and the .338 Winchester Magnum was born. It has never been wildly popular but has always had a steady following. Jim Carmicheal and Jack Atcheson were big fans.
Alaskan guides gravitated to it as a backup gun for the big bears.
That being said, the .338 isn’t for everyone. With around 30 foot-pounds of recoil (twice that of a .270), there is no question in your mind when it goes off. Handling that kind of recoil, while maintaining good accuracy, takes some practice. However, if you really want to make something dead, it is hard to beat the .338 in pure thumping power. The .338 dumps as much energy at 200 yards as the .30-06 does at the muzzle.
The .338 doesn’t have the sex appeal of the 28 Nosler or the .300 RUM. It isn’t kind and cuddly like the 6.5 Creed or your favorite .243. No, the .338 is the meat and potatoes. It’s that quiet, slightly scary guy that most folks give plenty of room until they get in a jam, and suddenly he is really popular. I play around with lots of different rifles and calibers, but in the corner of my gun closet sits my Ruger .338, and when I draw a hard-to-get tag or go hunting big things like elk, it is the gun I reach for every time.
One of the nice things about the .338 is that all the bullets in that caliber are designed to work best at .338 Winchester Magnum velocities because for a long time it was the only cartridge of that caliber around. Manufactures of .30 caliber or 7mm bullets struggle to develop bullets that will be driven anywhere from 2,600 to 3,500 feet per second. That is just hard to do. They do make .338 bullets that weigh less than 200 grains, but I think that is trying to make it something it is not. For all around use, bullets of 200 to 225 grains work well. The 250-grain bullets arrive with amazing authority.
In 2015, lightning struck, and I drew a Utah bison tag. I managed to sneak up within 330 yards of a big bull and thumped him three times with a 250-grain Swift A frame. He didn’t go 50 yards. He was probably dead after the first one, but I get excited sometimes.
No, the .338 Winchester Magnum is not the best choice for a long-range rig. It is the worst idea for an ultra-light backpacking rifle, but if you just want a reliable, works-first-time-every-time rifle, it is hard to beat.
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