THE 338 WINCHESTER MAGNUM: KING OF THE ELK CARTRIDGES.
The one cartridge that can legitimately carry that mythical label of the "all-around North American big game caliber" is the .338 Winchester Magnum. Here is a modern, efficient .30-'06 length case, chambered in a bevy of reasonably priced rifles, blessed with some of the finest game bullets ever developed, approximating the smashing energy of the .375 H&H and the stretch-string trajectories of the .300 Win. Mag.
A middle-of-the-road compromise cartridge? Don't you believe it, It just happens to be the finest general-purpose elk cartridge available.
Released in 1959 in Winchester's "Alaskan" Model 70, the .338 Win. Mag. was the second cartridge to be introduced in Winchester's "short magnum" series that included the .458 Win. Mag. and the .264 Win. Magnum. Positioned midway between the bone crunching .458 and the flat shooting .264, the .338 Win. Mag. soon acquired a reputation of being one of the world's premier medium bores.
Origins Of The .33
The .338 Win. Mag. was not Winchester's first foray into the world of the .338 caliber. In 1902. Winchester had introduced the .33 Winchester cartridge for their Model 1886 lever action. Loaded with 200 gr. soft points and solids at 2,200 fps, the .33 Winchester developed an excellent reputation on big game.
Shortly thereafter in 1911, Jeffery brought out their .333 Flanged and Rimless Nitro Express that propelled a 250 gr. bullet at 2,500 fps and a 300 gr. pill at 2,200 fps/ The .333Jeffery proved to be a very effective big game load in Africa and India.
In the mid-1940s, Charles O'Neil, Elmer Keith and Don Hopkins necked the .30-'06 case to .333 and created the .333 OKH to be followed by the .334 OKH based on the .375 H&H Mag. case. Heavily promoted by Keith in all of his later writings, the OKH wildcats probably did as much as anything to rekindle Winchester's interest in their old .338 caliber.
When it was released to the public, the .338 Win. Mag. was advertised as the ideal North American magnum for our largest game including brown bear, grizzly elk and moose.
With due credit to Winchester, early factory ammunition was loaded very close to advertised velocities from the 25" original Model 70 Alaskan. Winchester's loadings consisted of a 200 gr. Power Point at 3,000 fps, a 250 gr. Silvertip at 2,700 fps, and a 300 gr. Power Point at 2,450 fps. What's more, the ammunition shot with impressive accuracy The average Model 70 Alaskan .338 turned out to be a real tack driver.
While unnecessarily powerful for mule and white-tail deer, the .338 Win. Mag. really comes into its own as an elk cartridge. Elk are large, heavy-boned, heavy-muscled deer. A mature Rocky Mountain bull elk measures roughly 8 feet long, stands 5 feet at the shoulder, and averages 700 lbs. The Roosevelt elk of the Pacific Northwest is somewhat larger with an average weight between 700 and 1,100 lbs.
Elk hunting of the guided variety is extremely expensive. Public tags, typically on a unit-draw basis, are simply worth their weight in gold. Consequently the proper selection of rifle and ammunition has never been more important, and moving up to a larger caliber makes uncommonly good sense.
What makes elk hunting demanding of rifle and cartridge is not only the size and vitality of this regal trophy but the variety of habitats in which elk can be found. Ideally, one wants to be carrying a caliber that will soundly anchor a big ball on a close-in shot in thick timber or the rain-soaked jungles of the Pacific Northwest, and at the same time be capable of reaching out to 400 yards across open meadows, mountain parks and wide canyons with energy to spare. The .338 Win. Mag. is blessed on both points.
Losing Weight With Age
The reputation of the earlier .33 caliber, bolt-action cartridges was made with bullets weighing 250 to 300 grs. Those long, snaky .33 caliber slugs exhibited terrific sectional densities, high retained velocities and energy and penetrated like knives through butter. While the 300 gr. loading has virtually disappeared, the 250 gr controlled expansion spitzer is still a formidable projectile in this cartridge.
Recoil is a factor in the .338. Stepping up to a true medium bore magnum, many hunters can tolerate the .338 Win. Mag. when shooting 200, 210 and 225 gr. bullets, but find it decidedly uncomfortable when bullet weights hit 250 grs. or more. Of course, you can always resort to a muzzle brake, but fewer and fewer hunters find this option acceptable. Their hearing is just too precious.
While there is a great assortment of factory, premium .338 Win. Mag. ammunition on the market today, the .338 is an accommodating case to reload with good brass life, high loading density, manageable pressures and generally excellent accuracy. More importantly, it can be safely handloaded to exceed the performance of several standard factory rounds. According to RCBS' latest data, the .338 Win. Mag. ranks 12th in rifle die sales, putting it ahead of likely competitors such as the .300 Weatherby, 7mm STW and .300 Rem. Ultra Magnum.
Loading Your Own
Here's what it takes to tailor some proven and effective handloads for elk.
Premium bullets weighing in the 200, 210 and 225 gr. range are by far the most popular being loaded today They offer sufficient height and weight, high sectional densities and ballistic coefficients, excellent penetration and can easily be driven at velocities from 2,800 to 3,050 fps, resulting in flat trajectories and high retained energies.
Based on our experience, 200 to 210 gr. bullets also seem to produce quicker kills on elk than 250 gr. or heavier projectiles. What we do insist upon in an elk bullet is one that cannot physically break apart and shed its jacket and core. At today's level of technology that means a partitioned, bonded core or homogeneous projectile.
Excellent controlled-expansion bullets in this category include Nosier's 210 gr. and 225 gr. Partitions, Barnes' 200 gr., 210 gr. and 225 gr. "X" bullets, Winchester's 230 gr. Fail Safe, Speer's 225 gr. Grand Slam and Swift's 225 gr. A-Frame.
The three best performing and readily available powders in the .338 with these bullet weights are RL-19, IMR-4350 or H4350 and IMR-4831 or H-4831. If we were limited to just a single powder, it would be Alliant's RL-19. This powder simply provides the very best possible balance between high velocity, safe pressures, loading density and accuracy in the Winchester case.
Large rifle magnum primers are almost universally the primers of choice. A Federal 215, Rem. 9 1/2M, CCI 250 or Win. WLRM will do just fine.
The Long And Short Of It
Let's suppose you're just beginning to load the .338 Win. Mag. for elk and are looking for a quick, easy, field-proven recipe that performs at close range yet has a flat trajectory and sufficient energy for longer shots.
If we had to live with only one .338 Win. Mag. handloaded for elk, it would probably be the 210 gr. Nosler Partition bullet loaded in Winchester cases to 3.340" overall length and propelled by either 73.0 grs. of IMR-4350 for 2,900 fps or 74.0 grs. of RL-19 for 2,910 fps. (Note: The latest Nosler manual lists 76.0 grs. of RL-19 for 3,020 fps.) These are maximum recommended loads so you are cautioned to back off 10 percent and work up, but they do shoot.
Our choice between the two powders would be based on accuracy alone. Most .338s would produce three-shot, 100-yard groups hovering around 1" or less with 73.0 grs. of IMR-4350. Our shooting records list many groups in the 1/2" to 5/8" range with the same load producing 1 1/4" groups at 200 yards.
Zeroed for 250 yards, the 210 gr. Nosler is 3" high at 100 yards, only 4" low at 300, and 17" low at 400 yards. That's elk medicine. At 400 yards, it is still packing two tons of energy. This load has accounted for a lot of elk steaks in our house.
The X Files
In this same class of 200 to 210 gr. elk bullets offering exceptional penetration and controlled expansion are the Barnes homogenous copper, .338 "X" bullets. They require clean bores to perform, should be loaded .050" off the lands to control pressure, and we strongly recommend using the loading data found in the Barnes handbook.
Some barrels shoot the "X" bullets very well and some do not. The homogenous bullet does not have the elasticity of a lead core bullet and is less forgiving if the diameter of the bullet and the internal dimensions of the bore are not an ideal match. Having said that, the "X" bullet really performs and likes to be driven hot.
Barnes offers seven grain weights in .338 caliber ranging from 160 to 250 grs. When it was first introduced, we used the 175 gr. flat-based XFB with 66.0 grs. of RL-15 for 3,105 fps in a Winchester Alaskan and dropped a cow elk at 75 yards so fast it looked like the rug had been pulled out from under her. We are a little bit more conservative now and would recommend their 200 gr. XFB with 76.0 grs. of RL-19 or their 210 gr. XBT with 73.0 grs. of RL-19 for about 3,000 fps.
The XFB bullet forms driven at maximum velocities have always shot more consistently in my .338s than in the boat-tail (XBT) form. Both bullets are pure dynamite on elk and typically penetrate completely.
Years ago when all we had in the 225 gr. weight class were conventional lead core, copper jacketed bullets, I didn't see much use for them. The 225 gr. bullet didn't offer any significant performance advantage over the existing 210 gr. Nosler Partition bullet, and it came up short when compared to the classic 250 gr. loading.
Given the advances in bullet technology since then, the modern 225 gr. projectile can do what our older 250 gr. bullets did years ago. It may be nirvana or the ideal compromise bullet for your rifle.
A Slam In The Shoulder
Last, but not least, the 250 gr. is the classic bullet for the .338 Win. Mag. You don't necessarily need it for elk hunting, but if the additional recoil generated by this weighty projectile does not bother you. by all means try it.
The controlled expansion 250 gr. bullet has a high sectional density and ballistic coefficient and surprisingly good ranging qualities. It delivers tremendous energy and penetration upon impact. In thick elk covers, it gives the hunter the edge that maybe essential to the conclusion of a successful hunt.
In terms of hunting trajectory, take Nosler's 250 gr. Partition at 2,780 fps. Zeroed for 250 yards, it is 3" high at 100 yards, 4" low at 300 yards and 18" low at 400 yards. That's flat -- as flat as the lighter-but-faster 210 gr. Partition.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the 250 gr. Nosler Partition ahead of 71.5 grs. of H-4831. With it I took a stunning 6x7 at a little over 200 yards during an elk season in which I had exactly one day -- the last day of the season -- to hunt because of out-of-country work commitments. The splendid bull was facing downhill at a slight angle. At the shot, the bullet broke the near shoulder and ranged through the lungs and exited. He may have moved five feet, but I don't think so.
The .338 Win. Mag. is simply "heap big wapiti medicine."