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A wildcat powerhouse; .338-06.

* After about five minutes of conversation while sitting across the dining room table from John E. Baczuk (5739 149th S.E., Dept. GA, Bellevue, WA 98006), I knew had found my riflemaker. It was immediately apparent he had the necessary knowledge to do the job I had in mind, and a look at some of his work in progress and a few finished pieces left no doubt as to his skill. I had arrived at John's house without any decisions cast in concrete. I wanted a custom bolt-action rifle capable of handling any North American game. The rest was open for discussion.

When the smoke cleared several hours later, together we had come to the following decisions: The rifle was to be built on a Sako L61R action using a Shilen #5 contour barrel and a Canjar trigger. John would design and build a tang safety to be welded to the existing tang of the Sako action. While up in Spokane, Washington, John would stop off at Al Biesen's shop and pick up two top quality, closely matched walnut stock blanks; one for the .338-06 and one for a future matching rifle in a lighter caliber. (This turned out to be a .257 Ackley Improved now taking shape in John's shop.) An Al Biesen checkered stell buttplate, Jerry Fisher Grip cap and Talley swivel bases with Jaeger 1-inch QD swivels would complete the metalwork on the stock.

Since this was to be a hunting rifle and with a thought toward preserving John's eyesight, checkering on the stock was set at a tasteful 22 lines-per-inch. The barrel, at John's urging, would not be "free floated," but would be full-forearm bedded. Judgisng from the way the finished product shoots, I'm very pleased I listened to John on this one. The overall length of the rifle was important as it had to fit into a custom-made Lawrence Model 55X saddle scabbard. This resulted in a final barrel length of 22-5/8 inches. Redfield mounts and rings, a Zeiss 3-9X scope and a Latigo sling completed the package.

"But wait!," you say. "What was the choice of cartridge?" I thought you'd never ask. After much discussion and with strong statements of support from John, we settled on the .338-06; a non-magnum wildcat that would give virtual magnum ballistics in a more efficient form and allow a 5-round magazine capacity in the Sako action. Let's take a look at this natural successor to the famous .35 Whelen and the not so famous .333 OKH.

The .338-06 is a logical outgrowth of the wildcatting experience and the relatively recent trend toward more efficient cartridges. Of course, the venerable .30-05 has served as the basis of many good (and not so good) wildcats over the years. It has spawned several now-commercial cartridges that are best sellers in their own right: the .270 Win., 25-06, and the .280 Remington. There are certainly more cartridges based on the .30-06 than these, however. Just imagine a bullet diameter, and you can rest assured someone has "built it up" using the '06 case.

Many of those wildcats never gained popularity. They were either too specialized in application (i.e., the .224-06), or they duplicated the performance of an existing cartridge. When the latter was true, about the only reason for choosing the wildcat is the proprietary and indefinable magic of widlcatting itself.

Some of the '06-fathered wildcats to serve a "gap-filler" function, providing an efficient and capable catridge for several hunting and/or shooting situation. The .338-06 is a fine example of a tailored wildcat. It takes advantage of the superb .338-inch diameter Nosler, Hornady and Speer premium game bullets, and is capable of outstanding accuracy at very respectable down-range velocities. Yet, it uses less powder than a "magnum."

Let's take a closer look at the .338-06: How it's made, loading procedures and fire forming, the components, and the proof of any "ballistic pudding," how well it shoots.

Forming the case is a snap. Simply run virgin .30-06 brass onto a tapered. 338 cal. expander ball (RCBS makes a die for this). The case comes out with the neck expanded to .338-inches. By using untrimmed, virgin '06 cases, a small ridge remains inside the neck (mouth) of the case to gently hold the bullet for fireforming (more on this later). That's all there is to it--run the '06 brass onto the neck expander die. Period.

If you can reload .30-06, you can reload .338-06, too. We mentioned that by using virgin '06 brass, the fireforming load for a new case is more easily made due to the slightly ragged case mouth left on new factory brass. Here's how we did it in John's shop--I'll outline case preparation step-by-step so you can see the advantage of untrimmed new brass.

First, secure four or five boxes of new factory brass of the same lot number. Properly loaded, these cases should last for years. We used Winchester-Western unprimed cases since they are usually harder in the head/web area, and have thinner case walls (more internal capacity) than most other brands. The annealed necks on Winchester brass make for longer case life, too. Don't trim these new case! Simply run them over the .338 expander, lubing the necks with graphite or case lube to keep them from stretching and work-hardening. The slightly ragged mouth left on the expanded neck will serve to hold the bullets for your first firing--the fireform process.

To complete loading, prime the case per usual loading procedure, dump in 56 grains of IMR 4320 (or 4350, your choice), and finger seat a bullet. That ragged, bumpy case mouth we didn't trim holds the bullet snugly enough to get the cartridge to the range for the first fireforming shot.

What about subsequent loadings of the fireformed cases? No problem. Either ship three fireformed cases and bullets to Huntington Die Specialties for a set of custom-made dies, or save some money and order a two-die set from the same folks, specifying, ".338-06 two-die set, series G with a full-length resize die."

Now that the cases are fireformed, trim them all to the same length. I use a Brown Precision "Uniformer" while the fired primers are still in the pockets. This deburs the flash hole from the inside, and makes all flash holes the same diameter and same length. Then, reload as you normally would any other bottleneck rifle cartridge. Don't forget about headspace, though, when you set up your new sizing die for the first time. John cuts his chambers to match specifications. The new factory brass with finger seated bullets don't have any appreciable headspace. If someone else chambers your barrel, consider finger-seating your bullets as long as possible so that the bullet ogive seats against the chamber throat. Bolt closure causes the cartridge to be supported at both ends. Most important, the case head is held axially against the bolt face. On firing, the case expands against the chamber walls and is "fireformed." That fireformed case is then used to set up the sizing die so the case shoulder isn't set back by screwing the die body too far down into the press. To accomplish this, dip the fireformed case neck into powdered graphite and insert partially into the resizing die until the neck is resized about half way to the shoulder. Continue gradually screwing the sizing die down until the neck is resized to about 1/64 inch above the shoulder. The graphite on the neck makes this very easy to see. As the die is lowered, the black graphite smear progressively approaches the shoulder. Don't forget to set the lock-ring on the die! Set your sizing dies like this, and you've "fitted" the sizing die to your rifle's chamber. More than one rifle in the same caliber means resetting the die when loading for the other rifle's chamber as no two chambers are alike.

Bullets, powder and primers are all standard components. Extensive test firing has shown the 200-grain Speer and 225-grain Hornady bullets are ideal for the first firings of the newly formed cases. A good fireform load that's mild, yet stout enough to expand the neck and shoulder to fit the chamber is Speer's 200-grain bullet and 56 grains of IMR 4320 and Winchester-Western WLR primer. Incidentally, although this is a mild fireforming load, it regularly shot 3 shots under 1 inch at 100 yards from my rifle. The premium bullets are well constructed--heavy tapered or interlocking cupro-nickel jackets over 3 percent antimony-lead alloy cores. The Nosler 210-grain partition spitzers have been touted by experts like Bob Hagel and Ken Howell as "one of the finest long range game bullets ever made." Conversations with Gail Root at Nosler reveal that this bullet is designed to function, that is, mushroom yet retain 75 percent of its mass weight, at impact velocities of 1,700 to 3,200 feet per second (fps). My .338-06, loaded with Nosler's 210-grainer on top of 59 grains of IMR 4320 and a CCI BR-2 primer, produces an instrumental velocity of 2,820 fps measured on my Oehler 33 Chronotach, with the first of the two Skyscreen II units placed 12 feet from the muzzle and an exact 10-foot spacing between the Skyscreens. I can therefore expect reliable results from this premium bullet out to 500 yards with this load.

Powders for this cartridge are no problem. Medium slow burners seem to give the best results, producing a balance among velocity obtainable, loading density (90 percent or more of case volume filled), and accuracy. With the 210-grain Nosler, the best powder vote goes to IMR 4320. With this combination velocities can approach the .338 Win. Mag., accuracy is superb--less than minute of angle (MOA)--and case life doesn't suffer. Other good powders for the light end of the bullet spectrum are H-414, IMR 4064, and W-W 760. Graduating to the big 250-grainers (Hornady, Speer, Sierra spitzers, and Nosler semi-spitzer Partition), the slower powders--H-205, IMR or H-4350, and IMR 4831--are desirable. However, in my rifle, 4320 again got the nod. No advantage has been observed using the really slow, high impulse powders like H-450, H-4831 or Norma MRP; they simply aren't needed under a .338-diameter bullet in a case this size. Remember, it's not a "magnum"--it only tries to shoot that way. The slowest powders don't seem to provide the balance of velocity, loading density and accuracy that slightly faster powders do.

In my effort to remove any potential impediment to achieving maximum accuracy, I chose to use only match grade primers in my load development. The best equipment deserves the best components. The CCI BR-2 and Federal 210 M Match primers, when tested, didn't seem to be needed with the medium/fast powders. This may not be the case in extremely low temperature hunting situations, but a stint at the bench on a fall Wyoming mule deer trip showed no appreciable ignition problems using the CCI BR-2.

How does it shoot? Well, the worst performing primer/bullet/powder combination tested still printed into 2-1/4 inches at 100 yards. My rifle showed a marked correlation between small group sizes and small shot-to-shot velocity variations on the Oehler 33 chronotach. My best all-around hunting load is the 210-grain Nosler, 59.0 grains of IMR 4320, the W-W case and a CCI BR-2 primer, as previously mentioned. This load has an extreme velocity spread of 13 fps and averages, 2,820 fps, 12 feet from the muzzle. Three-shot groups under 3/4 inche are common with this combination in my rifle, with the best to date measuring .392 inch. It looks like John Baczuk built a medium bore brenchrester!

A quick trip through the Nosler Manual ballistic tables will show you this load will outperform any .30-06, .270 Win. or .280 Rem. in the book. It hits harder at any practical range (less than 400 yards) than the 7mm Remington Magnum, and gives up nothing to the 175-grain factory loading at 300 yards in terms of drop.

My rifle has taken two very large mule deer bucks on the well-known Maycock Ranch outside of Gillette, Wyoming. The first was taken at 140 yards by 1 shot just behind the left shoulder. The bullet hit a rib on entry, passed through both lungs, clipped the liver and took out the last rib on exit wound was golf ball sized; the off side hip was streaked with blood and viscera as though it was painted on in a 4-inch-wide swath. The animal swapped ends when hit, ran 20 yards and then piled up stone dead. The second buck was taken at 235 measured yards. The animal was lying down in the sagebrush looking straight at me with only its head and 4 inches of throat available as a target area. Confidence in the rifle and familiarity with the load prompted me to take the shot. Conditions were good; light breeze, adequate light, and a good rest for the forearm were available. This 1 shot kill broke the neck behind the throat, so of course the bullet wasn't recovered. The exit wound was fist-sized, since considerable bone accompanied the bullet on the way out. Both these racks are on the wall and more will undoubtedly be added over the years. The rifle has been on one snowed-out elk hunt and will be the main player this spring in a wild boar hunt with my old friend Mike Ballew on California's Dye Creek Ranch. The demonstrated penetration of the 210-grain Nosler in the .338-06, coupled with the bullet's superior weight retention, should carve through the boar's gristle chest shield with no problem.

In developing loads for this rifle, I proceeded very cautiously, ever mindful of the beautiful rifle I was testing and the vulnerability of the man behind it. I noted case head expansion and watched for primer deformation. However, with this rifle, the most reliable signs of maximum pressure levels were given by expanding primer pockets. While I never experienced a blown primer, "absolute maximum" loads had very sloppy primer pockets when reloading these cases was attempted. Loads designated as "favorite hunting load" had no such problem. It is particularly important when working up a load for any wildcat that the "go slow" rule be observed. No two chambers will be exactly the same in any two rifles regardless of the cartridge. But with wildcats, the differences can be dramatic!

When my .338-06, using my favorite Nosler load, is compared to the factory data given by Winchester for their 200-grain PPSP in the .338 Winchester Magnum, interesting facts come to light. At 300 yards, my non-magnum .338-06 strikes the target with 195 ft/lbs. more energy with a trajectory that is 1/4 inch flatter. In terms of efficiency, therer is no contest. Using Nosler's Reloading Manual Number Two, their medium load for the .338 Win. Mag. and their 210-grain Partition bullet averages a fairly consistent 72.8 grains of powder for an average of 2,788 fps. My favorite hunting load for the .338-06 (not the maximum load tested!) using this bullet requires 19 percent less powder for approximately 60 fps greater muzzle velocity! And all of this from a rifle with a barrel 1-3/8 inches shorter than either of the test rifles used by Winchester or Nosler.

It is with the heavier bullet weights that the larger case capacity of the .338 Win. Mag. begins to tell. My favorite hunting load using the 250-grain Nosler Partition Spitzer on top of 54.0 grains of IMR 4320 and the CCI BR-2 primer produces 2,523 fps 12 feet from the muzzle. While less than published factory ballistics for the 250-grain Silvertip 338 Win. Mag., my .338-06 gives up only 6 percent in striking energy at 300 yards and has a trjectory only 1/2 inch lower. Hardly a difference either the hunter or the game animal would notice. If for some reason I ever feel the need for bullets heavier than 250 grains, I'll use my .375 H&H rather than asking my .338-06 to do the impossible.

There can be no doubt that the 338 Win. Mag. can be safely handloaded to performance levels no sane .338-06 owner would dare attempt. If you want maximum performance, buy a magnum. But if your interest lies with a wildcat that can deliver magnum or near-magnum results with greatly reduced muzzle blast, recoil and expense, then possibly the .338-06 is the cartridge you've been looking for.

In conclusion, a big game hunter wanting but one rifle to take everything from antelope and big mulies at long ranges in arid country, to big game like bears or moose in thick brush and bad weather, would be hard pressed to find a better cartridge than the .338-06. It's not even necessary to spend a lot of money on a custom rifle to won this superb wildcat. Choose any one of the fine factory rifles available in .30-06, have it rechambered and rebored to .338-06 by John Baczuk or another quality gunsmith in your area, top it off with a first-class scope suitable to your type of hunting and you're in business. If your hunting is done in areas where the weather is particularly nasty, one of the fiberglass or Kelvar stocks might be considered as insurance against stock warpage. Keep in mind, however, that the recoil generated by the .338-06 is similar to the .300 Winchester Magnum with 180-grain bullets. A featherweight .338-06 might be a little hard on the nerves.

With the wonderful selection of .338 bullets now available to the handloader, the transition from the .35 Whelen to the .338-06 seems inevitable. I have confidence in the fine rifle built for me by John Baczuk, Jr., and in the excellent cartridge he persuaded me to use. It is powerful, versatile, utterly reliable, and economical as compared with its nearest competitors.

Shortly before this article went to press, the .338-06 returned from Gail McMillian, that master of fiberglass stocks and accurate rifles, in Phoenix, Arizona. Gail had placed the barreled action in one of his weatherproof stocks, following John Baczuk's formula including castoff, drop, etc. He applied a camo finish of blue/grey, dark blue and black that looks surprisingly handsome next to the deep blue finish of the steel. Now John Baczuk's masterpiece in wood can be locked safely away for display during those less hectic months of the year while the .338-06 goes afield, as accurate as ever, without fear of stock warpage or the dents and dings that go with rigorous hunting.
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Title Annotation:Joh E. Baczuk
Author:Steer, Geoff
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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