Outdoors: .338 Win. Mag.: A great cartridge
Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors
In the summer of 1969 I hopped on a bus at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego where I was in radio school, and traveled north to South Gate, a suburb of Los Angeles, and headquarters of the Weatherby Co.
In my pocket was $350 — more than three months’ pay for a PFC in those days — which I planned to spend on a new .340 Weatherby Magnum. When I arrived at the store, there was a rack of Mark V Weatherbys that looked to be 50 yards long, but there was not a .340 in the lot! The salesman tried to sell me a .378 but I declined and returned to base.
Four years later I had a summer job as a bartender at the American Legion Club in Jamestown, and I met a young airman who was just leaving for Great Britain. He offered to buy a firearm for me if I simply would reimburse him for the cost.
“Sure,” I said, thinking I’d never hear from this guy again. “Find me a .338 Winchester Magnum in a Finnish deluxe grade Sako rifle.” (The .338 was first chambered by Winchester in 1958, and like the .340 Weatherby, shoots a .338 caliber bullet from a slightly smaller case than the Weatherby.)
Imagine my surprise when several months later I received a letter from him, telling me he had located a .338 for the princely sum of $180! (In those days just the L-61 action for a Sako rifle cost almost that much.)
I sent the money, received the rifle and mounted a 2-3/4 X Redfield scope on it. I handloaded 200-grain Hornady Spire-Points ahead of IMR-4831 powder and killed a half dozen elk with the rifle over the next two decades and an equal number of mule deer. Using 250-grain Nosler handloads I was in on the kill of three Alaskan brown bears with the same rifle. I grew very fond of the cartridge.
On my first caribou hunt in Alaska in 1994 we were out in the rain for days on end, the stock on my .338 warped and I missed a reasonable shot at a caribou bull. Back in camp, I couldn’t even hit a paper plate at 100 yards!
I’ve told the story before in this space — when I got home I had the rifle entirely rebuilt, salvaging only the action. I had a No. 2 contour stainless Lilja barrel from Plains, Mont., installed, an MPI synthetic stock from Portland, Ore. (it is my only synthetic stock), and a 1-3/4”-5” Burris Signature scope in Leupold mounts.
I worked up a wonderful load for the 225-grain Hornady Spire-Point using H-4831 powder, and had a five-shot group from a bench that measured less than one inch. I shot three big barren ground caribou bulls with that load, the first at 35 yards, the last at 368 paces.
I shot another elk or two with that load, and in 2001 blundered into a sensational load using the 250-grain Nosler Partition and IMR-4350 powder. In front of a witness I had three shots go into one-quarter inch! A fluke, I am sure, because I can’t shoot that well! In any case, a month later I used that load and the 250-grain Nosler to shoot a 55-inch Alaskan moose that must have weighed 1,300 pounds or more on the hoof.
(A few years later I read in the late Bob Hagel’s book, “Guns, Loads and Hunting Tips” that IMR-4350 is too fast burning for use with the 250-grain bullet. All I know is that it worked fine for me!)
The .338 is not for everyone as it does have a bit of recoil — 38 foot-pounds — or approximately twice the recoil of a .30/06. However, for anyone seeking a cartridge capable of handling anything in North America from moose and elk to the big bears and bison, a cartridge that is fine for timber hunting and does passably well on 350-yard shots, near or at the top of my list would be the .338 Winchester Magnum.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for The Sun since 1974