Craig Boddington

In America, above .30-caliber, cartridge popularity drops like a thrown rock. This is as it should be. Little on this continent that can’t be done with a .30-caliber and good bullets. Millions of American deer hunters don’t even need a .30, filling their freezers and trophy walls just fine with lighter calibers.

Boddington and Jack Atcheson Jr. with a Montana mule deer taken with a .338 Win Mag. Atcheson is a huge .338 fan, rarely using any other cartridge…anywhere. For deer-sized game, Boddington usually uses lighter cartridges. But, as Atcheson says, the .338 “numbs them.”

Still, we do have larger game: Elk, moose, the big bears. Hunters who pursue them—and those who dream of such hunts—love to argue around the campfire about the best and most perfect cartridges. Calibers and cartridge choices are legion. I’ve had long affairs with 8mms, diameter .323. Few cartridges and, ultimately, not enough bullets. Friend and mentor Colonel Charles Askins was the ultimate 8mm guru. Askins begged for a 250-grain 8mm bullet, but 220 grains has been the limit. Whether .325 WSM, 8mm Remington Magnum (or one of Askins’ myriad 8mm wildcats), a fast 8mm with 220-grain bullet is a wonderful thumper on elk. However, in my opinion, available bullets aren’t heavy enough for the largest bears.

Pound for pound, Boddington doesn’t believe moose are as tough as elk, but moose are much bigger. This bullet was taken at about 300 yards with a .338 RUM, firing 250-grain Swift A-Frame.

I also love the .35s. There are bunches of older .35s: .35 Remington; .348, .358, .356 Winchester. Also new: .350 Legend and .360 Buckhammer. Great for black bears and feral hogs, but either marginal in power for larger game, or not enough velocity for versatility in open country. The .35 Whelen and .350 Rem Mag are almost there in both power and velocity. Wonderful for elk and moose, just a bit on the mild side for anything bigger. Oddly, there have been almost no fast .35s. The .358 Norma Magnum is rare; the .358 Alaskan (7mm STW necked up) never made it into factory form.

In October ’23 Boddington used a .338 Win Mag barrel on his Blaser R8 on a brown bear hunt on the Alaska Peninsula. Didn’t get a bear, but he was ready.

Tough to make a case for bigger. The 9.3mms (.366-inch) are popular in Europe, used for driven boar, also by Africa-bound Europeans as alternative to .375. The two most popular—the rimless 9.3×62 in bolt-actions and rimmed 9.3x74R in single-shots and doubles—are just slightly less powerful than the .375 H&H, so plenty for North America’s largest game…but maybe don’t shoot as flat as optimum for our conditions. The faster .370 Sako and 9.3×64 Brenneke are similar to the .375 H&H in bullet weight, velocity, energy, and trajectory. Like the .375s themselves, this means they are overpowered for almost everything in North America except our biggest bears.

I’ve used various 9.3s on African buffalo, and in North America for hogs and black bear. Over here, I’ve used .375s for elk and moose, and for big bears. Awesomely effective…but more powerful than absolutely necessary. Truth is, for North American hunters on home turf, there’s little justification for a 9.3mm, .375, or larger. Fun to own, limited utility.

Left to right .325 WSM, .8mm Rem Mag, .338 Win Mag, .338 RUM, .340 Wby Mag. As a group, the “medium magnums” are extremely effective on game larger than deer. Boddington has hunted with all these and more but believes the .338 Win Mag is the most useful: Fast enough, without excessive recoil, and available in the greatest variety of loads.

If you’re looking for a cartridge with more knockdown power for North America’s large—and largest—game, it seems to me the caliber to pick is .338. Bullet selection is rich, standard at about 180 to 250 grains. There are numerous good cartridges using this bullet diameter at various velocity levels, including: .338 Federal, .338 Marlin Express, .338-06, .338 Ruger Compact Magnum (RCM), .338 Weatherby Rebated Precision Magnum (RPM) .338 Winchester Magnum, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .338 Remington Ultra Magnum (RUM), .338 Lapua Magnum, and .338-378 Weatherby.

All are adequate for elk and moose, and all are fast enough for at least medium ranges. However, if we include the biggest bears—and want the utmost in versatility—then we probably want a cartridge with enough case capacity to propel heavy bullets at meaningful velocity. I think the place to start is in the middle of that cartridge list, with the .338 Winchester Magnum.

Boddington has found most .338s to be accurate and non-finicky. His .338 Win Mag barrel for the Blaser R8 is simply amazing, producing sub-MOA groups with 250-grain bullets

 Winchester started their line of .30-06-length belted magnums in 1956 with the .458. In 1958 the family grew with two new cartridges in versions of their beloved Model 70 bolt-action: The .264 Win Mag in the “Westerner;” the .338 Win Mag in the “Alaskan.” The .338 Win Mag was intended for the largest Alaskan game, which includes elk, moose, and our biggest bears. Most common factory loads are 200, 225, and 250-grain bullets. Respectively, velocities are around 2950, 2800, and 2650 fps, all producing about 3900 ft-lbs of energy.

.33-caliber has deeper roots among British cartridges. The .333 Jeffery, available in both rimless and rimmed (.333 Flanged) versions, was loaded with 250 and 300-grain bullets. The .318 Westley Richards was more popular. Its designation comes from the inconsistent British convention of naming cartridges by the smaller land vice groove diameter: The .318 uses a .330-inch bullet, so also a .33. In the days before caliber minimums were instituted, both the .333 Jeffery and the .318 WR were used to take game up to elephant (with non-expanding solids). WDM “Karamoja” Bell, best known for preferring the .275 Rigby (7×57), wrote that his largest one-day bag of elephants was taken with a .318, using 250-grain solids.

PH Cliff Walker and Boddington with a Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, taken with a .338 RUM. Although not especially common in Africa, all the faster .338 cartridges are adequate for the full run of large African antelopes.

Gunwriter Elmer Keith (1899-1984) hailed from Idaho and hunted elk in black timber. He became a lifelong believer in larger calibers with long, heavy bullets. Working with Charles O’Neil and Don Hopkins, he used the .30-06 case and .333 Jeffery bullets to create the wildcat .333 OKH.

Winchester’s .338 used a literal .338-inch bullet. In 1902 Winchester introduced the .33 Winchester in their M1886 lever-action, using a 200-grain .338-inch bullet at 2200 fps. The .33 predated the British cartridges, but why Winchester chose the .338-inch diameter isn’t known. Although Winchester quit loading .33 Win in 1940, it’s natural that Winchester used the same diameter for their .338 Win Mag. All “.33s” that have followed, including Elmer Keith’s later wildcats, use .338-inch bullets.         

The .264 and .338 Winchester Magnums were introduced together in 1958. The .264 debuted in a version of the Winchester Model 70 called “Westerner;” the .338 was brought out in an M70 dubbed “Alaskan.”

Like most new cartridges, the .338 got a lot of buzz, but initial sales were slow. Probably because the word spread about sharp recoil. Duh! Although the lighter bullets kick less, you cannot produce nearly 4000 ft-lbs of energy without recoil, and not everyone needs this level of power. Over time, those who do discovered the .338 is wonderfully effective on large game. Lighter cartridges work fine on elk, but elk are tough, and many hunters want more. The .338 has become a standard “big gun” for elk, excellent for moose, and a sensible, fully adequate minimum for our largest bears.

Although lighter cartridges certainly work, Boddington believes the several .33-caliber cartridges are ideal for elk. This Roosevelt elk was taken with a .338 Win Mag using a 210-grain Nosler Partition.

Let’s go back to that list of current .33-caliber cartridges. The .338 RCM and Weatherby’s new .338 RPM are ballistically about the same as the .338 Win Mag, with more modern case design: The short, fat, unbelted RCM is a short-action cartridge; the RPM is unbelted. Despite its out-of-fashion belted case, the primary advantage of the .338 Win Mag is its greater popularity, offering a wider selection of loads from more manufacturers.

The last four cartridges on that list–.340 Wby Mag, .338 RUM, .338 Lapua, and .338-.378 Wby Mag—all have greater case capacity and are considerably faster than the .338 Win Mag. Energy yields approach or exceed 5000 ft-lbs.  Trajectories are flatter, thus extending effective range. These are valuable attributes, but it depends on what you need, and how much recoil you’re comfortable with. I haven’t spent much time with either the .338 Lapua or .338-.378 Wby Mag…and probably won’t. I used the .338 RUM when it was new, also did a lot of hunting with the .340 Wby Mag. Both were wonderfully effective, hard-hitting and flat shooting.

Donna Boddington used a Proof Research .338 Win Mag and a single 225-grain InterBond to take this big Alaskan brown bear on Admiralty Island.

I took the .340 to Africa a couple of times. I’m not especially sensitive to recoil, but that’s where I learned my limit. In the context of shooting plains game almost daily, I decided the .340 was more fun than needed. I circled back to the .338 Win Mag. It kicks, but I’m comfortable with that level of recoil. The faster .33s come back a bit too hard and too fast for my taste, especially on a sustained basis. Like everything else, they can be tamed with muzzle brakes. I prefer not to use brakes because of the blast and, anyway, I’m not an extreme-range shooter on game. The .338 Win Mag shoots flat enough for my purposes, with acceptable recoil.

A good black bear from southeast Alaska, taken with a Proof Research .338 Win Mag. There are many great cartridges for black bear, but the .338 is adequate for the largest bears that walk.

My old friend Jack Atcheson Jr. is a major .338 fan. Great sheep hunter and Montana elk hunter, he uses almost nothing else…all over the world. On deer-sized game the fast .33s speak with authority, but they are needlessly powerful. Trajectories are flat enough for great versatility, but I prefer lighter, faster cartridges for mountain game. For me, the .33s are fantastic for elk and moose, devastatingly effective on our largest black bears, and fully adequate for the largest bears. Perhaps oddly, I’ve used the .338 relatively little in Africa. Not sure why. It is unquestionably fully adequate for the full run of large plains game. I’ve often stated that a .338 matched up with a .416 makes the most perfect African battery.

For big bears, moose, and in Africa, I’ve usually loaded up with 250-grain bullets. It’s important to understand that the 250-grain .338 bullet has slightly higher Sectional Density (SD) than 300-grain .375 or 400-grain .416 bullets. So, if construction and velocity are similar, it will penetrate at least as well as these famous bullets. For elk and smaller game, I usually use lighter bullets from 200 to 225 grains, increasing velocity, flattening trajectory, and reducing recoil. Not everyone needs a .338, but if you want more power for larger game, I’m convinced a fast .33 is the way to go.