Debating .338 Lapua versus .50 BMG for your next long-range cartridge? Here we break down which will best serve your needs.
If you look at the cartridges used for the longest recorded sniper kills, you’ll notice that two, in particular, dominate the list. So, when it comes to .338 Lapua versus .50 BMG, which is the better long-range cartridge? Like with most questions in the shooting world, that depends on what you’d like to use it for.
.338 Lapua Vs. .50 BMG Ballistics
Despite both cartridges being popular for long-range shooting, they have quite different properties, the most apparent being bullet weight.
The most common .50 BMG projectiles weigh between 647 and 800 grains, while .338 Lapua Magnum bullets typically have weights of between 200 and 300 grains. Despite this, both cartridges have very similar average muzzle velocities, generally ranging between 2,500 fps and 2,900 fps for .50 BMG and between 2,600 fps and 3,000 fps for .338 Lapua.
The large difference in projectile weights but similar velocities explain the great disparity between the energies of these two cartridges. While .338 Lapua typically produces 4,700 to 4,900 foot-pounds of energy, .50 BMG produces between 12,000 and 14,000 foot-pounds.
While having increased energy can be useful for certain applications, it also comes with downsides, one of the most major being recoil impulse.
The .338 Lapua Magnum is stern, but not completely ridiculous. A 9.5-pound rifle firing a 225-grain bullet at 3,000 fps will produce about 37 foot-pounds of recoil energy, only about 2 foot-pounds more than what’s produced by common 225-grain .338 Winchester Magnum cartridges which are usually loaded to around 2,800 fps.
By contrast, a 647-grain bullet fired at 2,710 fps from a .50 BMG produces about 70 foot-pounds of recoil…from a 30-pound gun. While stout recoil can normally be dealt with by simply gritting one’s teeth and bearing it, when it’s this significant, it should play a factor in one’s decision.
Next, let's talk about trajectories by looking at 2,000-yard tables for two comparable loads. First up, we have Hornady's 750-gain A-MAX .50 BMG load, which has a G1 ballistic coefficient of 1.050 and an advertised muzzle velocity of 2,820 fps.
All tables were made using ShootersCalculator with a 200-yard zero, 1.5-inch sight height, a 10 mph 90-degree crosswind and zero corrections for atmosphere.
As you can see, it's still supersonic at 2,000 yards (one mile is 1,760 yards) and retains well over 3,000 foot-pounds of energy. It will impressively remain supersonic out to 2,625 yards, at which point it still carries more than 2,000 foot-pounds. In fact, it still has more than 1,000 foot-pounds of energy at two miles. That’s more than a .44 Magnum at the muzzle.
The good velocity retention is primarily what makes .50 BMG such a formidable cartridge for defeating light armor and vehicles. Velocity is what defeats armor after all, and .50 BMG has it in spades considering that it stays supersonic until about 1.5 miles.
But what about .338 Lapua? While Hornady doesn't offer a factory load with the A-MAX bullet, they do offer the ELD Match, which is a nearly identical design (tipped hollow-point boat tail). Here’s the table for it, featuring a 285-grain bullet with a G1 BC of 0.789 and an advertised muzzle velocity of 2,745 fps.
As you can see, the .338 Lapua loses velocity, loses energy and drops at a faster rate over the same distance (in fact dropping almost 700 additional inches at 2,000 yards) compared to .50 BMG, so its effective range is not nearly as impressive.
However, it should also be noted that the bullet doesn't drop below supersonic velocity until around 1,925 yards where it still has more energy than a .357 Magnum does at the muzzle. At 1,760 yards (1 mile) it's still supersonic with almost 900 foot-pounds of energy, easily lethal to humans and medium game.
So, while the effective range of .338 Lapua is ostensibly shorter, it's still greater than one mile. That's more than most shooters are capable of actually putting to use!
Obviously, there are many other loadings for these cartridges. These trajectory tables are only meant to give you an understanding of the general differences between them.
.338 Lapua Vs. .50 BMG: What Do You Need One For?
Comparing the two also raises he question of what you might use one for.
In a military context, both have their place. A .50 BMG sniper rifle is capable of punching holes in vehicles, light aircraft and light armored vehicles from very far away, and is an effective anti-personnel cartridge at staggeringly long distances too.
The .338 Lapua Magnum is not as capable. While light armor-piercing ammunition exists and has been used, its effective range against armor is shorter. The maximum effective anti-personnel range is also shorter, but it’s still far better than most other rifle cartridges.
If your intended purpose is ringing steel silhouettes a mile away, neither cartridge will be a problem; your ability to hit the target is more relevant. That has a lot more to do with your scope, reticle, and knowing your holds. You will need more of your Christmas tree with .338 Lapua than with .50 BMG, but you could use either cartridge at ranges greater than what you’re probably capable of reliably hitting.
If your goals are more entertainment-oriented than practical, then .50 BMG has obvious appeal. For blowing up watermelons and the like, this will be the more impressive cartridge to do it with due to its significantly higher energy.
A .338 Lapua Magnum can be used for both extreme long-range shooting as well as hunting. It's a .338, so the bullets are the same as the .338 Win. Mag., one of the best hunting cartridges for anything short of the African Big Five. There may be no finer cartridge for long-range shots on elk, black bear, and similarly sized African game at distances beyond 500 yards…if you're capable of actually hitting the target, that is! Marksmanship, after all, is the lion's share of lethality.
The .338 Lapua Magnum is on the border of acceptability for dangerous game hunting. While some African jurisdictions (Nairobi, for instance) will allow you to hunt with one, most will not. It still falls just short of the energy/caliber requirements.
Some may have considered getting a .50 BMG rifle in case of some SHTF scenario, but it really only works in a fixed position or as part of a larger squad. The rifles are large and heavy, the ammunition is large and heavy, and while technically portable, none are nearly as portable as a 10-pound rifle in .338 Lapua Magnum. Unless for some reason you anticipate needing anti-material capabilities, .50 BMG will almost certainly prove to be more bullet than it’s worth.
Due to the prohibitive weight and recoil of .50 BMG rifles, .338 Lapua Magnum is more useful in the real world on paper, but let's pump the brakes a bit. Both types of ammo are very expensive, but at the time of writing, the cheapest available .338 Lapua ammo is about $1.25 more per round than .50 BMG ($3.75 versus $2.50). While .338 will definitely be lighter on your shoulder, you’ll feel it more on your wallet. If you plan on shooting it a lot, that matters.
.338 Lapua Vs. .50 BMG: Which Is Better?
The better cartridge for long-range use is a bit academic.
On paper, .50 BMG is better if you're shooting at something more than a mile away. While sniper shots have been made with .338 Lapua Magnum beyond a mile, a lot more has been made with .50 BMG. So, if the longest of long-distance shots is what you have in mind, .50 BMG is the ticket.
If you want to blow big holes and things and just enjoy a big rifle that makes an enormous noise, .50 BMG is also better at those things. We should also acknowledge another factor here: .50 BMG has a certain je ne sais quoi given it is essentially the biggest and most powerful ammunition you can own a firearm for without registering a destructive device.
.338 Lapua Magnum is more practical, verging on useful in the real world. While overpowered for small to medium game like hogs, deer or pronghorn (and a good deal of African game), it's dynamite on medium to large game. Unlike .50 BMG, rifles can also be reasonably carried.
Since more people are willing to take longer shots on elk, moose or bear at distances beyond 400 yards, you want to have a cartridge that's capable of effectively harvesting game at that distance. The .338 Lapua Magnum is one of the best rifle cartridges for that purpose. It's great for long-range precision target shooting as well.
In short, like with most cartridge debates, it ultimately comes down to you to decide which will best serve your needs. Between .338 Lapua versus .50 BMG, the former will likely offer more utility to the average shooter, but the higher ammo cost and far lower energy ensure that .50 BMG still has a place too.
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