This cartridge is a very good medium-bore cartridge that was introduced by Winchester, along with the .264 Magnum and the .458 Magnum, in about 1958.
They named the Model 70 rifle chambered for the .338 “The Alaskan, a pretty good indication of the type of game the Winchester developers figured it would be most useful on. It was pretty much and immediate success among Alaskan guides and residents alike.
The cartridge most likely had its origins in the efforts of three men in the late 1940s, experimenting with a couple similar cartridges. The men were Charles O'Neil, Elmer Keith, and Don Hopkins, and the cartridges were the .333 OKH and the .334 OKH.
The .333 OKH was based upon a .30-06 case necked up to a .33 caliber bullet, and the .334 OKH used a shortened .375 H&H case necked down for the same bullet. The .338 Winchester Magnum also used a shortened and blown-out .375 H&H case, necked down to accept a .338 caliber bullet.
Elmer used his .333 OKH as his second rifle on his first African Safari, and as I now recall it was a custom Mauser built by Montana rifle smith Iver Hendriksen. I vividly recall reading his descriptions of some of the difficulties he encountered using the cartridge.
He was using English made bullets and their performance on game was pretty dismal. The failures were in no way the fault of the cartridge, but rather the construction of the bullets. We are very fortunate these days to have plenty of really excellent bullets. Members of the Keith era were not so fortuitous.
I also recall reading in Keith's writings that the .333 OKH became the .338 Win magnum, and the .334 OKH, became the .340 Weatherby. I suspect that there is a lot of truth in those comments.
The .338 is an excellent cartridge for larger big game. It is a great elk rifle when hunting wapiti in heavy timber. It is as good as any cartridge on big moose (and eland in Africa), and it really shines on the big bears.
One well-respected outfitter in Alaska used to require his bear guides to carry a .338 chambered rifle when chasing the bruins. Whether that is till the case or not, I can say.
Ammunition is available loaded with an assortment of good bullets, weighing from 200 grains to 300 grains. For normal use in the field doing anything other than backing clients on big bears, bullets in the 225-250 grain range are perhaps the most useful.
There isn't much that a 225 grain quality bullet cruising along at about 2,800 fps won't handily take care of. It is a relatively high pressure cartridge with the SAAMI recommended average pressure at 64,000 psi, and the CIP a bit less at 62,000 psi.
In my hunting career, I have had but one occurrence where an animal decided to test my mettle by taking me on. It was an Alaskan brown bear, and I was armed with a custom pre-64 Model 70 chambered for the .338 Win. Mag. loaded with handloaded ammo using 210 grain Nosler partition bullets.
I won't get into the details, but since I'm writing these lines, needless to say, it worked.
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Like you, I am a fan of the .338 Win Mag. It has been my trusty rifle for anything larger than deer for quite a few years. My personal favorite is an old Ruger M77, restocked with a custom stock, a Canjar trigger and was Magnaported in Mt. Clemmons, Michigan. The bolt is engine turned and slick as greased snot. Dandy rifle and dead accurate to boot. It doesn’t kick any more than most 30-06’s I have shot, thanks to the magnaporting. However, it is a bit loud. A fair number of elk and several moose have fallen before it. The rifle looks a bit rough since it has spent hours in the bottom of an aluminum boat in Alaska on the Nowitna River.
My greatest regret in that regard is I left my .338 home on my first brown bear hunt in Alaska. I had friends who were residents and so it was not a guided hunt. We left Sitka in a 36 foot trawler hulled fiberglass boat and went through most of Peril Strait when we saw several bear on the beach. We launched a “Folbot” and paddled ashore ahead of the bears walking down the beach. I sat up in a large downed fir stump on the very edge of the beach and waited for the bear to come to me. Very comfortable and very stable.
I had left my .338 home and opted for my one and only hunt with a .458 Win Mag, Winchester Mdl 70. I had sighted the rifle in for 100 yards and not bothered to check its trajectory. I made foolish assumptions about its range as a cartridge. I watched the bears through binoculars and took pictures with a telephoto lens as 3 bears sauntered down the beach towards me, while I was drinking coffee.
After a while, the lead bear started to turn off the beach and headed for a hill. It was the biggest. It was farther than I had intended to shoot but I had a near perfect location and a great rest, so I lined up and squeezed off. I suspect the bear was only slightly more surprised than I was when the bullet hit the rocks on the beach a good 40 yards short of the bear. The bullet whined and left a nice streak on the rocks on the beach — and the bear took off up hill at a lope, soon being out of sight. It was an excellent bear as far as I could tell.
I discovered that the .458 is rather like a mortar. Beyond 100 yards, you sort of lob them in and hope. Worse than a .45-70 which also was no great shakes at long range shooting. I have made shots at similar range on elk with great success. Wish I had taken my .338 instead of the .458 that time.
It just wasn’t that far to shoot. But, it was the wrong caliber for that range regardless.