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.338 Federal

History

 
In December of 2005, the Federal Cartridge company announced the creation and adoption of its first ever cartridge, the .338 Federal.  Based on the .308 Winchester case necked up to .338”, the new cartridge was released in 2006.  Federal stated that this was a non-magnum cartridge boasting magnum energy, a big game caliber offering tolerable recoil in lightweight rifles.  
 
To qualify statements, the the .338 Federal was promoted as having more muzzle energy than the .30-06 and that the .338 generated 200fps more velocity than the parent .308 Winchester cartridge with bullets of equal weight. The .338 Federal was released in collaboration with the Sako rifle company of Finland.
 
Since the introduction of the .308 Winchester in the 1950’s, the small and efficient case has been necked up and down to produce both commercial and wildcat cartridges.  Traditionally, Remington had been vigilant in watching wildcat popularity and adopting those cartridges which continued to remain in high demand over time. The .260 and 7mm-08 Remington have been immensely successful examples. Less common have been the wildcats .25-08 and .338-08. Nevertheless, both of these cartridges have retained a smaller following amongst hunters who appreciate their rather unique virtues.
 
Currently, the .338 Federal maintains a modest following, being most popular with those who hunt large bodied game out to moderate ranges.
 

Performance

The .338 Federal requires a good deal of consideration. This is a cartridge which can perform both extremely well and rather abysmally depending on how it is used.
 
Many .338 projectiles are designed with relatively tough jackets. Heavy bullet weights are also common within the .338 bore. The combination of both of these factors can result in a bullet that is able to produce excellent penetration, but may cleave to its energy when used on lean game. Generally speaking, most .338 caliber projectiles do their best work when driven at high velocities as they were designed. High velocity can also be used to increase target resistance on lean animals to ensure immediate energy transfer and emphatic killing.
 
The trouble is, the .338 Federal does not boast very high velocities. Furthermore, the .338 bore does not show a meaningful increase in frontal area over the .308 Winchester with regards to actual field results as opposed to theoretical models and ideals. Put simply, the .308 Winchester is equally capable of firing heavy bullets and while it may not boast quite the same velocities, the .338 Federal cannot make any claim to high velocities in its own right.
 
For those who hunt Black tail or smaller bodied White Tail in woods conditions, simply running a heavy bullet for “every angle” penetration is only one part of the equation. The bullet must be capable of rapid energy transfer if it is to secure game quickly and eliminate the need for tracking. The .338 Federal can certainly excel in this role, however bullet choice is critical for optimum results. One simply cannot assume that a bigger bullet is better in this regard. These comments aside, the Federal will generally produce adequate internal wounding along with a free bleeding exit wound. Yet regardless of adequate internal wounding, adrenalized game animals can set off on a long dead run after the shot.
 
The .338 federal finds its true strengths when used on game weighing over 90kg (200lb) which offer a good deal of target resistance. It is also best used out to moderate ranges to ensure high impact velocities for maximum trauma.
 
As a long range hunting cartridge, the .338 Federal poses some problems in that it is best served in a long action which can handle the likes of the 225 grain Rocky Mountain bullet and the resulting COAL’s which do not suit short actions. In a relatively long barreled rifle with the 225gr Rocky Mountain ULD seated out where it belongs and driven at 2400fps, the Federal can make for a fine mountain rifle. Without this magazine length, a hunter could opt to use one of the SST bullets, though these still have limitations for true long range work. Many folk do get the urge to try this as a funky long range / low recoil option however I would caution readers to please take bullet construction versus potentially low impact velocities into account. Do it right or do not do it at all. This cartridge can certainly be put to use as a ridge to ridge mountain rifle, but there is more to this than simply choosing a high BC bullet and heading into the hills hoping that a big bullet will do the job.  
 
Shot placement is the key to obtaining the best performance from this cartridge (and all cartridges). Those who can keep their shots well forwards will find that the .338 Federal is a fast killer on lean and large game alike while those who tend towards meat saver shots may end up frustrated with delayed killing when encountering lean game or when pushing shots past 200 yards. It must also be understood that even with the best of intentions, there are times when ideal shot placement cannot be guaranteed such as when snap shots are taken when bush hunting. In these situations and especially if lean animals are encountered, the .358 bore can prove much more emphatic than the .338 Federal.
 
Expectations are also a key factor. Those who hunt more open ground may not be so concerned with a dead run to the point of never noticing any negatives in comparisons to other cartridges they may have used. In contrast to this, those who hunt in heavy bush may find delayed killing to be entirely unacceptable. We each have differing method of hunting and expectations. Many arguments stem from a simple lack of understanding with regards to individual perspectives and differences in shot placement.
 
Please understand that it is possible to gain an understanding of what to expect from this cartridge in a preliminary fashion by experimenting with for example, the Sierra 200 grain GameKing in the .308 Winchester or .30-06. Although the bullet diameters do differ, performance can be compared to what one might expect when using the 200 grain Speer Hotcor in the Federal. The 8x57js firing 200 grain bullets is another close cousin. I would also urge readers to be circumspect with ‘rave reviews’. A good dose of common sense goes a long way when contemplating and making field studies of the strengths and limitations of the .338 Federal.
 

Factory ammunition

Federal currently advertise several loads for their .338 including their basic conventional 185 grain soft point bullet at 2750fps, the 185 grain Fusion (replacing the Accubond) at 2680fps, the 200 grain conventional soft point at 2700fps, the 200 grain Trophy Copper (replacing the TSX) at 2630fps, the 200 grain Tipped Bear Claw at 2630fps, the 200 grain bonded Fusion bullet at 2700fps and finally the 210 grain Nosler Partition at 2630fps.  These velocities  may well be obtainable in a factory test barrel but are not possible in 22” sporting barrels such as found on the Sako rifles without exceeding this cartridge’s pressure rating of 52,000cup or 62,000psi. Expect velocities a good 140fps below those advertised.
 
All told, Federals factory loads are a bit of a mess. The loads offered each have merit and Federal’s game finder is helpful (a picture of a Moose beside the homogenous copper load or a deer beside the soft point) but yet again, Federal offer double and triple ups which generally only confuse hunters.
 
As can be expected, the soft point bullets are designed for mid-sized deer. These are not ideally suited to light framed animals but can be put to use in this manner and although the BC’s are very low, can be used with success in conjunction with good shot placement at close to moderate ranges.  It is good to see Federal offering a conventional bullet without core bonding for this application. Not everybody wishes to kill three deer with one shot.
 
The Fusion and Copper loads are designed specifically for large bodied game. As can be seen from the available loads, Federal have steered clear of 225 grain and heavier bullets which can strangle case capacity resulting in low impact velocities and generally poor performance. Each of the Federal loads has merit but all do their best work in close. If ranges are pushed out too far, regardless of game sizes, the projectiles simply cannot render wide wounds. Again, shot placement is the key with any of these loads. In the wrong hands, these can be slow killers. As stated there is a vast cross over with the Federal premium loads. Any of these will work, the Partition being the softest followed by the Fusion, the Speer Trophy bullet and finally the Trophy copper. 
 

Hand loading

Powder and bullet manufacturers produce data for the .338 Federal which is tested for velocity in 24” barrels.  In Sako or Tikka rifles with 22” barrel,  handloaders should expect lower velocities using manual listed charges of around 50fps as the .338 Federal loses around 25fps per inch of barrel removed.  The medium bores are not quite as sensitive as the small bores to changes in barrel length, cartridges such as the .270 losing 35fps per inch of barrel removed.   Upper average velocities for the .338 Federal in a 22” barreled sporter include 2850fps with 160 grain bullets, 2650fps with 180 grain bullets, 2450fps with 200 grain bullets, 2400fps with 210 grain bullets, 2350fps with 225 grain bullets and 2250fps with 250 grain bullets.  Some rifles will achieve velocities up to 100fps higher than those listed here however if the reloader wishes for a hotter cartridge, the .338-06 and .338 Magnums should be considered.

The .338 performs well when loaded with fast burning powders in the H335/ ADI 2206 range while heavy bullets weighing between 210 and 225 grains produce good results with medium burning powders such as IMR 4064 and ADI 2208 / Varget. The short .308 case is not particularly well suited to heavy 250 grain .338” bullets or long range which cramp powder space considerably in short actions. Those who shoot Tikka rifles (Tikka only make a long action) may wish to consider changing to a long magazine and bolt stop if loading heavy or long projectiles.
 
For light game work, there are three projectiles of particular interest. These include the 160 grain Barnes TTSX, the 200 grain Hornady FTX (designed for the .338 Marlin)  and the 200 grain Hornady SST.
 
The 160 grain Barnes TTSX can be driven between 2850 and 2950fps producing fast kills on light or lean animals out to distances of between 100 and 125 yards with clean but delayed killing out to an impact velocity of around 230 yards.
 
Hornady’s 200 grain Flex Tip Bullet was designed with a thin jacket, specifically for the .338 Marlin Express. This lever action cartridge is in turn based on the .376 Steyr, a short magnum designed by Hornady and released in 1999. Unfortunately, the already rare .338 Marlin is somewhat reliant on this bullet (and perhaps also the proprietary powder found in factory loads) in order to extract its maximum potential. True muzzle velocities for the Marlin Express factory load are around 2500fps which is nearly identical to .338 Federal potential. In some ways, the .338 Marlin Express is a one load gun. Nevertheless, that one load and the FTX in particular can be highly useful.
 
The BC of the FTX is .430 as opposed to .455 for the SST which for all intents and purposes makes for very little difference in the field. This bullet is designed for rapid energy transfer and produces very wide wounding. The FTX can still produce delayed killing on lean game out past 100 yards depending on shot placement, however internal wounding is broad. This is about as good as it gets when using the .338 Federal on lean game. The FTX can also be used without ills on large bodied deer which makes it a very “flexible” bullet.
 
The 200 grain SST is also a good performer on light or lean game however shot placement remains a key factor for on the spot killing. The SST will expand down to an impact velocity of 1600fps but unfortunately needs some measure of resistance to do so. When shooting very lean game and especially out beyond 100 yards, shots have to be kept well forwards to ensure maximum target resistance for energy transfer. The greater the range or the leaner the animal, the more this factor becomes paramount. And while the 200 grain SST is one of the “softest” options with a fairly generous BC, it is hard to be certain of exact shot placement at extended ranges due to wind drift. Nevertheless, besides the FTX, the SST remains one of the best options for lean animals. I would also like to mention here that at one time, Nosler made a fairly good bullet in the form of the 180 grain Ballistic Tip. Unfortunately this was taken off the market before the release of the .338 Federal. This projectile produced wounds very similar to the 200 grain SST but had somewhat higher velocities in its favor. It did not feature any form of core bonding as the case with the Accubond which greatly helped in the process of full energy transfer on lean game.
 
For very large bodied deer, the .338 Federal can work best with 200 to 210 grain bullet weights as opposed to heavier options. Both the 200 grain FTX and SST can be quite versatile in this regard. Other more conventional designs include the Hornady 200 grain Interlock spire point and the 200 grain Interlock flat point which can display more vivid energy transfer at close ranges than other conventional bullet designs. Another good penetrator in this weight class is the excellent 200 grain Speer Hotcor.
 
As for premium bullets, Barnes produce 185 and 210 grain TTSX bullets and while the 185 grain bullet weight may seem light, the extremely high weight retention inherent in this bullet design ensures that performance is on par with heavier bullets. Nosler produce the 210 grain Partition, a very good go-to bullet for use on large bodied deer. One factor that must be kept in mind is that velocity is the key to producing disproportionately large wound channels.  It can therefore be better to utilize a bullet like the 185 grain TTSX or 210 grain Partition rather than opting for a very heavy bullet when hunting large animals (within reason). As we move away from the mid bullet weights and look towards 225 or even 250 grain bullets, we may obtain greater penetration but in doing so, risk more narrow wounding.
 
The heavier we go in this cartridge, the softer the bullet needs to be. Within the 225 grain bullet range, we find such examples as the Hornady SST and also the wonderful Speer boat tail soft point. The 225 grain Nosler Partition also offers a soft frontal section and can be useful out to ranges of around 200 yards if hunting very heavy bodied game. Beyond the 225 grain Partition, there is no great need for heavier or tougher premium projectiles in this cartridge.  Please understand that most core bonded bullets taper off in performance at impact velocities of 2400fps with a rapid decline in wounding performance below 2200fps unless meeting very heavy resistance.  Again we can refer back to Federal’s approach where rather than opt for a heavy bullet, Federal have kept bullet weights low and instead opted for tougher bullet designs where penetration is a concern. This helps keep velocity up high for adequate wounding and therefore fast killing. No doubt some will ask the question - “why opt of for a .338 if I am to stick to lighter weight bullets”.  Unfortunately, field results do not always match theory, it is what it is.
 
As a further note regarding the 225 grain Hornady SST, this is best suited to game weighing up to 320kg (700lb). That said, this bullet will sometimes fail to reduce its frontal area after expansion if striking at low impact velocities. In other words, the frontal area remains very wide, the jacket will not fold back on itself which poses a risk of reduced penetration and or core separation. To overcome this, the SST can be annealed (see bullet annealing tutorial). This can also help increase energy transfer on impact, especially at lower impact velocities. However, shot placement remains a critical factor.
 
As a final word on bullet performance, do not be afraid to experiment with bullet modifications for this cartridge providing they are performed in a safe manner. Increases in meplat area (and sometimes hollow pointing) can often help with energy transfer if a more immediate effect is required (bush hunting lean game). It is important to remember that a good many bullet designs taper off in performance at 2200fps and reach their limits at 1800fps. Most middle of the road conventional soft point lose around 200fps per 100 yards travelled and it is easy to make a quick estimation of just how this effects the already mild .338 federal. And while some bullet modifications can reduce the BC of a projectile in a dramatic fashion, it can still be worth experimenting with this to see if a balance can be struck.
 

Closing comments

 
The .338 Federal is particularly well suited to hunters looking for a cartridge specifically for use on large game where low recoil or an extremely lightweight portable rifle is a priority. This cartridge can produce both excellent and rather abysmal results depending upon how it is loaded and how it is used. This is not the type of cartridge that should be selected simply for the reason of “wanting something different” by those who show little interest in rifle accuracy or hand loading. The Federal works best when treated as a specific tool for a specific job.
 
 
Suggested loads: .338 Federal Barrel length: 22”
No ID   Sectional density Ballistic coefficient Observed  MV Fps ME
Ft-lb’s
1 FL 210gr Fed Partition .263 .400 2490 2891
2 HL 200gr SST / FTX! .250 .455 2450 2665
3 HL 225gr Speer BTSP/ SST .281 .515 2350 2759
 
Suggested sight settings and bullet paths         
1 100 214 250 275 300      
  +3 0 -3 -5.9 -9.3      
2 100 213 250 275 300      
  +3 0 -3 -6 -9.3      
3 100 205 240 275 300      
  +3 0 -3 -7.1 -10.7      
 
No At yards 10mphXwind Velocity Ft-lb’s
1 300 9.5 1887 1660
2 300 8.4 1920 1637
3 300 7.8 1890 1784
 
Please take note of 300 yard velocities and wind drift versus potential bullet expansion.
 338 Federal final
 
.338 Federal Imperial Metric 
A .473 12.01
B .470 11.94
C 20 Deg  
D .454 11.53
E .370 9.40
F 1.56 39.62
G .340 8.63
H 2.015 51.2
Max Case 2.015 51.2
Trim length 2.005 50.9
 
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Copyright © 2007-2016 Terminal Ballistics Research, Ballisticstudies.com
 
 

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