In the world of long-range shooting there are many legendary cartridges, the reasons behind the legend differ but they all share a mystical status among shooters. One of those cartridges is the 338 Lapua Magnum, and today we will take a hard look at the Lapua and what makes it so sought after.
Often it’s a particular story or mission that highlights a particular cartridge, or the firearm it is most famous for; like the 308 Winchester in the M24, or the Mk 13 SOCOM rifle chambered in the 300 Winchester Magnum. But as stories are told, and reputations made, the shooting public is keen to appreciate a good performer, and before long it becomes a legend.
As technology improves, it takes less and less time for products to improve and be implemented. The 338 Lapua Magnum (LM) has been around a relatively short time compared to most others, and yet it is incredibly famous for its prolific use as a sniper cartridge. Even video gamers who’ve never held a real firearm in their life know that if you are going to get a sniper rifle, get the 338.
The 338LM is based off of the .416 Rigby case with some additional improvements to safely operate at higher pressures.
What sets it apart?
The mighty 338 Lapua Magnum has many things going for it, and probably the most notable is its power. With a .33 caliber bore, larger bullets can be fired than typical .30 caliber sniper cartridges like the 300WM or 308Win. Not only are they bigger bullets but they are heavier and carry their energy for much further, which are both good traits for long-range accuracy and lethality.
But the mighty Lapua also offers accuracy with its power. With quality components and an adequate rifle, the .338LM is easily capable of shooting 1/2 MOA or better. For many of the years it has been commercially available, it has been offered in many of the best sniper rifles ever produced like; the Accuracy International AXSR, the Desert Tech SRS M2, and the Barrett MRAD (Mk22). And more recently it has been offered in more affordable rifles from manufacturers like Ruger and Savage.
I’ve been shooting the 338 for a few years now in various of these different platforms, and despite not lusting after the Lapua like many, I cannot oppose its impressive performance. And today I’ll take you down a thirty-three caliber rabbit hole.
33 and Me
I’ve been shooting the Desert Tech SRS for over a decade now, and the rifle was built for the 338. I’ve made some impressive shots with it over the years, surprising even myself. That’s not meant to be boasting, I’ll explain.
The significant power of the Lapua can be a lot to handle, and for those of us accustomed to shooting short action cartridges the recoil and muzzle blast from the 338 can be “unwelcome”. And yet nearly every time I shoot the 338 for accuracy, I find myself so pleased with the accuracy that I ask myself why I dont shoot it more.
The 338 gets such an impressive bark from the 100’ish (give or take) grains of powder that it runs on. These large powder charges push 250-300 grain bullets up to over 2500 feet per second, which is where all that power comes from. Loading the Lapua can lower the cost of ammunition like most others, but it still hurts to watch a pound of Retumbo disappear so fast.
It is an easy cartridge to load for, and handloaders will find everything about it to be familiar all but for volumes and prices perhaps. Components are not as hard to find as they once were, even American Eagle is making 338 Lapua cases now. Though I greatly prefer the higher quality ones from Lapua, Petersen, and RUAG. If you are going to shoot this this thing you may as well do it right to maximise the performance.
Seeing as I am no sniper, the majority of my experience shooting the 338 has been in recreation, hunting, and a little bit of military demonstration. The same attributes that make it a good long-range sniper cartridge also make it an excellent long-range hunting cartridge. And we have used it over and over for outstanding downrange performance on large Rocky Mountain game like Elk and Moose.
The significant power of the 338LM makes it an easy choice for hunting big animals or any animal that is far away. Sure it is more than necessary for many animals, but they certainly aren’t going to get up and ask you about it.
Bullets and barrel twists
The big Lapua works best when shooting 250 grain or larger bullets, not that it wont do well with smaller bullets just that you aren’t getting the full performance. Most of the factory ammunition I am familiar with is usually using a 250 or 300 grain match bullet, and they are typically either Sierra Match Kings or Lapua Scenar bullets. Of course there are others from companies like Hornady and Berger, the .338 caliber enjoys a great selection of bullets so you’ll always have something to choose from. Technological advances haven’t skipped over the .338 either, you can get some extremely high performing lathe turned solid bullets in .338 as well from companies like Warner Tool and Cutting Edge. These monolithic solids are lighter than typical lead cored bullets, and come with a much higher ballistic coefficient. These two qualities allow them to be fired faster and fly better than traditional bullets, but it certainly comes at a cost.
It’s important when configuring your rifle to ensure you have enough barrel twist to stabilize the bullets you plan on shooting. Modern projectile development seems to be favoring faster barrel twists, particularly as we continue to discover the value of added gyroscopic energy from faster twists. These are part of the reason I recommend a faster twist barrel than has been traditionally used, regardless of caliber. The common 1-10 twist you see in many 338LM will work, though I prefer something a little faster like a 1-9.5 or 1-9 twist.
Most .338LM rifles utilize full length barrels around 26-inches long, some are longer, and few are shorter. Getting the most out of your .338 typically means taking it to the highest velocity possible, and longer barrels are the way to achieve that. I have had some experience shooting shorter barrels however, some would argue too short. And yet even with barrels as short as 18-inches, the .338LM is still impressive and very useful.
Deserving of a Legend?
So does the mighty .338 Lapua deserve the Legendary status? I would argue that it certainly does.