December 05, 2019
By Bryce M. Towsley
When it comes to the never-ending argument about cartridges, I fall solidly into the Elmer Keith school of thought. He believed in a big bullet for big game. This concept has been refined today through better propellants and much better bullets, but it still applies. Those little bullets that elevated the performance of smaller cartridges share that same technology with the big bullets, so the big boomers are better as well. Elmer probably had more hunting experience on large game than most of his contemporaries, at least in North America. He understood that when hunting big, tough game, particularly dangerous game, it made sense to use a bigger cartridge.
Elmer was a true gun guy who left a lasting legacy with the cartridges he helped design. Everybody knows about the 44 Magnum. Not as many know that we can also thank him for the very popular .338-caliber line of big-game rifle cartridges. It started with the 333 OKH, developed with Charlie O’Neil and Don Hopkins. They were using the 0.333-inch bullets from the 333 Jeffery. They also used the same bullet in a shortened 300 H&H case for the 334 OKH.
The move that changed history occurred when they switched to the 0.338-inch bullets used in the 33 Winchester. The 338-06, 338 Winchester, 340 Weatherby, and 338-378 Weatherby all resulted from this wildcat work. Without those cartridges, we likely would not have all the other .338-caliber cartridges on the market today.
The 0.338 diameter has proven to offer a wonderful balance of things important in a hunting cartridge. It carries bullet weight and diameter for tough big game but can also shoot flat for a longer shot and in most cartridges is manageable in recoil for the majority of shooters. Not only has it proven to be outstanding in the hunting fields, but also the long-range shooting world has recognized the external ballistic qualities of this bullet diameter. The 338 Lapua sets the standard for ultra-long-range shooting when it’s important the bullet do something more than simply hit the target.
When Nosler started its own line of rifle cartridges, it was inevitable that the 0.338 diameter would be included because no line of hunting cartridges is complete without one. While this bullet diameter shines strong with elk, moose, bears, and the larger African plains game, it is capable of hunting almost any big game.
There were a few years when I used a rifle in 338 Winchester Magnum almost exclusively. I hunted moose, elk, brown bear, and caribou with the cartridge. I also shot some whitetails, hogs, a few coyotes, and a black bear. Those animals never knew I was “over-gunned.”
I have long thought that a little more cartridge capacity could inspire this bullet diameter to even more greatness. That’s the idea behind the 33 Nosler cartridge.
33 Nosler Up Close
Mike Lake is the engineer at Nosler responsible for the company’s line of rifle cartridges, which started with the 26 Nosler in 2014.
“We started developing a .25 caliber for the first cartridge,” Lake said. “But with all the interest in the 6.5mm bullets, we soon switched to that bullet diameter. My mandate was to extract all the performance I could get from the cartridge as defined by velocity and still maintain the 3.340-inch overall cartridge length used by the 30-06. With that overall cartridge length, the Nosler cartridges would fit in any standard-length bolt action. We eliminated the belt and used the 404 Jeffery parent case, as did many of the newer cartridges. The Nosler cartridges based on the 404 Jeffery have a rebated rim measuring 0.534 inch, so they will fit most magnum-size boltfaces. The beltless design allows the case to maximize the powder capacity in a given cartridge length, with a case diameter that utilizes the space wasted by a belt.
“The beltless modern design also gets rid of some of the problems with reloading belted cartridges. For example, those cartridges often bulge just ahead of the belt when fired. To remove that bulge so the case will chamber properly, a handloader will need a specialized collet sizing die or must use a full-length resizing die and run it down so the shellholder bumps over hard when the ram is raised.
The trouble with full-length sizing with belted cases is that it can push the shoulder back, and if the chamber is on the longer side of tolerances, it can result in case head separation with subsequent firings. Because the case headspaces off the belt and not the shoulder, if the shoulder is pushed back, it might be hanging unsupported in space when the rifle is fired. The shoulder will move forward to fill the chamber as the case expands and that causes the brass in front of the web to become thinner. That often results in a case head separation, sometimes on the first firing, but often with subsequent handloads. When that happens, the gun is usually disabled until a gunsmith removes the stuck, broken case.
With a beltless case, there are none of those problems. The Nosler cartridges headspace off the shoulder, rather than a belt, which is much better for case life and accuracy.”
The success of the 26 Nosler was followed by the 28 Nosler in 2015. The 30 Nosler was announced in 2016, and in 2017 the company came out with the 33 Nosler to appeal to those hunters in the know who appreciate a bigger bullet.
A 35 Nosler and a 36 Nosler (9.3mm) have been approved by S.A.A.M.I. I hope they are slated for release soon, but the feedback from Nosler is not strongly encouraging that will happen.
The 33 Nosler had to use a slightly shorter case. That’s been the norm with just about all the .338-caliber cartridges recently introduced. The bullets have a long ogive that requires they be seated out of the case a bit farther than other diameter bullets. So, as with the 338 Remington Ultra Mag (RUM) and other cartridges, Lake found he had to shorten the case a little to make it all work and still stay with the overall cartridge length of 3.340 inches. At 2.460 inches, the 33 Nosler case is 0.13 inch shorter than the 26 Nosler case at 2.590 inches.
The 33 Nosler has a 0.550-inch case diameter at the base, which tapers to 0.529 inch at the shoulder. Length from the base to the shoulder is 2.016 inches, while length to the base of the neck is 2.131 inches. The shoulder angle is 35 degrees. The length of the neck is just about one bullet diameter at 0.329 inch. The 33 Nosler case holds 88.3 grains of water.
To put that in perspective, the 338 Win. Mag. holds 78.6 grains of water, which means the Nosler has a 12 percent increase in case volume while maintaining the same 3.340-inch overall cartridge length. The 33 Nosler has a slight advantage in pressure as well. The S.A.A.M.I. Mean Average Pressure (MAP) for the 33 Nosler is 65,000 psi, while for the 338 Win. Mag. it’s 64,000 psi. It’s a small difference, but enough to potentially add a bit to the final velocity with a given bullet weight.
This cartridge is often compared to the 338 Lapua (at least on the Internet), but the Lapua cartridge case uses a 0.588-inch rim and 0.585-inch body. The overall cartridge length is 3.681 inches. With these numbers, the Lapua will not fit easily into many popular hunting rifle actions. The Lapua case holds 107 grains of water. The S.A.A.M.I. MAP pressure is 65,000 psi, the same as the 33 Nosler. So the claims I am reading about hand-loads getting the same velocity from a given bullet weight with the 33 Nosler and the 338 Lapua are dangerously wrong. This was confirmed by Lake, stating the obvious, “The laws of physics are pretty well fixed.” The bigger case is always going to produce higher velocity. Of course, the law of diminishing returns comes into play at some point, so the returns may not be as much as might be indicated by the larger case capacity.
What the 33 Nosler does do is perfect the performance in a hunting round for long rifle actions. The bigger cases like the 338 RUM, 340 Weatherby, and 338-378 Weatherby require a longer action. The 338 Win. Mag. leaves some velocity potential on the table. The 33 Nosler is engineered to bring the best of both worlds to most long actions.
.338 Bullets for 33 Nosler Handloads
Most .338 bullets range from 180 grains through 300 grains. The rifling twist rate for the 33 Nosler is one turn in 10 inches (1:10), so it should stabilize bullet weights to at least 300 grains just fine.
While there are some long-range precision shooting applications, the 33 Nosler was designed primarily as a hunting cartridge. With a big cartridge case, a handloader can dump in a lot of powder, so the bullet is going fast. It makes sense to use only the best bullets for hunting. I know from experience that many bullets will fail at higher velocities. When I developed my wildcat 358 UMT, which is based on the 300 RUM, I found that most of the bullets designed for the slower 35 Remington and 35 Whelen would fragment on impact. I had to use only the best premium monolithic or bonded-core bullets for hunting.
While .338 bullets have a stronger base line, as most were developed for the 338 Win. Mag., it makes sense to use only the best premium bullets for hunting. Bullets like the Nosler AccuBond, Barnes TTSX, Swift A-Frame, and Hornady GMX will provide good external ballistics and excellent terminal ballistics. This is not a complete list by any means, but a suggestion that premium hunting bullets will give the best performance with this cartridge for big game. The simple cup-and-core bullets likely will not hold up well or penetrate very deep. Although…I think a 180- or 200-grain lead-core bullet stuck into a whitetail’s ribs at 3,100 fps would be an interesting thing to witness.
The 33 Nosler cartridge is so new that I must confess to not having a lot of field experience with it, but I have shot a lot of game with the 338 Win. Mag. and the 338 RUM. My experience is that the better bullets are the best investment you can make in your hunt when using a large-capacity, high-velocity cartridge in any caliber.
The most useful .338 bullet weights will probably be within the 200- to 250-grain weight range, although there is a movement to the 300-grain bullets for really big game. At the other end of the spectrum, I know that Coni Brooks from Barnes Bullets has used the Barnes 180-grain TSX in the 338 Win. Mag. on multiple continents for just about everything that walks, and it’s hard to argue with her success with light bullets.
My preference for any game up to 1,000 pounds in the 33 Nosler is a premium 225-grain bullet. I think that weight provides a great balance of speed, trajectory, and terminal performance. The Barnes TTSX and the Nosler AccuBond are excellent picks in that weight and can handle anything from deer to moose while providing a high ballistic coefficient that allows a longer shot.
The 33 Nosler is capable of achieving 3,000+ fps with that bullet weight. The G1 ballistic coefficient with the AccuBond is .550, which means a flat trajectory for longer shots. For example, with a 200-yard zero, the 225-grain AccuBond is only 6.27 inches below the line of sight at 300 yards and 17.99 inches below at 400 yards. It leaves the muzzle with 4,498 foot-pounds of energy and still has 3,185 ft-lbs at 300 yards, which is more than the 30-06 has at the muzzle. The 33 Nosler retains 2,494 ft-lbs at 400 yards, and the retained velocity at 400 yards is 2,377 fps, more than is required to ensure bullet expansion. I have also shot some pretty big game with the Barnes 225-grain TTSX from the 338 RUM, and the performance has been outstanding. One 580-pound black bear just fell as if his switches had been turned off. I can’t think of a better choice for elk, moose, or grizzly hunters than the 33 Nosler with either of those bullets.
For larger game like brown bears or eland, a 250-grain bullet might make sense. The 33 Nosler can push that bullet weight to 2,800 fps muzzle velocity pretty easily. The bullet leaves the muzzle with 5,000 ft-lbs of energy, which is more than enough for anything other than the very largest dangerous game, the stuff they measure in tons rather than pounds.
The new 265-grain AccuBond Long Range bullet has a G1 ballistic coefficient of .778. I have not shot it yet; however, Nosler says it can achieve 2,775 fps in this cartridge. I ran the numbers, and while the trajectory is not quite as flat as the 225-grainer, it’s very close, and with a heavier bullet that carries more energy and momentum to the target.
I also was unable to get any 300-grain AccuBonds, but I did shoot some Nosler 300-grain Custom Competition bullets, and from my Nosler Model 48 rifle, they grouped very well. I am looking forward to shooting them at distances from 500 yards to 1,000 yards. I suspect that even from a skinny-barreled hunting rifle like the Model 48, they will prove they can ring the steel at those distances.
33 Nosler Brass & Primers
As far as I know, Nosler is the only supplier of brass right now. Typically, at this point in a reloading article I would explain how to prep the brass by trimming to length, chamfering the neck inside and out, and reaming the flash hole and the primer pocket, but it’s all done with Nosler brass before you buy it. The brass might be expensive, but you’ll save a lot of work.
As with any of these big cartridges that hold a lot of powder, use a Large Rifle Magnum primer. This is very important for hunting loads when you might be out in some pretty extreme temperatures. The extra brisance from these primers is a good insurance policy that the cartridge will fire and the powder will burn correctly.
I use a handheld RCBS priming tool so that I can feel the primer contact the bottom of the primer cup. The goal is to seat the primer fully so that each leg of the primer anvil is in contact with the bottom of the primer cup and has a slight load introduced. I check each primer depth both by running my index finger over the base of the case to feel the seating depth and then by confirming it visually. I believe it’s important to have each primer correctly seated and that it’s well worth the extra time to check it twice.
Good Powders for 33 Nosler Handloads
This is a big case, and as expected, the recommended powders in the Hodgdon data are all on the slow end of the burn rate list. There are a huge number of powders that work with this cartridge, and I suspect it would be difficult to find a bad choice on the list. For 180-grain bullets through 225-grain bullets, it would be hard to improve on IMR 4831SC or IMR 7828SC. I also had good luck with H1000 and IMR 7977.
Moving up to the heavier bullets, these powders are joined by several more, including the new IMR 8133. This new powder is in the IMR Enduron line manufactured in Canada. Because production of the temperature stable Extreme line of Hodgdon powders made in Australia has not been able to keep up with the growing demand (ask any 6.5 Creedmoor shooter looking for H4350), Hodgdon developed the line of Enduron powders with the same temperature stability.
IMR 8133 is a double-base powder with a burn rate that is similar to Retumbo, and that makes it a very good choice for bullets on the heavier end of the bulet-weight range in the 33 Nosler. It shot very well for me with the Barnes 250-grain LRX bullet. I was a bit cautious with the load and will bump up the charge weight a little with the next loading for a bit more velocity.
Always weigh every single charge when loading to max charge weights. This ensures the best accuracy and the lowest possibility of problems. I used the new RCBS Chargemaster Lite electronic dispenser and scale for this chore. I have been using one of the first Chargemaster models for years, and I liked it so much they had to pry it from my hands. It has dispensed powder for thousands and thousands of handloads. But Kent Sakamoto at RCBS convinced me the new model has a lot of improved features. As he pointed out, it sells for a lot less money, so I decided to give it a try. I am happy to report that my old RCBS Chargemaster has now been placed into a well-earned retirement. The auto-start feature alone on the new Chargemaster Lite has made me a believer. As soon as the scale zeros out, the Chargemaster Lite automatically starts dumping the next charge. No more waiting for the scale to zero with my finger poised over the dispense button and bad words coming out of my mouth. This new one just does it automatically while I am working on something else. I must say the language in my reloading area has improved since I added it to my bench—as has productivity.
33 Nosler Handloading Tips
When making hunting loads, it’s probably best to seat the bullet to the S.A.A.M.I. listed overall cartridge length. A hard-recoiling rifle can cause the bullets in the cartridges in the magazine to migrate out of the case under recoil. It’s always best to keep a margin of error so that when you chamber a cartridge from the magazine for subsequent shots, the odds are lower of the bullet contacting the rifling lands. If that happens, it may stick. When you open the bolt, a bullet can be pulled out of the case and left stuck in the bore. That usually also results in dumping the powder into the action. Both occurrences will make the rifle inoperable and are difficult to deal with in the field. Of course, it’s usually possible to tweak a bit more accuracy by experimenting with the seating depth of the bullet, but in my never humble opinion, the possibility of achieving groups smaller by a few tenths of an inch does not even come close to outweighing the higher risk of a train wreck disabling the rifle during a hunt.
I used Redding dies to build my handloads, and I must say the micrometer adjustable Competition seating die is a thing of beauty. It makes finding the correct seating depth fast and easy.
Like I said, I am a big-bore guy, and this cartridge had me at “33.” A serious hunter going after big game would be hard-pressed to find a better choice. Chambered in 33 Nosler, the nicely built Nosler Model 48 Liberty rifle is well suited for any North American hunting and also as a “light” rifle for an African safari.