Truly Useful: The .338 Federal

Truly Useful: The .338 Federal

The latest in the long line of .308-based cartridges is beginning to look like a winner.

The .338 Federal, a necked-up .308, is just one year in circulation at this writing. In my view, this 33-bore cartridge makes a lot of sense. It carries more energy than a .308 and shoots about as flat. Unlike short magnums, it doesn't require a wide magazine box, so it's ideally suited to slim, welter-weight rifles. The relatively fast-burning, compact powder charge and generous bore mean you get efficient acceleration in short barrels.

The 84M is a well-balanced rifle with surprisingly light recoil, given the rifle's minimal heft.

I had been intrigued by this round long before Federal brought it to market. A friend, Ken Nagel, had a .338/308 on hand several years ago, when I was about to leave for Africa. "Take this," he said. And I did, killing a big hartebeest at 310 yards with one 200-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip.

It shouldn't surprise me that once in a while the ballistics engineers have their way and deliver to shooters rifle cartridges that are truly useful. But during the last three decades I've written about many that aren't — redundant magnums compete with deer rounds that dish out the recoil of yesteryear's buffalo guns.

Three .338 Federal loads: 180 Nosler AccuBond, 185 Barnes Triple Shock, 210 Nosler Partition.

The .338 Federal is a reprieve from such nonsense. Factory-loaded with 180-, 185- and 210-grain bullets, it delivers between 1,820 and 1,920 ft-lbs at 300 yards, with an average bullet drop of less than nine inches (200-yard zero). That's plenty of punch for elk and moose. The small differences in trajectory and ballistic package over the 30-grain weight spread of the bullets indicate good balance between velocity and energy.

Unlike cartridges that milk all their chart energy from speed and lack the bullet mass for a bone-busting hit or pass-through penetration, the .338 Federal gets a substantial share of its punch from hefty bullets. But these aren't broad, blunt softpoints that wilt in the face of air friction and arc steeply to earth. These .33s are long spitzers that fly almost as flat as a 180-grain .30-06 bullet.

This compact, muscular round begs comparison with the larger .30-06 and the much larger .338 Winchester Magnum. The .338 Federal launches 180-grain bullets more than 100 fps faster than standard loads in the .30-06 and packs an additional 300 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle. Downrange, the '06 bullet reels in the .338 Federal, thanks to a higher ballistic coefficient. At 200 yards they match each other almost exactly in speed and energy. But remember that the .30-06 is a longer cartridge.

Winchester's .338 Magnum has been around for nearly half a century now, and while it didn't set sales records initially, it has recently become quite popular. Many elk hunters consider it the ideal mix of reach and bone-crushing power, in a case compatible with standard rifle actions. It recoils briskly, but fans say it is not brutal. While the .338 Federal cannot hope to equal the Magnum's authority, it qualifies as an understudy. With a 180-grain bullet, the new round shoots as flat as the .338 Magnum with a 210 Partition. At the muzzle, a 210 in the .338 Federal clocks the same as a 250-grain bullet from the Magnum and strikes within a vertical inch of it at 300 yards. And the Federal round is much gentler in recoil.

The 84M action is perfectly sized for .308-based cases like the .338 Federal. No extra metal.

While the savvy people at Federal might be expected to field a practical cartridge every so often, I was astonished that this one showed up as an orphan. In regard to rifles, the .338 Federal had no American home when it debuted. Instead, it appeared in a brand-new Sako rifle, the M85. Drew Goodlin at Federal Cartridge explained. "The Finns were enthusiastic about this round and figured it would draw attention to the rifle. We were delighted because Sako has a great reputation."

A black bear hunt in the spring of 2006 introduced me to the .338 Federal. While the bears eluded me, I did manage some time with paper targets. Federal's 200-grain plated Fusion bullet shot tight; one three-shot series tore a single hole.

Whoever convinced the authorities at ATK to produce the .338 Federal deserves an award. You'll look hard to find a more practical, versatile cartridge. You'll find none that crams so much power into the .308 case. Handloaders can fashion this round easily from .308 brass. Rifle manufacturers (and gunsmiths) can hang .338 Federal barrels on just about any action. No, you won't be able to watch the effect of these bullets on prairie dogs. But it's a superb round for game as big as elk. If, like me, you hike into high places for big game, you'll appreciate its compatibility with trim rifles like Kimber's 84M.

Federal's factory-loaded 185 Barnes Triple-Shock turned in the best group from Kimber's 84M.

The Kimber 84M

Kimber's 84M is one of my all-time favorite hunting rifles, and it's the perfect platform for the .338 Federal. I wasted no time scoping the Classic version that arrived last fall.

True to its type, this svelte sporter weighs in at five pounds, nine ounces. Its 22-inch barrel is rifled one turn in 10 inches. The trigger breaks crisply at an even three pounds. The walnut stock has a dark, warm russet hue, with some figure. It is nicely fitted to the metal, standing just a bit proud on one side of the floorplate tab. Checkering is sharp and clean, 20 lines per inch. Glassed and pillar-bedded to the metal, the wood does not hug the barrel. But there's no unsightly channel gap; indeed, you can't tell this tube floats. A soft, thick, black recoil pad is neatly and properly contoured.

The rifle's matte blue-black metal finish has a deep and uniform luster. I'd prefer more satin and less matte. Also, I'd like a straighter line from tang to comb nose so the top of the grip d

oesn't fall away from my hand or leave the buttstock looking like an appendage. The root of the bolt handle needs cosmetic attention, too. Excuse my critical eye. A rifle as well designed as the Kimber 84M, so far ahead of its competition in so many ways, begs scrutiny. I find myself taking it apart as I might a custom rifle. Indeed, its origins date to classic custom sporters from the likes of Al Biesen, Jerry Fisher and Dale Goens.

The three-position safety works as it should and looks better than the original M70 rendition. The rear shroud, bolt release and Kimber scope bases are likewise intelligently sculpted. Requisite barrel and receiver stampings stay in the background until you really want to read them. A slim receiver ring catches my eye as the signature feature of the 84M. The clever heading in current Kimber catalogs, "So much less than you expect," is an apt description of this rifle. There's no extra bulk, no purposeless line or feature. You get everything you need and nothing more. Result: a trim, lively rifle that balances well, points itself and carries easily when you must go far to find game. Spartan. Elegant. You get the picture.

Bullet Weight And Style
MUZZLE100 yds.200 yds.300 yds.400 yds.
180-gr. Nosler AccuBond
Velocity (fps)2,8302,5902,3502,1301,930
Energy (ft-lbs)3,2002,6702,2151,8201,480
Trajectory (ins.)-1.5+1.80-8.2-23.9
185-gr. Barnes Triple-Shock
Velocity (fps)2,7502,5502,3502,1601,980
Energy (ft-lbs)3,1052,6602,2651,9201,615
Trajectory (ins.)-1.5+1.90-8.3-24.1
210-grain Nosler Partition
Velocity (fps)2,6302,5902,2002,0101,820
Energy (ft-lbs)3,2252,7102,2651,8801,545
Trajectory (ins.)-1.5+2.30-9.4-27.3

As for accuracy...well, I was hoping the 84M in .338 Federal would at least approach the precision I'd come to expect from its type. My .308 Montana weighs no more than an English grouse gun but prints sub-minute groups.

The 84M's compact magazine holds five rounds; they all stripped reliably during the test.

To test accuracy, you need to see well, so it's common practice to install big, powerful scopes on rifles up for review. I've followed this regimen only with rifles meriting such sights. Why test with a scope you wouldn't use on that rifle in the field? Admittedly, fitting a low-power scope on a carbine or mountain rifle can handicap it at the bench. While I've fired many half-minute clusters with the 2 1/2X and 3X scopes I favor on lightweight rifles, more magnification can shrink groups.

I chose a Leupold Compact 2 1/2X for the 84M in .338 Federal. Given my druthers, it would have been a Leupold Compact 4X, but I didn't have one on hand.

So armed, I hied off to the range, a 100-yard flat on the side of a rocky hill where friend Danny O'Connell had built a shooting room complete with a television monitor that delivers a clear view of the target via remote camera. A steady snow obscured the Columbia River far below. Myriad tiny flakes landed like so many microscopic paratroopers atop a base already a foot deep. No wind stirred their descent.

The author regrets pulling a fourth shot out of this group and had no stomach for a fifth.

After bore sighting, I fired a 180-grain AccuBond at the center of the paper. It struck just three inches from point of aim. I adjusted the scope and fired a couple of groups. The best measured under an inch and a half. Subsequent shooting with 185-grain Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullets and 210 Nosler Partitions failed to match that. But while I was able to quarter the big bullseye targets I'd tacked to the frame, that Leupold's hea

vy crosswire (excellent in elk cover) prevented precise aim.

I repeated the exercise and managed to put three Triple-Shocks out of four into a single ragged hole. While such performance cannot be expected with a low-power scope and is not needed for big game, it's a credit to both rifle and ammo. Federal's factory-loaded ammunition has always impressed me for its consistency. The Barnes Triple-Shock has delivered, in my rifles, far better accuracy than the original X-Bullet. I think Randy, Coni and the other people at this Utah company have produced a superior game bullet. The Barnes Triple-Shock may even nudge me from my crusted reliance on lead-core bullets.

The 84M cycled dependably. Its action lacks the silky feel of a seasoned pre-war Model 70, but it never failed to feed. Incidentally, that compact magazine holds five cartridges under the bolt. Other riflemakers, who fill our hands with brick-size magazine boxes, should note the dimensions of this Kimber.

As received, the trigger on Kimber's 84M in .338 Federal broke at an even three pounds.

Of course, you expected a rosy conclusion from this review. After all, don't we scribes get paid to write good things about rifles? Not me. It is true that most rifle evaluations accentuate the positive. That's partly because most rifles that reach the market have something to recommend them. Mainly, though, good news is the predictable result of selecting good stuff for review. I try not to commit text to gear of marginal value. It's easier and more useful to tell about products worth buying. The 84M is a likable rifle, the .338 Federal one of the most sensible new cartridges I've seen in a long time. Before tackling this project I was convinced the combination would make for a good report.

And it did. No fudging necessary. I can't name a better all-around rifle, especially for hunting in remote places and on steep faces. Solidly midrange in price but long on quality, features and performance, the Kimber 84M in .338 Federal should establish itself as one of the best hunting-rifle values in 2007.

Will the .338 Federal become a commercial success? I can't say. Weatherby's introduction a few years ago of the excellent .338-06 seemed a good move. But though the .338-06 ranks as one of the most popular American wildcats of all time, it has not sold well as a Mark V chambering. Perhaps if ammunition firms stateside had followed Norma in manufacturing the round and domestic manufacturers had offered it in ordinary rifles, its fortunes would have improved.

Kimber's 84M has a Mauser claw extractor and true controlled-round feed.

In my view, both the .338 Federal and the .338-06 deserve more attention from shooters than do many cartridges introduced in the last decade. They're both effective on game as big as elk out to the ranges most hunters can consistently hit vitals. They're efficient in barrels of modest length, manageable in recoil and easy to handload. They slide eagerly through any mechanism designed for the .30-06 and .308.

Though the 84M magazine holds five rounds, the rifle's belly is slim and straight, easy to clutch.

What more could you ask? Well, the minions who shoot and sell fire-breathing magnums would have you believe you need higher speed, flatter arc, a heavier blow; that elk up close and deer far away demand bigger hulls; that real men are unaffected by recoil.

Don't you believe any of it.

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