Winchester Twins: The .264 and .338 Magnum
May 24, 2019
Announced in 1958, the .264 and .338 Winchester magnums hit the market in 1959 amid one of the biggest media blitzes the industry had seen. Both were introduced in “new” versions of Winchester’s beloved Model 70. The .264’s rifle partner was dubbed the “Westerner,” unique because of its 26-inch barrel. The .338 partnered with the “Alaskan” with a 24-inch tube. Both cartridges were based on Winchester’s stubby .458 Win. Mag., necked down and sized to fit a .30-06-length action.
The timing seemed good for the .264 and .338 because a brash upstart named Roy Weatherby was making headlines with his sleek, sexy cartridges. Thanks largely to Weatherby’s marketing genius, the public craved velocity, and “magnum” was the new watchword.
The first question you might ask is why Winchester went the .264 route. Americans had been in love with the .30 caliber for 65 years, but Winchester wouldn’t complete its family of belted magnums with a .30 caliber until 1963—five years after the .264 Win. Mag. In the late 1950s knowledgeable authorities like Les Bowman and Warren Page were clamoring for a fast 7mm. I was pretty young, but I don’t recall any pundits clamoring for a fast 6.5mm.
The 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser had a modest following in the United States, but the only domestic 6.5mm was the long-failed .256 Newton. Roy Weatherby had already wildcatted the 6.5-.300 Wby. Mag., but he cast it aside because of poor bullet selection.
So exactly why Winchester rolled the dice with the .264 is a mystery. For sure, it would be fast and flat-shooting, excellent for mule deer and adequate for elk. Initial loads quoted a 140-grain bullet at 3,200 fps. This was fast for the day, and it caught the public’s eye. The .264 took off quickly and seemed destined for stardom.
In those days chronographs were rare. We believed the numbers, and it took a while for word to get around that the .264 wasn’t quite as fast as it was cracked up to be. But at the outset it did very well. I had one in the early 1960s, and I thought it was magic, as did a lot of folks. With its bigger, belted case it was a “magnum,” a dragon-slayer.
Veterans like Jack O’Connor instantly saw it wasn’t significantly superior to the .270 Win., which had propelled a 130-grain .277-inch bullet at 3,060 fps since 1925. Further, in those days we didn’t appreciate the virtues of a heavy-for-caliber 6.5/.264 bullet like the 140-grainer.
Initially, none of this mattered much. The Winchester Model 70 was America’s most revered sporting rifle. The .264 was fast and flashy, with all that its “magnum” moniker suggested. The .264 received a huge amount of favorable press, and it was the red-hot ticket—for a while.
The versatile 140-grain bullet remained fairly standard for the .264. In my first .264 I loaded mostly Hornady 129-grainers. They performed well and satisfied my thirst for speed. Besides the 140-grain load, the only other factory load for the .264 was Winchester’s fast 100-grain load. I did a lot of prairie dog shooting with these light bullets, but the .264 has too much recoil to be a truly viable crossover varmint/big game cartridge.
Unfortunately, the .264 was still relatively new when load development ceased. With the powders then available it was over-bore—meaning the hole down the barrel was too small for it to efficiently burn all the powder crammed into the case. The 140-grain loads were quietly downgraded to 3,030 fps, where they are today.
This was only the beginning of the .264’s woes. Aside from not reaching its advertised velocity, it quickly got a reputation for rapid throat erosion. This was undoubtedly true, especially in barrels in 1959. The effect on raw accuracy was minimal, but shooters in the ’60s didn’t like barrel-burners.
But it wasn’t lack of velocity or barrel life that put the .264 on the backburner. Remington did it—in 1962 with the 7mm Rem. Mag. It is a more efficient cartridge, and more importantly, it came into the world with a better bullet selection and was almost immediately judged more versatile. The .264 fizzled.
Winchester’s reasoning for the .338 Win. Mag. is easier to grasp. The .33 Win. was the most popular chambering in the Model 1886 lever action, with a great reputation as a hard-hitting “thumper” for elk, moose and bear. The .33 caliber was also popular in the British gun trade: the .318 Westley Richards (.330-inch bullet) and the .333 Jeffery (.333-inch bullet) had excellent reputations for larger game. In the 1940s the team of Charles O’Neil, Elmer Keith and Don Hopkins used .333-inch bullets to wildcat the .333 OKH on the .30-06 case and the .334 OKH on the .375 H&H case.
There were no American .33 caliber bullets intended for high-velocity cartridges, so Winchester’s engineers decided on the “American” .338-inch bullet, the diameter of the .33 Win. Initial loadings included a 250-grain bullet at a credible 2,700 fps; a heavy-for-caliber 300-grain bullet at 2,450 fps; and a 200-grain bullet rated at a fast 3,000 fps.
There may have been a bit of blue sky in these velocities, as there was with the .264, and current “standard” loads have been downgraded a bit. Regardless, the .338 Win. Mag. was obviously a powerful cartridge, intended for the largest North American big game. The 250-grain .338 bullet, for example, has a sectional density of .312, which exceeds the sectional density of the 300-grain .375 bullet. This means that, if velocity and bullet construction are similar, the .338 will out-penetrate the .375 in the case of these two bullet weights.
In the American firearms industry it’s axiomatic that sales drop like a thrown rock once you get above .30 caliber, but the .338 filled a genuine niche. The .35 Whelen was still a wildcat, and there wasn’t much between .30 caliber and .375. The .338 offered an American choice for elk, moose and the big bears, and Elmer Keith’s support for the cartridge bolstered it as a sound choice for other game. Still, in 1959, the .270 Win. and .30-06 reigned supreme. Some Alaskan hunters adopted the .338 and found it just dandy, but even in that limited market the .338 took off slowly.
Part of the reason for that was word got around it was a hard-kicker. Uh, yeah, you bet it has a lot of recoil, and not everybody needs it. While it was a late starter, by the time it reached voting age it was accepted as a fine elk cartridge. Although the Far North hunting market is small, it also became accepted in its stated design role: a great cartridge for Alaskan and Canadian hunting, where it shot fairly flat yet had plenty of power for moose and our biggest bears.
So where does this leave us today? I’ll start with the .264. In more innocent pre-Internet days it took time for Remington’s Big Seven to be a clear winner. The .264’s popularity peak was probably about 1965, when I was loving mine, but the .264 languished and has never recovered.
Other 6.5s have come and gone, and it wasn’t until the 6.5 Creedmoor that this caliber became a star in the United States. I can’t keep from pointing out that the old 6.5x55, the 6.5 Creedmoor and the .260 Rem. are ballistic equals, propelling a 140-grain bullet at about 2,700 fps. All three are great long-range target cartridges, but as hunting cartridges, none of them comes close to the 60-year-old .264, which as mentioned propels a 140-grain bullet at 3,030 fps.
With slow-burning powders and modern barrel steel, the .264 is more efficient today. Recoil is surprisingly mild, and with today’s great bullets, it is a fine open-country hunting cartridge for game up to elk—certainly better in that latter role than the Creedmoor and its ilk.
The 6.5-284 Norma comes surprisingly close to .264 Win. Mag. performance but fits into a shorter action and has a marvelous reputation for accuracy. More interesting, Hornady’s new 6.5mm PRC duplicates .264 Win. Mag. performance: a 140-grain bullet at about 3,000 fps.
It’s too soon to tell if the 6.5mm PRC—or the 6.5-.300 Wby. Mag. or the .26 Nosler, both of which are a lot faster than the .264 Win. Mag.—might renew interest in the .264, but I fear it’s just too late.
As judged by Jack O’Connor 50 years ago, perhaps the ultimate in damning with faint praise, I don’t believe the .264 can do anything the .270 Win. can’t do. I don’t see it making a major comeback, but it’s still a useful hunting cartridge. I’ll use it now and again and reminisce about bygone days, when I believed everything I read and thought the .264 had magical power.
Now to the .338 Win. Mag. After its introduction, Roy Weatherby answered with his .340 Wby. Mag., and today we have the .338 Rem. Ultra Mag, .338-378 Wby. Mag., .338 Lapua and a few more.
From a cold start, bullet selection grew rapidly. Winchester soon dropped its 300-grain load—either because it was too much recoil or didn’t offer enough speed—but Speer brought out a 275-grain .338 bullet. The 250-grain bullet became the standard “heavy” load, but there was much development in lighter bullets.
Today, it’s my guess that the “intermediate” 225-grain bullet is the most popular. It is faster and flatter shooting than the 250-grain bullet, and today’s bullets are so much better that you really can sacrifice a bit of weight and get the same performance. (The .338 Lapua was developed as a long-range sniping cartridge and has given birth to a whole new range of extra-heavy .338-inch match bullets.)
Regardless of what you load in it, the .338 Win. Mag. remains the most popular .33 and the most popular “medium magnum.” It is a hard-recoiling cartridge, but honest, folks, the faster .33s shoot flatter and deliver more energy, but they’re brutal.
It took years, but the .338 has become an American standard hunting cartridge, widely loaded and available. It is extremely effective for the full range of African plains game, and with the right bullets, technically adequate for buffalo. However, it is not especially popular in Africa because it falls below the minimum legal caliber (either 9.3mm or .375) for dangerous game in most countries that stipulate minimums.
The .338 is thus primarily a North American cartridge, and I have often written that the .338 is one of our finest elk cartridges—even though I’ve taken few elk with .338s and more with .270s and .30 calibers. It’s a great moose cartridge, and I have taken caribou and deer with the .338—mostly because I was hunting other game and carrying a .338. You could use it for deer, but I think there are much better tools for deer-size game.
In addition to moose and elk, it’s a fine choice for large bears. It is not essential for black bear, but if you run across the kind of outsize bear you’re hoping for, the .338 will flatten it. For interior grizzly, I think the .338 is superior to a .375 because it shoots flatter.
On our largest bears there are differences of opinion. On a hunt with my wife, she took a 10-foot Alaskan brown with one shot from a .338 Win. Mag. Our outfitter, Alisha Rosenbruch-Decker, a veteran of countless brown bear hunts, prefers the .375 and told us my wife’s bear was the first she’d seen taken cleanly with a .338. I can only surmise that her experience with the .338 has been exceptionally unlucky.
I am certain the .338 Win. Mag. is fully adequate for our biggest bears and a good choice, but cartridges and bullets are never quite so important as shot placement.