For better or worse, long range shooting is all the rage today. I find that there are several camps that exist in this particular division of the gun culture, and each has their own favorite cartridges and rifle types. Today we are going to be taking a look at what is perhaps the largest and most powerful commonly owned long range caliber, the .338 Lapua Magnum, and where it sits today.
The .338 Lapua Magnum was developed in the 1980’s as a dedicated round for military sniper rifles. The .338 Lapua rifle became something of an intermediary between the long-standing .308 Winchester and .50 BMG cartridges in widespread western service, but has now branched out worldwide to the militaries of over 30 countries. It outclasses most other long range rounds, including the fearsome 7.62x54R which, despite being a design dating back to the 1890’s, is a near omnipotent and overwhelming threat in modern warfare.
.338 Lapua rifles were purpose-built as sniper weapons in the early years of the cartridge. That has changed as the round has become more popular with civilians and as a result it has seen widespread production by companies like Remington, Savage, Ruger, Barrett, and others. Common bolt-actions include the Barrett MRAD, Savage 110, Ruger Precision Rifle, and Remington 700. Semi-automatic rifles are also available from Noreen, Alexander Arms, and DRD Tactical.
While these are not typically true military sniper rifles, they are generally quite accurate and affordable relative to their military brethren. The downside to many ‘military’ .338 Lapua rifles is that they are inordinately expensive for no other reason than, at least to me, to be discriminatory to the purchaser base.
The popularity of the cartridge in long ranges circles stems from its use as a military sniper round. As a result, it has developed a healthy cult following in many long-range circles and among competition types, but is banned from use in certain games. I suspect the reason for the bans are that the .338 Lapua, in a 300gr or larger load, produces an unfair ballistic advantage over other cartridges. Indeed, most gaming rounds like 6.5mm and 6mm Creedmoor are put to shame by the .338, but have advantages in terms of recoil and cost. A competitor with money to burn would outclass most others by using the .338 Lapua.
From a practical civilian perspective, the .338 Lapua makes little sense. It’s a very, very powerful round that is difficult to master, even in a quality bolt action rifle. I have had the privilege to fire a number of top-shelf .338 Lapua guns over the years and, while they were extraordinary in their own right, they were certainly not worth the base price of the rifle or the $5/round ammo cost considering the ranges most people shoot at.
It is my opinion that the .338 is expensive just because it can be and the idea that it’s pricier because it uses a non-standard action and bolt face is only an excuse in the age of advanced manufacturing.
I understand the fascination with the .338, but it’s a bit misplaced in my mind. There are a number of end users who have need for an accurate round that can deliver a 250-300gr bullet at a mile away, but they are few and far between.
The excessive cost of the .338 Lapua is the major issue. Even handloads are expensive for most shooters due to the fact that most loads use upwards of 100gr of powder, which is four times what’s used in most 5.56mm loads and over double a .308 Winchester. Bullets are expensive too, usually double the price of comparable .30 caliber options.
To compare it with another common cartridge, the .300 Win Mag, the .338 Lapua is still excessive. The .300 Win Mag can be handloaded with 220gr+ bullets that closely resemble the 300gr .338 Lapua, but at less than one third the price. The .300 Win Mag uses about 25% less powder and bullets that are about 50% less expensive to achieve a similar effective range and trajectory. Brass is also much cheaper for equal quality.
The rush to long range rounds has created a false sense of what long range really is. Everyone loves to talk about the ballistic charts and the numbers surrounding their favorite round, but the reality is that most people will never make full use of the effective range of their 5.56 and 9mm, let alone 6.5 Creedmoor or .308 Win. I consider long range targets to be in the 800-1,200 yard range and long range hunting to be ethically limited to ranges inside 500 yards. A .338 is essentially overkill in terms of power and price for these ranges.
The average shooter in America will likely never be able to commit the time and resources to reliably or repeatedly hit their intended target at ranges past 500 yards. Pessimistic, I know, but it’s the truth based on my experience. The long range community is comprised of a dedicated few with dedicated equipment and even then, they typically lack the disposable income to fire cartridges that exceed $5 each. For the everyman, three rounds of .338 Lapua is more than the cost of a case of beer.
The trend to smallbore rounds like 6.5mm and 6mm has resulted in a decline in the overall popularity of the .338 Lapua due to the fact that the cost of punching paper is significantly less with the smaller bore and bullets. Match quality barrel life is similar to the 6mm and 6.5mm Creedmoor at 2,500-3,000 rounds, however I spoke to many good .338 shooters before writing this article and they claim their choice round has an accurate life that exceeds 7,000+ rounds.
I know one man who shoots matches weekly with two Sako TRG rifles, one in .338 Lapua and one in 6.5 Creedmoor. He claims he has had to re-barrel the 6.5 Creedmoor (formerly a .308 Win) yearly due to his round count, around 2,500 a year, but hasn’t had to touch the .338 in ten years of shooting.
He claims to be at the 6,500 round point and has yet to have an issue. His lifelong load for the .338 Lapua is the classic Sierra 300gr SMK in Lapua brass with 90gr of H1000 powder. He claims to fire about 50 rounds a month plus matches, which is significantly more than most shooters will ever fire through their own .338 Lapua. I don’t consider this typical, as most .338 shooters I spoke to don’t fire more than 100 rounds a year.
The truth about the .338 Lapua is muddy due to the fact that the most good, accurate guns are too expensive and most cheaper guns don’t justify the excessive cost of ammo given their accuracy potential. The .338 Lapua rifle is a status symbol for many and is usually a safe queen as a result. I have seen what it can do as compared to smaller calibers, but I fail to see what it does better for the price given that you could afford both a long range gaming caliber rifle like 6mm Creedmoor and a .300 Win Mag for hunting for substantially less cost than one .338 Lapua rifle.
All that said, if your heart desires a .338 Lapua rifle, by all means go out and get one. It’s your American right to choose, but be aware that it’s a high-cost, low-volume rifle/ammo combination that offers only marginal benefits to the average shooter.