March 2004

Two .338 Winchester Magnums Vs. Remington’s .338 Ultra Mag

Who brings home the backstrap in this competition of booming bolt actions? We find merit in all three, but prefer the Ruger.

Ray Ordorica liked the look and feel of the .338 Ultra Mag Remington 700, but wanted more accuracy. He believes it would be fun to reload the big cartridge, but thought it was more than needed for most North American hunting.

There are many good arguments that can be made that .30-caliber rifles, no matter their intensity, are not as good for general hunting as a larger-bore rifle. The grand old master of firearms, Elmer Keith, thought that a rifle of .338 caliber would be far better than any .30 as an all-around rifle for most North American hunting. The grand old .318 Westley Richards, which threw a 250-grain bullet of .330-inch diameter at 2400 fps, won a reputation second only to the .375 H&H Magnum as one of the finest all-around cartridges for Africa’s medium game. This cartridge was very similar to Keith’s .333 OKH and to the .338-06. Clearly Keith was right on track.

The .338-caliber cartridges are one “notch” above the .30s (avoiding the 8mms). There are many fine bullets available in that caliber for reloaders, and in loaded ammunition as well. The generally available calibers are the .338 Winchester Magnum, the .340 Weatherby, and the new Remington .338 Ultra Mag. There are other .338 cartridges, one of the best being the .338-06, but no major factory has yet adopted that cartridge, despite many rumors. Wildcatters offer various other .338s, but none of them are on your dealer’s shelves.

We acquired a couple of .338 Mag bolt rifles, and threw in a copy of the newest Remington in .338 Ultra Mag, just to see what it might offer. The first of our .338 Win Mags was the Ruger 77, one of the most commonly seen rifles in Alaskan hunting camps. We also obtained a Winchester Model 70 to see how the “homeboy” would do with its own cartridge. Our Ultra Mag was Remington’s Model 700 LSS, with laminated stock and stainless metal. So we had examples of the three prime U.S. rifle-making companies, in serious calibers. We limited our ammo to two types with the .338 Winchester Mag because a) we could only get one type/weight of .338 Ultra Mag Remington ammo; b) these things kick like billy-be-damned off the bench and we wanted to restrict our punishment; and c) It was about 10 degrees above zero with a breeze blowing when we had to test the rifles, and we didn’t want to be outdoors very long. Here’s what we found.

Ruger Model 77RS MKII, $780


The Ruger had a walnut stock complimented by blued steel. This rifle was the only one of our trio that had iron sights, the rear being a folding pattern that, with some scopes, permitted getting it out of the way. We had to remove the rear sight to mount our 12X Leupold, which had a large objective. We mounted the scope as far forward as we could get it on all three rifles to keep it off our faces in recoil. This caused it to crowd the Ruger’s rear sight. A more appropriate hunting scope would not require the removal of that rear sight. Many hunters like iron sights on all their rifles, so if anything goes wrong with the scope, the iron sights can be used. The Ruger 77 was also the only rifle of our test trio to come with scope mounts. With the Ruger you’re obligated to use Ruger’s rings, so the company really has no reason to include them with the rifle. Yet they are included, and it’s way past time for other makers to follow suit.

The Ruger’s metal was nicely polished, though in certain light it was just possible to see polishing marks on the barrel. The bluing was perfectly done, with the bolt left white. There were no sharp edges on the areas of the action where the fingers needed to go to manipulate, load, or unload the rifle, with one exception. The tip of the bolt release was dagger-sharp. The three-position safety was at the right-rear corner of the action, and though it worked to perfection, we once again wished for the long-absent tang safety that used to be one of the Ruger 77’s finer features.

Inletting was good. The stock finish was serviceable but left the pores slightly unfilled. The barrel was bedded with upward pressure from the tip of the forend, with the remainder floated all the way back to the action. The wood was more-than-decent walnut, with Ruger’s standard, workable, though too-small-at-the-wrist checkering. The butt pad was deplorable, a trait shared by the Winchester. Better to put concrete there and broadcast the pad’s hardness than to try to pass these too-hard pads off as recoil reducers. The black, hard-rubber pad of the Ruger had a poor attempt at rounding its upper edge, but it still caught on the clothing. Installation was outstanding, with no white lines.

It remained to be seen how well the Model 77 performed. We mounted our 12X Leupold and tried the rifle with 200- and 250-grain loads by Winchester and Remington respectively. We found

the Ruger preferred the lighter bullet

, putting three of them consistently into a group just over an inch. Recoil was surely noticeable, but a good pad would make this a far more pleasant rifle. The 250-grain Remington load gave a bigger kick and a visible ball of flame out front. Our feeling was that the rifle would be thoroughly suitable for those who would usually fire a lighter bullet, as when using this rifle for, say, deer hunting. Twist rate was given as one turn in 10 inches, which ought to have worked well with either bullet weight, in our experience. Why it did not shoot the heavier bullets better we don’t know. Groups averaged 2.5 inches with the 250-grainer, which was probably enough accuracy. One curiosity we found was that Ruger’s website gave the magazine capacity of the Model 77 as six rounds. Try though we might, three was our limit.

Three rounds went easily into the magazine and from there into, and out of, the chamber. Ejection was a function of the operator. Brisk bolt motion gave brisk ejection. This rifle had a clean trigger pull, though we’d have liked it a touch lighter. The rifle performed about as expected, thought the groups we got with the heavier bullets were disappointing to some of our staffers, who prefer the heavyweights. Accuracy with heavier bullets might improve with load tinkering, or fine-tuning the Ruger’s bedding. However, we thought it had enough accuracy with heavy bullets as it tested for most big game hunting at reasonable ranges.

Winchester Model 70 Classic Stainless, $846


Right off the bat we didn’t like the Winchester. Its stock put us off. It was black plastic, and had a sharp parting edge that needed to be removed to call the rifle finished, we felt. The overall appearance was black-and-white, with no obvious points of interest. There were no iron sights. There were no rings. There were sling swivels, but nothing else in the box but a lock. However, the rifle did have Winchester’s old full-length extractor (as did the Ruger), and the old cone-shaped breech. It also had the big three-position safety lever that Ruger didn’t quite get right. At 26 inches, the Winchester’s barrel was two inches longer than that of the Ruger, but that didn’t help the overall appearance, we thought. It might help velocity, but that remained to be seen.

Yet the Winchester was well balanced. It handled quickly, we thought, without feeling whippy. The action was slick enough, and got slicker throughout our testing and handling of the new gun. The inletting was excellent, though the stock came up too high next to the ejection port, and the cutout for the bolt handle was too big. The checkering looked good and worked well enough, we thought. The barrel was set up similar to the Ruger’s, with pressure on the forend tip and no contact (or not much) behind the tip all the way back to the action. The big floorplate was hinged (as was the Ruger’s), to allow emptying the magazine without the need to work the rounds through the action. The Winchester’s floorplate latch (and that of the Ruger) worked well, though we’d make absolutely certain it was fully latched before taking the rifle afield.

The trigger pull was lousy. There was about zero creep, but a dreadfully hefty pull of just under 8 pounds. There’s no excuse for that on a hunting rifle, not even if the trigger pull is adjustable, which the Winchester’s is. We left the trigger alone for our bench shooting but we’d instantly change it if we owned this rifle and expected to take it afield. We’d also change the recoil pad to one that actually had a chance of reducing felt recoil. This black-rubber piece was, if possible, harder than that of the Ruger.

It’s possible to get a recoil pad too soft. We once tried a light, custom .458 Winchester Mag rifle that had a Sorbocoil pad. The owner let us shoot it before and after switching to a Pachmayr Decelerator pad. The latter proved to be too soft, permitting the rifle to come back enough that the hard stock contacted our shoulder more than it had with the previous pad. However, the pad on our Winchester test rifle was nowhere near the realm of “good and firm.” It was rock hard.

The metal preparation and finish of the Model 70 were outstanding. All the metal surfaces were perfectly polished and had a matte-white finish that, while dead looking and lacking in interest, certainly was appropriate for a working rifle. Even the sling swivels were stainless. There is much to be said for a serious hunting rifle having stainless metal and a plastic stock, despite the dreary look of the combination. There were two touches that helped dress up this rifle, a checkered bolt knob and well-done jewelling on the bolt. We liked the checkered bolt, because it helped us work the action quickly. With our basic inspection done, it was time to stick the Leupold onto the rifle with our trusty Weaver bases and rings, and head to the range. We tested again with 200-grain Winchester and 250-grain Remington fodder.

We found the Winchester had a bit of stickiness in its operation. The second (of three) rounds pushed into the magazine had to be forcibly pushed to the rear so the bullet nose would clear the front of the magazine box, or else it was impossible to load the third round. The ammo fed easily enough and reliably enough from mag to chamber, but the last little bit of chambering required a strong push. Yet the Model 70 sure as heck did its thing on the targets, despite its very heavy trigger pull. Our best groups were with the 250-grain fodder, the smallest three-shot assembly being 0.9 inch, best by far of all three rifles. The rifle also did well with the 200-grain ammunition. Felt recoil was severe, despite our winter clothing that put five garments between the rifle and our shoulder. As predicted, this rifle’s recoil pad was completely useless, in our considered opinion.

Remington 700 LSS, .338 Ultra Mag, $840


This was a striking-looking rifle. The gray/black laminated stock was quite attractive, we thought, and the matte-finished stainless metal complemented the overall look far more than the black-and-white combination of the Winchester Model 70. The Remington’s flat-top checkering worked exceptionally well. (This is an old English idea, one we’d like to see more of.) The stock finish was glassy, almost certainly epoxy, and (we thought) essentially impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that beset all hunting rifles. We got the impression this rifle would still look great fifty years from now. However, we were wrong here. We found it was not at all difficult to mark the finish with the thumbnail. The Remington felt lively, and we liked the feel immediately.

Inspection revealed what could turn out to be a design flaw, and we’ll watch out for this one as time goes along. The hinged floorplate was released by a button within the trigger guard, which was just fine except that the button was set up so that a forward press on it would dump the cartridges. Guess what, folks, the trigger finger of a hard-kicking rifle is going to fly forward — maybe not all the time, but maybe some of the time — and kick that magazine open when you least want it to open. In our limited testing, the floorplate stayed shut, so maybe we’re wrong about it.

The metal was, like that of the Winchester, well prepared and finished, with an even matte gray color. The barrel and action markings were less obviously mashed into the steel than on the Winchester. The bolt was jeweled, and though it didn’t have the huge extractors of the Ruger or Winchester, Remington’s extractor has worked fairly well over time, and we won’t try to fault it here. You don’t get a coned breech, but you do get the slickest bolt throw we’ve felt in many a gun test. The checkering on the bolt knob worked, and the rifle was easily cocked. The trigger pull was good, clean-breaking at 6.0 pounds, but about a pound or two too high for us. The barrel was once again from the same inletting school, tightly fit just behind the forend tip and floated from there back to the action. We didn’t detect barrel-mounted recoil lugs on any of these three rifles. The Remington’s butt pad was once again black rubber, with the hint of some internal trickery that might make it work. But it still felt pretty stiff to us. There was no rounding of its top, and it needed it. It had a sharp rubber edge that caught on clothes.

The barrel once again was way out there at 26 inches, and there were no iron sights nor any scope bases or rings, but something about the rifle — perhaps its Monte-Carlo cheekpiece, absent on the other two rifles — made us overlook the lack of sights or scope mounts. We immediately wanted to slap our scope on, and go shoot this rifle. Then we looked at the cartridge — and just about lost all interest in shooting it.

Based on the .404 Jeffery case, which has a head diameter very close to that of the common belted-magnum’s belt (but no belt), the Remington .338 Ultra Mag was a huge cartridge. We thought that surely it would exceed the specs for the .340 Weatherby, which is a long version of the common belted case, essentially a lengthened .338 Winchester Mag. The .338 Ultra Mag’s shoulder was essentially as far up the case as the big Weatherby’s shoulder, but because of the belt-diameter body, has greater powder capacity. We liked the look of this cartridge. However, we must express our opinion right off the bat that the .338 Ultra Mag’s performance will almost certainly take it out of the all-around cartridge niche. The best use of it, we figure, will be for longer-range shots at elk-size game, and we suspect this rifle will find its friendliest homes in Alaska and Africa. That having been said, it was time to bite the bullet and go out and shoot the new Remington.

Again we mounted our 12X Leupold in Weaver bases and rings and tested with the one load we could find, Remington’s 250-grain Core-Lokt, which used the same bullet loaded by Remington in the .338 Win Mag test ammo. On the Ultra Mag’s ammo box we read that the cartridge has 25 percent greater capacity than the .338 Win Mag. The supposed velocity was given as 2900 fps, not as high as we would have expected. Common reloading books give plenty of loads that give 2700 fps with the .338 Winchester and 2800 fps with the Weatherby. So we presume the Remington can be pushed, if desired, by thoroughly experienced reloaders. We wondered at the reasoning that brings only 100 fps extra velocity in this caliber over thoroughly established rounds. But we had yet to chronograph any factory loads as this was written.

On the range we confirmed the average velocity of the new Remington Ultra to be 2850 fps. The Winchester M70 got 2680 fps with Remington’s .338 Win Mag load using the same bullet. So you get 170 feet per second more for your money. Is it worth it? Maybe, with some qualifications. The price of the new rifle, new ammo, etc., offers little to the dedicated hunter that he can’t already get with the .338 Win Mag. So if you have one, you don’t need the other. If you need more velocity with the .338 Win Mag, you can get it with a lighter bullet. The 200-grain Winchester load ripped out of the Model 70 at 2950 fps. That will give flat enough trajectory for any big-game hunting on which that bullet would be appropriate. Though you may want a heavier bullet for larger game, the trajectory offered by a 250-grain bullet at 2680 fps will be more than flat enough for any rifleman at any reasonable range. No, we won’t debate that, but we know a hunter who used a 250-grain bullet at 2500 fps for years with perfect success. On a bet he could hit baseball-size clumps of snow at unknown long range with his first shot every time.

So what do you get with the new Remington that makes us think it may be worth the expense? In a word, potential. We would guess the reloader will have a lot of fun with this cartridge. It would be easy to get extreme velocity from some of the lighter bullets available in .338, and the big case would handle 300-grain bullets well. They’d be just the ticket for some of the largest game out there. Remington currently loads .338s in 225-grain bullets (in the Premier Core-Lokt line) and 250-grain bullets (in the Premier A-Frame line), but we suspect anyone who buys one of these rifles will soon buy a set of loading dies for it as well, just for the fun of playing with the cartridge.

Gun Tests Recommends
Ruger Model 77RS MKII, $780. Our Pick. One of the best features of the Ruger was its overall classic look. It looked like a hunting rifle, and was nicely proportioned in all its lines. Bill Ruger designed one good-looking rifle. We recognize that many hunters today like stainless steel and plastic, but we often tend toward tradition, and when viewed side by side with a black-and-white rifle, the Ruger looked much better to our eyes. It was also well balanced, and easy in all its operations. There were really no serious problems with the Ruger. We all felt the Ruger 77 in .338 Winchester Magnum would serve very well as one’s only hunting rifle for all North American big game. We would fix the trigger and replace the recoil pad, but that’s it. Even without those fixes there would be pride of ownership, no need for shame in almost any company, and we felt the rifle would hold its own and perform as expected for many lifetimes. That’s about all you’d need from any rifle.

Winchester M70 Classic Stainless, $846. Buy It. It was surprising to us how the Winchester’s performance on target changed our overall opinion of it. We ended up liking the simple-looking Model 70 a lot more than when we started. We felt the Winchester was a decent rifle that performed quite well, despite its plain-Jane looks. Its excellent accuracy gave it a leg up that helped save it from a Conditional Buy rating.

The bottom line with this one is that it was a sound rifle in a serious caliber, despite a few shortcomings. We couldn’t really reject it because it needed a decent recoil pad (no more than we rejected the Ruger), though this one was so bad we were tempted. Be sure to have the trigger adjusted when you get your Model 70 fitted with a recoil pad, and be sure to adjust the pull length to suit you perfectly when you have the pad installed. That can go a long way to reducing felt recoil. With a good pad and a good trigger, this Model 70 would do well enough, we thought, for almost any hunting, and ought to last a long, long time.

Remington 700 LSS, .338 Ultra Mag., $840. Buy It. Unfortunately, we were disappointed in this Remington’s accuracy. We suspected loose action screws, found them very slightly loose, tightened them, and got not much better groups. Group average was 2.8 inches, not what we’d expected. The good news was that this rifle was relatively comfortable to shoot off the bench. That trick recoil pad did a decent job of cutting the kick. We still would not like to shoot it all day from the bench, because the rifle did come back with authority, but it was more comfortable, by far, than the Winchester. Feed and function were perfect. We liked the look of this rifle, and the potential of its big powder bottle.

In short, we had no major complaints, but ended up liking the Winchester Model 70 more than this one, and the Ruger most of all.

 

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