.338 Federal Ri?es: Kimber’s Montana Is Light, and Great
Chambered for this shootable new cartridge, the Montana got our attention for its light weight. We thought Rugerís Frontier was too heavy, and Sakoís costly 85 didnít please us much.
When a new cartridge comes along that might be useful as an all-around one, it gets our attention. The recent .338 Federal isnít really powerful enough to qualify as an all-írounder, but it looked to us like a great option for those who want a versatile round with more bullet weight than is offered in the .308, while still being able to fit into the .308-size rifle action. The .338 Federal is essentially the .308 opened to accept bullets of 0.338-inch diameter, sort of a .338 OKH Short, if you will. These .338-inch-diameter bullets offer greater sectional density than similar-weight bullets out of the .358 Winchester. While there are a lot of bullets available in 0.338-inch diameter, the short actions generally used to accommodate this new round will probably dictate that the lighter bullets will be the ones of choice.
Still, we suspect many handloading short-range hunters will opt for 225- up to 250-grain bullets. An updated version of the old 250-grain Hornady round-nose bullet is still available and wonít take up much powder room.
As with most new cartridges, .338 Federal ammunition isnít readily available yet across every sporting-goods counter. We checked various gun shops in Idaho and Montana, but could not find .338-Fed ammunition for sale. In fact, most clerks in the stores we contacted had no idea of what the cartridge was. We finally obtained three of the four types currently available, all by Federal. These were loaded with 180-grain Nosler Accubond, 185-grain Barnes-X Triple-Shock, and the relatively low-cost 200-grain Fusion bullets. We could not obtain the 210-grain Nosler Partition load, though it would be our first choice for serious hunting.
Several questions can be put to rest before we look at the three rifles. First, most of us here in Idaho donít consider this caliber adequate for serious elk hunting, much less big bear, though we suspect it would do better than most .30-caliber rifles, even .300 Mags. The bullets arenít heavy enough nor velocity fast enough from this small cartridge to perform as well as some of us would like on really big elk. Velocities out of the Kimber were close to factory claims except for the 180-grain Nosler Accubond load, which fell about 90 fps short. Velocities with the Sako were all lower than the Kimberís, and the Rugerís short barrel cut speed a whole lot.
We believe the .338 Federal will be a mighty fine cartridge for deer, sheep, goat, and so on, performing way better than anything smalleróand assuming a real hunter is behind the rifle. Performance ought to be similar to that obtained from the .358 Winchester So why not get one of those? After all, the .358 owner can use cast-lead pistol bullets. Well, thereís a better bullet selection for the reloader in .338, and sectional density is somewhat better too. This means slightly flatter trajectory for the .338 Fed, though probably not by a lot. Finally, the question of recoil is undoubtedly on most shootersí minds. We can tell you that even with the heaviest bullets tested in the lightest rifle, recoil is simply not a factor here. Two of the test rifles were much too heavy, but the 6.5-pound Kimber (as tested) was a sweetheart on the shoulder. Forget recoil fears with this cartridge. Hereís what we found.
Kimber Model 84M Montana
.338 Federal, $1221
The first thing we noticed was this was a very light rifle. Without scope it weighed under 5 pounds. The second thing we noted was the recoil pad was excellent, a model for the rest of the industry. The straight Kevlar/carbon fiber stock was dark gray in color and had enough of a pebble-like surface that checkering wasnít needed, even when wet. There were no visible parting lines on the stock, and the barrel, though free floated, was so close to the stock it was not easy to see the separation.
The action was like a small pre-í64 Model 70 Winchester compete with cone-shaped breech, controlled feed, and positive ejection. A neat push-button on the left rear of the action permitted bolt removal. The safety was again just like the early preí-64 Winchester Model 70. It had three positions, the middle permitting the cycling of the bolt to empty the magazine. In fact there was no other way to empty the loaded magazine, the rifle having no floorplate. The magazine held five rounds but it was not possible to close the bolt over the fifth, nor could we easily cycle the first round out with five in there, so we called it four-plus-one. Feeding and ejection were for the most part slick and easy, getting better as we used the rifle.
All the metalwork was matte stainless. Kimber didnít use aluminum to cut weight, just made the parts smaller. The action is smaller than normal in all dimensions, yet much stronger than needed. The magazine follower was plastic, but all the rest of the innards were of steel. The slim barrel helped cut weight. We were cautioned to be sure to let the barrel cool between shots on hot days to get the most out of the rifle. Barrel twist rate was one turn in 10 inches, same as the other two rifles.
The rifle came with dovetail-style bases, but we changed them to Leupoldís own two-dovetail setup to make sure our relatively heavy (1.35 pounds) new 30mm 16X Leupold Mark 4 test scope would stay put. This brought the empty weight up to 6.5 pounds. If this cartridge were ever going to hurt the shooter, this was a setup that would do it. Not much to our surprise, the Kimber had no significant felt recoil. The slight kick from the straight stock was sharp and fast, and no trouble at all, thanks to the great pad. A more suitable, lighter, hunting scope would easily give a carrying weight well under 6 pounds. That would increase kick somewhat, but we donít believe recoil will ever be a problem with the excellent Kimber stock design.
Clearly, Kimber has shown that manufacturers can reduce the weight of hunting rifles if they use a design that directs recoil straight back, not upward against the face. Please note, manufacturers, that there are in fact good recoil pads out there. The one on the Kimber worked exceptionally well. By contrast the pad on the $1600 Sako was as soft as a brick and difficult to change. The Rugerís pad was even worse. It makes little sense for a factory to install a useless recoil pad on a too-heavy rifle. Cut the weight, use a good pad, and sell more rifles.
Be advised sharp, fast recoil can play hob with scope mounts on heavy scopes, or even with the scope itself. To reduce the possibility of problems with your scope or mount, we suggest using the lightest and highest-quality scope possible mounted by an expert in either double dovetail rings, or in the very simple yet extremely rugged Weaver bases and rings. The Weavers may not be pretty, but they have performed well for us here for many years on many rifles.
The Kimberís best results were with the 185-grain Barnes X load, which averaged about 1.2 inches. In over-90-degree heat we shot slow and very slow, and we even shot fast, but saw little change in group size. Our smallest three-shot group was fired in cooler weather, a cluster of the 185-grain Barnes-X bullets that went into half an inch. In hot weather the barrel got mighty hot. The Kimber is not designed for long strings from the bench. Clearly this rifle is made for lots of easy carrying followed by the occasional shot. We tried fast pairs, and got generally excellent results, the two landing 1.0 to 1.5 inches apart. What more could you want?
Sako Model 85 Stainless
Synthetic No. JRS1B43
.338 Federal, $1525
The stock of this matte-stainless rifle had a two-toned appearance, with soft gray rubber inserts that served to give traction to the fingers, sort of like checkering. There were ten of these panels plastered into various curved recesses in the stock, and while they did in fact give traction even while wet, they looked like the very Devil to most of our test crew. Few of our shooters liked the modern look, despite the functionality. If you prefer a wood stock with real checkering and blued steel, you might choose the Sako Hunter, but itíll cost you $100 more. Sako does put nice wood on the few samples weíve seen. The test rifle had a huge recoil pad with trestle-style openings along the sides. The Beretta/Sako website assured us the pad would greatly reduce felt recoil, and promised the added-on cheekpiece would help, too. Yet the recoil pad was about as soft as a rock. Also, its lines didnít match the line of the stock belly at all. Finally, the shape of the heel of the pad ran forward into the stock 1.7 inches. While this looked good, it makes it difficult or impossible to replace the recoil pad with a good one. The metalwork and matte-silver finish was well done everywhere, but there was a huge gap between the free-floated barrel and the stock, the gap being at least an eighth of an inch wide directly under the barrel. These are not features one expects on a $1500 rifle.
We were intrigued by the so-called controlled-feed bolt claim, unusual for a rifle with three lugs and a 75-degree bolt turn. Thing is, it didnít work. True controlled-feed extractors grab and hold the cartridge as soon as it exits the magazine, and if you stop pushing the bolt forward and pull it back, the round backs out under perfect control. With the Sako, the round remained loose, under no control, until it got into the chamber. Occasionally a round would slide up under the extractor just before the bolt was fully closed, but not often enough to count on it. A classic 98 Mauser would have the round under perfect control by the time it was halfway into the chamber. Not this Sako.
The magazine box is detachable, but only if you know the combination. Thereís an obvious lever at the front of the box, and it looks like a simple press will get the box out. Not so. We pushed and pried with our fingers a long time to no avail. Finally we resorted to the instruction manual (oh, the shame!), and found the answer. You must first press firmly upward on the magazine floor plate, and then the removal button may be operated. We concluded this was an excellent method to prevent the accidental removal of the magazine. Nothing protrudes from the bottom of the rifle, giving a neat overall look.
The trigger of the Sako is fully adjustable. For a long time Sako has had one of the best triggers in the industry, and this is no exception. It is surpassed, we believe, only by Savageís AccuTrigger. Adjustment is fully detailed in the instruction manual, but we found adjustment to be unnecessary. The trigger broke cleanly at 3.2 pounds. The rifle package included a bolt-takedown knob and a wrench for the Torx-head stock bolts. There were also QD sling swivels in the box. Missing was any reasonable way to attach a scope. Sako sells Opti-Lock rings that fit the integral tapered bases on the rifles, $70 a set, and apparently in only one height. You can opt for the quick-detachable Sako rings at $375, but these make little sense on a rifle with no iron sights. We thought that for the price of this rifle, a set of rings could be included. Warne and Leupold make rings, both available from Brownells in a variety of heights, and we chose Warneís. These list for about $40.
We mounted our Leupold 36X target scope on the Sako, repaired to the range and cut loose. Despite its extra weight (7.9 pounds as tested) and because of its hard recoil pad, we found the Sako to be the worst offender of the three for recoil. The good news is that it provided decent accuracy with all three test loads, giving sub-one inch groups with the 200-grain Fusion fodder. The Barnes-X load was not far behind. Accuracy was not a question here, but there were plenty of other questions.
Ruger Frontier Model 17951
.338 Federal, $900
In the July 2005 issue, we reviewed the Ruger M77 Mark II Frontier Rifle .243 No. M77FRBBZ MKII No. 17882, $800, against two other bolt guns and rated it an Our Pickóthe equivalent of an A-ranked gun today.
But we had never tested the Steyr-Scout-like Ruger Frontier in a midrange cartridge, so we opted to do so against the Kimber and Sako in this interesting new caliber. Please note, the .338 Federal cartridge is no match for the more powerful .376 Steyr. The Ruger Frontier costs a bit less than the Kimber, but was a lot heavier. The forward-mounted scope lets you carry the rifle easily, is fast for target acquisition with both eyes open, and permits unobstructed access to the magazine. There are other features to a "scout" setup, and the Ruger seemed to do fairly well against a real Steyr Scout except for weight, sling, extra magazine recess, integral bipod, and the complete lack of iron sights. The Ruger did have decent balance. To complete the Frontierís setup we acquired a Leupold FX-II 2.5x28mm IER Scout scope, which bolted up to the Frontierís forward-mounted Weaver-style base with Rugerís own rings. (Hear that, Sako?) This gave an all-up empty weight of 7.4 pounds, which was at least a pound too heavy, we though. Ruger achieves the forward-placed scope mount by screwing a base onto the barrel. Thatís probably why the barrel is thick. There are other ways to achieve a forward scope mount with a slim barrel, but they tend to be costly.
If you want a Ruger in this caliber in conventional form, the plastic/stainless Hawkeye is offered in .338 Federal. For that matter, you can unscrew the scout-type mount and put a normal scope on the Frontier, but that hardly makes sense. Ruger doesnít yet offer the wood-stocked Hawkeye in .338 Federal. The Hawkeye runs $750, but the Target Gray (stainless) Frontier sells for $900. You canít get a blued Frontier in .338 Federal.
We thought the gray, laminated stock looked good with the Ruger-Gray metalwork. The checkering was good. The butt pad was one of the older Ruger bricks. It was thin and hard, though very well fitted. The stock had no cheekpiece. Ruger had the courage to bed the barrel properly into the stock. However, the barrel was a touch on the massive side, adding needless weight to this little rifle. The barrel was only 16.5 inches long, and we noted a reduction in velocity with all loads over the other two, and increased muzzle blast. The hinged floorplate was difficult to open, but the clever Sako setup had spoiled us. The controlled-feed bolt was full size, though the action was, like that of the Kimber, only long enough for the round with nothing left over. We noted the Rugerís bolt didnít "control" the rounds much better than the Sakoís. The Kimber alone worked like a controlled-feed rifle should. The Rugerís trigger pull was decent if too heavy, breaking cleanly at 4.5 pounds. Again, the other two rifles spoiled us.
The magazine held four rounds, and as we found, feeding and ejection were pretty slick. Although the low power of the scope probably hampered us a bit, we got one three-shot group of 0.6 inches with the 185-grain Barnes-X bullets out of the short Ruger. Overall, the Ruger averaged group sizes of 1.7 inches. There were no problems with the Ruger, and its excess weight overcame the nearly useless recoil pad.