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The 338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua Magnum comparison puts two extremely powerful cartridges head-to-head. If your goal is to hammer the hell out of whatever you’re shooting at, whether that is a big-game animal, paper, or steel, both of these cartridges will do the trick. But they were designed for different purposes. One was made for hunting, and the other for military application. The trick to picking which of these two boomers is the best for you, depends on what you want to do with them. And if what you want to do is the sort of big-game hunting most of us plan or dream of doing, one of these cartridges stands out as the better option. Here’s a full breakdown of 338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua, starting with a look at each cartridges individually.

338 Win Mag Overview

The 338 Winchester Magnum, like many other American-made magnum cartridges, was based on the 373 H&H cartridge case. Winchester unleashed this brute in 1958. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufactures Institute (SAAMI), which sets the standards for American-made firearms and ammunition, limits the cartridge to a maximum average pressure (MAP) of 64,000 psi, and with a 250-grain bullet, a velocity of 2800 fps is obtainable. If there’s a creature walking the Earth that the 338 Win Mag cannot take down—with the right bullet—I don’t know what it is. Field & Stream rifles editor David E. Petzal put it exactly right when he wrote: “For pulverizing efficiency, it knows no betters and few equals. The 338 Win Mag is frequently used for elk, moose, and griz, and I know some who’ve used with great success on African buffalo.

Box of Nosler 338 Win Mag ammo and three loose cartridges on white background
The 338 Win Mag is a highly popular and effective round to hunting elk, moose, grizzly, and other large game. Nosler

I’ve not done a lot of hunting with the 338 Winchester Magnum, but I did use one to thoroughly piss off a professional hunter and his client in Africa. The hunter, a rich Texas businessman, had shot a bull eland four or five times with his 375 H&H, never hitting the killing spot. I was in the truck minding my own business when the bull stepped out in the road at about 200 yards. It was attempting to stomp the trailing dogs into a bloody puddle. So, I picked up a 338 Winchester that was in the truck and shot the eland in the chest. Death was instantaneous, and 20 minutes later when the PH and his straight-shooting hunter arrived, so did their contempt. I’d saved the hounds and put the beast out of its misery, but that did not seem to matter to the trophy hunters. But the moral of the story for this article is that the 338 Win Mag gets the job done—and fast.

338 Lapua Mag Overview

Box of Federal 338 Lapua Magnum ammo with two loose rounds on white background
When it comes to shooting at extreme distances, you can’t do much better than the 338 Lapua Magnum. Federal Premium

The 338 Lapua came about through a joint venture between SAKO, Accuracy International, and the Finish ammo company Lapua, in the late 1980s. It is a big cartridge; the case alone is nearly 2.75 inches long, which is about the same length as a loaded 308 Winchester cartridge. It’s loaded to a SAAMI MAP of 65,000 psi and will push a 250-grain bullet to around 3000 fps. From a hunting standpoint, the problem with the 338 Lapua is that it kicks like a zebra trying to shake a lion from its haunches. You can put a brake on a 338 Lapua rifle, of course, but that only make an already loud rifle much louder. That said, if hitting stuff at long range tickles your fancy, there are few, if any, better. I once took a sniper course in Utah with a 338 Lapua, and in addition to nearly freezing to death, I rang steel targets a mile away at leisure.

A heavy long-range rifle propped on a bipod in the snow with mountain vista in background
The author’s 338 Lapua rifle at a sniper class in Utah. Most 338 Lapua rifles are ominously large and heavy, but they will allow you shoot at extreme distance. Richard Mann

Quite a few years back, I was helping with hog eradication in Texas. My host had armed me with a Barrett bolt-action rifle in 338 Lapua. It was outfitted with every tactical accessory, including a riflescope that almost shot the rifle for you and a flashlight. Typical for Texas hog hunting, I was in a stand watching a feeder when passel of swine came in hungry and grunting. I figured one shot was all I’d get with the rifle that weighed more than a small motorbike and made as much noise as an atomic bomb. I patiently waited for two of the biggest swine to line up broadside, one behind the other. A single 300-grain bullet put them both down instantly.

Hunter kneeling in the grass next to two wild hogs, with a 338 Lapua rifle in the foreground
The author took both of these Texas hogs with one shot from a 338 Lapua. Richard Mann

Velocity and Energy Comparison

When two cartridges are firing a bullet of the same weight and diameter, and they’re loaded to similar pressures, you’ll get the highest velocity from the cartridge with the most case capacity. The 338 Lapua Magnum has about a 25 percent case-capacity advantage over the 338 Win Mag. As a result, with the same bullet weight, the 338 Lapua Magnum will have about a 10 percent velocity advantage. As for kinetic energy, it’s heavily dependent on velocity, so the faster bullet hits harder. Looking at the chart below, you can see that with the same weight bullet, the 338 Lapua Magnum’s is significantly faster and hits much harder, and you have the option of heavier bullets with Lapua.

Chart showing 338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua velocity and energy.

Advantage: 338 Lapua Magnum

338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua: Trajectory

When it comes to putting power on target at distance, trajectory and wind drift matter. They matter because the flatter a cartridge shoots, the less critical range estimation becomes. Similarly, the less a bullet drifts in the wind, the more error you can get away with in your wind-speed estimation. Any cartridge that is superior at both is going to be the better one for shooting at long distance. There’s really nothing to argue about here. The 338 Lapua Magnum has an advantage in both trajectory and wind drift over the 338 Winchester Magnum because it can shoot heavier bullets with a higher ballistic coefficients, faster. Below is the breakdown.

Chart comparing the 338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua trajectory.

Advantage: 338 Lapua Magnum

338 Win Mag vs 338 Lapua: Recoil

Most 338 Lapua Magnum rifles are bemouths; they’re long and heavy and not something you’d want to carry much further than from your truck to a shooting bench. For example, the Ruger Precision Rifle in 338 Lapua Magnum weighs 15.2 pounds, naked. Most 338 Winchester Magnum rifles are of a more common hunting-rifle weight. But, with a little looking, you can find a 9-pound 338 Lapua and several 338 Winchester Magnum bolt-action rifles of that weight or lighter. If you compare both cartridges with a 250-grain bullet out of a 9-pound rifle, the 338 Winchester Magnum will recoil with about 40 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. The 338 Lapua Magnum will recoil about 22 percent harder. That’s a significant difference. Both are hard-kicking rounds, but the Lapua is a bit of a beast, unless you have enough rifle weight to tame it. But then, of course, you have a heavy rifle.

Advantage: 338 Winchester Magnum

Which Cartridge Is Better for Hunting?

A big eland bull taken posed on the ground with a scoped rifle next to it
The big eland bull mentioned earlier that the author dropped with a 338 Winchester Magnum. Richard Mann

There’s no denying that the 338 Lapua Magnum cartridge is the flatter-shooting, harder-hitting cartridge. It is an ideal long-range military sniping cartridge, which is exactly what it was designed for. However, recoil from hunting-weight rifles is past the abusive level and in rifles where recoil is tolerable, they’re so heavy you’ll need a caddy if you’re going to hunt very far from the truck. On the other hand, the 338 Winchester Magnum has enough oomph for any non-dangerous game—and with the right bullet it will work on dangerous game too—at reasonable shooting distances.

From an ammunition availability standpoint, there are about the same number of factory loads for both cartridges, but you’ll find more hunting loads for the 338 Winchester Magnum. There is a good selection of match-type bullets for the Lapua, and in my opinion that’s where this cartridge excels. Out of a properly equipped, heavy rifle, the Lapua will remain supersonic out past a mile. And if you can shoot, steel targets will not stand a chance at that distance. Bottom line: Hunt with the 338 Winchester Magnum; play on the range or fight on the battlefield with the Lapua. I can’t make it any simpler than that.