Rifle shooting seems to go in phases in America, and right now it’s long-range shooting’s time to shine. American shooters are fascinated with the concept of reaching out and smacking targets so far away that they clang with a different accent.
It wasn’t so long ago that we thought 500 yards was “long range.” Then 1,000 yards became the new normal. Now it starts getting interesting for a lot of shooters at 1,500 yards.
In recent years the .338 Lapua has emerged as the premier long-range sniper rifle cartridge. That’s because for shooting at ultra-long range, 1,000 yards and beyond, many believe it’s the cartridge that best achieves balance.
The .50 BMG is not much fun to shoot for extended periods of time with all the blast and recoil. I have seen the muzzle brake on a fifty clear a shooting bench, even send a chronograph flying. Once I witnessed ammo boxes being blown off the bench along with a bag of potato chips turned into airborne confetti. That kind of blast level can wear on a shooter after multiple shots.
On the other end of the sniper cartridge spectrum is the .308 Winchester, which is running out of steam at 1,000 yards and is completely outclassed at 1,500 yards. The Lapua splits the difference and has proven that a big, heavy, high B.C. bullet is the key. Most .338 Lapua rifles weigh less than 20 pounds so they are easily transported. With that weight class and a good muzzle brake, the .338 Lapua is easy on the shooter with mild recoil and muzzle blast.
The .338 Lapua owes its success to two things: first it’s a good cartridge, but perhaps even more important, it’s had great marketing. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the .338 Lapua cartridge is now in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest sniper shot.
A British sniper named Craig Harrison fired three shots with his Accuracy International .338 Lapua rifle during an altercation in the sandbox. The first round hit a bad guy running a machine gun and killed him. Another insurgent stepped up to the machine gun and a second bullet killed him. The third shot took out the machine gun. The distance was measured by GPS at 2,707 yards or 1.54 miles. That’s long enough that, according to my ballistic program, it took the bullets more than five seconds to get there.
The main reason that the .338 Lapua has become so popular is because the military is using it for long-range work. Selection by the military will all but guarantee the popularity of any cartridge. Note the four most popular sniper rifle cartridges, the .308, .300 Win, .338 Lapua and the .50 BMG. They are all popular because the military uses them. But other than the .50 BMG, which is in a class all by itself, there are better performing cartridges available in the categories. They fail to achieve the degree of success, not because of any technical reason, but because of the military connection. But civilians are not bound by military selection and we can pick the cartridge that works best, not the one that some politicized General says we must use.
The .338 Lapua was developed with the 250-grain bullet in mind. Lately there is a move to 300-grain bullets, but at least for now the 250-grain is still the cartridge standard. Federal’s most popular .338 Lapua load uses a 250-grain MatchKing bullet with a peak B.C. of 0.606 and a M.V. of 2,950 fps. While that’s a respectable muzzle velocity, there is at least one commercial cartridge capable of driving the same bullet even faster, the .338-378 Weatherby.
Like all the Weatherby rifle cartridges, the .338-378 was developed for hunting. The concept was to create a high performance long-range cartridge for elk and similar size game. But, long range shooting is long range shooting regardless if the target is an elk or a steel gong. The only requirement is simply that the rifle delivers a bullet to the target. If there is a cartridge that gets it there faster and hits the target harder, then where is the downside?
The .338-378 Weatherby cartridge uses the .378 Weatherby case, necked down to take a .338 bullet. That means it is a whopping big cartridge case. The .338-378 Weatherby case holds 137 grains of water compared to the .338 Lapua, which holds 114 grains of water. That’s about a 20 percent increase in case capacity. More capacity means more propellant and more propellant means higher muzzle velocity. While the laws of diminishing returns start to apply with this big case, it still can push the same bullet substantially faster than the Lapua. That means the bullet gets to the target faster, retains more energy and has a flatter trajectory curve.