The .338 Lapua Mag is a military long range precision tactical cartridge whose time has come. The original round was developed by Research Armament in the United States in 1983 at the request of the US Navy. The .338 uses a necked down .416 Rigby case and in its original configuration launched a 250-grain bullet at nearly 3000 fps (feet per second) with a muzzle energy of over 4800 fpe. A prototype rifle and ammunition were produced and tested by the Navy, but the cartridge never was manufactured in the US. Lapua and Norma finished development and got the cartridge into production. Besides Lapua, Black Hills now loads both 250- and 300-grain cartridges. In the latter configuration, the 300-grain bullet leaves the muzzle at 2800 fps with a whopping 5223 fpe. By comparison, a 168-grain .308 match cartridge has a muzzle velocity of only approximately 2600 fps and 2180 fpe. The .308 is totally overshadowed by the .338 Lapua, although most rifles in this caliber are only marginally heavier than precision tactical rifles chambered for the .308.
The .338 has been standardized by several NATO countries because it is effective at far greater distances than any .308 cartridge while at the same time having terminal ballistics approaching those of the larger .50 BMG. As the .338 Lapua became accepted by a number of the world’s military forces as replacements for or supplements to bridge the gap between the .308 and .50 BMG, it was only a matter of time before the US military began to consider it. As this is written in early 2009, the following countries are using .338s: Austria, Germany, France, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Great Britain and selected units within the US military structure.
It is no great secret that both the US Army and US Navy are currently considering a .338 Lapua precision tactical rifle for service use, although the first formal requirement was issued by US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for a new special forces sniper rifle. While the requirement did not specifically designate which cartridge or the rifle would be chambered, most developers consider the .338 Lapua the best candidate because it meets all of the SOCOM performance criteria, plus it is already in NATO service. Interestingly, a part of the requirement also specifies that regardless of manufacturer, the rifle must include a PDA (personal digital assistant) with ballistic software for determining “come ups” and while not specified, the only such PDA with appropriate software we are aware of is that of Horus Vision. Even more interesting, the only specific reticle type for use without dialing in come ups using the scope turret mentioned in the requirement is the Horus Vision H37.
For military and law enforcement use, where does the .338 fit? For the military, the .338 gives the precision tactical marksman a huge range advantage over any .308 caliber rifle, while adding little to the weight burden that every Infantryman must contend with. Our test PGM338 for example, tips the scales at 17 pounds, about half the weight of a .50 BMG rifle. We have tested .308 caliber precision tactical rifles that weigh nearly as much. When compared to .50 BMG caliber rifles, our PGM338 weighs 10 pounds less than the lightest weight .50 BMG rifle we have ever tested. Most, like the widely used Barrett M82, weigh over 30 pounds.
To get an appreciation of the long range effectiveness of rifles in this caliber, we have fired our personal .338 from another manufacturer at distances of over 1500 yards with superb accuracy. At closer ranges, especially those associated with military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) that characterize much of the operations in Iraq and for law enforcement, where engagement distances are almost never more than 100 yards/meters, the .338 offers the precision marksman the capability to defeat targets that would resist any .308 bullet.
For law enforcement, the .338 bears examination as an alternative to .50 caliber rifles simply because most organizations do not require the terminal ballistics of the .50 BMG cartridge, but wish to have a rifle available whose ballistics exceed those of the traditional .308 for positive vehicle stops, defeating hard targets such as brick walls and other situations where the .308 or .223 isn’t sufficient, but where use of a .50 BMG rifle might be “overkill” and negatively viewed by civilians or the news media. Also, the .338 Lapua Magnum is one of the few cartridges whose bullet will reliably penetrate aircraft windshields and retain sufficient terminal ballistics to eliminate targets in aircraft cockpits.
In addition the felt recoil of the .338 is significantly less than any .50 BMG rifle. We predict that there will be more and more .338 Lapua precision tactical rifles in use by military and law enforcement around the world. Naturally, a large cartridge like the .338 will necessarily deliver more felt recoil than lesser cartridges, but this can be offset to a degree by the use of muzzle brakes. The PGM brake reduces felt recoil to approximately that of a .308, although muzzle blast alongside the rifle is pronounced and distracting. The spotter on a precision tactical team using a PGM338 rifle should position himself slightly to the rear of the shooter’s shoulder to avoid having gases and dust blown into his face.
The PGM338 is imported into the United States by Drake Associates. It is a conventional bolt action rifle in the sense that it has a manually operated bolt with three forward locking lugs and a safety lug that is integrated into the operating handle, but the design is otherwise unconventional. The three locking lug design shortens the bolt throw, thus speeding operation. The extractor is integral to the right locking lug and the ejector is of the plunger type, positively ejecting spent casings. Our test PGM placed every spent casing in a small pile about six inches from the right front of the ejection port.
Unlike most bolt action rifles, the PGM receiver body surrounds the bolt, adding strength and rigidity and also protecting the rifle’s action from dust and foreign matter. The receiver’s top surface is fitted with an extended MIL-STD-1913 rail for mounting optics and state of the art night vision optics such as the current military standard AN/PVS-22. There are no open sights. There are also MIL-STD-1913 rails on the left and right sides to accommodate other accessories.
The safety is a small cross bolt at the rear of the receiver that is applied when moved to the right and released when pressed to the left. The safety physically blocks the trigger, although the bolt can still be manipulated. The bolt handle is oversized and long enough to give plenty of leverage for actuating the cock on opening action and to yank spent casings from the chamber.
The “double stack” detachable box magazine holds 10 cartridges. The magazine is retained at the rear by a latch that engages a notch in the rear face of the magazine. The release is a large stud on the bottom of the triggerguard that is easily reached using the shooter’s trigger finger. The magazine doesn’t drop free when the release is pulled, but a drop-free magazine really isn’t a good idea in a rifle that should be operated as quietly as possible, plus manually withdrawing the magazine allows better control and ensures that it doesn’t get dropped in the dirt. The magazine is easily removed using two flanges on either side. Horizontal bars on both sides of the magazine prevent it from being shoved too far up into the magazine well when reloading. Feeding was absolutely reliable and butter smooth.
The trigger is fully adjustable, but PGM recommends that it be done by a trained armorer. The folding stock is fully adjustable for cheek rest height and length of pull. The rifle comes with an integral bipod and rear monopod.
Our PGM’s bolt operation was initially somewhat “gritty,” but after wiping it clean and applying a light coat of lubrication to the bolt and receiver interior, the action smoothed considerably. The action of most new rifles such as this seem rough at first due to the phosphate finish and they become smoother after some usage and lubrication.
We set our PGM .338 up with a Horus Vision H25 4-16x50mm tactical scope. The Horus Vision reticle should please virtually any military or law enforcement precision marksman, as the scope’s optics are excellent and the reticle is the most versatile and fastest available for any kind of precision shooting. The H25 reticle, designed for military and law enforcement sniper use, has achieved notable success in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Horus Vision scopes eliminate “dialing in” clicks of elevation or windage, are calibrated in standard milliradians, but have no Mil-Dots. Each milliradian is subtended into 0.2 milliradian increments, so that range estimation using the mil system is far more precise than with standard Mil-Dots, as is targeting.
Instead of dialing in clicks of elevation or windage, Horus Vision scopes use a targeting grid that looks “busy” at first glance, but quickly becomes second nature. In use, the shooter generates “come-up” data using the Horus Vision handheld Palm PDA. This data is transferred to a waterproof adhesive backed paper card that is used to determine precise holdovers for elevation and windage. If time is available and exact precision is desired, the PDA can be used to generate specific targeting data, to include elevation and windage holds for the target to be engaged. Once the rifle is zeroed with one load, the PDA can be used to generate come-up cards for other loads. The ballistic data for other loads is entered into the PDA and a separate “come-up” card generated. All that is necessary is to generate a come-up card for any load desired and confirm zero. We have personally tried this system out to 1000 yards and it works.
The SOCOM requirement cannot legally specify the Horus Vision scope or PDA with ballistic software, but reading between the lines based on 20 plus years supporting the Department of Defense acquisition community with technical intelligence on threat weapons systems to our R&D weapons, there is no other optic or PDA that meets the SOCOM requirement except Horus Vision. Horus Vision has been so successful in operations in the “sand box” that a Special Forces Colonel friend I encountered at the 2009 SHOT Show told me that he was convinced that the Army Special Operations community was going to Horus Vision. This officer personally took a 275 meter “head shot” on a Taliban fighter at 275 meters using his M4A1 with a Horus Vision scope!
Another recent Leupold product is the company’s RX series of digital laser rangefinders (LRF) that deliver the exact ballistic distance to the target, regardless of slope. Most rifle shooters know that as the angle up or down increases, the true ballistic distance decreases. Previous devices measured the cosine and read out a factor by which the shooter multiplied to obtain the true ballistic distance. This took precious time, during which the target might go behind cover and disappear. Of course, there were “whiz wheels” and slide rules to speed obtaining the true distance, but all previous methods took time.
Leupold’s new RX laser rangefinders measure the angle and instantly indicate both the measured distance and the exact ballistic distance up or down so the precision tactical marksman knows the exact hold for precise target engagement. We believe this series of rangefinders is one of the most significant recent developments in rifle shooting. The most recent development from Leupold that is sure to find its way into the hands of most precision tactical marksmen is the RXB-IV 9x range-finding binoculars. The RXB-IV has an effective range of 1500 yards/meters for reflective targets and approximately 800 yards/meters on a man size target and combines the binocular and rangefinder functions into one compact package, allowing the shooter to scan and range using the same optic.
In addition to true ballistic range, the RXB-IV binoculars will also display “hold over” in either inches or minute of angle. The RXB-IV’s computer contains several groups of cartridges with similar ballistics that can be selected and used to generate exact hold over for actual ballistic range. The RXB-IV has no less than 13 reticle patterns, is waterproof and shock resistant. We believe the RXB-IV is going to be close to the top of the “must have” list of any precision tactical marksman. Sales of the RXB-IV outside the United States require State Department approval due to the critical technologies involved.
Of course, many engagements are in the hours of darkness and the precision tactical marksman may be called upon to engage targets with little or no illumination. Thus, a night vision sight is mandatory for every precision tactical team. Optical System Technology’s AN/PVS-22 Universal Night Sight (UNS) is current military issue and represents state of the art in image intensification (I²) night vision and is the US military’s night vision optic of choice. The AN/PVS-22 is arguably the best all around piece of image intensifying (I²) night vision equipment currently available because it can be used both as a hand held night vision optic and as a small arms night sight.
Shooting the PGM338 brought no surprises. This rifle was well under sub minute of angle (MOA) accurate. The trigger broke at 4 pounds with zero creep or backlash. If we were to use the PGM operationally, we’d shave a little pull weight, but the as tested pull was fine. Although we tested at only 100 yards due to range restrictions, we have shot other rifles chambered in .338 Lapua to 1500 yards with superb accuracy. We used Black Hills 250- and 300-grain and Lapua 250-grain ammunition. Although the PGM .338 was very accurate with all ammunition, it delivered its best performance with Black Hills 300-grain, achieving an average shot group only 0.63 of an inch in diameter. Both three round shot groups were essentially “cloverleaves” with bullet holes touching. Considering the diameter of the .338 bullets, that is a remarkable level of accuracy.
The next Special Operations precision tactical will be chambered in .338 Lapua, this is a given. We predict that the days of the .308 as a military precision tactical round of choice are numbered. The .338 Lapua does everything the .308 does, only better. We have already seen that the .338’s terminal ballistics completely overshadow those of the .308 in a rifle that is only marginally heavier and that is half the weight of .50 BMG rifles. The SOCOM trials will be taking place soon and our test PGM .338 is about as close to the rifle manufacturing state of the art as it gets. Will the PGM be the first .338 Lapua to enter US military service in significant numbers? Only time will tell, but based on our experience, the PGM .338 Lapua would be an excellent choice.
The .338 Lapua Mag is a military long range precision tactical cartridge whose time has…
by Christian Shepherd / Jun 13, 2009