It is no coincidence that there is currently a surge in interest in .338 caliber rifles in military circles. Bullets in that caliber have higher ballistic coefficients (BC) than similar .30 caliber (or smaller) bullets, enabling the .338 to show less drop, wind deflection and velocity loss at extended range. Pushed to reasonable velocities, 0.338 of an inch diameter bullets such as the 250- and 300-grain Sierra MatchKings have the ballistic capability to engage man-size targets at up to 2,000 yards.
While Vietnam-era American military doctrine was based on relatively close-range fighting in jungle and forest environments, environments for which the 5.56mm cartridge was intended, the experiences of American troops in the Middle East and Africa have amply demonstrated the usefulness of a lightweight rifle capable of engaging enemy personnel at ranges of a mile or more.
Such a rifle would fill the gap in range, power and weight between traditional 7.62mm sniper rifles such as the M24 and M40A3 and the Barrett .50BMG rifle. Recognizing the need for such an arm, the USMC is reportedly seeking a new .338 caliber rifle. Although the specifications for this rifle do not specify a chambering in .338 Lapua Mag, the smart money is overwhelmingly behind that cartridge as the eventual caliber choice for the U.S. military.
It came to life as an experimental military cartridge with initial development started in 1983 by Research Armament Corporation (RAC). The ballistic goal of the new round was to accelerate a 250-grain 0.338 of an inch diameter projectile at 3000 fps (feet per second). For various reasons, RAC did not go into volume production of either the cartridge or the guns it was intended for and the project was taken over by Lapua of Finland, which formally introduced the cartridge as the .338 Lapua Mag in 1987.
At present, some 20-odd years after the cartridge’s debut, it enjoys wide use by military forces, border patrol units and other agencies worldwide, including a number of NATO nations. Numerous factory and custom rifles can be had in that chambering and major ammo-makers such as Black Hills, Lapua, Nosler Custom and Swiss Munition make factory loaded versions of the round with both 250- and 300-grain projectiles. The 250-grain load has a nominal muzzle velocity of 2960 fps, a nominal muzzle energy of more than 4800 foot-pounds (fpe), and exhibits less drop and wind deflection than either the 7.62mm NATO or .300Win Mag, at any range.
A potential candidate for the new USMC rifle is the Surgeon Rifles XL. The rifle is based on Surgeon’s largest action size, the XL, which features a 1.45-inch wide, 9.5-inch long flat-bottomed receiver. Like all Surgeon actions, the XL is designed for maximum strength, rigidity and simplicity. The receiver, made of 4340 steel hardened to 40 Rc, has the integral recoil lug and Picatinny rail characteristic of all Surgeon actions. The integral rail, given a 30-minute of angle (MOA) in the XL, rather than the 20-MOA of the smaller action, greatly increases rigidity, particularly in the vertical plane, and the integral recoil lug both eliminates a separate piece and also allows a longer barrel thread of 1.24 inches. The XL action is specifically designed for the .338 Lapua Mag with a 3.35-inch-long ejection port and a bolt diameter of 0.743 of an inch, which is needed to accommodate the 0.582 of an inch head diameter of the Lapua case.
Another signature feature of the Surgeon action is its 4140 bolt, nitrided to a surface hardness of 60 Rc, and machined with the bolt handle root in one piece with the bolt body. A choice of three bolt handles can be screwed onto a stout threaded stub that is machined in one piece with the bolt body. The Surgeon bolt face is similar in design to that of the Remington with a protruding bolt nose and spring-powered plunger ejector. Its extractor is unique: a pivoting spring-loaded claw set in the right locking lug. This position allows a low ejection angle that prevents cases from hitting the scope and bouncing back into the action. Shallow helical flutes on the bolt body accommodate the accumulation of any dirt and grit.
A spring-loaded bolt lever in the left receiver wall, protected from inadvertent activation by a raised fence, serves as the bolt release. Surgeon XL rifles can be had with a choice of Remington, Shilen or Jewell triggers, all installed by way of trigger hangers.
Krieger cut-rifled barrels are exclusively used in all Surgeon Rifles guns. The XL .338 Lapua Mag rifle features a tube 26 inches long and an inch in diameter at the muzzle. Rifling is in a six-groove, 1-in-10-inch right-hand twist pattern. All Surgeon .338 Lapua Mag guns have a SureFire muzzle brake, which is designed to allow the quick attachment of that company’s sound suppressor. The brake adds about 2 inches to the length of the barrel. Surgeon XL actions are available in both single-shot and repeater versions; the .338 Lapua Mag rifle is typically made on the latter, which is better suited for tactical use. Feeding is from a five-round detachable Accuracy International steel single-column box magazine, which locks into Surgeon’s own heavy-duty alloy bottom metal. A lever at the front of the triggerguard is pulled forward to drop the magazine. Two beefy hex screws attach the barreled action to the stock. All metal surfaces on the XL have a Cera-Coat finish, which can be had in black, tan, gray and olive drab.
The Surgeon XL .338 Lapua comes standard with a pillar-bedded McMillan A-5 fiberglass stock, fitted with a height-adjustable cheekpiece, length-of-pull spacers, and flush-mounted cups for quick-detachable sling swivels. The barrel channel is relieved to allow a fully free-floating barrel. An Uncle Mike’s-type sling swivel stud is located on the underside of the fore-end for bipod attachment. The stock on my test gun was in a marbled reddish-brown earth color. Other available colors include tan, olive drab and woodland camo.
Surgeon’s XL .338 Lapua Mag can be had with a number of extra-cost options, including barrel fluting and different-color metal finishes and stocks. Also offered are two alternatives to the McMillan stock. One is a new fiberglass model from KMW, featuring excellent ergonomics and all the adjustments anyone could want. Not currently available, this new stock is slated for availability before the end of 2008.
The other is a modular aluminum stock from McRee’s Precision with different fore-ends and buttstocks as well as numerous attachments points for Picatinny rail sections, to allow the installation of tactical lights, night vision devices and more. Also part of the McRee system is a folding-stock option, which reduces total gun length to around 40 inches.
While there is no such thing as the “perfect gun,” there’s not a lot that one could do to improve the Surgeon XL .338 Lapua Mag. For some users, the McRee folding stock option might make the gun a little easier to carry in vehicles or store in cramped quarters. Also, although the XL’s weight of 16.5 pounds (unloaded, without scope or bipod) is not excessive, a lighter version of the gun with the same performance might be appealing. Surgeon Rifles is currently exploring such a model.
My initial range session yielded groups I thought were creditable, about 0.75-MOA with a couple of different types of ammunition, but not up to the Surgeon Rifles guarantee of 0.50 of an inch 5-shot groups at 100 yards with the appropriate factory ammunition. The company takes this guarantee very seriously—any Surgeon rifle failing to deliver such performance is regarded as requiring repair or other corrective action, which they will perform at their expense. Before taking advantage of this policy with my test rifle, I discussed my results with Preston Pritchett and his staff at Surgeon. They suggested a barrel break-in period of at least 100 rounds for best accuracy, and recommended some loads that had performed particularly well in their testing.
I thus dutifully went back to the range and completed the 100-round barrel break-in period. For good measure, I also replaced the scope mounted on the gun, a good optic, but one that had seen many thousands of rounds, with a new US Optics SN-3 3.8-22 unit, using US Optics rings. I also acquired sufficient quantities of test ammunition, including factory ammunition from Black Hills, Lapua and Swiss Munition (made by RUAG Munition). The Black Hills and Swiss Munition loads featured 250-grain HPBT match bullets, while the Lapua ammo was loaded with a 250-grain Lockbase FMJBT projectile.
The three test loads were fired over the light screens of a Kurzzeit PVM-21 precision chronograph. Velocities are about what I expected for a 26-inch barrel with the exception of the Black Hills load, which developed lower-than-nominal velocities.
I can’t say whether it was the breaking in of the barrel, the new scope or the ammunition chosen, or all the above together, but the rifle quickly began to shoot better. Quite a bit better, actually with the Swiss Munition load turning in five-shot groups around 0.63 of an inch, and the Black Hills ammunition achieving the 0.50 of an inch standard. It should be pointed out that firing conditions were far from ideal. My range sessions were conducted in Virginia in the middle of a heat-and-humidity wave that produced mirage off the barrel and fog on my shooting glasses. Also, a bipod was used for support instead of a more stable tripod rest. Under more comfortable climatic conditions, with my Sinclair rest and perhaps a 36 to 42x scope, groups of 0.40 of an inch or smaller would likely have been achieved.
Accurate shooting was aided by the rifle’s crisp 2.25-pound Jewell trigger and adjustable McMillan A-5 stock, and despite what I said above about bipods, the gun felt steady as a rock on its mounted Harris unit. Thanks to the effective SureFire brake, recoil was very moderate, perhaps about as much as a sporter-weight .243Win.
Of course, the .338 Lapua Mag is designed for use at ranges far beyond a paltry 100 yards. Additional test firing of the gun at distances of 400 to 1000 yards showed that its sub-MOA accuracy was not limited to short range. For logistical reasons, I didn’t fire formal groups on paper at such ranges. Shots on 18 by 36 inches steel silhouettes, however, demonstrated an essentially 100 percent hit probability on man-size targets at distances out to 1200 yards, the limit of the range facility. MOA accuracy out to as much as a mile is well within the capability of this rifle.
There are a number of .338 Lapua Mag tactical rifles on the market with varying degrees of suitability for real-world military and law-enforcement applications. The Surgeon XL combines the inherent advantages of the Surgeon action design — extreme rigidity, simplicity and reliability—with proven components such as Krieger barrels and McMillan, KMW and McRee stocks. This combination makes the Surgeon XL one of the best, if not the best, of the current crop of .338 rifles and well worthy of serious consideration by military or law enforcement users.
It is no coincidence that there is currently a surge in interest in .338…
by Matt Berger / Dec 28, 2008