.338 Win Mag Recoil Overview

The .338 Win Mag cartridge is very popular with large animal hunters in North America. Many expert shooters tout the .338 Win Mag as the best all-around choice for large animals such as elk, moose, and bears.

This large caliber centerfire cartridge is unquestionably a smart choice but at what cost?  How much recoil punishment are you willing to take?

The .338 Win Mag Technical Story

It is the basic ballistics of the .338 Win Mag that make it a go-to selection for the largest of the game animals on the North American Continent. Just a quick look at the basic ballistic information tells us a lot about the capabilities of this cartridge.

Using a standard bolt action rifle with a 24-inch barrel, the test data on Federal Nosler Accubond 180 grain ammunition returns the following.

RangeDrop (inch)Velocity (fps)Energy (ft-lbs)
0-1.4931203890
100-0.005428593266
200-2.78126142731
300-10.66323812265
400-24.69821611866
500-46.21119521523

It is easy to see in the chart that this is a big bullet going very fast and delivering vast amounts of energy. And this is not the heaviest bullet you can find loaded for the .338 Win Mag.

You can purchase factory loaded ammunition with 250 grain high performance bullets. 

Big and Fast Usually Equals Higher Recoil

.338 Win Mag Recoil

Physics rules in the case of recoil. Recoil is the reaction to the force of the burning gunpowder pushing the bullet down the barrel of the rifle.

Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law state that for every action or force in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, the force of the expanding gases in the gun works both ways.

As the gases expand and push the bullet down the barrel, they are also pushing the gun backward. We call this recoil or kick.

The amount of force, or felt recoil, is a mathematical function of the weight of the rifle, the weight of the bullet, and the amount of force generated by the burning gunpowder. In the case of the .338 Win Mag, all of these factors are relatively large.

Without going into a lot of very detailed mathematical calculations, suffice it to say that a heavy bullet, with a large powder load behind it, will generate a lot of recoil.

The weight of the gun can mitigate this force to some extent. Most shooters find the recoil from a 338 Win Mag to be manageable but sometimes punishing.

Field Dressing
Pocket Guide

This is a handy pocket guide you can bring with you to the field. It will take you step by step on how to field dress big game animals

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Comparing .338 Win Mag Recoil

An uncomplicated way to understand recoil is to compare different calibers that are often used for the same type of hunting or shooting sports.

You may have experience with one of these other calibers which can give you some sense of what you may experience when shooting a .338 Win Mag.

Recoil is typically measured in two ways. The energy is delivered in the form of felt recoil and is measured in foot pounds.

The velocity of the recoil, or how fast the gun is pushed backward is measured in feet per second. The third factor that is considered is the weight of the bullet being shot.

CartridgeFree Recoil Energy
(ft-lbs)
Recoil Velocity
(fps)
.338 Win Mag29.9013.75
.270 Winchester17.6411.64
7 mm Weather Magnum26.0714.13
.300 Winchester Magnum29.9914.88
7 mm Remington Magnum23.1513.32
.308 Winchester18.2711.62

Power Vs. Speed

This chart points out some interesting findings. For example, the 7mm Weatherby Magnum delivers slightly less free recoil than the 338 Win Mag.

However, the recoil velocity is higher which means the felt recoil may be as much or slightly more than the .338 Win Mag round

One way to think about these numbers is to consider the free recoil or energy as the punch you feel and the recoil velocity as how fast the punch is delivered.

A fist that is pressed against your nose with twenty-five foot-lbs. of energy applied slowly won’t do much damage.

Deliver that same twenty-five foot-lbs. of pressure at a velocity of 10 feet per second and you will end up with a smashed and bloody nose.

.338 Win Mag Recoil

Factoring in Rifle Weight

Another factor to consider is the weight of your rifle and scope package. The tendency toward lighter guns often means more felt recoil.

A heavier gun absorbs more of the recoil energy. The energy absorbed by the gun isn’t delivered to your shoulder. 

The average .338 Win Mag rifles weigh between nine and ten pounds. If you opt for a lighter rifle chambered in a bigger caliber, you should naturally expect more felt recoil. Again, the whole situation is a matter of compromise.

My Experience and Choices

At one time or another in my career, I have shot all of the listed calibers through a variety of rifles. Some of them I found uncomfortable to the point of putting them on my “don’t shoot” list.

Of course, I don’t routinely hunt elk, moose, or bear. This makes it easy to pass up these large magnum calibers.

For me, the .338 Win Mag falls into the category of I will shoot it if the chance comes to hunt the right animal. My current choice of a field gun is a Savage 110 chambered for .270 Winchester.

Since I hunt mostly whitetail and mule deer this is a more than adequate cartridge choice. 

Recommendations by the Author 

Every hunter and shooter have diverse needs and requirements. As I have said before, choosing a rifle and caliber is a compromise that every hunter must consider.

For me, the .338 Win Mag is an efficient and effective choice for larger North American game animals. However, the felt recoil may be too much for some shooters, especially those with smaller body frames and lighter weight.

I feel that the felt recoil of the .338 Win Mag is manageable for almost any shooter. I will admit that it is not a cartridge that I want to take to the range and shoot 50 or 100 rounds in a short time.

However, it is a cartridge that would definitely be on my radar under the right circumstances.

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