When it comes to long-range shooting, the 338 Lapua Magnum is the rifle cartridge that US military snipers reach for when they need to air it out past 1,000 yards. Currently holding the #3 and #10 positions on the ten longest sniper rifle shots in history, the 338 Lapua Mag is an extremely effective anti-personnel round that has an effective range just short of a mile.
If there is one rifle cartridge that defined warfare and hunting in the 20th Century, it is unquestionably the 30-06 Springfield. The 30-06 was carried by US soldiers from World War I through Korea and saw limited use in Vietnam. After the 30-06 received its DD-214, it spent retirement in the woods as one of the most popular sporting cartridges in North America. The 338 Lapua Mag and 30-06 simply do not compare as they live in two different categories of shooting. The 338 Lapua outperforms the 30-06 in every ballistic category.
However, I’ve heard some chatter among hunters that they’re considering adding a 338 Lapua for extra-large or dangerous game hunts. So, let’s compare the warhorse 30-06 to the 338 Lapua Magnum.
Understanding The Difference Between 338 Lapua vs 30-06
The 338 Lapua Magnum was developed in the late 1980s as a long-range sniping round to bridge the gap between 300 Winchester Magnum and the 50 BMG. In comparison, the 30-06 Springfield was developed in the early 1900s as the new standard issue rifle cartridge for the U.S. military to combat the ballistically superior 7mm Mauser round.
To put this into perspective, the 30-06 was 83 years old when the 338 Lapua was accepted as a NATO cartridge in 1989. Essentially what we are dealing with here is nothing short of a rifle cartridge generational gap.
The 338 Lapua is superior in all ballistic categories, yet the 30-06 remains extremely popular in the big game hunting community. Let’s explore why.
The most striking difference between the 338 Lapua and 30-06 is case capacity. The 30-06 can hold 68 gr of propellant while the 338 Lapua has a cavernous capacity of 114 gr (a 67% increase).
This massively increased case capacity is needed to push the 0.338” diameter bullets fired by the 338 Lapua at nearly 3,000 FPS and 4800 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.
One thing I wanted to note was the Max Pressure category as you’ll note the max pressure for 338 is listed as N/A.
At the time of writing, SAAMI has not proofed the 338 Lapua and does not have an established max pressure for the round. To complicate matters, Lapua and the CIP have been somewhat ambivalent about the max pressure for the cartridge.
There is some scholarly debate as to the max pressure for the 338 Lapua, but the lower limits (and therefore safer) suggest 420 MPa (60,916 PSI).
Speaking of pressure, I feel like my shoulder could use a massage after popping off a few 338 rounds, let’s talk recoil next!
The 338 Lapua will be superior in almost every category, but recoil is not one of them. On average, the 30-06 will generate 25 foot-pounds of recoil energy while the 338 will slap your shoulder with 40 ft-lbs force (a 60% increase).
All of that case capacity and a 250 grain bullet come back to punish you when it comes to recoil for the 338. And I can say from experience, 40 ft-lbs is shoulder bruising territory.
After a full shooting session of absorbing all that savage recoil from a 338, I’d challenge any non-military trained sniper to maintain their trigger discipline. Recoil anticipation and the resulting trigger jerk are real issues when shooting a magnum cartridge of this magnitude.
Felt recoil can be tamed somewhat with proper shooting form, a muzzle brake, and reduced power handloads, but it cannot be eliminated.
Even with these modifications/techniques, the 30-06 will still have less recoil.
Trajectory is how we quantify a bullet’s flight path as it travels downrange measured in inches of bullet drop.
The increased case capacity afforded by the massive 338 Lapua cartridge case allows for a higher muzzle velocity and flatter trajectory. At 400 yards, a 250gr match 338 has dropped -18.8” while the 180gr match 30-06 has experienced -21.9” of bullet drop.
Now, this might not seem like a lot, but the further out you go the more pronounced the difference becomes. To simulate this, you’ll need to utilize a ballistic calculator.
At 1,000 yards, the 30-06 has dropped -398” and is approaching subsonic velocities, while the 338 is still well above supersonic speeds and has dropped -288” (a little over 9 feet less).
These results clearly show how the 338 is ideally designed with long-range shooting in mind.
Accuracy is difficult to measure as the shooting platform, consistency of ammo, skill of the shooter, and environmental conditions all play a part.
All things being equal, both the 30-06 and the 338 Lapua are extremely accurate within their effective ranges and MOA level accuracy is achievable with match-grade ammo, quality optics, and proper execution of the fundamentals of marksmanship.
However, if you want to qualify accuracy, we need to separate this section into two subsections: under 1000 yards and over 1000 yards.
For the 30-06, 1,000 yards is pushing the effective limits of the cartridge. To make it out to 1000 yards with a 30-06, you’ll need a well-tuned precision rifle and match-grade handloads tailored to that rifle.
By comparison, the 338 Lapua Magnum is just stretching its legs at 1000 yards and leisurely waves at the yardage marker as it screams by.
The average supersonic limit for .338 Lapua is approximately 1500 yards, a full 50% more than the 30-06.
Here’s how the accuracy breaks down, under 1000 yards accuracy should be similar between the two cartridges. However, I would give a slight edge to the 30-06 as it has less recoil, allowing the shooter to focus on trigger control and marksmanship.
Over 1000 yards, the 338 Lapua Magnum is clearly superior as it can maintain supersonic flight out to 1500+ yards.
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is a measure of how well a bullet resists wind and air resistance. Put another way, it’s a numeric representation of how aerodynamic a bullet is. A high BC is preferred as this means the bullet will buck the wind easier.
Generally, a heavier bullet will have a higher BC as it takes more force to disrupt the flight of a heavier bullet than a lighter one.
With that in mind, it should not be a big surprise to you that the 338 Lapua generally has a higher BC than the 30-06, and this was done by design.
On average the 338 Lapua has a BC around 0.62 while the 30-06 measures about 0.43. Anything above 0.4 is considered a good BC, what this tells us is that both the 338 and 30-06 are excellent at resisting wind drift, but the 338 just does it better.
Sectional Density (SD) is the measure of how well a bullet penetrates a target. This is extremely important when hunting big game, as you need a bullet that can punch through thick hide, bone, and sinew.
Sectional density is calculated by comparing the bullet weight and the bullet diameter. The higher the SD the deeper the bullet will penetrate the target.
Both the 30-06 and 338 have excellent SD results, however, the 338 has an average SD of 0.34 compared to 0.26 for 30-06. As the 338 Lapua fires a heavier bullet and is designed to penetrate body armor at longer ranges, it’s not surprising that it has a higher SD than 30-06.
For North America, the 30-06 is the better choice for your hunting rifle. However, the 338 Lapua is the better choice for an African safari if you’re planning on hunting extra-large game animals.
One of the huge assets of the 30-06 is its versatility in bullet weights. With its wider range of grain weights to choose from, the 30-06 offers shooters the versatility to take down varmints and bears alike.
With bullet designs like the Nosler Partition, Barnes TSX, and Norma TIPSTRIKE, there is not a game animal in North America that the 30-06 cannot takedown. I wouldn’t recommend a 30-06 for hunting Kodiak bear or grizzly, but it can and has been done.
However, the main reason for selecting the 30-06 over the 338 for North American game is that the effective range of the 30-06 is more than sufficient. Although the 338 can shoot further, it’s extremely rare that any ethical hunter would ever take a shot past 500 yards. And even at that distance, the 30-06 still has enough kinetic energy to take down a whitetail (1000 ft-lbs).
Furthermore, as the 30-06 has less felt recoil, shot placement will typically be better, especially at longer ranges, as shooters can focus on a clean trigger squeeze and proper sight alignment without the fear of punishing recoil.
Can the 338 be used for North American game? Absolutely. But using a 338 Lapua for sniping whitetail feels somewhat like hauling out a Barret M107A1 to the woods to go rabbit hunting. It’s overkill, and with the price of ammo right now, the 30-06 or even the 300 Win Mag, 308 Winchester, or 6.5 Creedmoor are more than enough for your North American hunting needs.
In terms of African game, the 30-06 can be used for smaller animals like gazelle, warthog, Kudu, and Eland. However, if you want to hunt the African Big 5, you’ll need something with more stopping power and sectional density like the 338.
The 338 Lapua Mag can take down every large game animal on the planet, including African elephants, cape buffalo, and rhinoceros with proper shot placement. And just in case, I’d recommend bringing along a heavier caliber backup like a 416 Weatherby Magnum.
Ammo and Rifle Cost/Availability
When considering a new bolt action rifle, the cost is a consideration for most shooters. For hunting rifles, 30-06 is going to be the better choice in terms of budget.
Virtually every rifle manufacturer has an offering in 30-06 as it has established itself as the premier sporting cartridge in North America.
Popular 30-06 hunting rifles include:
- Remington 700
- Savage 110 Hunter
- Ruger Hawkeye
- Winchester Model 70
For a 338 Lapua Magnum, you need to be ready to drop some serious coin on a new rifle as there are fewer options available. The terms “budget” and “338 Lapua” typically do not live in the same sentence.
Remington, Savage, and Ruger still have options available in 338 Lapua, but do not expect to drop anything less than a grand on a 338 Lapua bolt action rifle.
If you like long-distance target shooting and are looking for a modern precision rifle, they can be had for 338 but are not typically available for 30-06. Just make sure that you have deep pockets as a Sako TRG, Barrett MRAD, or Accuracy International AXMC is going to run you no less than $4,000 or more for the rifle alone.
This massive cost discrepancy is seen for ammo as well.
The 30-06 is by far the better choice when it comes to ammo cost. At the time of writing, you can easily acquire 30-06 fmj practice ammo for around $1/round and premium hunting ammo can be had for about $2/round.
This is not the case when it comes to 338 Lapua Magnum. If you’re planning on shooting 338, I do hope that you have a sizable ammo budget because you’re going to need it!
The absolute cheapest 338 Lapua fmj practice ammo that I could find on the Internet was checking in at about $4.45/round (and you had to buy a 200 round case to get this reduced price). Now let’s consider a 50 round practice session at the range. Shooting 30-06, will only cost you about $50 in ammo as compared to $220 for shooting 338 Lapua Mag.
That’s a 4x difference!
And it only gets worse when you get into premium 338 Lapua hunting ammo, this will on average run you no less than $8/round with match-grade options in the $10/round realm. Furthermore, there are considerably more ammo options for 30-06 than 338 Lapua as the 30-06 has been on the market for over a century.
As the 338 Lapua Mag is mostly seen as a round for military snipers, innovations are focused on that type of shooting, there are fewer options available for hunting as fewer hunters use the round.
30-06 is clearly the better option for ammo availability and overall cost.
Handloading is one way to get your cost per round down to levels that won’t keep you awake at night, especially for 338 Lapua. Reloading also allows you to produce your own customized ammo that is tuned to your precision rifle. You can squeeze out every potential FPS and adjust your cartridge shoulders to achieve the pinnacle of downrange accuracy.
Although handloading does require some initial investment in equipment (presses, dies, manuals, and reloading components), it will easily pay for itself when loading a magnum cartridge such as the 338.
When reloading for 30-06, you have a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips as handloaders have been working on optimizing the 30-06 for decades. Bullet manufacturers like Hornady, Nosler, Sierra, Barnes, and Norma are more than happy to stock .308” bullets as they are incredibly popular. Reloading for 30-06 also allows you to stockpile components as 30-caliber bullets are also used in 308 Winchester, 300 Winchester Magnum, 300 PRC, and 300 WSM (just to name a few).
Handloading for 338 Lapua Mag is a necessity if you plan on shooting long-distance competitions or enjoy firing more than a few rounds per month. With the outlandish price of factory 338 ammo, reloading can significantly reduce your overall cost per range session.
The only downside to handloading for the 338 is that there are fewer cross-compatible cartridges that fire a .338” bullet. Some .338 caliber cartridges include 338 Federal, 338 Win Mag, 338 Rem Ultra Mag, and 340 Weatherby Magnum.
Continue reading 338 Lapua vs 30-06: When You Need to Go Long Distance at Ammo.com for comparative ballistic data!