338 Win Mag or 308 Winchester For Big Game

338 win mag or 308 winchester for Ibex
Photo by Juan Lacruz

Field Observation 338 Win Mag vs 308 Winchester

Yesterday, I told the story of a hunter who nearly lost an ibex on a hunt due to very poor bullet performance, even though he made a good shot with a 338 Win mag. Well, that same guy originally bought his 338 Win Mag due to a bad experience he had with a 308 Winchester. He was stationed in Germany and had booked a red stag hunt in 2020. His rifle and ammo options were very limited due to all the craziness going on in the world at the time, so he brought a rifle chambered in 308 Winchester for that particular hunt.

For those who aren’t familiar with red stag, they’re quite a bit bigger than a whitetail or mule deer, but still a little smaller than an elk. So, while they’re not exactly giant animals, they aren’t small either. Well, the German guide assigned to him was not happy with his choice of the 308, even after the hunter demonstrated his shooting abilities at the range before going hunting.

This guide was very conservative and required at least 2,000 Joules (just under 1,500 ft-lbs.) of kinetic energy to take a shot. The 308 Winchester load he was using would meet that requirement at a shorter range, but not at a longer range. And wouldn’t you know it: they encountered a nice stag at 400 meters and couldn’t get any closer.

The guide refused to budge and was adamant that the hunter does not shoot at that range because they couldn’t be assured of at least 2,000 Joules of kinetic energy on impact that far out. On the other hand, the hunter was pretty angry that his guide wouldn’t let him shoot, so they got into a heated argument in the field.


The 338 Win Mag Drops Stag at 375 Meters

Fortunately, they hashed things out, apologized to each other, and the guide invited him to come back again the next year. Well, the hunter learned his lesson well and returned with a brand new 338 Win Mag for his next hunt. He proceeded to use that rifle to take a VERY nice stag with a single shot at 375 meters: BOOM….flop.

That wasn’t a fluke either and he used that same rifle to take several more stags elsewhere in Europe before his assignment in Germany ended and he returned to the United States. Like I said yesterday, the 338 Win Mag has a reputation as an absolute hammer on all manner of game animals under a lot of different conditions, just like this particular hunter demonstrated.

Does that mean you should ditch your 308 and get a 338 Win Mag? Not necessarily. The 338 Win Mag isn’t perfect. It’s far from ideal for some hunting situations (like that ibex hunt I described yesterday).

Recoil 338 Winchester Magnum

Recoil isn’t terrible with it, but the 338 does recoil a whole lot more than many other cartridges too. Furthermore, ammo is extremely difficult to come by for the 338 Win Mag at this instant as well. And while the 338 isn’t perfect, the 308 Winchester is definitely a capable cartridge.

His guide was very careful and conservative (maybe too conservative) by not allowing him to take that shot. I do understand where that guide was coming from though. After all, he’s the one who would have to pick up the pieces if things went wrong out there.

That said, the 308 Winchester would not be my first recommendation for taking a shot on a stag (or an elk) at 400 meters, but it will darn sure work if the shot is placed appropriately.

What Caliber 338 Win Mag or 308 Winchester?

Well, it depends. The 338 is great for some situations. The 308 is good for others. Still, other cartridges fill in the gaps where the 308 and the 338 are lacking. It’s up to you to analyze the situation and choose what you think will be the best tool for the job.

I’ve developed a proven (but easy to learn and apply) thought process for analyzing the hunting situation and then selecting the appropriate rifle, cartridge, and ammo for the specific game and conditions I’ll be hunting under.

As you can probably tell by their name, Iberian Ibex inhabit portions of Spain and Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula. Like many mountain creatures, they are hardy creatures that can be tough to kill. They’re even harder to kill when you don’t use the right tool for the job. For instance, I know a gentleman who took a very nice ibex earlier this year with his 338 Win Mag. However, that hunt very nearly turned into a mess.

He got a shot on really good ibex about 390m (~425 yards) away.

There was no feasible way to close the distance. However, he was very confident in his ability to make the shot. He had a steady rest, and the ibex didn’t seem to know he was there. He got steady, lined up the crosshairs right behind the ram’s shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. The mountains echoed with the boom of the rifle’s report, but the ibex took off running straight up the rock face like nothing happened. He quickly reloaded, took aim at the moving ram, and fired again.

Fortunately, his second shot hit the ram in the neck, dropping it in its tracks. Confident with his first shot, he was still confused at what happened. He had used that exact same rifle and ammunition with a lot of success on all sorts of game (including much bigger animals).

Surely the 338 Win Mag would have no trouble putting down an ibex, right?

After all, those animals aren’t that big and even the largest rams likely won’t break 200 pounds. Did he just flat out miss with that first shot?

Well, they later discovered his first shot was perfect: it hit both lungs and nicked the heart as it passed through the slightly quartering away ram. Unfortunately, the bullet wounds exhibited very little evidence of expansion. A quick necropsy revealed significantly less damage to the vital organs than he was used to as well.

That explains why that ram gave absolutely no indication at all that it was hit. Even after taking a hit from a 338 Win Mag through both lungs. Fortunately, he was quick on the trigger and made a good follow-up shot on that ram.  His first shot was probably fatal, but who knows how far it would have gone if he hadn’t connected with his second shot.

What the heck happened?

The 338 Winchester Magnum is a great cartridge for hunting all sorts of game under a lot of different situations.  Contrary to the reputation the 338 Win Mag has as an absolute hammer (which is deserved in many cases), it really struggles under certain conditions.

I think he encountered a rare, though not unheard-of combination of circumstances that resulted in sub-par terminal performance with the exact cartridge/bullet combination he was using (which was a mainstream, popular, and often effective hunting load).

With the same shot placement, cartridge, and bullet, the results would likely be different with a 325-yard shot instead of 425 yards. Ditto for changing his bullet, but still using the 338 Win Mag at that same range. The same goes for using the exact same bullet and shooting the ibex at the same range but switching over to a different cartridge.

There are loads using that same bullet type in 300 Win Mag, 7mm Rem Mag, 30-06, 270. The much-maligned 6.5 Creedmoor would have likely performed better than that 338 Win Mag load under these specific circumstances.

The problem I mentioned earlier is not unique to the 338 Win Mag either. In fact, this is potentially a problem with every single cartridge/bullet combination in existence. For many cartridges, it doesn’t really become an issue until you start dealing with much longer ranges.

John McAdams