The names are similar, but the Lapua .338 Magnum and the .338 Winchester Magnum are different calibers. When hunters and long-range shooting enthusiasts compare the 338 Lapua vs 338 Win Mag or they’re not talking about the same cartridge so the resulting ballistics are significantly different.
In other words, no they are not the same rifle by a long shot. (pun intended)
A Case of Mistaken Identity
You might call it a common misconception. The idea that all rifles in a specific caliber display similar ballistic characteristics might be true if you were shooting .22 long rifle cartridges, 30-30 rounds, or even .270 ammunition.
Similarities exist in the size of the bullet these two rifles will fire. They both handle .338 points that can range from 180 to a whopping 300 grains in size.
The weight of the .338 bullet, combined with the muzzle velocity of the Win Mag or the Lapua equates to tremendous force on the receiving end of this cartridge.
The two cartridges are very different. The Lapua is a much larger cartridge, with a lot more case capacity than the .338 Win Mag.
The .338 Win Mag is a belted magnum cartridge, while the Lapua .338 Magnum is a larger, non-belted magnum. They are not the same round and attempting to shoot a .338 Win Mag through a Lapua .338 Magnum will ruin your afternoon and likely give you the opportunity to meet some nice people who work in the Emergency Room at your local hospital.
The Lapua .338 Magnum
The Lapua .338 Magnum is a fairly recent addition to the shooting world. It came about in 1983 as part of a federally funded project to develop a new long-range cartridge for US Marine and US Army snipers.
The Research Army Company took a .416 Rigby case and necked it down to .338. The resulting ballistic performances were impressive. Loaded with a 200-grain bullet the Lapua reached a velocity of 3,340 fps and delivered a heavy 300 grain round at an impressive 2,750 fps.
When loaded with an armor-piercing round, the cartridge gave military snipers the option of shooting through a vehicle to hit a distant target.
The Lapua .338 Magnum has a maximum effective range of almost a mile, making it a favorite for civilian long-distance shooters.
The .338 Winchester Magnum
The .338 Win Mag is an older cartridge, first developed by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1958. The .338 Win Mag was built off the .375 H&H Magnum. Winchester expanded the body and narrowed the neck down to fit a .338 bullet.
The .338 Win Mag has a slightly lower velocity than the Lapua .338 Magnum when firing a 200-grain bullet. The .338 Win Mag has been tested at 2,950 fps and the 250 grain round is slower than a Lapua firing a 300-grain bullet.
The .338 Win Mag became a favorite caliber for medium to large game animal hunters. It has stopping power for elk, moose, and many African big game animals up to 850 yards before it loses power and trajectory becomes an issue.
The biggest drawback for many hunters with the .338 Win Mag is the recoil. If you can’t handle the punch in the shoulder each time you pull the trigger, this cartridge probably isn’t for you. Shooter’s flinch is a common occurrence with this round.
Which is better?
This question reaches a lot of different topics before you can accurately say which round is a better choice.
If you’re looking at cost, the .338 Win Mag wins easily. The Lapua .338 Magnum is an expensive round to shoot, there’s no getting around that. Reloading brass can be higher priced than fire-ready cartridges with the .338 Win Mag.
The Lapua .338 Magnum requires a larger, heavier rifle to shoot the cartridge. The massive recoil of the Lapua has many shooters and hunters shying away from the round.
No ammunition is cheap these days, but you can easily pay over $100 for a box of 20 Lapua cartridges.
The .338 Win Mag is less expensive with an average box of shells selling for around $80 at present.
The second discussion topic is how you’re going to use a rifle with such a powerful punch. Hunters traditionally use smaller caliber rifles for North American big game.
The 30-06 remains the most popular rifle for deer, elk, pronghorn, and moose, with the .270, 7mm, and .308 strong contenders in the big game realm.
For better or worse, the .22 long rifle has taken more deer over the last century than any other caliber.
Since most game animals are taken at distances less than 200 yards this makes sense.
The longer range that accompanies both the Lapua .338 Magnum and the .338 Win Mag makes it a popular rifle for hunting Big Horn Sheep, Rocky Mountain goats, and Dall Sheep in Alaska.
The longer reach gives the hunter a little more edge in pursuing these denizens of the high cliffs, and peaks of the Rocky Mountains or the Brooks Range in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
You can shoot a long way with a .308, but it loses the power to ethically take a big game animal after 550 yards, the .338 retains sufficient force to take down elk, or even moose at 850 yards with the .338 Win Mag and the Lapua .338 Magnum can ethically take game at distances over 1000 yards.
Why Not Just the .338?
So why don’t hunters just take a .338, no matter the style with them for everything? The partial answer is weight, with the secondary answers being recoil and deterioration of the rifle.
The physical requirements for a stock to handle the tremendous power of a Lapua .338 Magnum require a lot more material just to keep everything together with repeated firings.
That extra material turns into extra weight quickly. Packing even an extra pound or two is noticeable on long hunts.
The recoil of a .338 Win Mag is impressive. You don’t notice it when you’re locked in on a big buck, or a distant six-point bull elk, but when you’re on the range the recoil quickly becomes an issue.
Advocates of the .338 Win Mag quickly learn to take the shoulder shock or make accommodations. Those accommodations include a muzzle brake, with a recoil pad that can reduce recoil.
The Lapua .338 Magnum packs an even heavier wallop, but as my dad often said, it barks here, but it bites way out there. The recoil of a Lapua is a study in shock. Even with the addition of recoil pads and muzzle brakes, it’s still like getting a shoulder punch from Mike Tyson.
Another issue with both the .338 Win Mag and the Lapua .338 Magnum is the wear and tear on the barrel. These are powerful rounds. The powder charge pushes large 200 to 300-grain bullets at tremendous velocities down the barrel. This force stresses even the highest grade steel eventually, wearing down the rifling and weakening the metal.
Heavy shooting translates to shorter barrel life. You might be able to shoot your great-granddad’s .22 with the same accuracy he once did, but your grandkids aren’t going to get a chance at your .338 if you use it very much.
Ballistics is the Reason
The final question of why even bother with a gun that kicks this hard, that has such expensive ammunition, and has such a short shooting life is answered by ballistics. These guns can really reach out and touch someone.
The .338 Win Mag wins a lot of long-distance shooting competitions, but the Lapua .338 Magnum with its larger shell case, higher velocity, and ability to easily target with heavier bullets wins in a competition between evenly skilled shooters.
The Lapua .338 Magnum is the caliber of choice with long-distance shooters firing at steel targets 1,000 yards downrange. The welcoming sound of a clank echoing back after the muzzle blast has receded when a 300-grain bullet makes contact over half a mile away is music to the ears of long-distance shooters.
Sore shoulder aside, these cartridges with a skillfully sighted rifle, while in the hands of a skilled shooter outdistance the competition. The preferred round in distance competition is surprisingly the .300 grain bullet fired from the Lapua .338 Magnum.
It is substantially slower than a 200-grain bullet fired from the same gun, but the trajectory of the heavier round is more stable, and the preferred cartridge for Lapua enthusiasts.
Whether you’re after big game or trying to win a distance shooting contest, the .338 round is the cartridge of choice for many. The heavier bullet, fast muzzle velocity, and stability of the shooting platform quickly outweigh the tremendous kick these rifles can generate.
To summarize the competition between the Lapua and the Winchester, hunters prefer the .338 Win Mag while distance shooters lean more toward the Lapua .338 Magnum.