.338 Lapua Magnum (8.6×70mm or 8.58×70mm) is a rimless, bottlenecked, centerfire rifle cartridge. It was developed during the 1980s as a high-powered, long-range cartridge for military snipers. It was used in the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. As a result of this, it became more widely available. The loaded cartridge is 14.93 mm (0.588 in) in diameter (rim) and 93.5 mm (3.68 in) long. It can penetrate better-than-standard military body armour at ranges up to 1,000 metres (1,090 yd) and has a maximum effective range of about 1,750 metres (1,910 yd). Muzzle velocity is dependent on barrel length, seating depth and powder charge, and varies from 880 to 915 m/s (2,890 to 3,000 ft/s) for commercial loads with 16.2-gram (250 gr) bullets, which corresponds to about 6,525 J (4,813 ft⋅lbf) of muzzle energy.
British military issue overpressure .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges with a 91.4 mm (3.60 in) overall length, loaded with 16.2-gram (250 gr) LockBase B408 very-low-drag bullets fired at 936 m/s (3,071 ft/s) muzzle velocity from a L115A3 Long Range Rifle were used in November 2009 by British sniper Corporal of Horse (CoH) Craig Harrison to establish the then new record for the longest confirmed sniper kill in combat, at a range of 2,475 m (2,707 yd).
In addition to its military role, it is increasingly used by hunters and civilian long-range shooting enthusiasts. The .338 Lapua Magnum is capable of taking down any game animal, though its suitability for some dangerous game (Cape buffalo, hippopotamus, white rhinoceros, and elephant) is arguable, unless accompanied by a larger “backup” calibre: “There is a huge difference between calibres that will kill an elephant and those that can be relied upon to stop one. In Namibia the .338 Lapua Magnum is legal for hunting Africa’s Big five game if the loads have ≥ 5,400 J (3,983 ft⋅lbf) muzzle energy.
In 1983, Research Armament Industries (RAI) in the United States began development of a new, long-range sniper cartridge capable of firing a 16.2-gram (250 gr), 0.338-inch (8.6 mm) diameter bullet at 914 metres per second (3,000 ft/s) that could lethally penetrate five layers of military body armour at 1,000 m (1,094 yd). After preliminary experiments, a .416 Rigby case necked down to take a 0.338-inch (8.6 mm) bullet was selected, since this diameter presents an optimum of sectional density and penetrating capability for practical spin stabilized rifle bullets (bullets up to about 5 to 5.5 calibers in length).
The .416 Rigby is an English big game cartridge that was designed to accommodate 325 MPa (47,137 psi) pressures. One of the disadvantages of these old cartridge cases, which were intended for firing cordite charges instead of modern smokeless powder, is the thickness of the sidewall just forward of the web. During ignition, the cartridge’s base, forward to the bolt face, is not supported.
During the process RAI employed Brass Extrusion Labs Ltd. (BELL) of Bensenville, Illinois, to make the .338/416 or 8.58×71mm cartridge cases, Hornady produced bullets, and RAI built a sniper rifle under contract for the U.S. Navy. RAI found that the BELL cases did not fulfill the requirements. Pressed by military deadlines RAI looked for another case producer and contacted Lapua of Finland in 1984. RAI was forced to drop out of the program due to financial difficulties. Subsequently, Lapua of Finland put this cartridge into limited production. The .338/416 rifle program was later canceled when the contractors were unable to make the cartridge meet the project’s velocity target of 914 m/s (3,000 ft/s) for a 16.2 g (250 gr) bullet, due to excessive pressures rupturing cartridge cases.
The current .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge was developed as a joint venture between the Finnish rifle manufacturer SAKO and the British rifle manufacturer Accuracy International along with the Finnish ammunition manufacturer Lapua, or more officially Nammo Lapua Oy, which since 1998 is part of the Nordic Ammunition Group (Nammo).
Lapua opted to redesign the .338/416 cartridge. In the new case design, particular attention was directed toward thickening and metallurgically strengthening the case’s web and sidewall immediately forward of the web. In modern solid head cases, the hardness of the brass is the major factor that determines a case’s pressure limit before undergoing plastic deformation. Lapua tackled this problem by creating a hardness distribution ranging from the head and web (hard) to the mouth (soft) as well as a strengthened (thicker) case web and sidewall immediately forward of the web. This resulted in a very pressure resistant case, allowing it to operate at high pressure and come within 15 m/s (50 ft/s) of the original velocity goal. Lapua also designed a 16.2-gram (250 gr) .338 calibre Lock Base B408 full metal jacket bullet, modeled after its .30 calibre Lock Base bullet configuration. The result was the .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge which was registered with C.I.P. (Commission Internationale Permanente pour l’Epreuve des Armes à Feu Portatives) in 1989. With the procurement by the Dutch Army, the cartridge became NATO codified.
The .338 Lapua Magnum fills the gap between weapons chambered for standard military rounds such as the 7.62×51mm NATO and large, weighty rifles firing the .50 BMG cartridge. It also offers a tolerable amount of barrel wear, which is important to military snipers who tend to fire thousands of rounds a year in practice. Like every other comparable big magnum rifle cartridge the .338 Lapua Magnum presents a stout recoil. An appropriate fitting stock and an effective muzzle brake will help to reduce recoil induced problems, enabling the operator to fire more rounds before getting too uncomfortable to shoot accurately. Good factory loads, multiple projectile weights and factory special application ammunition are all available.
Due to its growing civilian popularity, several high quality tactical and match (semi) custom bolt actions designed for the .338 Lapua Magnum are becoming available. These (semi) custom bolt actions are used with other high grade rifle and sighting components to build custom sporting and target rifles.