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Exclusive: Popular .338′s In Handguns

Exclusive: Popular .338′s In Handguns

Today there is an array of cartridges suitable for varmints to any big game animal in the world. The good news for the handgun hunter is most of these cartridges, although designed for rifles, are suitable for bolt action and single shot handguns. Concerning these, calibers over .30 that have always impressed me were those using 0.338″ diameter bullets.

After buying a .338 JDJ #2 in an SSK Custom Thompson/Center Arms Contender around 15 or so years ago (today it’s usually referred to only as the .338 JDJ), this cartridge has become a favorite of mine. It’s extremely accurate and highly effective on varmints or big game. To get the most out of a single shot T/C Arms Contender in those days, wildcat cartridges were a big factor to help handgun hunting grow. When the more massive and stronger T/C Encore action/barrels became available a few years ago, options became much greater, as did opportunities to evaluate two other .338’s I’ve found to be excellent in rifles. These were the new Federal and older Winchester Magnum.

To begin this project to see how these two perform in short barrels, I bought a T/C Federal barrel and then the magnum barrel from SSK Industries. With that, I finally had all three of these cartridges chambered in single shot handguns.

As you may know, there are other .338’s, but due to high pressures and the short barrels of handguns, many are not suitable. I stuck with only those cartridges having factory ammunition available and commonly chambered in handguns — except for the old and proven .338 JDJ #2. I took this approach since many don’t load their own, and I felt a comparison with cartridges anyone can purchase to make the most sense. However, since the .338 JDJ #2 is so efficient, I’ve let it remain. But you will have to learn to reload for it!

33 handgun 1

Typical .338 handguns, from top: T/C Encore with an SSK barrel in .338 Winchester
Magnum and a Burris 1.5X- 4X scope. An Encore in .338 Federal with a Burris 2X – 7X
scope. Bottom: T/C Contender with an SSK barrel in .338 JDJ #2 and Bushnell 2-6X scope.

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The three .338 cartridges reviewed are (L-R): .338 JDJ #2
Handload, .338 Federal and the .338 Winchester Magnum.

Suitable .338 Calibers

This is a caliber between the popular 30’s and big 35’s and one having sufficient energy for all North American game. This is due to a good selection of bullets, with trajectories approaching the smaller .30-calibers. Due to their excellent ballistics it only made sense when looking for a big game handgun cartridge to move it up a notch from the .30-calibers and seriously consider these. From a practical stand-point, when mixing hunting for game like elk and mule deer, as is common in the Western United States, this caliber makes even more sense. For such game, you need a flat-shooting rig and able to reach out to long distances. It should also be of a caliber having the bullet mass and weight necessary to harvest a 100- or a 900-pound animal. The .33-caliber round is such a cartridge.

With a decent velocity and a heavy bullet, these cartridges generate a lot of energy, surprisingly tolerable to shoot in a rifle or handgun. With lighter bullets, the trajectory becomes flatter. From practical experience, I have used this caliber in various configurations over the years to harvest pronghorn, deer, bear, elk and yes, even ground hogs. Sure, it’s over-kill for the latter, but being fond of the caliber, and to get additional experience with it in handguns and rifles, I’ve used it for varmints while working up loads. These .33-calibers are all accurate enough for small targets out there at 200+ yards.

33 bullets 2

There’s a decent cross-section of Factory loaded .338’s. Here’s some of
the loads used to gather the ballistic data.

.338 JDJ #2

The Thompson/Center Arms Contender was my first handgun chambered in this caliber. As most shooters already know, the JDJ in the name stands for J.D. Jones. J.D. is the wildcatter who designed this cartridge, and many others, specifically with the handgun hunter in mind. What these cartridges did years ago for handgun hunting, before the T/C Encore was even considered, was to give the Contender platform effective cartridges that could be used to harvest game around the world. The most popular of these is the .375 JDJ. With the option of such cartridges, it gave handgun hunting the boost it needed as a serious firearm for any type of game.

The SSK Industry Custom Contender in .338 JDJ #2 is flat shooting, powerful, accurate and capable of harvesting any big game animal, period. This big bore “Hand Cannon,” when introduced around 1992 by J.D. Jones, superceded the original .338 JDJ (based on the .303 Brit.) and has taken over due to better performance. The original, introduced around 15 years earlier, is now obsolete.

To first define a “Hand Cannon,” according to the designer and my good friend J.D. Jones, they were first described as SSK Custom T/C Contenders were chambered for wildcat cartridges. They must have the minimum case capacity of the .444 Marlin to qualify. With this definition setting the standard, the .338 JDJ #2 is the ninth cartridge developed on the .444 Marlin case for use in the popular Thompson/Center Contende, Encore and the newer G2 Contenders today. J.D. has since developed many more cartridges, and many of them are only suitable for the stronger Encore. If you’re interested, going to his web site will give you updated stats on these.

Based on the .444 Marlin case, this series of big game handgun cartridges was begun by Jones around 1978. Like the others, the .338 JDJ #2 was designed, developed and tested by J.D., thus the letters JDJ after the numbers of each cartridge. Also, like the others developed with the hunter in mind, this .33-caliber was designed for the purpose of giving the handgun hunter another low pressure, but efficient and accurate long or short range big bore cartridge for hunting.

What is also appealing about this line of cartridges is the cases are easy to form. To create the brass, all you have to do is to run a new .444 Marlin case into an RCBS full-length sizing die. Then with one pass, that decreases the neck of the original case from 44 to .33-caliber. Now simply remove the case and you are immediately ready to prime, charge and load a .338″ diameter bullet of your choice.

bullets 33

Forming .338 JDJ #2 brass is quite easy. Simply run a new, un-dented
.444 Marlin case into a .338″ resizing die and presto, you’re finished.


To form the .338 JDJ #2 case, run a new .444 Marlin case into the resizing die,
then load. As a tip, to avoid destroying any cases (like the one on the far right with
its mouth mangled) first run your cases into a .444 Marlin resizing die which makes
the case mouth perfectly round. If this area starts out “dinged” when the mouth is
reduced to .338″ diameter, a small flaw turns into a big one and that is usually what
destroys the case as shown.

.338 Federal

Unveiled in 2006, this cartridge was immediately a big success with handgun hunters. Based on the mid-sized .308 Winchester case simply necked up, this compact size helped to make it a perfect big game cartridge for light-weight and short-action rifles. Why another .338? This one does what the .35 Remington can do — but at longer ranges. To quote Federal: “A .338-caliber bullet has a higher sectional density and therefore a better ballistic coefficient than a .35-caliber bullet of the same weight and shape.” As becomes obvious, this cartridge contains a lot of power in a small package, one that obviously recoils in handgun and rifle, but a lot less than what is produced from a .338 Winchester Magnum in either.

With approximately five years of experience with this cartridge in rifles and handguns, I see it as one having a bright future, especially with the handgun hunter. I have been handloading for it but found Federal ammunition is also a superb choice in both long and short barrels, so options are available.

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Besides SSK, the Hornady loading manual has data on the .338 JDJ #2 cartridge.

.338 Winchester Magnum

Back in the mid 1950’s, the “magnum” was starting to take hold as the way to go if hunting big game. A lot of that positive publicity was due to Roy Weatherby’s .300 Magnum which he used to stress the importance of a bullet’s velocity correlating to killing power. To continue with this way of thinking, in 1958 Winchester necked down their .458 Winchester Magnum case to .338-caliber and thus, the .338 Winchester Magnum was born.

What makes this cartridge so appealing is its long track record with hunters and with that, it is commonly chambered in a variety of rifles. Due to its popularity, ammunition from various manufacturers is available about anywhere. To date, my successful hunting with this cartridge has been limited to the rifle, for elk, bear, deer and some varmints.

Yet, being fond of the cartridge, I had always wanted one in a handgun, and now we have the T/C Encore to make that a possibility. To finally obtain one, I contacted J.D. Jones who made me a 15″ barrel chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum. He also added the SSK muzzle-brake, and to secure the scope, an SSK T’SOB base and rings.

To assure safety and reliability, his Weaver Type base is secured to the barrel by six heavy-duty screws instead of the standard four. On any firearm generating stiff recoil, six is the way to go for that extra insurance. Once a scope was mounted and sighted-in, comparing three superb .338’s was now possible.

bullets 338

In gathering ballistic data at the range, an Oehler 35-P chronograph was
used. Between the 100- and 200-yard target boards, there was a flock of
turkey that finally moved as I hung my targets.

Rifle Versus Handgun

While working on this project, some fellow shooters said the .338 Magnum is a rifle, not a handgun cartridge. They felt you need a longer barrel to get decent velocity and the recoil in a handgun would be to severe. However, when comparing the velocities in the handgun to a rifle, there was not as big a difference as might be suspected.

Without the SSK Arrestor Muzzle Brake on this handgun, I admit it would be hard to control. One of the factory loads I reviewed that did not have as big a bite was the Winchester 200-grain Ballistic Silvertip. As set-up by SSK, the recoil of this magnum round was tolerable and, in my opinion, if you can fire a .44 Magnum in a light revolver, there is no reason why you can’t accurately fire any of these.

I will grant, however, the magnum performs much better in the longer barrel of the rifle. On the other hand, the new Federal .338 appears to be a cartridge well suited to a short barrel. That old guide that a short, stubby cartridge performs better out of a shorter barrel seems to hold true.

When it comes to either cartridge in a handgun, using 200-grain bullets, the MV of the .338 Federal is 2,500 fps while that rises to 2,791 fps in the rifle. For the Magnum cartridge in the handgun, velocity is 2,447 fps, in the rifle it’s 2,856 fps. From this comparison with 200-grain factory loaded bullets, it’s obvious the better choice in a handgun is the .338 Federal, while in the rifle it’s the .338 Winchester Magnum — if sheer velocity is what you’re looking for. Yet overall, the differences are so small it makes little difference between the two when using 200-grain factory ammunition.

Where the magnum shines with factory ammunition is due to a greater selection of bullets, including 250 grains. The .338 Federal is only loaded by Federal up to a 210-grain bullet. Sure, with handloading we have many more options, but the standard I used is factory ammunition, since that’s available to everyone.

handgun 33

When firing any firearm as when hunting or during practice, shooters
protection is your responsibility. For ear protection I use Pro-Ears and
for eye protection, SunBuster’s with their selection of lenses for all occasions.

Good And Bad

Overall, depending on the load, accuracy is good with all three in handguns.

1) The .338 JDJ: This is a low pressure round suitable for the T/C Contender or Encore. Of the three cartridges covered, this one was the most pleasant to fire in a handgun. A negative is that ammunition must be handloaded. Yet, cases are easy to form, making reloading easy.

2) The .338 Federal: Being a high pressure round, this cartridge is suitable for the Encore only. Without a muzzle brake, its recoil is what the .338 Winchester generates with a brake. Ammunition is loaded by Federal, but not found everywhere.

3) The .338 Winchester Magnum: When chambered in a rifle, and you’re after big game, this is the way to go, with ammunition available from most all manufacturers and found around the world. Handgun barrels so chambered are only available from custom suppliers as SSK Industries, but what they sell are premium. If you already have a rifle so chambered, I would then stay with this cartridge. Obtaining a handgun chambering the same magnum cartridge as your rifle gives you one cartridge for both, and that’s a handy thing.
By George E. Dvorchak Jr.

handgun 33

The rifles and handguns used to gather data. The Texas Magnum rifle
and T/C Encore handgun on top are .338 Winchester Magnums. The
center T/C Contender handgun is the .338 JDJ#2. The bottom T/C Encore
rifle and handgun are chambered for .338 Federal.

Table 1: Handgun Accuracy @ 100 Yards
Gun Load Muzzle Velocity 3 Shot Group
A: * .338 JDJ#2 Speer 200 2,328 1.9”
B .338 Fed 210 Nosler 2,286 2.2”
B: .338 Fed 180 Nosler 2,489 2.6”
B: .338 Fed 185 Barnes 2,418 2.3”
B: .338 Fed 200 Fusion 2,500 2”
C: .338 Win Mag 200 Silvertip 2,447 1.8”
C: .338 Win Mag 210 Nosler 2,247 1.6”
C: .338 Win Mag 225 Hornady 2,427 1.9”
C: .338 Win Mag 250 Nosler 2,219 2”

* Handload: .338 JDJ #2, Bullet, Speer 200-grain Spitzer SP. Powder, AA 2520. Primer, Federal 210

A. Thompson/Center SSK Contender in .338 JDJ #2, 15.5″ barrel with a Mag-na-brake, Bausch & Lomb 2-6X.
B. Thompson/Center Encore in .338 Federal, 15″ barrel, Burris 2X – 7X with Posi-Lock.
C. Thompson/Center SSK Encore in .338 Winchester Magnum, 15″ barrel with SSK Arrestor Muzzle Brake, Burris 1.5X – 4X with Posi-Lock

Table 2: Handgun Vs. Rifle Accuracy at 100 yards
Caliber Vel Handgun Group Vel Rifle Group
*.338 JDJ #2 2,328 1.9”
.338 Federal 2,500 2” 2,791 1.75”
.338 Win Mag 2,447 1.8” 2,856 2.6”

Note: 200 Grain bullets.
* Handgun only test.

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