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Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Brace of Savage 99 Wildcats Part II: 338 Federal Thumper

Not Many of These Around in Savage Model 99

A Brace of Savage Wildcats

Part II: Model 99 Conversion to .338/308 (aka .338 Federal)

Brian Anse Patrick

After a having achieved a workable .270/.308, the second step in my conversion scheme was a Savage Model 99 in .338/.308, a cartridge long known to wildcatters that is now available factory-loaded as the .338 Federal. For part I of his article on the .270/.308 conversion see:
The conversion platform was a late Model 99 EG in .308 Winchester, factory drilled and tapped for scope mounts, with the tang-style safety and cartridge counter/window. The stock featured the high comb suitable for scoped rifles. Overall the rifle was in very good condition, and I was a bit sorry at not finding a more beat up specimen to convert. I perceive that good quality 99s are becoming more and more collectable; accordingly prices have been rising. Still, one makes do.
After doing such a fine job on the .270/.308, gunsmith and gun-maker Mr. Steven P. Durren working out of Johnson's Sporting Goods in Adrian Michigan was asked to do the work on the .308/.338.  We specified a Shilen or a Douglas barrel, whichever was most available, 24 inches in length, of a medium but not-too-light profile, with a one-in-ten-inch rate of twist suitable for the 200-210 grain bullets that I planned to shoot. No sights were necessary as this would be a scoped rifle.

Practical Experiences with .338s

My experiences with .338 caliber cartridges had been largely limited to a .340 Weatherby Fibermark with a 26 inch barrel that I purchased back in 1989 while living in Montana, and which has served me well after a few basic modifications to suit my needs and tastes: a 6X42 Leupold scope, Cone-trol projection-less scope rings and mounts, a barrel-mounted sling band, a crisp Timney trigger and the magazine floor plate pinned so as not to accidentally dump all the cartridges, as happened to me once on a Montana mountainside.  I also cut much of the safety tab away because it was way too big and prone to snagging on brush and such and turning off, a dangerous situation. I haven’t had any problems with it since making it less prominent. It is an accurate rifle, too, no heavier than it needs to be, for I have little use for a lightweight rifle when it comes to making deliberate shots.  A certain amount of weight seems essential for good shooting. I have slain three elk, a bear and miscellaneous deer with this rifle using 210-grain Nosler Partition bullets, and admire its range and penetration. It is not a pleasure rifle in the sense of being a casual plinker because it’s expensive to shoot and rears back a bit, but I find the recoil no worse than the several .300 magnum rifles that I have fired.  
Compared to the .340, the lesser .308/.338 cartridge propels a 200-grain bullet at about 2,700 feet per second, quite a bit below the .340 at 3,200, but still quite respectable.  (Actually I don’t entirely believe the 3,200 FPS figure attributed to the .340 and tend to think it closer to 3,000, which is still very good.)  This Savage Model 99 in .338/.308 is intended as an elk rifle.

I also thought the .338/.308  cartridge to be perhaps optimal in the 99 because of it’s compact efficiency, both cartridge and rifle. While I have seen bolt action rifles so chambered, in my view a bolt action rifle in .338 caliber would be better in the longer .338 Winchester or .340 Weatherby calibers. While I understand the appeal of short bolt actions, and a firearm should be no more than what it needs to be, what little advantage may be gained by the short action is perhaps not offset by the loss of power/range with the .308/.338.  Also people talk about the shorter bolt being quicker, which no doubt it is, but I have never noticed a longer bolt as being a handicap in any significant way, not even as unnecessary weight. But the Savage 99 in this caliber is perhaps a different matter, being compact to carry and easy to work.   Truth be told, though, I regard it as more an interesting novelty that is only redeemable if it shoots and carries well.   

Although lacking his vast experience, I agree with Elmer Keith’s strongly expressed views that a long heavy large caliber bullet is superior on elk compared to a smaller lighter one. The reason?  Elk are big tough animals, and have not in my limited experience cooperated with this hunter by leisurely displaying themselves broadside in meadows at comfortable ranges. 

A digressive example, this November in Montana I could not rely on my .340 because the scope had developed a problem. Instead I hunted with my Father’s old Fabrique National Mauser in .270 Winchester. This is a fine, fine rifle and caliber. I killed a nice 5X5 Whitetail at about 220 yards with one shot, just like in the hunting videos on Youtube.  He ran about 30 paces and dropped, the aortal bundle at the top of his shot away by the 130-grain Remington Core Lokt bullet, as perfectly as could be imagined. Even though the bullet never penetrated the other side, it killed splendidly and virtually instantly. Also I had done my job by placing the bullet well from a good shooting position. Conditions were ideal.

But the elk that I harvested was an entirely different matter. Conditions were not ideal and neither was I. The following day, much higher and further, at about 7,000 feet and 350 or so yards, I shot a bull elk. It had been my intention to take a cow, as it was getting late in the season, and I wanted to go home with meat. My super-guide Mitch and I had climbed up after spotting with binoculars from the valley below a group of five or six cows. Actually he climbed up while I panted up, to be more precise. We were just trying to set up on the cows, when a legal bull joined them. Thank you, elk gods.

But I was beset with problems: the range was far; I was out of breath; heart pounding; my hands so cold as to be numb; the snow fell and the wind blew; and did I say he was far away? We were as close as we were going to get, too, for we were on one mountainous bump and the elk on another separated by a grass-lined declivity. I could achieve no firm or comfortable shooting position, and settled for a yoga-like torture position where my back was arched like a striking snake and left elbow rested the rifle atop Mitch’s pack. It was not good. Much of my problem was related to the fact that I am a fat flatlander when it comes to clambering up mountains. Nevertheless, there I was and so was the elk. It was time, even though my right hand was so numb from cold that I couldn’t tell the difference tactilely between the trigger and the trigger guard. As the song goes, “My brain was writing checks that my body couldn’t cash,” and had written a whole series by that point.

I fired, I think, about six rounds total and suspect that I missed the first. The second connected because he moved his left foreleg a bit and begin to favor that side.  I am also sure I hit him on a raking shot as he moved slowly away from the cows and into a drop-off of a well-wooded drainage. After a wait—it took us a half hour to get to his original location—we found a bit of blood, but not enough, and followed. My hope was that I had placed a bullet deep enough where he would bleed out internally. But I was unsure and worried that I had merely wounded or crippled a wonderful game animal who would go off and die somewhere uselessly because of my mal-performance. Worse yet, I felt like the quintessential dude.

Mitch, who could cover ground up there at five times my rate, went ahead and came back with the news that the tracks had joined other elk tracks. It was getting late and snowing, quickly covering what little blood trail there was, so we decided to go back down and return in the morning. I believe had I been shooting the .340, my first hit would have gone through and produced a clear and copious blood trail. Perhaps he would have gone down on that shot, as I have seen other elk do. 

We returned early the next morning, Thanksgiving Day, in the clear zero degree air while the full moon was still high and the sun rising, and Mitch found him dead in the drainage, but had I been by myself without expert advice and much help, I don’t believe I would have been able to recover that elk, although I would have tried my best. Obviously, personally, I did not do well, and still question my ethics in taking the shot, for the .270 with 130-grain Core Lokt bullets is not the ideal long-range elk rifle. Under conditions where one can pick and choose maybe, but not when conditions are adverse and one is lucky even to get any shot. I felt relief, joy and gratitude at finding the bull. A more appropriate bullet in the .270 might have been an RWS H-Mantle or a 150-grain Nosler Partition. Next time, however I will use a .338 caliber rifle with a well-functioning scope and perhaps save elk, guide and myself considerable grief. As my Father used to say, attributing it to "The Old Dutchman":  “Too soon old, too late smart.”

L to R: 99E in 270/308, 99M in 284 Winchester, 99 in 338 Federal

A benefit of the .308/.338 is the availability of factory produced ammunition.  Federal markets several weights of bullets for their .338 Federal cartridge, ranging from 185 grain to 200 grain to the 210 grain Nosler partitions. Having little interest in the 185 grain, and unable to find the 210 grain in stock anywhere, I bought a few boxes of 200 grain for my experiment. This also saved the trouble of expanding the necks on .308 Winchester cases, although I did make a batch just for the educational benefits of doing so.

Despite it being an efficient and useful caliber, I would not be surprised to see the .338 Federal quietly disappear from the line of factory loaded cartridges in the next few years because it lacks perhaps an ideally compatible, off-the-rack rifle out of which to shoot it. For example, the old .300 Savage cartridge was probably such a success because it so well matched the Savage 99 rifle. I hesitate to use a trendy adjective such as synergetic, but the 300 Savage in the 99 well fit this description. So does the 99 in .338 Federal, in my opinion. But for my use a .338 bolt rifle would be in a caliber such as the .338 Winchester or the .340 Weatherby. And while I admire the ballistic performance of the newer cartridges such as the .338 Lapua, I see such big boomers more as social calibers with purposes that lie outside of the game field and my general personal interests. (I would play with one if I had it.)

L to R: 308 Winchester, 338 Federal, 340 Weatherby Magnum
Once again, the conversion took less time than anticipated.  The finished product look good.  It handled well. I ran a Hoppes-soaked patch down the bore to clean out residual oil or grease, and went back to the range. I sighted the rifle in beginning at 25 yards, dead on, which only required three rounds, a trick that has saved me much ammunition and bother compared to back in the days when I would begin sighting in at 100.  At 100 yards, the rifle was on paper and required scope adjustment down and right to print where I wanted it, about 2-3 inches high. 

Firing ten rounds total, I noticed some of the cases extracted with difficulty. I believe the pressure may be high in the 2,700 feet-per-second, 200-grain factory loads. They print well however, and recoil while brisk is nothing worthy to flinch about.  The case pictured below shows what I interpret as evidence of  high pressure, a cratered firing pin impression. I will handload ammunition in the future to alleviate this problem, with the goal of finding an accurate and reliable 210-grain load with Nosler Partition bullets. Experiments will continue. 

Alleluia! Another successful conversion! Now to find me an elk.  I am booked for a hunt this fall. 

9 January 2016  

Excess pressure sign.  Note cratered firing pin impression.

Note added 01/09/2016.  

The useful online Speer datafile on the .338 Federal reports: 

"Owners of custom 338-08 rifles should not use factory 338 Federal ammunition; many custom 338-08 chambers are slightly shorter than the 338 Federal case. "

This came as news to me, and I wonder if it might somehow affect my problem with high pressure. My next lot of loads will use modified .308 cases and a 200 grain bullet, probably the Hornady interlock, as I happen to have a couple of boxes of them around, and a powder charge from the Speer data. 

I also consulted the equally useful Hodgdon online datafile on the 338 Federal, which I especially like because it also reports chamber pressures of loads. The Savage 99 is a good rifle, the king of lever actions, but not as strong as a mauser-style bolt action. I have no desire to test its limits. Ultimately the goal remains a safe and accurate load using the .210 Nosler Partition, but I could certainly settle for a good load with a 200-grain bullet that would stay together and penetrate on a thick-bodied elk.  



rich sebens said...

I'm curious as to whether you had any issues with the rotary magazine? I've been told that some people have an issue with the magazine not functioning properly when they change from .308 to .338 unless they get a savage .358 magazine. Did you do this or did it work fine using the original .308. In theory it should work just fine but I've been told that it doesn't always work. Any thoughts?

Brian Anse Patrick said...


So far the unmodified rotary magazine has worked well. I have not shot the rifle extensively yet, awaiting warmer weather, so if problems arise I will append a note to my original post. As one would expect, OAL is important in these magazines. I acquired some 210 grain Swift bullets that I will also try. So I expect to experiment and add a fairly lengthy note on the results at some time in the near future. Thank you for commenting!