Three years have passed since Winchester introduced the .300 Winchester Short Magnum, following up a year later with the .270 and 7mm WSMs. Speculation started immediately about what caliber would follow. Last year Winchester threw us a curve by shortening the WSM case even more, introducing the .223 and .243 Winchester Super Short Magnums, and now there's a .25 WSSM.
Even so, it seems likely that the WSM line will continue to expand, so the speculation continues. Meantime, wildcatters have been having a field day necking the WSM case up and down. One of the front-runners for both the speculators and the wildcatters has been the .338 WSM, the Winchester Short Magnum case necked up to take a .338-inch bullet. Other popular choices have included .257, 6.5mm and .358. There are sound arguments for (and against) any and all of these.
I've never been much of a .25-caliber guy, so I haven't voted for that one. I am a 6.5mm fan, but I accept that cartridges using a .264-inch bullet haven't done well with American shooters, so that would surprise me. I'm also a huge .35-caliber fan, but the same argument applies. So I've been fairly vocal about recommending a .338 WSM. On the surface, such a cartridge has much going for it. The .33s are really popular with elk hunters, and there are lots of good bullets to choose from. A short .33 should come close to .338 Winchester Magnum performance and could be housed in a handier, lighter rifle that would be great in the elk mountains. And, of course, it would have the accuracy and efficiency inherent in the WSM case.
Until recently this has been theoretical thought on my part, but I've just now had the opportunity to actually play with a .338 WSM rifle. The rifle itself was built on a short Remington Model 700 action, the work done by Rich Reiley of High Tech Custom Rifles Inc. Despite a fairly stiff 24-inch barrel, the rifle weighs a tidy 7 1/2 pounds, including fixed 6X Zeiss scope. This is an ideal weight for a "rough country" hunting rifle--light enough to carry in the mountains but heavy enough to be stable when you're out of breath. Provided, of course, the rifle doesn't kick you into next week. A 7 1/2-pound .338 Win. Mag. will; the .338 WSM didn't.
It's very hard to prove, but I'm convinced that the efficiency of the short case yields a savings in felt recoil. The Decelerator pad and straight stock also help. There is recoil, but it's not unpleasant--and at this gun weight a muzzlebrake (which this rifle doesn't have) is absolutely not needed to make the rifle manageable.
Reiley has done a lot of work with both the cartridge and the rifle, and I didn't try to second-guess him on loads. With lighter bullets he found that RL15 produced the best combination of accuracy and velocity; with heavier bullets IMR 4895 produced good results. Across a wide spectrum of loads, groups averaged about 1 1/4 inches, but we're talking about just one rifle, so that says little about the cartridge's real potential. Anyway, a fast .33 isn't a prairie dog or pronghorn cartridge, so this rifle is certainly on track for elk and bear.