Research Armament Industries (RAI), an American company, was the first to introduce the concept of a long range sniper cartridge in .338 caliber in 1983. The idea was to develop a cartridge for the US Navy that was capable of extreme long range shots against persons and material. The company Nammo Lapua Oy, commonly known as Lapua, joined the project to manufacture the casings for the ammo testing process. RAI withdrew from the program during the testing process, so Lapua started producing the whole cartridge on their own.
After the official program, Lapua collaborated with Sako and Accuracy International, two rifle manufacturers, to continue the development of the cartridge into what it is now, an incredibly accurate and hard hitting cartridge used around the globe by several national military forces. The .338 Lapua still holds the world record for the longest confirmed sniper kill in combat. A British sniper made the shot in Afghanistan in 2009 at a range of 2,475 meters, or more than a mile and a half!
Sniper systems before the .338 Lapua had a gap between between the smaller .30 caliber cartridges, such as the .308 Winchester and .300 Win Mag., and the larger caliber .50 Browning Machine Gun cartridge. The .30 caliber rifles are smaller, lighter and more portable than the big, heavy .50 caliber systems, but they lack the remarkably long reach and power that distinguishes the .50 BMG. The .338 Lapua finds the middle ground for power and portability. Rifles chambered for the .338 Lapua weigh on average somewhere between 12 pounds and 15 pounds, light enough to carry in the field use, but heavy enough reduce punishing recoil even with loads meant for long distance shots.
The max range for traditional bullets is listed at 1,500 meters, and the range increases to 1,800 meters for the special Very Low Drag bullets. The standard bullet weighs 200 grains, and leaves the muzzle at a velocity of 3,340 feet per second, resulting in a muzzle energy of more than 4,900 foot pounds. The Lapua Scenar Very Low Drag bullet weighs 300 grains and exits the barrel at a velocity of 2,750 feet per second, resulting in a muzzle energy greater than 5,000 foot pounds.
Civilians are beginning to give some recognition to the .338 Lapua. It is lauded for its accuracy, and is being seen in competitions of extreme long range targets. Large game hunters also use the cartridge as it serves well for taking nearly all game of medium and large size at long range. Due to the interest that the .338 Lapua has been generating in the circles of hunting and target competition, it is probably that even when eventually retired from military service, civilian shooters will continue to enjoy the .338 Lapua.