Best Cartridge for Elk Hunting: Bringing Down the Big Bulls
Most of us don’t live with big bull elk right in our backyards. That means elk hunting takes tons of planning and a huge investment of money. Not only are elk tags expensive, but you also might not draw a tag for your favorite area every season. Chasing bull is no easy task, so you shouldn’t trust what may be a once-in-a-lifetime shot to a sub-par cartridge.
While there are dozens of elk-worthy options on the market, these are my top picks. When I end up with a Boone and Crocket bull in my crosshairs, I want one of these competent cartridges in the chamber of my hunting rifle. These are what I consider the best of the best elk cartridges available to modern hunters.
Crowning a single cartridge the king of all elk cartridges isn’t possible or practical. While a short-action cartridge in a lightweight, fast-handling rifle might be perfect for jumping bulls in thick woods, it isn’t at all suitable for sniper-like shots across hundreds of yards of open alpine meadow.
And while big magnum cartridges might be nice for long-range shots, they aren’t particularly fun to haul through the rough western backcountry. I won’t even mention how brutal they can be on your shoulder.
All of the cartridges that made this list of the best elk hunting cartridges have proven their worth by consistently filling elk tags and chest freezers. However, some of these cartridges are better for certain terrain, situations, hunting styles, and personal preferences.
Although some shooters use the terms “caliber” and “cartridge” interchangeably, the words refer to vastly different things.
“Caliber” is literally the diameter of a projectile (or the barrel of a firearm that the projectile travels through), and is generally measured in fractions of an inch. The word “cartridge” refers to an entire unit of ammunition - bullet, casing, powder, and primer.
In this article, we'll be discussing the best cartridge for elk hunting.
The 6.5 Creedmoor has been the golden child of target shooters and hunters alike for quite some time. It is currently, without a doubt, the best-selling cartridge on the face of the planet. In the eyes of its fan base, this cartridge can do no wrong.
However, the 6.5 Creedmoor is often considered a bit of a welterweight when it comes to dropping big bull elk. You’ll definitely want to pick a load with a deep penetrating, heavy for caliber, controlled-expansion bullet (like the Nosler Partition).
You should also place your shots very carefully. Trying to send one of these slender bullets through an elk’s thick shoulder blade could have catastrophic consequences. It isn’t up to the task. Wait for a good broadside presentation so your bullet can easily plow straight through vitals. The 6.5mm bullet doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.
Thankfully, 6.5 Creedmoor’s phenomenal accuracy makes shot placement a breeze. There’s a reason this cartridge is the preferred option for top-tier long-range competitors.
The 6.5 Creedmoor definitely has less recoil than any of the other cartridges on our list. That makes it a smart option for youth, women, and inexperienced elk hunters.
The 6.5 PRC (and most of its 6.5mm cousins) have the 6.5 Creedmoor to thank for its popularity. Like the Creedmoor, the PRC was developed with long-range precision rifle shooting in mind.
Both the Creedmoor and the PRC shoot the same bullet, only the PRC sends it about 250 fps faster. The high-velocity PRC shoots a 143-grain bullet at 2960 fps. The 6.5 Creedmoor shoots the same bullet at 2700 fps. That speed has some major advantages for elk hunters.
At 500 yards, the 143-grain bullet shot from a 6.5 PRC elk rifle drops 8 inches less than the Creedmoor’s. It is also carrying 1604 foot-pounds of energy when it gets there. That’s respectably more than the 1308 foot-pounds the 6.5 Creedmoor arrives with.
1500 foot-pounds is the commonly accepted threshold for ethically dropping elk. That means, at 500 yards, the 6.5 PRC still has enough energy to get the job done, while the 6.5 Creedmoor has mostly fizzled out.
However, the 6.5 PRC certainly shares many of the Creedmoor’s limitations. Neither cartridge has the bullet diameter or weight to handle steep angles or shoddy presentations. Pick a load with a tough, controlled expansion bullet (like Hornady’s ELD-X) and wait for the textbook broadside shot.
Along with the .30-06, the .270 Winchester is one of the oldest hunting cartridges on this list. It is also one of the most popular. If you regularly run in elk hunting circles, you probably have at least one buddy who swears by this cartridge.
The .270 Win’s longevity and popularity pretty much guarantee that you can find ammo at any small town sporting goods store or online website. There is also a huge selection of hunting rifles chambered for this mainstay, so you can choose anything from a traditional lever action to a Browning BAR semi-auto.
Top it with the right bullet, and the .270 Winchester is capable of dropping any bull walking around North America. Like with the 6.5s, choose a load that features bullets built for weight retention and deep penetration.
The .270 pushes 130- to 150-grain bullets at speeds in excess of 3100 fps with over 2900 foot-pounds of energy. Although it maintains that speed and energy fairly well, you’ll want to keep your shots within 400 yards for best results.
Introduced in 2021, Browning and Winchester’s 6.8 Western is a relative newcomer to North American elk hunting. While this ultra-modern cartridge hasn’t exactly caught on quickly, that isn’t due to its performance or potential. This brand new cartridge was unveiled in the middle of a global pandemic and a serious ammo shortage, which hasn’t exactly helped boost publicity.
The 6.8 Western feeds easily and consistently from modern short-action magazines. That means rifles chambered for the cartridge are lighter, more compact, and easier to swing than most of the magnum cartridges that made this list.
If you need to tote an elk rifle over miles of rough Montana terrain, 6.8 Western is a good candidate for the job. However, since most major manufacturers aren’t exactly rolling huge numbers of these things off their assembly lines, you might need to order a custom rifle.
Because the 6.8 Western is still basically a newborn cartridge, there haven’t been a ton of quality hunting loads to reach the market. However, if you’re open to handloading, this cartridge has plenty to offer.
Performance is where the 6.8 Western really shines. It slings a 165-grain bullet at an impressive 2970 fps with 3226 foot-pounds of energy. Featuring wider, heavier bullets (165- to 175-grains) than the 6.5s, the 6.8 Western has both an aerodynamic and kinetic energy advantage over smaller caliber loads. Those advantages improve its long-distance performance on elk-sized game animals.
The first 7mm Rem Mag cartridges hit the shelves in the 1960s. Thanks to its high-velocity performance and flat-shooting ballistics, elk hunters have been in love with the “seven mag” right from the start. However, the cartridge earned an early reputation as a “wounder,” mostly because the 7mm bullets of the day were poorly suited to the blistering velocities the Rem Mag produced.
Modern ammo technology has solved the cartridge’s early issues. Today’s 7mm Rem Mag loads feature heavyweight, thick jacketed bullets that don’t fragment upon impact. Instead, they hold onto their weight and deliver deep-driving penetration.
Choose loads with heavy (think 150 grains or higher) controlled expansion bullets engineered for the Rem Mag’s speed. We highly recommend Hornady SST bullets. Stay away from traditional soft points or lightweight bullets designed for whitetail deer.
For a magnum cartridge, the 7mm Rem Mag has tolerable recoil with ballistics that outperform the venerable .30-06 Springfield.
A 162-grain polymer-tipped projectile leaves the muzzle of a 7mm Rem Mag cruising at 3030 fps. At 500 yards, the 7mm Rem Mag is still zipping along at 2219 fps and carrying 1772 foot-pounds of kinetic energy.
That’s plenty of elk-dropping energy, and it does it all while dropping 8 ½ inches less than comparable .30-06 loads at the same distance.
Although the topic is hotly debated, .30-caliber has long been considered the best caliber for elk hunting. It should come as no surprise that several .30-caliber rifle cartridges made our list.
The .30-06 Springfield is probably the most popular .30-caliber cartridge for elk hunting (and deer hunting for that matter), and it has probably been used to fill more elk tags than any other rifle cartridge in history.
It is perfectly possible that the “aught six” has killed more elk than all the other cartridges on this list combined.
One of the reasons the .30-06 has seen so much hunting season success is largely due to its long-lasting popularity.
The cartridge was originally engineered for military use. Many soldiers returning home from European war fronts after both world wars fell in love with their service rifles and the cartridges they shot. It only made sense for those soldiers to reach for the same cartridge/rifle combos when they headed into the woods to hunt.
The same qualities that made the aught six effective on the battlefield also make it an effective big game cartridge. The .30-06 is consistently accurate and delivers deadly terminal performance.
While the aught six doesn’t have the head-turning ballistics of the popular magnum cartridges, it delivers plenty of elk-dropping power out to 300 yards. A competent rifleman could stretch that effective range even further.
Load your elk rifle with heavy 180-grain bullets, and you’ll enjoy better sectional density, a higher ballistic coefficient, and improved long-range performance.
Modern ammo advancements have also improved terminal performance well beyond what our grandfathers experienced with their aught six elk rifles. While soft points were the bullets of choice for generations past, modern bonded projectiles like Nosler AccuBond or Hornady SST provide better accuracy and deeper penetration with less meat damage.
If you like the .30-06, you’re going to love the .300 Win Mag. This standard-length cartridge offers a smidge more horsepower than the aught six. That means you can stretch your shots a little further without sacrificing accuracy, efficacy, or ethics.
Elk have heavier bodies than whitetails or mule deer, so having a little extra oomph behind that .30-caliber bullet is a major plus.
.300 Win Mag pushes a 180-grain Hornady SST bullet a lightning-fast 3130 fps. The same bullet leaves the muzzle of a .30-06 at only 2820 fps. That extra cruising speed means the .300 Win Mag bullet drops 10 inches less than the .30-06 at 500 yards.
This flat-shooting cartridge is also available with heavier bullets. That means an even flatter trajectory, better wind resistance, and more downrange energy.
To get the best performance out of your hunting rifle, choose .300 Win Mag loads with 200-grain bullets. If you can get your hands on something heavier, that’s even better.
The higher-level performance will cost you, however. Rifles chambered in .300 Win Mag are relatively long, heavy, and deliver some hearty recoil. While .300 Win Mag produces a bit heftier recoil than the .30-06, its recoil is still within what most serious elk hunters can manage.
The .308 Winchester is another popular hunting cartridge regularly used to invite elk home for dinner. Although the design was officially based on the .300 Savage, .308 Win is basically a shortened .30-06 cartridge. It has the same head and body diameters as the .30-06 on a half-inch shorter case, which is why it is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “thirty not six.”
With less case capacity, the .308 moves considerably slower than the .30-06, although elk can rarely tell the difference. The .308 still delivers enough energy to drop big bulls out to 400 yards with careful shot placement. To preserve as much downrange energy as possible, choose loads that feature high-BC spire point profiles.
Although the .308 lacks the oomph of some other .30-caliber cartridges, it does have a few advantages. .308 Winchester rifles are light, compact, low-recoiling, and easy to handle.
Because this cartridge is so popular, there is plenty of variety and availability in both ammo and rifle options for elk hunters to choose from.
Which .30-caliber cartridge is best for elk largely depends on what type of rifle you want (or need) to carry.
Some cartridges work best in bolt actions, others may only be available for traditional lever-action rifles. Some are offered in compact, lightweight short-action rifles that are perfect for toting over demanding mountain terrain. Others are only available in bulky, heavy full magnum rifles that work best for long-range shooting.
A few other competent elk cartridges that throw .30-caliber pills are the .300 Ruger Compact Magnum, .300 WSM, .30/308 Norma Mag., .30 Nosler, and the .300 Weatherby Magnum.
.338-caliber cartridges are certainly on the upper end of the elk-stopping spectrum. These babies will definitely satisfy the “go big or go home” crowd.
Because the .338 Win Mag fits in a standard length action, it can handle pretty heavy bullets. That means you have access to loads with thick 250-grain bullets that fly with the same flat-shooting ballistics as a 180-grain .300 Win Mag.
That extra weight drives these projectiles deep, too. Not only does it crush through thick shoulder blades and plow through deep-set vitals, but it also has 20 percent more surface area than the .30-caliber superstars. The .338 Win Mag bullets carve massive, devastating wound channels.
If you encounter less-than-ideal shot angles or angry grizzlies while you’re elk hunting, the .338 Win Mag will be your new best friend.
Unfortunately, .338 Win Mag produces some brutal recoil. However, if you tough out the shoulder abuse, it offers pretty impressive ballistics.
A 230-grain Hornady ELD-X projectile exits the muzzle at 2810 fps. While that’s not exactly head-turning speed, that bullet is still coasting at 2116 fps 500 yards later. And although the .338 WIn Mag might drop about 40 inches at 500 yards, it is still toting 2280 foot-pounds of energy. If you need to make long-distance shots, this cartridge has everything it takes to get the job done.
Elk are big animals, so small caliber cartridges usually won’t cut it. A larger, more powerful cartridge provides slightly more room for error than a smaller, less powerful cartridge. That’s why we are firm believers that the .30 is the best elk caliber around. The .30-06 for elk is especially hard to beat.
However, any bullet that drives through both lungs is guaranteed to kill a bull, no matter how big the bullet or what cartridge it came from. If you can make better shots with a 7mm or one of the 6.5s then I won’t judge. I’m a firm believer that the best elk cartridge is the one you can shoot confidently and effectively. Ultimately, that’s what is going to drop a bull dead in his tracks.
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