Best Elk Cartridge - Guide Outdoors

Best Elk Cartridges

If you’re wondering which caliber is the best for elk, you’re asking the wrong question. Caliber is the diameter of the bullet. A 30-caliber could be a powerful .300 Weatherby Magnum throwing a 180-grain bullet 3,200 fps or a puny 300 AAC Blackout coughing up a 140-grain slug at just 2,000 fps. Big difference.

The real questions are what is the best elk cartridge and bullet? The cartridge is the complete package: case, primer, powder and bullet. The bullet is the most important because it’s the only part that kills the elk. Everything else just drives it. But the powder supply is important, too, since it determines how fast that hardworking bullet leaves the station.

Best Elk Cartidge Ron Spomer
30-caliber is the wrong answer to the wrong question. All of these are 30 caliber cartridges, but not all are ideal for elk hunting.

Over the years, hunters have rather arbitrarily chosen 1,500 foot pounds of energy as the minimum for taking an elk cleanly. The fact that thousands of elk have been felled by 30-30 Winchesters and 243 Winchesters suggests this is a bit overstated. Many westerners even use 22-250 Remingtons to take elk. Not recommended, but can be done.

What we really want is a reasonable compromise of bullet diameter and weight, velocity and felt recoil in a rifle we can carry over hill and mountain day after day. A .50 BMG and 700-grain bullet would certainly deliver a big punch to any elk, but who wants to carry the 20-pound rifles that shoot them?

So, you might want to start with rifle weight matched to your physic, endurance and hunting grounds. At about 170 pounds and just under 6 feet, I find I hunt farther, harder and longer with a 6-pound or lighter rifle than a heavier one. Recoil doesn’t bother me much, so I’ll take these chambered in anything up to 300 WSM. I’ll “cheat” a bit by using 165-grain or lighter controlled expansion bullets like Barnes TTSX, Nosler Accubond, Swift Scirocco and the like for deep penetration.

This penetration thing is a big deal with elk because they’re big and beefy. The softer a bullet and the more it expands on impact, the less it penetrates. Wide surface area, more friction, less penetration. So you want a bullet that will expand 1.5 to 2X its original diameter, not flatten like a pancake or roll up like a ball. Weight retention matters because that also increases penetration via inertia.

Choose a bullet that does this and any cartridge from 26-06 Remington upward can work perfectly well. None will knock an elk down unless you hit the central nervous system from above the front shoulder forward to the brain itself. Sometimes a double shoulder hit will tip an elk over, but not often. Sometimes “shock” will inspire one to collapse with a lung hit, but I wouldn’t count on that, either. I pumped two 180-grain Accubonds from a 300 Win. Mag. into a bull’s shoulder and neck from 40 yards last October and all he did was turn around. I put another in his neck, but missed the spine. He stood there for about five seconds before wobbling and falling over.

This is typical. Hemorrhaging causes blood pressure to drop. The brain gets oxygen starved and the animal “feints,” then expires.

Best Elk Cartidge Ron Spomer
Elk country is often steep, vast and hard to negotiate. Spomer took this bull from 450 yards with a 280 Ackley Improved and 150-grain Barnes TTSX bullet fired from a sub-6-pound Rifles, Inc. bolt-action zeroed with a Leupold VX3 2.5-8X scope.

Expecting a bullet from a shoulder fired rifle to knock an elk over is wishful dreaming at best. Remember, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the rifle doesn’t knock you over, how’s the bullet going to knock a 700-pound elk over?

Vital tissue damage is what kills elk, and that’s where bullet performance beats power all to heck. You want a bullet that reaches the vitals and breaks them down. Since arrows do this regularly with about as much knockdown energy as a hard thrown marshmallow, you can expect bullets to do it, too. Any bullet that expands to reveal a ragged, tattered front will rip more heart and lung tissue and cause more hemorrhaging than one with a smoothly rounded nose.

Armed with this wisdom, you are free to select any legal rifle cartridge with which you can comfortably and reliably deliver such a bullet to your elk. You’re much better off with a 6.5 Creedmoor or 7mm-08 Remington delivering the right bullet to the right spot than a 378 Weatherby Magnum blasting the wrong bullet to the wrong spot — or even the right spot. Yes, too soft a .338 bullet landing on a bull’s shoulder at 2,900 fps could damage a lot of meat and fail to reach the vitals.

Some of the most popular elk rounds these days are the 7mm magnums, .300 Magnums and 338 magnums. The exact one doesn’t matter nearly as much as the bullet it shoots and how well you place it.

Now, you’re probably disappointed that I haven’t crowned the 338 Win. Mag. as the ultimate elk cartridge. Many claim it is, but that doesn’t mean the lighter kicking 338 Federal wouldn’t be more effective for many shooters. Or the 280 Rem., 300 Rem Ultra Mag. or 270 Win. There are just too many variables and too many great options to pronounce any one as the ultimate.

Worry more about the bullet and where you place it than the cartridge that sends it.

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23 Responses to “Best Elk Cartridges”

  1. George King

    Totally agree that it is more about the bullet you choose that what it is launched from. People will shell out thousands for an outfitted hunt, rifle, optics, and hunt gear without hesitation. Some of the same people will give virtually no thought whatsoever to matching their ammo to the task at hand.

  2. Dwayne Lindner

    Bullet construction and bullet placement is most important. I shot a 5×5 elk at 275 yards with a 7mm-08 last fall. I used Hornady Superformance 139 gr GMX. He dropped in his tracks. Looked to get back up and I put another in him.

  3. Seldon Essex

    My wife and I are moving to Wyoming,she has a .308 and I am considering a .308 as well. We want to hunt elk and all the other game Wyoming has to offer. Is the .308 a good choice or should I go to a .300 wm.

    • OutddorAdventures

      There are a zillion different ballistic charts and almost as many experts, but simply put; the 308 Win with a 180 grain bullet is very effective for Elk out to about 300 yards. The 300 Win Mag with a 180 grain bullet has the same velocity and energy at 450 yards that the 308 Win has at 300. There are a lot more Elk killed at less than 200 yards than there are beyond 300 yards. The difference in recoil is significant as is the muzzle blast and rifle weight, all things being equal. Take the 308 and learn to shoot it well and you will cleanly harvest all of the Elk you can eat.

  4. James Palmer aka. Uncle Crusty

    As is so often the case. Your words are spot-on. Correct illumination in a dark room makes all the difference(metaphor)…. Grandaddy’s gone, we’re next in the breech & so many of these young’uns have no idea.
    Thanks & please keep passing your gems of knowledge along.

  5. Eric Goblet

    I personally enjoy using a 300 Rem Ultra Mag with a 180gr A frame bullet, a well constructed bullet the retains weight is an important factor to consider. It provides good range for long shots and with a synthetic stock it’s not a bad gun to carry in the mountains.

  6. Harold Koclanes

    There have been a lot of elk killed with a 30-06, and you left it out of the conversation.

  7. Wayne

    I agree completely!!!
    We have an Elk hunt in CO this Fall and when planning the trip, caliber came up in the conversation. I am planning on shooting a 7mm Mag with 168 grain Noslar Accubonds LR’s. No one could believe that I was shooting something less than a 30 cal. Magnum of some type. My rebuttal was “it is much more important to shoot what you are comfortable with and have the confidence to put the bullet where it does it’s job best rather than shooting a Howitzer sized projectile to do maximum damage on both ends of the gun.

    • Grady

      I like the 7 Rem Mag with the Federal Premium 160 gr Nosler Partition. Have killed a ton of elk with this load starting in 1975. Most recently took a big bodied 5×5 at 210 yds running across the canyon. Went 10 yds and dropped like a rock for the 75 year old shooter.

  8. Glen D Romero

    Awesome and informative article, most know some of the most import parts of elk recovery, come even before the season starts, preparation, knowledge of the area and terrain, shoot/practice with the firearm you intend to use in all weather conditions before going out and physical conditioning are very important as well. does size really matter or is shoot placement more critical, shoot don’t shoot Thank you keep up the great work.

  9. Dave Blunt

    I’ve read your article about the ‘best Elk Cartridges’ and I feel that you have melined the ever faithful 30-06 round in 168gr. bthp. I’ve taken quite a few cow Elk and a couple of bull Elk over the past 25 yrs. with my ruger model 70 mark II.

  10. Monty Berg

    Got a Remington model 7600 pump .270, elk would go down im 100% sure.

  11. John Arnett

    Shot a 5/5 at 150 yards last year not the biggest in the world but my 1st because there coming back down off the mountains into the flat lands anyway had 30-06 infield my dad gave me and a 180 grain soft point Remington bullet hit him in the heart he turned and dropped surprised the hell out of me until I had to get him out of that canyon

  12. Sean Staab

    I couldn’t agree more with your article very well put thank you for your input and help choosing the right combination to harvest a huge bull lol , thanks

  13. Bill Doane

    I use a Ruger 270 with Remington core lock in 150 grain and I shot a cow elk at 278 yards 2 cows came out of a draw and the lead cow headed in the woods so I had to hurry my shot on the second cow aimed at its head got it through the neck and dropped it my son uses a 700 Win Mag and told me a 270 could not kill a Elk back at Camp everybody teased him about my choice and weapons was a good day

  14. KE Mayfield

    I am by no means an expert but I will relay what works for me. While I have tried other rifles the one that has given me the most success over the years is a Mod 70 in 30.06. For elk, I use Hornady 190gr BTSP loaded to 2600-2700fps because it is a load that this rifle shoots well out to about 400-500yds (my limit). I try to follow the KISS principle and have taken home lots of meat with this combo.

  15. Stan Puckett

    I’ve shot a lot of elk with a 30-06 and two with a 270 WSM both at around 300 yards. My last one was a 370″ 6X8 point, that I got over 600 lbs. of meat from but he took 2 shots from my 7mm mag. at 87 yds. First time shooting one with that cal. I haven’t had a chance to shoot one with my 308 or 6.5 creedmore yet but if my wife can shoot her’s with a 7mm-08 then why not.

  16. David Carrier'e

    Alot of good Calibers Mentioned here but the 7MM RUM is my favorite of all . Its super Accurate and it’s also my 1000 Yard Rifle as well . I do want One Rifle Chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum to complete my Rifle set .

  17. Chris Valerio

    Hi Ron, Just read your elk caliber cartridge posts. Love reading about your experiences! I’ve mentioned this before but I have noticed Knock-Down power on big game with lung shots, shooting 338Win Mag and 375 H&H. Both elk and moose straight down shooting NP bullets! I believe certain bullets just work better in various calibers to accomplish that. I experienced poor performance when using copper bullets in the 338 mag. Animals took multiple hits even with a 225X! Switch to 250 Nosler Partition and big animals drop! I call that Knock-Down even though that may be a wrong definition. But 1 shot in the lungs and down is what it is! I do not like copper bullets for bigger animals in larger calibers. Kills take more shots and I do not like that! But I’ve experienced the exact opposite shooting copper in smaller cartridges. X-style bullets out of a 7 Mag seem devistating! I’ve had big game lung shot drop at the shot! Another example of Knock-Down. One hunter I know shoots a Big Thirty shooting 165 GMX. Everything 1 shot and down! This year I’ll try Federal 130 Trophy Copper out of my new to me Tikka T3 Lite in 270 WSM. I expect 1 shot kills on lung shot elk and think copper bullets work best with higher velocities. I also want to try DRT bullets in 30-06 and 300 Mag. Again I think the appearance of Knock-Down power is velocity, caliber, shot placement and bullet type used. Everyone loves the Accbond. I don’t. In your video where you shoot that bull 3 times with 7 Mag Accubonds… Well you got him, but to me that’s not great bullet performance. Had you shot that bull with 338/NP I bet he would have gone down? It sure would have been fun watching you shoot the same bull with a Mossberg Patriot in 338 Mag! I just do not think the Accubonds hold together at closer ranges resulting in delayed kills? I’ve seen the same with plain 270. Delayed kills on elk. I’m searching for a smaller caliber/bullet combo with more Knock-Down. If it can be done for elk/moose? Just looking for something different than my favorite 338. Big shoes to fill as it will be tough to match consistent 338 Knock-Down. I may try 325 WSM and expect it more effective than standard 30s? Even the 358 Win has shown greater elk Knock-Down. Quite a difference between 270 and 358 Win. Every elk my buddy shot with 358 went right down! I sure want to use 06, but that’s the round several in my group watch elk run off with. Perhaps they should practice more? I suspect an 06 shooting DRT bullets will simply drop them?

  18. John

    ELK hunting is a challenge. Specially when its in a long distance. I do agree with you about 6.5 creedmoor . Its a great cartridges for elk hunting. Its enough to hunt a big giant whether its 700 pounds or more.Before the 6.5 creedmoor I used to use .270 elk bullets.

  19. Steve

    If i have to shoot through the front shoulder joint to get to the vitals on a quartering to shot, is there a minimum caliber cartridge bullet combination for this? Would that same combination work for a broadside double lung shot just behind the shoulder or would it be best to aim into the shoulder area? I’m primarily interested in using a 30-06 or 7mag unless something with more size or push is needed.

  20. Gary Huffman

    I’ll be taking my Ruger Mk2 in .308 elk hunting this fall. What would be the best factory round to take, say about 180 grain?

  21. John D Arnoux

    You are exactly right! I cannot tell you how many elk that I have harvested over the past 62 years, with a Mannlicher Schoenauer 257 Roberts cal. by placing my shot at the top of the Bull Elk neckline! I live in Wyoming, however, I hunt Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico.