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Published Aug 8, 2022 1:45 PM

Elk are big, tough animals and any elk hunting rifle you select needs to be chosen with that fact in mind. When it comes to the best cartridges for elk, the .30-calibers still rule the roost, but there are plenty of good elk rifles chambered in smaller offerings. The magnum guys talk up the ability of the big boomers to handle less-than-ideal shot angles, while the smaller-caliber camp points to the better precision and recoil management that lighter cartridges offer. Both sides have merit.

The other factor when picking an elk rifle is the country where you hunt and your style of hunting. Backcountry hunters on foot will gravitate toward light rifles, while those on horseback or who hunt private ground will have a broader field to choose from. While I admire ultra-light rifles, there’s something to be said for a gun with adequate heft. They tend to be more accurate and handle better than the sub-6-pound guns. If you need to cut weight for your hunt, you’re better off giving up the Doritos and IPAs than trying to shave every last ounce from your rifle’s barrel.

No matter what, however, elk rifles need to be tough, because they will be banged around and exposed to the elements. This list of the best elk hunting rifles covers the gamut of price points and cartridge selection, so no matter the specifics of your next hunt, you’ll find one of these elk rifles answers.

How I Picked the Best Elk Hunting Rifles

I’ve gone on countless elk hunts over the years. I’ve chased them in the high desert regions of New Mexico, in the coastal rainforests of the Cascade mountains, on horseback in the Canadian Rockies, and all over the intermountain West. I came up with this list of the best elk rifles—and cartridges—based on those experiences. I wanted to highlight what’s worked for me, as well as showcase rifles that are currently available.

Browning X-Bolt Mountain Pro in 6.8 Western

Browning

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Browning has been adding variants to their X-Bolt line at a good clip, and this is one my favorites to date. The X-Bolt Mountain Pro features a carbon-fiber stock that’s been filled with lightweight foam so it is both light and quiet. That combined with the fluting on the bolt body and barrel brings the weight of the Mountain Pro down to 6 pounds, 2 ounces.

Chambered in the new 6.8 Western, this rig is ready for high country bulls. The 6.8 Western is a fairly stout cartridge, similar to the .270 WSM, but better engineered to take advantage of heavy-for-caliber .277-inch bullets with high BCs. Typical bullet weights are 165, 170, and 175 grains at between 2,835 to 2,970 fps.

Outdoor Life editor-in-chief Alex Robinson’s Colorado bull, taken with the X-Bolt Mountain Pro. Tess Rousey

To tame the cartridge, the Mountain Pro comes with Browning’s large and effective Recoil Hawg muzzle brake. Like other X-Bolts, the rifle’s ergonomics are excellent. The three-round magazine loads easily and feeds without any fuss. The tang-mounted safety is easy to manipulate. And the rifle’s 60-degree bolt throw makes for snappy follow-up shots. The rifle comes in Browning’s burnt bronze Cerakote finish to keep the elements at bay.

Nosler 21 in 33 Nosler

Nosler

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The Nosler 21 is a honey of a hunting rifle. It won the highest accolades during our 2022 Gun Test with an Editor’s Choice award. I’ve hunted with them in .375 H&H, 6.5 PRC, and 6.5 Creedmoor. But if I were to get a Model 21 dedicated for elk, I would go to the 33 Nosler, which is arguably the best of the proprietary Nosler cartridges.

I’ve seen what the 33 Nosler can do first-hand in Africa, and it is a devastating round. It launches a 225-grain Accubond at 3,025 fps, placing it notch above the .338 Lapua and 275 fps faster than the .338 Win. Mag. For elk hunters who subscribe to the “more is more” philosophy of cartridge selection, the 33 Nosler can’t be beat.

The rifle itself is a beautifully constructed hunting tool. The Shilen barrel, Mack Brothers action, and Nosler carbon-fiber stock are all premium components and they work together in perfect harmony. The Model 21 is accurate, fast-handling and manages even heavy recoil extremely well. If the 33 Nosler is more than you care to shoot, the Model 21 is also available in .280 Ackley Improved, which is a milder but still fully capable elk round.

Weatherby Vanguard Weatherguard Bronze in .300 Wby.

Weatherby

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The Weatherby Vanguard strikes a great balance between performance and value and is one of the best elk hunting rifles you can buy for under $1,000. The Bronze model features a burnt bronze Cerakote finish on the receiver and barrel and is mated to a black synthetic stock with a bit of bronze webbing—it’s a color-coordinated wonder.

More importantly, it comes chambered in a wide variety of cartridges including the iconic .300 Weatherby Magnum, which is the most popular of Roy Weatherby’s creations. The belted magnum, based on the .300 H&H, with its signature double radius shoulder has been dropping big game since it was introduced in 1944.

To get the most from the cartridge, this Vanguard comes with a 26-inch barrel that’s threaded ½-28 to accommodate a brake or suppressor. The hinged floorplate magazine holds three rounds and as with all Vanguard rifles, it comes with a 3-shot sub-MOA accuracy guarantee.

The stock on the Vanguard is well designed, with textured panels on the grip and fore-end for a secure purchase in wet and slippery conditions. The grip also has a slight palm swell on the right side, which fills the trigger hand nicely. Another feature I like is the three-position safety, which allows the bolt to be opened without putting the rifle in “fire” condition.  

Sig Cross in 6.5 CM

Sig Sauer

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This handy rifle is a high-country elk-killing machine. With the stock folded, it stows away easily in a pack for maximum portability and comfort, making it a great choice for hauling into the mountains, especially since the bare rifle only weighs 6.8 pounds.

I let a good friend of mine “borrow” my Sig Cross in 6.5 Creedmoor, and he’s proceeded to kill six elk with it in the past few years. He’s made it clear that I won’t be getting the rifle back any time soon. But that’s nothing compared to another friend of mine who hunts and guides for elk. His Sig Cross has accounted for 18 bulls over the last three seasons, one-shot kills all.

One thing the Sig Cross has going for it is outstanding accuracy. When I got mine, I was amazed at the bug hole groups it churned out, which is remarkable for a light rifle and a chassis folder to boot.

But Sig got it right with the Cross, and if you don’t mind the rifle’s tactical aesthetic it is a hell of a choice. Sig also offers the rifle in .308 Win. and in the .277 Fury. The .277 Fury is an intriguing option, though ammo availability is an issue. The .277 Fury is a .308-sized cartridge that develops impressive muzzle velocities. The cartridge case has been modified to handle higher chamber pressures and is capable of driving a 140-grain Sierra Gameking at 2,950 fps.

Mossberg Patriot Synthetic Cerakote in .338 Win. Mag.

Mossberg

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The Mossberg Patriot is an everyman’s elk rifle, a fully capable hunting tool at a bargain price. I’ve hunted with Mossberg Patriots from Alaska to Mexico and have had nothing but positive experiences with the platform.

The rifle’s accuracy has been good, in my experience, including with the heavy hitting .375 Ruger I took on a couple Alaska bear hunts. I would expect the same from the .338 Win. Mag., which is one of the all-time great big game cartridges. For decades, the .338 Win. Mag. was one of the top two or three picks for hunters looking for one cartridge to hunt the world. Though the cartridge isn’t as popular as it once was, it’s one of the best elk hunting calibers, and it is still worthy of consideration for a hunter in search of a do-it-all big game round.

The Patriot comes with a detachable box magazine that is simple and fool proof. All rifles in the series sport Mossberg’s user-adjustable LBA trigger, which can be set from 2 to 7 pounds, though why anyone would set the trigger above 3 pounds is beyond me.

In .338 Win. Mag. the rifle has a 24-inch barrel threaded 11/16-24, and the barrel and action are Cerakoted for protection against the elements. This particular model also comes with open sights that can be adjusted for windage and elevation. Having backup iron sights on one of the best elk hunting rifles is a comfort in case your scope goes down on the mountain.

Though the Patriot lacks some of the refinements found on the more expensive rifles in this list, it still manages to be attractive, reliable, accurate, and rugged—all at one of the most competitive price points you’ll find.

Seekins Havak PH2 in 6.5 PRC

Seekins Precision

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The Seekins Precision Havak Pro Hunter 2 is one of the best values in a high-end technical elk rifle. Glen Seekins, who designed the rifle, is an avid mountain hunter and precision shooter and the Havak PH2 is a great expression of those two passions.

The carbon-fiber composite stock is light and strong and includes some features carried over from the precision rifle world. The grip angle is nearly vertical and it has a significant palm swell which fills the hand. The waffle-pattern cross hatching on the grip and fore-end gives a secure purchase, and the fore-end itself is fairly broad with a flat bottom. This stock design allows the rifle to be shot well from both supported and unsupported positions in the field.

Seekins makes the PH2 in two action sizes, short .308 length and .30/06 long action length. Seekins opted to run the 6.5 PRC in the short action. For some rifles that presents an issue because the shooter is limited in terms of the cartridge overall length that will fit in the magazine, but Glen designed a nice carbon fiber magazine that holds three rounds of 6.5 PRC and can accommodate a 3.14-inch cartridge overall length (COAL). (A standard .308-sized AICS magazine is limited to a 2.96-inch COAL.) This gives the shooter some leeway with handloads and factory ammo running longer, heavier bullets.

Two of the best 6.5mm hunting bullets that pair well with the 6.5 PRC are Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X and the Berger 156-grain EOL Elite Hunter. They are both extremely accurate, have great terminal ballistics, and hit harder than .300 Win. Mag. at 500 yards and beyond. I’ve shot more game over the last few years with the 143-grain ELD-X than any other bullet and have had nothing but excellent results.

Other nice features on the PH2 include the attractive spiral fluting on the barrel, a 20 MOA Picatinny rail that’s secured with five 8-32 fasteners, a 5/8-24 threaded muzzle, and a Timney trigger set to 2.5 pounds.

Ruger American in .30/06

This budget hunting rifle is another great option for elk. The Ruger American might not have much in the way of visual frills, but under the hood it features a surprising number of cool innovations.

One of the more notable is the dual-cocking cams on the bolt, which is one of the reasons the 3-lug action runs so smoothly. The two cams distribute the effort of the 70-degree bolt lift making for a smoother ride. The American’s full-diameter bolt body also helps in this effort. The integral bedding block is another clever feature that creates a solid support for the action and contributes to the American’s fine accuracy.

The trigger is user adjustable and can be set to break at about 3 to 5 pounds. The tang safety is easy to manipulate and slides between “fire” and “safe” in a positive fashion. It comes with a Picatinny rail that runs the length of the action making the mounting of an optic a simple affair. Unscoped the rifle weighs about 6.2 pounds, plenty light for rigorous hunts.

In light of its patriotic name, you couldn’t go wrong getting it chambered in the most American of cartridges, the .30/06. I’ve used the .30/06 on a number of elk and moose hunts over the years and it is an excellent pick for big game, especially when you go with heavier bullet weights. The 180-grain Accubond is a perfect choice, but even something lighter like the 165-grain Federal Fusion will get the job done. 

Tikka T3x Lite Roughtech in .270 Win.

It doesn’t take much for a hunter to fall under the sway of Tikka rifles. These Finnish bolt actions have a well-earned reputation for their accuracy, reliability, and smart ergonomics. And among the best elk rifles they stand out for their budget-friendly price.

Tikka has at least 17 different models in their T3x line, several of which would make a fine elk rifle. I’ve shot the T3x Lite Roughtech and can attest to its sterling qualities, though you can’t go wrong with any of the T3x rifles in Tikka’s lineup.

The three-lug action on the T3x series is smooth and easy to run. Cartridges feed flawlessly from the T3x’s excellent detachable box magazine. The magazine is rugged, easy to load, and can be inserted and removed without hassle even when wearing gloves.

In .270 Winchester, the Roughtech can be had in two barrel lengths—20 and 22.4 inches. The published weights are 6.6 and 6.8 pounds respectively. Unless you’re hunting in a lot of dense timber, I’d opt for the 22.4-inch version. A caveat is if you hunt with a suppressor, then the 20-inch model will handle better. The barrels are threaded 5/8-24, so they will accommodate most muzzle devices. The T3x Lite Roughtech ships with a radial muzzle brake.

Other nice touches on the Roughtech include a modular grip system to customize the grip profile and a receiver drilled with extra holes to mount a Picatinny rail even more securely.

Among old-school hunters, the .270 Win. is considered light as an elk cartridge, but with the broad selection of premium hunting bullets available, it is more than up to the task. Nosler’s 150-grain Accubond Long Range, and Barnes’ 140-grain TSX BT are both excellent options.

Proof Research Elevation in 7mm Rem. Mag.

Proof Research

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In addition to making the world’s best carbon-fiber barrels, Proof Research also cranks out outstanding complete rifles. The attention to detail and fit-and-finish of both their barrels and rifles has no equal among factory produced firearms.

Located in northwest Montana, it’s little surprise that Proof has a good feel for what constitutes a great elk hunting rifle, and they have several options worth considering, depending on your budget.

The most attainable is the Proof Elevation, which has a feature-set that justifies the three-grand-and-change price. It’s built on a Zermatt Arms Origin action, which is one of the best-made bolt-actions out there. The manufacturing tolerances on Zermatt’s products are ultra precise, to the point where companies doing builds on their actions don’t even need to do QC checks on the dimensions. When mated with Proof’s carbon-fiber barrel and placed in Proof’s carbon-fiber stock, you end up with a tight, stiff, and reliable hunting rig that stacks bullets on top of each other.

In 7mm Rem. Mag., the Elevation comes with a 24-inch barrel with a 1:8.4 twist and 5/8-24 threaded muzzle, and weighs about 6.5 pounds without a scope. It has a hinged-floorplate magazine, rocks dual swivel studs on the fore-end to mount a bipod, has a TriggerTech trigger, and is available in a couple different color options.

The 7mm Rem. Mag. has a long history of success on elk and other big game, and is one of the consummate western hunting cartridges thanks to its flat-shooting trajectory and fabulous terminal ballistics. I’ve used 140-grain bullets on elk in the past with good success, but with the Proof’s faster twist rate (the SAMMI standard is 1:9.25) you can look at some of the heavier .284-inch bullets too. Hornady’s 162- and 175-grain ELD-X bullets will have no trouble stabilizing with the 1:8.4 twist and will knock the tar out of any elk you hit in the vitals.

Winchester Model 70 Extreme Hunter in .300 Win. Mag.

Winchester Guns

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For the traditionalist, this is one of the best elk rifle and cartridge combinations available. Today’s Model 70s are built to a level of quality better than anything Winchester has done in decades and are worthy heirs to the M70’s legend.

While you can still get a Model 70 in walnut with blued steel, the Extreme Hunter is better suited to hard use and serious hunting. It comes with a Cerakoted finish on the barrel and action and has a rugged Bell & Carlson synthetic stock done up in True Timber Strata camo.

This model includes a radial muzzle brake and—chambered in .300 Win. Mag.—has a 26-inch barrel with light fluting in a sporter contour.

The rifle has a hinged magazine floorplate and holds three rounds of the venerable .300 Win. It includes Winchester’s consistent and crisp MOA trigger, a three-position safety located on the bolt shroud, controlled-round feed and extraction, and a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad.

Among all the cartridges included in this story, the .300 Win. Mag. is the standard by which all other elk rifle rounds are judged. The .300 Win. Mag. has continued to evolve over the years—mostly due to requests from the military to squeeze more performance from it as a sniper round—and these changes have kept the cartridge as accurate and deadly as anything out there.

The author used a .30/06 to take down this bull elk in the Canadian Rockies. John B. Snow

FAQs

Q: How much should an elk rifle weigh?

The sweet spot for an elk rifle is somewhere between six and eight pounds without a scope. You can go a bit lighter if you are doing a dedicated backcountry hunt on foot with lots of vertical, but just know that ultralight rifles in hard-kicking calibers don’t shoot as well as a more balanced rig. You can go a bit heavier than 8 pounds if you like, but that’s a pretty good cap as the majority of elk hunts involve climbing and rough terrain, and keeping your rifle’s weight to reasonable limit will preserve your legs and lungs.

Q: Is the 6.5 Creedmoor too small for elk?

This is one of the most contentious questions among hunters. The answer is, no, the 6.5 Creedmoor is not too small for elk. I’ve shot several bulls with the 6.5 Creedmoor and know of dozens of others that have been taken cleanly with the cartridge. Its track record on big animals is too clear to ignore.

That said, there are plenty of folks who don’t believe it is up to snuff, and fortunately for them there are plenty of larger cartridges to choose from.

Q: Who makes the most reliable rifle for backcountry elk hunting?

I wouldn’t hesitate to bring any of the elk rifles listed here on a backcountry hunt. You certainly get more gun with more money, but in terms of basic reliability, all these rifles are good choices. For the bargain-price rifle, I’m fond of the Mossberg Patriot. In the mid-range prices, the Weatherby Vanguard and Tikka T3x are two rifles I have a lot of confidence in. At the upper end of the price scale, the Nosler 21 and Proof Research Elevation are tough to beat.

Final Thoughts

What qualifies as a great elk rifle has shifted over the years. Advances in bullet technology, cartridge design, rifle accuracy, and shooting skills have broadened the spectrum. Fifty or 60 years ago we compensated for lousy bullets, mediocre rifle performance, and general lack of shooting savvy by insisting that best elk hunting rifles should be fire-spewing magnums, .30-caliber and up. Anything less would be foolhardy. We now know better—at least most of us do. The classic boomers still bring home the venison, but we live in an era where plenty of rifles, and cartridges, are legitimate tools for hunting elk.