Elk, particularly mature bulls, can be tough customers. For those of us who don’t live with elk in our backyard, elk hunting requires a big investment of money, time and emotional treasure, so I make no apology for choosing large and powerful cartridges for elk hunting.
To head off the inevitable arguments on that front I offer this. Of course it’s about shot placement. Nobody has ever suggested you can get sloppy about your shooting just because you have a more powerful cartridge. But if you think that you can put the bullet exactly right every single time, my guess is you have not hunted elk much. Things go wrong and you can’t predict when. A little insurance is a good thing. If it prevents even one wounding loss, isn’t it worth it?
Also, a powerful cartridge gives you more options on which shots you can take. Sure, a .270 Winchester will kill an elk with a perfect broadside shot. But if you have a quartering shot a .338 Winchester will penetrate a lot deeper and break more bones.
Recoil? Come on; Jessica Brooks from Barnes Bullets is a little bit of a thing and her favorite rifle is a .416 Remington. Her mom Coni is even smaller and she hunts with a .338 Winchester. It’s about putting in the time to learn how to handle the rifle, which you should be doing anyway. Barring any medical reasons, anybody healthy enough to hunt elk can learn to shoot well with at least one of these cartridges.
Read Next: The 20 Best Elk Hunting Rifles Ever Made
The Top 10 Cartridges for Hunting Elk
Why risk your elk hunt to an inferior cartridge? It simply makes no sense. There are a lot of excellent elk cartridges out there and opinions vary. Here are my top 10 picks in no particular order.
If a bunch of hard core, experienced gun guys sat down to develop the ultimate elk cartridge, this is where they would end up. A 225-grain premium bullet at 2,800 fps is perfect elk medicine.
.338 Remington Ultra Magnum
This cartridge is the unsung hero of the Ultra Mag family. It is a bit shorter than the others due to technical difficulties in engineering the cartridge, so it’s a misfit in the family, but the performance is outstanding. I have owned or tested half a dozen rifles in this cartridge and they have all been extremely accurate. With a 250-grain bullet at 2,860 fps it hits hard.
I was on an elk hunt on the edge of Yellowstone Park when a hunter was pounding a big bull over and over with a 7mm as it ran for the safety of the park border. Another guy jumped in with a .338 RUM and at his shot the bull dropped and plowed snow.
This classic cartridge is still the king of the 30-caliber magnums. No telling how many elk have been taken with it, but I am sure the number is staggering. With a 180-grain bullet the MV is 2,960 fps. This accurate cartridge can reach across the canyon if needed and recoil in a well-designed rifle is very manageable
There was a time in my youth when it seemed like every big game hunter in a wild and exotic place was using this cartridge. How do I know? I read about it in the pages of Outdoor Life. This used to be the king of the 30-calibers and it’s still a great choice. A 180-grain exits at 3,100 fps.
.300 Remington Ultra Mag
This is a great elk cartridge. It hits hard and shoots flat. I once used it to stop a wounded Colorado bull so far away it might have been in Utah. I was shooting Barnes VOR-TX ammo with a 180-grain TTSX bullet at 3,280 fps. So far on elk with that load, I am two shots for two dead bulls.
I am a big fan of 35-caliber cartridges. This is one of the best. It can easily reach out to 300 yards if needed, so stash those notions it’s a short range cartridge. Hornady has a 200-grain bullet at 2,910 fps. If you zero for 200 yards, it’s only 8.6 inches low at 300. That’s about the same trajectory as the super long range 6.5 Creedmoor, except the Whelen hits a lot harder. If you are recoil shy, this might be your elk cartridge.
This was one of Elmer Keith’s favorite elk cartridges. We often think of the .375 H&H as a dangerous game cartridge, but it is an outstanding all around choice. I have used it on game from impala to hippos without disappointment. With a 270-grain bullet at 2,700 fps recoil is manageable, most guns are incredibly accurate and it can reach out for the long shots. Many will argue it’s too big for elk, but I don’t believe in that concept. Dead is dead.
This is a modern day version of the .375 H&H. It fits in standard size rifle actions and achieves the same ballistics from a shorter barrel. I recently built a rifle on a Winchester Model 70 action in this cartridge with the intention of using it for elk, moose, bears and in Africa. This is as versatile as it gets. For elk, consider the Hornady Superformance load. A 250-grain GMX bullet exits the rifle at 2,900 fps and 4,668 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. With a 200 yard zero it only drops 7.3 inches at 300 yards. The elk you hit will drop about four feet, straight down.
Had Norma been able to persuade any of the larger American firearms manufacturers to make rifles in the .358 Norma back in 1959, the cartridge would probably have given the .338 Winchester a serious run for its money. This cartridge can easily drive a 200-grain bullet over 3,000 fps.
Rifles are a bit hard to find, but worth the trouble. E.R. Shaw built mine.
Wildcatting is the creation of non-factory cartridges. Those gun guys who thought they had a better idea are responsible for many of our favorite cartridges after they got picked up by the gun companies. I necked the .300 Ultra Mag up to 35-caliber some years back to make this wildcat cartridge. It pushes a 225-grain Barnes Triple-Shock bullet to 3,200 fps. Mark Bansner built my rifle and I had him keep it light just for elk hunting. With a well-designed stock the recoil is stout, but manageable.
I am still waiting for Remington to make an honest cartridge out of it. ––BT
Our Favorite Rifles for Elk Hunting
In 1964 I set out to buy my first Western big-game rifle. I was about to graduate from forestry college, and my father-in-law instructed me to go to a small sporting-goods store in Vernal, Utah, and pick out any gun I wanted. It would be my graduation gift.
My heart was set on a Winchester Model 70 in .270 caliber. Having been a big Jack O’Connor fan as long as I could remember, that Winchester was the only gun I’d consider. I was disappointed to learn that they had no .270s in the pre-’64-version Model 70, though there was a .30/06 and some brand-new Model 70s in .270 caliber. The clerk suggested I purchase the .30/06, since the newer rifles hadn’t been really tested thoroughly. I took his advice and bought the rifle; I never regretted it. That gun, which I named Bertha, accounted for more than 100 head of big game, including 19 elk.
Over the years I’ve heard my share of discussions regarding elk rifles. In fact, the most common question I get from readers is my opinion on the best rifle for their first elk hunt. Usually, my response is the same. I recommend that the hunter use whatever rifle he’s accustomed to for whitetails at home, though there are some exceptions. Then too, many first-time elk hunters live in states that allow only shotguns or muzzleloaders for deer. Those folks must start from scratch when considering an elk rifle.
Does the Perfect Gun for Hunting Elk Exist?
Is there truly a perfect gun for elk? Let’s put it this way: Any centerfire caliber will put down an elk if the animal is hit in the right place. But we’re talking optimum here: the best of the best, the mother of all elk rifles. How about it? An elk is a big animal; an average mature bull weighs in at around 700 pounds. You’ve probably heard that elk are tenacious, which means they’re capable of taking a hard hit and staying on their feet. Measuring elk against most other big-game animals, I’d say that’s true, but an elk shot in the vitals will not make it very far, if anywhere. An animal hit through the lungs or heart may travel 100 yards at best. The key, therefore, is to use a firearm that will place the bullet precisely where it needs to go. That’s a no-brainer, but unfortunately, hunting poses some profound complications.
When you hunt, for example, you might have only a second or two to make a shot. To make matters worse, the target might be moving, partially screened by foliage, standing at an awkward angle or farther away than you’re used to shooting. Your ability to make a precise shot can be foiled by any of those factors, or perhaps simply because you are excited or out of breath. In any of those scenarios, you’ll be in a dilemma if the bullet doesn’t achieve its goal. And therein lies a problem: Your bullet has penetrated a poor area–will it be able to get in and finish the job?
To make the shot accurate in the first place, you must have a gun that performs for you. For that to happen, you must be comfortable shooting your firearm and have confidence that you can hit what you’re aiming at. That’s why I was so fond of my .30/06. It was my buddy; I loved the way it felt, the way it looked, the way it shot. It was like my right arm, and if I missed what I was shooting at I knew it was entirely my fault, and not my rifle’s. And it flat-out killed elk.
Jack Atcheson Sr., one of the first worldwide hunting consultants and a frequent hunting companion of Jack O’Connor, my colleague Jim Carmichel and myself, has hunted extensively around the globe. Jack’s gun of choice is a .338 Win. Mag., which he uses for everything from pronghorn antelope on the Montana prairie to Cape buffalo in Africa. This gun, like Bertha, looks as if it’s been through both World Wars and every conflict since, but he wouldn’t think of using anything else. He’s killed dozens of elk with it and makes no bones about it being the perfect elk rifle. And for him, it most certainly is.
On the other hand, I know a hunter who uses a .243 for elk. Too light? I believe so, and I’d never recommend it. But I know the hunter well; he never takes a shot unless it’s perfect, and has turned down plenty of animals because conditions were wrong. If I were pinned down and asked my opinion on the minimum caliber for elk, I’d have to say the .270 Win., but only with a 150-grain bullet and only if the shot provides unobstructed access to a vital area. I’ve seen elk struck in the heavy shoulder bone by lighter bullets from a .270 and survive because the projectiles failed to penetrate. My favorite bullets over the years include the Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Silvertip, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Nosler Partition. Of all these bullets, I’ve taken more than half my elk with the Core-Lokt.
Top Elk Hunting Rifles
When elk hunting, you may need to make a long shot delivered with exacting accuracy. This requirement rules out some calibers that are inherently inferior when reaching out over a distance. The eminently popular .30/30 fits that category, as does the .35 Rem., and other short-range cartridges.
For years I’d been intrigued by the 7mm Rem. Mag. I acquired one, in a Browning A-bolt, a dozen years ago and took about 10 elk with it. Then I started using other calibers, and guns with actions different from the bolt, my hands-down favorite. As I’ve indicated, any rifle from a .270 on up will nicely dispatch an elk. But is there one that stands above all others? I believe the perfect elk rifle should be light enough to be carried comfortably over rough terrain and for long hours. A firearm that weighs 7 to 8 pounds when scoped and loaded is my preference. Though it might seem that a 10-pound rifle isn’t too heavy at the outset, those extra 2 pounds will feel more like 12 after a few hours of hiking.
A scope is an absolute must. You may need to drill a bullet through small holes in the timber, or make a precision shot at 300 yards. Bertha was equipped with a 4X power scope, and that’s still my favorite today, though I’ve used a number of variable scopes, especially the 3-9X power. I like a dot reticle or simple crosshairs. I don’t like scopes that have all sorts of range-estimation scales or high-tech compensators. Most of the time when I’m pulling up on an elk I don’t have time to think about the bells and whistles in the scope. I know what my gun is sighted at, I make a quick yardage estimate and I hold the crosshairs accordingly.
For years I fought the trend toward synthetic stocks. Being a traditionalist, I figured I’d never abandon the wooden stocks that I grew up with. Attitudes change with time, however, and now I prefer a synthetic stock. It’s lighter than wood, it’s more accurate because it isn’t affected by weather, and heaven help me, I find it attractive.
The action is a major consideration. For me, bolt action wins hands-down. It’s strong, simple, easily cleaned, extremely accurate, and can be quickly extracted from the firearm when you’re traveling, instantly proving to an airline clerk that the gun is inoperable. Bolt-actions have been the choice of most serious Western big-game hunters as long as I can remember, with Winchester Model 70s and Remington Model 700s leading the pack by a long way. I have no issue with pumps or carbines, but I do have a problem with semi-autos. I’ve seen many jam, especially in cold weather. I can recall at least six instances where a temporarily incapacitated semi-auto has cost a hunter an elk.
But to answer the most-asked question–what’s my choice for caliber? I’ve shot a bunch of elk with different calibers, but I have to confess that I’m currently enamored of the new .300 Rem. Short Action Ultra Mag. I have it chambered in my Remington Model 7, and the caliber has impressed me to the point that I keep grabbing the M-7 from the gun case when I go hunting. So far that rifle has accounted for two moose, three bears, a half-dozen deer and, finally, after a lifetime of hunting, it claimed the first elk I’d ever taken with any Remington. I took the bull last year, and he went down so hard I couldn’t believe it. So did the moose and bears. The short-action is light enough that it allows easier mobility in rugged terrain and dense vegetation, and its short barrel makes it easy to maneuver in brush.
The .300 Win. Mag. has certainly proven itself in the elk woods over the years, and the new Remington .300 Ultra Mag. is drawing rave reviews, but the stubby short-action cartridge deserves serious consideration. I intend to keep the rifle where I can quickly reach it for a bunch more elk hunts. But I’ll always keep an open mind for whatever else comes down the pike. Perfection, like a trophy, is in the eye of the beholder. ––JZ