The Great Elk Cartridge Debate: Much Ado about Not Very Much

By Todd E. Hale, J.D.

The question of which rifle cartridge is the best for hunting Rocky Mountain elk has long been debated. (For a good analysis, see Chuck Hawks' article Elk Cartridges on the Rifle Information-Game Animals and Recommended Rifle Cartridges index page.) Still, the debate continues on many hunting forums and message boards. Everyone around the fire in an elk camp has his or her personal opinion, often based on little more than the rifle they happen to have inherited or whether they hit or missed, killed or wounded, the last time they shot at an elk.

Magnum advocates tout their favorite cartridge's greater velocity and energy, and their boasts often woo regular caliber shooters into thinking elk require a magnum rifle. However, putting aside personal favorites and anecdotes, an objective review of four of the most popular modern elk cartridges shows that there is not much meaningful difference in ballistic performance under typical hunting circumstances. This article therefore examines some of the most important hunting features of the four elk cartridges I most often see in camp and in the field: the .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, .30-06 Springfield and .300 Winchester Magnum.

Based on my own experience in Arizona, as well as the knowledge of many other regular elk hunters, most elk are taken at not more than 200 yards and often much closer. Shots in the 75 to 150 yard range are probably the most common. Of course, there are exceptional long shots, but they are just that, exceptions, and ill advised for most shooters.

At 300 yards, which exceeds the maximum point blank range (MPBR) of every round considered here, the magnums have a modest advantage in kinetic energy and trajectory. However, assuming a well-placed bullet, it is largely immaterial.

The list below summarizes several salient cartridge performance features. These include (in order) 100 yard velocity (V), 100 yard energy (E), bullet sectional density (SD), approximate maximum point blank range (+/- 3 inches deviation from the line of a typical telescopic sight) and Hornady 100 yard H.I.T.S. (killing power) calculation.

Most experts regard 1200 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy at impact entirely adequate for killing elk. Sectional density, as regular readers of Guns and Shooting Online know, is an important factor in hunting bullet penetration. It is wise not to shoot beyond the MPBR of your cartridge and load, so MPBR should determine your maximum range. (Assuming you are a good enough shot to take full advantage of the MPBR.) H.I.T.S. takes into account bullet weight, caliber and terminal velocity at 100 yards to yield a numerical score.

For ease of comparison and reference, this list uses published ballistic data for standard velocity Hornady and Remington factory ammunition in a bullet weight and type that is appropriate for elk. Specifically, 150 grain for the .270, 162 grain for the 7mm Magnum and 180 grain for both of the .30 calibers.

  • .270 Winchester/150 grain: V 2642 fps, E 2324 ft. lb., SD .279, MPBR 282 yards, HITS 1106
  • 7mm Rem. Mag./162 grain: V 2757 fps, E 2734 ft. lb., SD .287, MPBR 292 yards, HITS 1282
  • .30-06 Springfield/180 grain: V 2649 fps, E 2436 ft. lb., SD .271, MPBR 263 yards, HITS 1204
  • .300 Win. Mag./180 grain: V 2739 fps, E 2998 ft. lb., SD .271, MPBR 290 yards, HITS 1336

Elk fall within Hornady's Large Game category (also referred to as Class 3 game), which optimally requires a H.I.T.S. score between 901 and 1500. (For a full discussion of the H.I.T.S. system, see Hornady H.I.T.S for Rifle Cartridges on the Tables, Charts and Lists index page.) As their H.I.T.S. scores show, each cartridge falls squarely within the Large Game category and is capable of taking elk with a properly placed shot.

Two points are worth noting. First, even at 300 yards the cartridges exhibit little meaningful difference in trajectory. Assuming the shooter is familiar with his rifle's trajectory, the difference in bullet drop should not be critical on an elk-sized animal. While the magnum cartridges deliver greater kinetic energy at longer distances, both the .270 and the .30-06 deliver adequate energy with a well-placed shot, even at long range. More importantly, the magnums greater energy will NOT humanely kill or anchor an elk with a paunch or a flank shot, meaning that the ability to shoot the magnums with equal precision, despite their greater recoil, is paramount to benefitting from their greater potential.

Second, the Hornady H.I.T.S. ratings for the .270 reinforces the importance of bullet sectional density and using relatively heavy for caliber bullets, rather than chasing higher muzzle velocity. For comparison, despite having about a 200 fps velocity advantage, the popular 130 grain .270 load receives a 889 H.I.T.S. score, placing it in Hornady's 501-900 point medium game range. This illustrates the 150 grain bullet's greater sectional density translates into increased game killing power, even given its lower velocity. It shows, despite many elk having been killed by 130 grain .270 bullets, a 150 grain bullet is a more responsible choice.

The same is true when comparing 150 grain (SD .226) and 165 grain (SD .248) .30 caliber bullets, versus a 180 grain (SD .271) bullet. Overall, sectional density and kinetic energy downrange are usually more important than the increase in velocity delivered by lighter for caliber bullets.

One conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers is all four of these cartridges are suitable for hunting elk. This is confirmed by the decades of experience amassed by these cartridges in the field. Indeed, for most hunting situations, there is no compelling need to move up to one of the belted magnums, especially if a hunter can shoot more accurately and consistently with a cartridge in the .270 and .30-06 class.

Another conclusion is that, as a group, hunters probably spend too much time worrying about the best caliber. As with most things in life, there are costs associated with benefits. For instance, while a .300 Magnum rifle shoots flatter and hits harder than a .30-06, it also is likely to weigh more (which can be an important factor slogging up mountains at altitude) and it surely has much greater muzzle blast and recoil, both of which undermine accuracy.

Hunters have an abundance of sound options for elk hunting, in both short and long action cartridges. As long as one understands sectional density, trajectory, kinetic energy and the other factors that determine whether a given cartridge or load is appropriate, it should not be difficult to pick an adequate elk cartridge.

Probably the best advice is to spend less time thinking about which cartridge to shoot and more time at the range practicing 75 to 150 yard shots from different field positions. It is only realistic practice that can lead to a truly perfect elk cartridge; i.e., an adequate cartridge and load shot accurately to achieve a clean, one shot kill.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by Todd E. Hale and/or All rights reserved.