Elk Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.30-06 Spfd.
Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

Elk hunting cartridges is a controversial subject that I should probably avoid like the plague. Everyone seems to have an opinion and most of them are contradictory. For a writer, it is likely to be a lose/lose situation. However, I will give it a shot (so to speak).

Just how big is an elk? Of course, individual animals vary in weight, but elk are Class 3 class game. According to the information compiled by Edward A. Matunas, an average mature male Rocky Mountain elk weighs about 500 pounds. A very large male might weigh 800 pounds and a very large female about 600 pounds. In extreme cases elk can weigh as much as 1100 pounds.

The Roosevelt elk of the Pacific Northwest's rain forests are larger. An average male probably weighs about 700 pounds on the hoof and an extreme example might scale 1200 pounds. For the purposes of this article I am assuming an animal weighing about 600 pounds.

A generality is that around 1200 ft. lbs. of energy on target is necessary for humane elk kills. Another is that the rifle caliber should be .270 or greater. I think that bullet placement is much more important than kinetic energy or bullet diameter, but this can serve as a rough guide to caliber and the maximum range at which a given load should be used.

Please bear in mind that in all cases and for all calibers I am assuming that the hunter uses a bullet of adequate weight, sectional density, and expansion characteristics for the cartridge recommended and gets it into a vital spot (usually the heart/lung area) of the elk. It doesn't have to be a perfect shot that slips between two ribs and blows up the heart, but I am assuming a good shot with an adequate bullet.

Relatively heavy for caliber bullets are usually best for Class 3 game. Examples of adequate bullet weights would be 140-150 grains (SD .261-.279) in .270 caliber, 150-162 grains (SD .266-.287) in 7mm, 165-180 grains (SD .248-.271) in .30 caliber, 174-180 grains (SD .255-.266) in .303 caliber, 180-200 grains (SD .247-.274) in 8mm, 200-225 grains (SD .250-.281) in .338 caliber, 220-250 grains (SD .245-.279) in .35 caliber, 250-286 grains (SD .267-.305) in 9.3mm, 265-300 grains (SD .205-.232) in .444 caliber and 325-400 grains (SD .221-.272) in .45 caliber.

Examples of recommended bullets include the various Barnes TSX; Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Tip; Hornady FTX, Interlock and InterBond; Nosler Partition and AccuBond; Remington Core-Lokt and Core-Lokt Ultra; Sierra GameKing; Speer Hot-Cor and Grand Slam; Swift A-Frame and Scirocco II; Winchester AccuBond CT.

One of the real problems with cartridge recommendations is the vitality and state of mind of the individual animal when shot. Most hunters have noticed how relatively easy it is to kill a relaxed animal that is just standing around grazing and how difficult it can be to stop a frightened animal fleeing for its life. These are variables that are hard to account for in any list. For the record, all of the cartridge suggestions below assume a reasonably undisturbed animal, not one high on adrenalin.

It would be too cumbersome to list every adequate elk cartridge and I would inadvertently leave out someone's favorite. The cartridges mentioned here are just examples of typical satisfactory elk cartridges when used with adequate bullets. If a cartridge is not listed it does not mean it is no good. Look for a cartridge with similar ballistics. If you find one, then the cartridge in question is also probably adequate.

I think it might be wise to divide elk cartridges into three categories as follows:

1. Cartridges primarily intended for shooting deer and black bear (Class 2 class game) at woods ranges that are also adequate for elk at relatively short range (at least 100 yards). These cartridges are at the low end of the power scale as elk cartridges, due to their limited down range energy. Their advantage is that most hunters can shoot them more accurately than the more powerful elk cartridges. Included in this group are the 7x57mm, .30-30 Winchester, .32 Winchester Special, .35 Remington, .375 Winchester, .45-70 and similar cartridges.

2. Combination Class 2/Class 3 game cartridges that are more powerful than strictly necessary for deer size game. These are more powerful than the cartridges in the first category. Most are excellent all-around cartridges and adequate for shooting elk at medium range (at least 250 yards). Many hunters find the muzzle blast and recoil of these cartridges intimidating, particularly when shooting the heavier weight bullets properly used for elk, but few will admit it. This category includes such stalwarts as the .270 Winchester, the .270 Magnums, 7x64mm Brenneke, .280 Remington, the 7mm Magnums, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .303 British and 8x57JS.

3. Ideal elk cartridges. These are good cartridges to consider if you are buying a rifle specifically for elk hunting and don't mind substantial recoil and muzzle blast. Their principle drawback is that most shooters do mind the recoil and muzzle blast, particularly of the magnums, and simply cannot do their best shooting with these cartridges. For long range elk shooting (out to 300 yards) the list is basically limited to cartridges such as the .300 Magnums, 8mm Magnums and .338 Magnums. At short to medium range, the list expands to include medium and big bore cartridges such as the .338 Marlin Express, .338 Federal, .338-06 A-Square, .348 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x74R, Heavy .38-55 (+P), .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin and .45-70 +P.

Bullet placement is the most important factor in killing power. (Memorize that sentence!) I suspect that is why we hear such divergent views about many of the cartridges commonly used for elk hunting. The .270 Winchester would be a good example of this. Some hunters report that the .270 is a nearly ideal elk cartridge. Others consider it adequate, but not ideal. Still others consider the .270 worthless for elk hunting and recommend nothing less than a .300 Magnum as the absolute minimum elk cartridge.

The truth is that most hunters simply have not shot enough elk, or observed enough elk killed, to be able to draw valid conclusions from their personal experience. It is very instructive to hang around the check out station for a controlled hunt; I have done this. There you can benefit from the experiences of lots of successful (and some not so successful) hunters.

Based on a fair amount of research, I regard the .270 as an adequate elk cartridge. If a hunter puts a decent 140-150 grain .277" bullet into a vital spot, the result is a dead elk. However, the .270 will not bowl over even a relaxed elk. Neither, for that matter, will most other calibers. An elk is a big animal!

A lot of hunters are not particularly good shots and a great many shooters flinch regularly with high intensity calibers like the .270 Winchester. Consequently, they think they placed the shot well, when actually they only wounded the animal. A .270 bullet will not bag an elk if it does not hit in an immediately vital spot. The elk may die later, but by that time it will probably be far away. These hunters are very apt to blame the rifle for their bad shooting.

The result is that guys who can shoot and who put their first bullet into an elk's vitals think the .270 is a perfectly adequate elk cartridge; those who can't and don't think it is lousy. They often conclude that nothing less than a .338 Magnum will stop an elk.

Of course, if you put a bullet in the paunch, a .338 Winchester Magnum probably does have a better chance of slowing down an elk than a .270, but you are not supposed to gut shoot the animal in the first place! Even with a .338, a paunch hit can not be relied on to anchor an elk.

Most of the guys who can't shoot don't recover the animals they wound, but some do. It makes me wonder when a guy at a check out station tells me how lousy the .270 (or whatever) is at killing elk and that next year he is going to replace his wimpy .270 with a .300 Magnum. Then I examine his trophy and find a .270 bullet hole in the muscle of the neck that missed the vertebrae, a .270 bullet in the guts, a third .270 in a ham and finally one .300 Magnum bullet in the lungs--put there by his hunting partner. I am no forensic wizard, but I can pretty much figure out what happened.

However, this guy is going to tell 50 people that the .270 is no good for elk. I mean that literally, as market research has shown that the typical bum story is broadcast to about 50 people by word of mouth. If he puts his version of the story on some Internet forum it may reach thousands, which is why I totally ignore Internet forums, bulletin boards and the like.

All of this makes it difficult and even risky to suggest calibers for specific purposes. I have tried to be reasonably conservative, but not excessivley so, in my recommendations.

As you can see from Category 2 above, I consider the popular all-around cartridges like the .270 and .30-06 adequate, but maybe not ideal, for shooting elk. Elk are Class 3 animals and medium bore calibers are probably the best choices for a dedicated elk rifle, but only if the hunter can shoot them well.

Choose a cartridge more powerful than a .338 Magnum and you are getting into the over-gunned area. A .375, .416, or .458 magnum will certainly kill elk reliably, if you get the bullet into the right place, but they are unnecessary. The weight of such guns, plus their outsized recoil, is a handicap to most hunters. In fact, everyone can shoot more accurately with a less powerful rifle, so why would anyone handicap themselves by using a Big Bertha caliber when it is neither necessary nor desirable?

I would much rather see an elk hunter carrying a .270 that he can shoot well, instead of a .300 Magnum that causes him to flinch. Elk are big, vital animals, but they are not indestructible. Use a reasonably adequate caliber within its energy and trajectory limits, an appropriate bullet and most of all get that bullet into a vital spot!

Back to Rifle Information

Copyright 2006, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.