The bull elk is North America’s toughest hooved big-game animal. And the bigger they get, the tougher they become. Mature bulls have heavy bones, dense muscle, and loads of resilience from years of shrugging off battle wounds. Dropping a bull cleanly takes a good cartridge. Killing a big bull at a steep quartering angle takes a very good cartridge, topped with a tough, deep-penetrating bullet.
In researching this story, I determined the muzzle energy data by choosing the most useful elk bullet weight for each specific cartridge, and then plugging it into JBMballistics.com along with an average of common factory-ammo muzzle velocities with that bullet weight. This list of the best cartridges for elk hunting starts with the welterweights and moves up to the heavy hitters.
6.5 Creedmoor.270 Winchester.280 Ackley Improved7mm Remington Magnun28 Nosler.30/06 Springfield.300 WSM.300 Winchester Magnun.300 Weatherby Magnum30 Nosler.338 RCM.338 Winchester Magnum
When you find a herd of elk, you’re going to want a cartridge that can get the job done reliably. John Hafner
What You Want in an Elk Cartridge
Every good elk cartridge has three primary characteristics: authority, reach, and good bullets. Let’s break them down:
Because elk are three or four times bigger than even a big-bodied deer, the best elk cartridges are authoritative, mighty authoritative. What does this mean? In essence, good elk cartridges drive tough, heavy bullets of healthy diameter, and drive ’em fast. Big cartridges provide forgiving margins of error. That’s why I like 7mm and .30-caliber magnums with tough, heavy bullets, and why I consider an elk hunter toting a .338 magnum a wise man.
The author took this bull elk on public land. It officially gross-scored 402 inches B&C. Joseph von Benedikt
Distance capability—reach—is all about the sister virtues of speed and aerodynamics. A cartridge that starts a slippery bullet with plenty of speed provides flat trajectories and maximum wind-bucking ability. Just as importantly, it delivers plenty of punch on far-distant impacts. And yes, shots on elk can be far. Don’t cripple yourself with a moderate-velocity cartridge that doesn’t handle heavy, high-ballistic-coefficient projectiles well.
Want the best cartridge for elk hunting? Look to something that fires a 7mm or bigger heavy-for-caliber projectile at around 3,000 fps. Best bullets are the 7mm 155- to 175-grainers, and the .30-caliber 180- to 200-grainers. Thanks to current long-range shooting trends, hunters have more and better options than ever.
Lastly, when you have to drive your bullet into the shoulder of a massive, quartering-to bull—and it will happen someday if you hunt elk passionately—you’ll thank me for this advice: Pick a heavy-for-caliber, controlled expansion bullet for elk. It will break heavy bone, penetrate deep and straight, and kill quickly and cleanly.
The 6.5 Creedmoor is no dragon slayer. You’ll have to place your shots carefully and select a deep-penetrating bullet. So why is it included? It’s phenomenally accurate, pushes aerodynamic projectiles with high sectional densities at reasonable velocities that don’t tear bullets to shreds on impact, recoils little, and has proven more capable than it has any right to be. It’s the finest all-around cartridge available for youth, women, and new shooters. But don’t try to punch a raking shot through a bull’s hip—it doesn’t have the juice for that.
Great 6.5mm Elk Bullets
Bullet Weight: 140 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 2,750 fpsMuzzle Energy: 2,350 ft/lbs
With the right bullet, a .270 will put down any bull walking the earth today. Ammunition can be found at every small-town hardware store across America. Before the 6.5 Creedmoor was born, this was my favorite cartridge for any recoil-sensitive shooters. I grew up hunting with one stoked with 150-grain Partition handloads, and I never had a problem cleanly killing a bull.
Great .270 Elk Bullets:
Barnes 140-grain TSX BTNosler 160-grain PartitionSwift 150-grain A-Frame
Bullet Weight: 150 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 2,850 fpsMuzzle Energy: 2,705 ft/lbs
Loved by eccentric handloaders, this sleek hotrod generates 7mm magnum-like velocities out of an “improved” cartridge case; compared to its .280 Remington parent case, sharper-angled shoulders and less taper provide more propellant capacity resulting in turbo performance. Plus, widely available standard .280 ammunition can safely be fired in the improved chamber, so you won’t be left out of the hunt should the airline loose the luggage with your ammo in it. I’ve made my longest two kills on elk with the .280 AI—both one shot and done. It’s not my all-time favorite elk cartridge, but it’s a really, really close second.
Great .280 Elk Bullets:
Hornady 175-grain ELD-XBarnes 168-grain LRXNosler 160-grain AccuBond
Bullet Weight: 168 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 2,850 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,030 ft/lbs
It’s so common that it may seem a bit boring, but this is probably the most versatile elk cartridge available—so long as you choose the right bullet. Early on, the 7mm Rem. Mag. developed a reputation as a wounder because ammo companies and handloaders were stoking it with light, thin-jacketed projectiles meant for 7×57 Mauser speeds. At magnum velocities, the soft bullets tended to fragment and fail to penetrate adequately. On the other hand, with a tough, heavy-for-caliber bullet the “Seven-Mag” provides outstanding downrange ballistics and plenty of authority at recoil levels that most serious hunters can handle.
Great 7mm Elk Bullets:
Bullet Weight: 175 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 2,900 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,267 ft/lbs
Although it’s new on the block, this cartridge is the best-engineered hunting 7mm available. It offers shocking good performance in a beltless, standard-length case and is becoming the go-to, extreme-range hunting cartridge. Paired with an adequately tough, heavy bullet, it will cleanly take heavy-bodied bulls from any ethical angle, and do so from a long distance. Recoil is brisk, and barrel life will likely be short.
Great 28-Caliber Elk Bullets:
Barnes 168-grain LRXNosler 175-grain PartitionSwift 175-grain A-Frame
Bullet Weight: 175 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,150 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,855 ft/lbs
The ought six has probably killed more elk than all the other cartridges listed here combined. Not that it’s a better choice; it’s just extremely common, and yes, it’s pretty darned good at making meat. It’s superb on elk to 350 yards or a bit more in the hands of a very good rifleman. Beyond that distance, it doesn’t carry the steam of the faster cartridges listed here. When picking an elk bullet, shy away from light, fast projectiles and pick a heavy version. Just about any 180-grainer will do, since the .30-06 doesn’t produce bullet-destroying velocities.
Great .30/06 Elk Bullets:
Bullet Weight: 180 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 2,700 fpsMuzzle Energy: 2,913 ft/lbs
While I’m generally not a fan of short magnum cartridges, this one has proven itself a very capable elk cartridge and deserves a place on the list. Factory ammo performs neck and neck with the legendary .300 Win. Mag., and does so out of shorter barrels. However, it doesn’t handle projectiles heavier than 180 grains as well as other magnums. If you want fast .30-caliber authority coupled with compact-rifle ergonomics, this is your poison. Pair it with an accurate 180-grain bullet and hunt confidently, knowing that your rifle is adequate for any reasonable scenario.
Great .300 WSM Bullets:
Swift 180-grain Scirocco IINosler 180-grain AccuBondFederal 180-grain TBT
Bullet Weight: 180 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,000 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,596 ft/lbs
In purely practical terms, no elk cartridge equals the beautifully balanced .300 Win. Mag. It offers bull-thumping authority at a recoil level just at the cusp of what most serious shooters can handle. It’s extremely versatile with a broad selection of bullet weights, and with the right bullet is a great long-range performer. Handloaders easily equal or outdo factory-load performance—something that can’t be said of the other fast .30s listed here. I’ve taken as many bull elk with the .300 Win. Mag. as with all other cartridges, and in every case it’s been outstanding. It was my choice when I drew a limited entry Utah tag and dropped a 402 B&C gross (official) non-typical with one 180-grain Federal TBT.
Great .300 Win. Mag. Elk Bullets:
Federal 180-grain TBTNosler 180- and 200-grain AccuBondSwift 180-grain Scirocco IIBarnes 175-grain LRXHornady 200-grain ELD-X
Bullet Weight: 180 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,050 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,717 ft/lbs
No other elk cartridge offers the combination of style and performance like the .300 Weatherby does. Pushing heavy bullets at well over 3,000 fps, it hits elk like a freight train. Before modern rangefinders, it was the cartridge of choice for world-traveling hunters who liked its flat trajectory and emphatic impact. Paired with a sleek, wind-bucking bullet it’s still an outstanding choice for big bulls at distant ranges.
Great .300 Weatherby Elk Bullets:
Barnes 180-grain TSX and 175-grain LRXNosler 200-grain AccuBondSwift 180-grain Scirocco IIHornady 180-grain GMX and 200-grain ELD-X
Bullet Weight: 180 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,150 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,965 ft/lbs
In pure engineering terms, the 30 Nosler is the best of the entire flock of 30-caliber magnums. Featuring a belt-free, standard-length case with a shoulder sharp enough to provide ultimate capacity and internal efficiency, yet not too steep for slick feeding, it outperforms even the .300 Weatherby Magnum—and fits in standard-size bolt actions. It almost equals the .300 Ultra Mag, and does it with a whole lot less gunpowder. Recoil in a standard-weight rifle without a muzzle brake is tooth-rattling, but down-range performance is oh-so-impressive. If you’re one of those all-American .30-caliber guys, get a 30 Nosler precision rifle with a good brake, pair it with a tough, accurate bullet and never look back.
Great 30 Nosler Elk Bullets:
Nosler 200-grain AccuBondSwift 200-grain A-FrameBarnes 200-grain LRX
Bullet Weight: 200 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,050 fpsMuzzle Energy: 4,130 ft/lbs
This unsung cartridge is awesome for a light, short-barreled, all-around elk rifle. Built into a titanium short action with a 20-inch Proof Research carbon fiber barrel and a McMillan Edge stock, it will weigh under six. For excessively rugged, steep-canyon elk country such as Idaho’s River Of No Return wilderness, such a rifle could mean the difference between steaks and tag soup. With the right bullet, the .338 RCM is good all the way from 500 yards down to thick-timber distances
Great .338 RCM Elk Bullets:
Hornady 200-grain SSTNosler 200-grain AccuBondSwift 210-grain Scirocco II
The .338 Win. Mag. has been called the ultimate elk cartridge. If you can hack the recoil, it offers truly impressive energy. If you hunt elk in grizzly-infested country, a rifle chambered in .338 is comforting. Offering the perfect balance of tremendous energy, large frontal diameter, ballistic efficiency, and long barrel life, the .338 has garnered disciples among rifle savants such as F&S own David E. Petzal. Shot opportunities come dear when hunting big bulls on public land, and nothing is better for tricky shot angles than a hard-hitting, deep-driving .338 bullet. Plus, ammo is available in just about every sporting goods shop across the West.
Great .338 Win. Mag. Elk Bullets:
Nosler 225-grain AccuBondBarnes 225-grain TTSXSwift 225-grain A-Frame
Bullet weight: 225 grs.Muzzle velocity: 2,800 fpsMuzzle energy: 3,916 ft/lbs
Three Additional Great Elk Cartridges
The 6.5 PRC.
I’ll stick my neck out and say it: This is the best 6.5mm cartridge ever devised for hunting. It generates velocities identical to the venerable .264 Win. Mag.—and does it in a short-action platform. It’s faster than the 6.5-284, and more efficient than the 26 Nosler. Recoil is light, and reach is outstanding. It’s inherently accurate, making long-range shots easier. For elk, pick a really tough bullet and if possible, pick broadside shots. For all its virtues, like the 6.5 Creedmoor the 6.5 PRC just doesn’t have the bullet diameter and weight to handle steeply angled shot presentations.
Great 6.5 PRC Elk Bullets:
Hornady 143-grain ELD-XBarnes 127-grain LRXNosler 142-grain AccuBond Long RangeSwift 140-grain A-Frame
Bullet Weight: 140 grs.Muzzle Velocity: 3,000 fpsMuzzle Energy: 2,800 ft/lbs
The .300 RUM.
Dozens of indignant elk hunters sent up a wail when the first “elk cartridges” article went live on F&S—because I hadn’t included their .300 RUM favorite. I left it out because with its gargantuan powder capacity it’s almost too much of a good thing. But, credit where credit is due, it’s a great elk cartridge. The .300 RUM takes magnum .30-caliber performance to the limits of practical. It wallops big bulls with authority, and wallops hunters hard, too. It requires a true magnum-length action, and is hard on barrels. Final analysis: It’s not for everyone, but when you want to drive tough, heavy .30-caliber bullets fast, it’s awesome.
Great .300 RUM Elk Bullets:
Federal 180-grain TBTNosler 200-grain AccuBondHornady 220-grain ELD-XBarnes 190-grain LRX BT
Bullet weight: 200 grs.Muzzle velocity: 3,050 fpsMuzzle energy: 4,200 ft/lbs
The .45-70 Gov’t.
Right up front, this is a short-range proposition. Yes, it lacks one of the three virtues vital to great elk cartridges. However, it possesses authority in spades, and when paired with a fast-handling lever-action it’s a classic favorite of big-woods hunters. If you hunt massive-bodied Roosevelt bulls in the rain forests of the Northwest, or pine clad ridges and canyon bottoms anyplace where 200 yards is a long shot, this is a prime cartridge. Pick a Marlin M1895 or a Winchester Model 1886 and hunt happy in the knowledge that you’ve got bull-thumping wallop in every thumb-sized cartridge.
Great .45-70 Elk Bullets:
Barnes 300-grain TSX FNHornady 325-grain FTXSwift 350-grain A-Frame
Bullet weight: 325 grs.Muzzle velocity: 2,050 fpsMuzzle Energy: 3,030 ft/lbs
Three Overrated Elk Cartridges
This is a grand-old cartridge based on the .308 Winchester, but it is loaded with a .358-caliber bullet. It will for sure kill an elk, however, some believe that because of the larger diameter and heavier bullet, it’s a better elk cartridge than a .308 Winchester or .30/06. Maybe in some altered reality this might be true, but the .358 cannot compete with a 165-grain .308 or .30/06 load at any distance beyond 100 yards. It is not a .35 Whelen.
.338 Remington Ultra Magnum
Lots of folks like .30-caliber magnums for elk hunting, and they work exceptionally well. But, because elk have big antlers and big bodies, some hunters believe it takes an even bigger bullet to kill them. If that’s the camp you hunt from, have at it, but understand that with the .338 Remington Ultra Magnum, every time you pull the trigger you will get smacked with about 45 foot-pounds of recoil. Hunting is supposed to be fun and if that is your idea of fun, you could probably have even more of it with a .378 Weatherby.
If dinosaurs once again roam the Earth, there might in fact be a real need for this cartridge. Shooting an elk with one, however, is about like shooting a gopher with a .30/06. For big game hunting precise shot placement is critical no matter the cartridge, and it’s damn hard to place a shot precisely when you know you’re going to get smacked hard enough to loosen your teeth and knock out your boogers. The .378 will kill an elk but not any deader than 6.5 Creedmoor. The question is, are detached retinas worth it?