The Best Calibers for Elk Hunting

Gear We Use
The Best Calibers for Elk Hunting
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Elk are the largest animals most American hunters will ever have a chance to harvest. For that reason, once a hunter is ready to step up from whitetail deer to elk, the first question they ask is: do I have enough gun to get the job done?

We’re here to help you answer that question. The MeatEater crew has harvested their fair share of elk, and our recommendations are derived from years of in-the-field experience. If you go with one of the cartridges below, you’ll have plenty of power on tap to take down an elk–as long as you put the bullet where it needs to go.

What We Look for in a Good Elk Cartridge

It's worth noting at the outset that, as MeatEater's Janis Putelis told me, "there are no 'best calibers' for elk or any game for that matter."

"There are too many variables and too many situations to ever say that," he explained. "I'm a true believer that the caliber you shoot best, paired with a quality bullet, is the best caliber for you."

That’s solid advice, but if you’re in the market for a new elk gun (or a first elk gun), you should give yourself as much of an advantage as you can. Even if you don’t agree with the selections we’ve made, you can still select an effective cartridge by keeping a few criteria in mind:

  1. Large Caliber
  2. Long-Range Power
  3. Accurate
  4. Widely Available at a Reasonable Cost

Elk Cartridges We Use

What Makes a Good Elk Cartridge

1. Large Caliber

You know you need a large, centerfire rifle cartridge to go after elk, but how large, exactly? That’s the million-dollar question, and you’ll get different answers from even the most experienced elk hunters. Some say nothing less than .30 caliber; others acknowledge that a .270 Win. has plenty of juice; and there are always forum warriors who will argue for the .223 Rem.

As you’ll see from the recommendations below, we tend to agree with the .30-caliber-or-bust camp. That’s not because smaller cartridges can’t take down an elk. Several of the crew also mentioned using other cartridges like the 7mm Rem. Mag., 6.5x55 Swede, and the 6.5 Weatherby RPM (also see “Honorable Mentions” for a few additional recommendations).

But depending on where you live, you may have a chance to harvest only a handful of bulls in your life. As Janis explains in his “Field Notes,” you need the flexibility to take a shot on that trophy bull at any angle. The .243 Win. can take down an elk with a solid broadside shot, but you’ll be glad you brought something larger if you’re forced to take a quartering shot, especially at distance.

2. Long-Range Power

Of course, the .30-30 Win. has a .30-caliber bullet diameter, but no one would argue that it’s the world’s best elk cartridge. Because many elk live on open western landscapes, it’s important to choose a cartridge that’s still moving with enough force at 300 or 400 yards to get through a shoulder or a rib and make it to the vitals. This depends on a variety of factors that can change within the same cartridge, and we don’t have space to cover all of them here. But here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Look for something that will hit an elk with at least 1,500 ft.-lbs. of energy at the range you hope to hunt. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good benchmark. You can determine this with a ballistics calculator once you know your bullet’s velocity.

On that note, don’t forget that bullet speed depends in part on barrel length. Don’t assume a cartridge’s velocity based on what’s printed on the box. Do your own velocity testing.

Finally, bullet construction is crucial. Know how fast your bullet needs to be traveling to expand and penetrate. We’ve found that a bonded bullet often performs the best at ranges beyond 300 yards.

3. Accurate

Accuracy isn’t always inherent to a specific cartridge. Some supposedly inaccurate cartridges can be accurate in a well-made gun. But it is true that bottleneck cartridges tend to be more accurate than straight-walled cartridges, so we stick with bottlenecks here.

Long-range practical accuracy is also worth considering. A flat-shooting cartridge available with high-BC bullets is more forgiving in windy conditions and can be sighted in to eliminate holdover out to 300 yards or so.

4. Widely Available at a Reasonable Cost

A bull won’t care if you kill it with a $10 cartridge you had to order from a boutique ammo dealer in Kalamazoo, but your significant other will. Act accordingly.

Field Notes from the MeatEater Crew

Honorable Mentions

Polling the MeatEater crew will get you field-proven recommendations, but it won’t cover the full spectrum of effective elk cartridges. To fill those gaps, here are a few more common, reasonably priced cartridges that are certified elk killers. I've listed a popular bullet weight for each cartridge, but, of course, each can be found with a variety of loadings.

6.5 Creedmoor 6.5 PRC .308 Winchester .270 Winchester 7mm Remington Magnum .338 Winchester Magnum
Bullet Weight (gr.) 143 143 165 145 160 230
Muzzle Velocity (fps) 2700 2960 2840 2970 2950 2810
Energy at 400 Yards (ft.-lbs.) 1470 1800 1637 1714 1846 2576

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