Nearly every cartridge known to man has been used at one time or another to take an elk. So, what makes a top elk cartridge? Maybe we should talk about the parameters we will be using to create this list?
Some Quick Points About the Cartridges
- For this list we will be talking about cartridges we would be using while targeting mature bull elk. These critters can tip the scales at between 800 – 1200 lbs. Typically an animal that size is going to need some punch to drop it.
- The cartridges we will be listing will be done so under the impression that the shooters will be using heavier grained trophy-bonded bullets in each elk cartridge.
- We will also put a premium on manageable recoil. Dealing with recoil is different for each person. However, most of the time heavy recoil allows accuracy to suffer on part of the shooter. Heavy kicking guns usually give the shooter at least a bit of a twitch or flinch.
- The list will consist of our top 6 elk cartridges, then below that main portion of the article, we will discuss 4 other cartridges that can get the job done for different reasons.
- Lastly, we’d like to make a point about shot placement. While all these cartridges listed below will help you get a good start on elk hunting, putting the bullet in the right spot is crucial. I have seen big bulls go quite a long way even after being hit with big magnum rifles. Most of the time a smaller bullet in the right spot does a lot more work than a big one in the wrong spot. Also, these 6 cartridges will be listed in no particular order, #1 doesn’t mean it is the best, this is just a group of 6 elk cartridges that have good elk-killing ammo options and get the job done.
The Top 6 Elk Cartridges
6. The .300 Win Mag
No elk cartridge list is complete without a few magnums on it and the .300 Win is the first one on our list. The belted, bottlenecked magnum was first introduced back in 1963 by Winchester as its name suggests. Popular elk bullets for the cartridge range from 180- to 220-grain trophy bonded varieties. The .300 Win Mag packs a lot of punch making it a viable elk option out beyond 500 yards. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Hornady Superformance 180-grain SST, Federal Terminal Ascent 200-grain, and Winchester Expedition Big Game 190-grain Accubond.
5. The 7mm Rem. Mag
Since the 7mm Rem Mag was introduced in 1962, hunters have been chasing big game with it. The 7mm Rem Mag has a lot to offer as an elk cartridge starting with its flat shooting nature. Secondly, the 7mm offers manageable recoil from a magnum rifle. Likewise, the 7mm offers reliable accuracy at long ranges and packs enough punch to anchor most bull elk. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Barnes VOR-TX 160-grain TSX BT, Hornady Precision Hunter 162-grain ELD-X, and Federal Terminal Ascent 155-grain.
4. The .338 Win Mag
One of the heaviest hitters on the list makes its appearance. The .338 offer bullets ranging from 200 to 275 grains. These whopper bullets generate as much as 4,000 FT/LBs of energy at the muzzle which some hunters want from their elk cartridge. However, this cartridge does generate a good amount of recoil and may not be the cartridge for some. The .338 Win Mag on average will have 25% more felt recoil than the average .300 Win Mag will. However, the .338 Win Mag is unquestionably lethal on everything from elk to brown bear. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Hornady Precision Hunter 230-grain ELD-X, Barnes VOR-TX 225-grain TTSX BT, and Winchester Expedition Big Game 225-grain Accubond.
3. The .270 WSM
For many elk hunting writers they would never dream of suggesting anything smaller than a .280 caliber. However, newer cartridge design and personal experience tell us that type of thinking is short-sighted. Some of these “smaller” elk cartridges can be just as deadly as the big magnums. This is usually due to great accuracy and lighter recoil. The 270 WSM is an absolute gem of a cartridge. The 270 WSM has performance data fairly similar to the 7mm Rem Mag and provides elk hunters with short action receiver options. Which is highly valuable in today’s ultra-light “mountain rifles”. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Federal Trophy Bonded Tip 140-grain, Winchester Expedition Big Game 140-grain Accubond, and Hornady Precision Hunter 145-grain ELD-X.
2. The 28 Nosler
Now entering the list we have the 28 Nosler. All of Nosler’s recently developed cartridges were engineered and designed to perform at extended ranges and the 28 may very well be the crown jewel of the group. The 28 has the ability to take out a mature bull elk at ranges beyond 500 yards. With its screaming velocity, great accuracy, and trophy bonded ammo it makes a great elk cartridge. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Nosler Trophy Grade 175-grain AccuBond Long Range, and Hornady Precision Hunter 162-grain ELD-X.
1. The .300 PRC
One of the newer kids on the block is a certified elk cartridge. Hornady first rolled out the .300 PRC back in late 2018. Since that time the cartridge has made a splash in the hunting world. The .300 PRC was designed to fire long, heavy for caliber bullets. The main reason for this was to achieve high levels of accuracy and aerodynamic performance. This non-belted .300 was based on the .375 Ruger case and was designed for improved stacking and feeding from fixed magazines. Hunters looking to use the .300 PRC should expect slightly more recoil than what the 300 Win Mag produces. However, the .300 PRC offers a higher BC than the Win making it a great long-range elk cartridge. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Hornady Precision Hunter 212-grain ELD-X, and Berger Elite Hunter 205-grain J4.
The Other Guys
The 6 elk cartridges listed above will for sure get the job done. But I’m sure some of you have not seen your old reliable or your new favorite elk rifle. Well, this section will have four more cartridges that we hope will cover some of those bases. Also as a side note if we included every cartridge we knew of that will kill an elk this article would be five times longer than it already is, so we hope you bear with us if your favorite wasn’t picked. Let’s get this section started with the “Old Guys.” Following that we will talk about the “New Guys”.
It might be old but is any elk cartridge list complete if you don’t mention the ol’ 06? The 30-06 has been carried by hunters all across the US and the world, and the elk hunting mountains are no exception. Likewise, the .30-06 was many big game hunters’ first rifle and due to its effectiveness, many of said hunters never look for another option. The .30-06 offers bullets from 125 on up to 220 grains, this gives the 06 a wide array of bullet options for several types of big game, and elk are no exception. It may not have the BCs of some of the new cartridges or the energy of the .338 Win Mag but it has gotten the job done over and over again. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Federal 200-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Hornady Precision Hunter 178-grain ELD-X, and Remington Hypersonic Bonded 180-grain.
Many elk hunting writers steer away from calibers smaller than .280 preferring to add large magnums and other .30 calibers to the lists, it makes sense, elk are big animals and can require a healthy amount of punch to take down. However, there are very few elk camps around the country that don’t have a least one .270 in camp each year. The .270 has nearly as long a list as the .30-06 when it comes to big game animals under its belt. While for some it may be on the small side a well-placed .270 bullet will have a devastating effect on a mature bull elk. As a bonus, the recoil of the .270 is very manageable and good for first-time elk hunters. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Federal Trophy Bonded 140-grain, Winchester Expedition Big Game 150-grain, and Nosler Trophy Grade Accubond Long Range 150-grain.
The New Guys
The 6.8 Western
Browning and Winchester came together to create the new 6.8 Western in 2021. The 6.8 can be used on a short action platform, this makes it a popular choice for a lot of the new ultra-light rifles being produced for mountain hunting. That option alone makes it a candidate for an elk cartridge. However, when you add its ballistic data and performance in, it becomes a quality elk cartridge candidate. The 6.8 offers quality accuracy, lower recoil than magnum competitors, and more than sufficient energy. Much like the .300 PRC the 6.8 offers long, high BC bullets that excel at long ranges. Likewise, it has similar energy to a 7mm Rem Mag and heavier bullet options than the .270s. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Browning Long Range Pro Hunter 175-grain Ballistic Tip, and Winchester Expedition Big Game 165-grain Accubond.
The 6.5 PRC
The smallest overall caliber of the bunch makes its presence known as the last cartridge on the list. The 6.5 PRC was released in 2018 and as Hornady puts it “to be everything the 6.5 Creedmoor wasn’t.” Much like the 6.8 Western and the .300 PRC, the 6.5 PRC was built to use long, heavy, high-performance bullets. This bullet design typically results in better accuracy and better aerodynamics. Another benefit of the 6.5 PRC is its very manageable recoil vs some of the other elk cartridges on this list. While the lightweight of this list might turn some readers off, the fact remains, much like the .270, that a well-placed 6.5 PRC bullet will anchor a mature bull. Some popular factory ammo options are as follows: Hornady Precision Hunter 143-grain ELD-X, Barnes VOR-TX Long Range 127-grain, and Berger EOL 156-grain.
We know there are several other cartridges that make great elk cartridges but we feel that this list of 10 will get you pointed in the right direction. If you’d like to look at similar articles where we discuss other rifle cartridges you can click here for mule deer or here for pronghorn. You can also be taken to each ammo companies webpage by clicking their name below.
We hope you enjoyed reading this elk cartridge list and hope you stick around and read more of our articles!