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“Enough Gun” Elk Cartridges (Page 2)

Bryce Towsely explores elk cartridges that are going to give you an edge in elk hunting. This—you can be sure—is not an article about “adequate” elk cartridges.

The .30-06 “Family”
The .30-06 is the “mother of all cartridges,” or at least the mother of a big brood, as it has been necked up and down to create cartridges from the .25-06 through the .35 Whelen. In my never-humble opinion, elk cartridges start at .30 caliber and this is particularly true with this cartridge case size. I know some of you kill elk with a .25-06 or a .270 every year and most of you will write a letter after reading this. But does that mean it is the cartridge an elk hunter should carry if he wants the best chance of a favorable outcome? Hardly.

I own and hunt with rifles in these cartridges as well as my favorite, the .280 Remington. Would I use them if it meant staying home if I didn’t? To mock my least-favorite president, let me be clear: I would hunt elk with a hatchet if the alternative were not hunting elk. But they are not the rifles I would grab from the safe when packing for an elk hunt with options.

I have always maintained that serious elk cartridges start with the .30-06 Springfield using high-quality 180-grain bullets at 2700 fps. Even at that, it drops below the ton-of-energy threshold at something short of 300 yards. The .338-06 and the .35 Whelen both will push a 225-grain bullet to 2500-plus fps, and are both excellent elk cartridges for timber hunting. They both also fall just short of 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy at 300 yards. While it’s a bit off-category I would include the .350 Remington Magnum here as well. But only with handloads. There are no factory loads that I know of with a decent elk bullet.

What About the Short Magnums?
Short-magnum cartridges are nothing more than “long” magnum cartridges in a different dress. Again, at the risk of more hate mail, I think only those with a bullet diameter of .308 or larger qualify for serious elk cartridge status. All the .30-caliber short-magnums—WSM, RSAUM, RCM—more or less mimic the old stable of .300 magnums. With a 180-grain bullet at 2900 fps, give or take, the .30-caliber short magnums are decent enough elk cartridges, and can easily cross the 300-yard line with more than a ton of remaining energy.

My view, though, is that bullet diameter is a big factor in cartridge performance, and so it’s the larger short magnums that set my heart aflutter. The .325 WSM or the .338 RCM are darn fine elk cartridges, if loaded with properly constructed bullets weighing at least 200 grains. You must keep that sectional density up there if you want to penetrate elk, and bullet weight is how you do that.

I have a custom rifle built on a Winchester Model 70 by Mark Bansner that is chambered for the wildcat .358 Winchester Short Magnum. It is simply the .300 WSM necked up to take a .358-diameter bullet. It pushes a 225-grain Trophy Bonded bullet out the muzzle at 2950 fps, the same speed as the .300 Winchester Magnum with a 180-grain bullet. If I were to develop the perfect elk cartridge from scratch, it might well look like this when it was finished.

Traditional Belted Magnums
The .30-06 is the “American” mother of all cartridges. But the European-born .375 H&H is the mother of a huge family of big cartridges, too. The über-popular belted magnums can all trace their ancestry to this wonderful hunting cartridge.

The .300 belted magnums—.300 H&H, .300 Winchester and .300 Weatherby—are all decent enough elk cartridges. Again, I think heavy bullets of at least 180 grains are best. But the more I use them, the better I like 200-grain bullets, particularly in the .300 Wby. with its bigger powder capacity.

The .338 Win. Mag. uses a 225-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2800 fps. It is a good balance of power vs. recoil and might well be the perfect elk cartridge. The .340 Weatherby Mag. does it a bit faster, adding a couple of hundred fps to the catalog velocity with a corresponding increase in recoil.

While it’s a bit hard to find a rifle chambered in it, the .358 Norma has become one of my favorite cartridges. I’ll confess to a soft spot for .35-caliber rifle cartridges, and this one is a thumper. The 250-grain bullet has a muzzle velocity that is very close to the 225-grain from the .338 Win. Mag. My rifle is in an E.R. Shaw MK VII, which will shoot sub-MOA groups with Norma factory loads. If you want to be a little different than the other lemmings in hunting camp, you might consider this cartridge for your next elk rifle. Or if you want even more whack, consider my .358 UMT wildcat. This is the .300 Ultra Mag. necked up. It pushes a 250-grain bullet to 3100 fps. It shoots flatter than a .300 Win. Mag. and hits harder than a .416 Remington. Mark Bansner can build you one.

If you do like being off the beaten track when it comes to cartridges, also consider a 9.3 mm cartridge. This bullet diameter is very popular in Europe for moose and red deer, a kissing cousin of our elk. The most common is the 9.3x62. It’s a bit pokey, with the factory loads pushing a 286-grain bullet at 2360 fps. Surprisingly, it’s still got that magic ton of energy left at 300 yards, proving again that bullet weight is king. If you want a bit more speed, consider the new Federal-loaded .370 Sako, which drives the same bullet 200 fps faster.

Finally, we have the momma of all the belted magnums, the .375 H&H. One of the legends of gun guy history, Elmer Keith, lived in elk country, he hunted elk all his life and guided professionally for years. He liked the .375 H&H, so what more is there to be said? With a 300-grain bullet at 2530 fps or the even more elk-appropriate 270-grain at 2700 fps, it’s a bit on the big side. But there is only one degree of dead. There are many degrees of wounded.

A new option is the .375 Ruger. It’s a non-belted magnum that will fit in a .30-06-size action. The cartridge uses Hornady’s new propellant technology to produce better ballistics than a .375 H&H, but from a much shorter barrel. In fact, I just had Bansner re-barrel a Model 70 Winchester in .375 Ruger. I am fitting one of his High Tech stocks to the gun and hope to have it finished soon. It should be one heck of a big-bore elk gun, and if Africa or Alaska comes knocking with opportunity, I’ll be ready to answer.

The Big Guys
Anything the “other” .300 magnums can do, the .300 Remington Ultra Mag. or .30-378 Weatherby can do better. I really like how a 200-grain bullet performs with the Ultra Mag. I think it balances the cartridge and it launches at 3070 fps, which is about 100 fps faster than a .300 Win. Mag. pushes a 180-grain bullet. If you prefer, the .30-378 Wby. will push the same bullet another 100 fps faster than that.

The .338 Remington Ultra Mag. is the unsung hero of the Remington Ultra Mag family. Ignored and disdained, like ol’ Rodney it “gets no respect.” (Younger guys can Google that reference.) But I have had three and they have all been wonderfully accurate. I am talking varmint-rifle accurate. Sure they kick a bit. But I’ll live with the recoil as a trade for the performance. The .338 RUM launches a 225-grain bullet with 3060 fps of muzzle velocity and well over 2 tons of energy.
I once shot an elk 50 yards from the Yellowstone park border. The deal was if the elk fell 1 foot across the line you had to let it lie there and rot. So to anchor him fast I depended on a .338 RUM.

Another hunter in camp hit his elk with a 7mm magnum when it was standing a good bit farther from the boundary than mine. His bull would have made it across, except a third guy in the party stopped it. He also was shooting a .338 RUM. There is a reason he picked that cartridge. The smack-down of the big 6X6 before he could make good on his escape proved that he (and I) are right. There is simply no profit in messing with diminutive cartridges while hunting elk.

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12 Responses to “Enough Gun” Elk Cartridges (Page 2)

Bob wrote:
January 23, 2015

I think everyone makes a good point. I live out of state. Let me tell you my take on this. I have only hunted elk 5 times. All in Colorado and all free range in the National Forest. No guides, no help. I put in for draw points and labor through the statistics to select the best possible unit to hunt. I pour over maps to select the best places to intercept elk. I have been reloading rifle for 35 years. My next hunt may be my last. All summer long I work on the farm and keep a 243 Win with me to shoot groundhogs. I shoot a lot. I have enough reloading supplies to last me 20 years so cost is not a factor any more. I will take 2 weeks off to arrive two days early to set up my camp and scout. I do not use a hotel because the time spent on the road to and from a hunting area is time needed to climb hills and be in the woods early. I pay non resident fee for a license, will come home looking like I was dragged rear end first through a knot hole. Will hunt hard for the full 5 days of the first rifle season. The gun I choose is a 338 Win Mag. Ruger 77 bolt. I paint it so the animals will not see a reflection. I shoot it often and am very able to hit targets at 400-500 yards. After a summer of shooting groundhogs a bull elk is a piece of cake. I will use 1 of the 20 powders I have to find the perfect load for the best bullet I can buy. I will practice with it and will be very confident in my shot. And yes i will. If there's a bull at good range with his rump to me the bullet I use will make it all the way through and see the sun shine another day. If I had a rifle bigger than 338 win mag I would use it. I have a lot riding on this hunt. If I come home empty handed it will be because it just wasn't my turn. I'm OK with that. But I feel the 338 Win Mag is a fine choice. I have been successful 2 of the 5 times. Two very nice elk. A 5 and a 6 point. Western Count. Beautiful symmetry. Couldn't ask for better elk. 1 was taken at 375 yards. He stood with his vitals behind the only &[%]&*^)&* tree on a 40 acre hillside. The 338 went through his hips, braking them, and he rolled down the hill. 1 more shot through the rib cage and it was done. The 6 point I could have beaten to death with my gun stock when I ran into him. He didn't have powder burns but I may have. I was too excited to notice. For you fellows that live in the area, have horses, private land, I understand you being picky. That's OK. I think a smaller caliber will do the job 90[%] of the time. But I need to be 100[%] on everything that goes hunting with me. As stated. If I had a bigger gun I would use it. But I think a 338 win mag with great bullets is a good choice for me. Good Day All.

James Bostock wrote:
July 19, 2014

Summing it up, those that know their gun, practice shooting it so that they can put their bullets where they want them to go in the positiion(s) they are going to be shooting from in the field, make good choices about 'shoot', 'don't shoot', and learn to control their nerves in the critical moments before and through their their trigger pull... Will kill a lot more elk with those rifles that you posit are not up to the challenge, than any big boy cartridge could ever make up for those that have not learned to master the fundamentals. Someone who can't put an elk down with a 308 should never put their hands on one of the magnums you advocate as the end all be all for stopping elk. You know they are going to flinch when the time comes, and some poor elk is going to be running around the forest with no jaw, only to die of starvation because they read what you have to say here about absolutely having to have more power. I totally disagree.

craig wrote:
March 13, 2014

I killed my first elk some years ago with my Dad's 30-06. I made the shot at 200+ yards after passing a chance at a larger bull at 400+. The animal was cleanly hit and went down instantly, though a moment after it fell, it jumped up and ran 50 yards before carthwheeling into the scrub oaks, dead. I like the 30-06 for it's versatility with the available bullet weights, but agree with the Author. You have to use enough gun and I beleive despite a well placed shot, I was lucky.

John D wrote:
November 04, 2013

I have not had the opportunity to hunt bull elk in my home state of Az because I can't seem to draw a tag. I now only archery hunt. I have been on 3 archery elk hunts helping friends who drew tags and I have seen big big AZ bulls get hit by an arrow and shoulder bones not shoulder blades stop arrows.

Josh Christensen wrote:
September 23, 2013

When did elk start wearing armor? Honestly, I've seen elk killed with 30-30 on up and if the bullet hit the right spot elk didn't seem to notice a bit. And the reference to the quartering bull in the beginning of the article, I had that shot last year with my 270 win 130 grn Barnes triple shocks, and I killed that bull. Good shot placement with a rifle your comfortable with and premium bullets and you can keep your throat eating, shoulded breaking, fire breathing magnums at home. Unless maybe you're compensating for something :)

Jeff wrote:
September 22, 2013

Planning my first elk hunt shortly and I recently picked up an old mauser 98 sporterized in .300 savage and it's a nice old shooting gun. Even the old weaver K4 scope mounted on it still dialed in quite nicely at 100 yards and the view out of it is nice and clear for as old as it is.

Ed wrote:
July 13, 2013

The author mentions the 338 RCM. It is no more than the 338-06 in a short fat round but the 338-06 is inadequate in the author's mind. Mark - The 30 TC is a glorified 308 win. If you want a new barrel for elk and follow the authors advice than the 300 win would be the best choice.

KEN wrote:
October 06, 2011

I'am 57 years old now started out hunting with a 30/06 move on to bigger greater calibers like 300 W.M., 338 W.M. I also have a 375 H&H Ackley. I've killed some nice bull elk with all of them, I now also own a McMillan rifle in 30/06 and have take 13 elk with this rifle, all with 1 shot each out to 430 yds. Three of them 6x6 bulls.Last year I killed a big cow elk with a Cooper rifle chambered in 6BR. Norma/90gr. Ballistic Tip 70-75yd. stot the elk traveled maybe 40yds. and was dead. It's all about shot placement. Just know your rifle and your own abillity to make the shot.

mark wrote:
December 17, 2010

liked the article but still confused. I'm looking for that 1 cartridge that isn't over kill on a 100y whitetail but enough for a 300y elk. I'm looking to purchase a barrel for my TC pro hunter. Would the new 30TC cartridge be enough out to 300y

Brandon Courtney wrote:
September 27, 2010

Last season I shot a 5 x 6 with a 160gr 7mm mag. I hit the shoulder and one lung the animal still ran 3legged for about a mile before put in down with a second shot. Now thinking about clubbing up next year.

Jon Strebler wrote:
September 05, 2010

I understand and agree with Towsely's logic. Two of my three preferred elk rounds are a 200 gr. Partition in 300 WinMag, and a 200 gr. TSX in 325 WSM. Both fit well with his comments. My third preferred round, however, isn't on the list, though it should be. It's a 180-gr. Partition .308 - BUT in Federal's High Energy line, which gives it 30'06 ballistics: 2740 muzzle energy and still 1925 fp @ 300 yards. My .308's a dandy mountain elk rifle using this souped up, yet commercially available ammo.

jim wrote:
September 05, 2010

I have been an archery hunter for years. I recently bought a Rem. 700 RMEF model 7 mm Ultra mag. 150 gr. bulltets. Is this a good cartridge for elk? What else would be safe to hunt for with this gun? thanks