The .30-06 “Family”
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?
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 .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
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.
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.