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“Enough Gun” Elk Cartridges

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.


There are many ways to start an argument in polite company, but three of the best are to kick a man’s dog, kiss his wife or insult his elk gun. Even at that, most folks will forgive a virgin offense of the first two, but when you disrespect any hunter’s elk gun, you insult his honor.
That is not my intent here.

The last time I wrote about elk cartridges for American Hunter, the mailbags were full and it’s an understatement to say that not all of it agreed with me. But it’s been a few years and in spite of the death threats I decided to have another go at the subject. I am not asking you to agree with me, just to hear out my opinions and think about what I am saying.

First off, I know all too well that elk can and have been killed with little cartridges. I also know there are stories of at least one elephant being killed with a .22 Long Rifle, but no sane person will argue that the .22 LR is an adequate elephant cartridge. Yes, smaller cartridges work, but nobody can argue successfully that they work better, or even as well as, a bigger cartridge.

That’s like saying your Dodge Neon is fine for NASCAR. Sure it can run around the track and even go fast, but is it a winning plan to drive it in a race? I am not exploring cartridges that will simply kill elk here, nor is this an article about “adequate” elk cartridges. This article explores those cartridges that are going to give you an edge in elk hunting, not by being “adequate” but by being down and dirty, serious, no-holds-barred, remove-the-doubt, kill-them-dead elk cartridges. I think these cartridges should be no smaller than .30 caliber and deliver a bullet weighing at least 180 grains to the elk with a minimum of 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. For most of us that means the elk should be 300 yards or closer. Beyond that distance, shooting becomes tricky with any cartridge.

I don’t know about you, but in the 25 years I have been hunting them, no elk has ever given me a break. I do not intend to make this a fair fight and I want every advantage. Keep in mind, too, that a big bull elk can be five or six times the size of the average whitetail deer. Thinking that your deer cartridge is big enough might be a mistake.

Elk are tough, and nobody with any real experience with them will ever argue that point. If you wound a deer he will lie down. If you wound a moose he will run in circles, acting stupid. But wound a bull elk and he will head for the next ZIP code with nothing but dust behind him. Shots that would cause deer or moose to give up and die just aggravate elk. They can soak up a lot of misplaced lead and still leave a lot of tracks. The physics are simple: the bigger the bullet, the bigger the hole. Physiology is also simple: the bigger the hole, the faster the elk dies. For most of us, elk hunting is expensive and can be emotionally draining. Why risk the outcome of your hunt with a small, possibly inadequate, rifle cartridge?

All too often the letters I get preaching about using smaller cartridges for elk or any other big game are thinly disguised bragging sessions about the writer’s shooting ability. I prefer to prove my shooting abilities at the range and in competition, not when I am hunting. I like easy shots at elk. Proving I am a good shot does not seem like a viable reason to use a marginal cartridge.
Of course shot placement is important. It always is. But a larger cartridge gives you more options about shot placement and will allow you to take shots that you should pass on with a lesser cartridge. Also, in the real world, shot placement is not always a guarantee. Things happen and bullets sometimes hit where you do not intend, or the bullet’s terminal performance may not be what you expected. A larger cartridge is an insurance policy.

Tell me with a straight face that you would pass the following shot:

You just saved every dime for five years to pay for your elk hunt. You skipped movies, brought your lunch from home, worked overtime, whatever it took. This was your dream, the thing that kept you up nights for years and now, finally, you are in elk country with a tag and a rifle.

But it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. It’s the last day and you have yet to see an elk. You have been running on the ragged edge for 10 days with hardly any sleep, climbing those steep mountains every day, giving everything you have and all you can see is your dream slipping away.

Then just before darkness ends it forever, your guide spots a 6x6 bull 200 yards away with a bunch of cows. By the time the bull is clear of the cows, they are in the timber and he is following. All you have is a sharp quartering-away shot and about two seconds before he disappears.

Will you shoot?

Remember, lying is a sin.

I doubt one hunter in a thousand would pass on this shot. But you need to drive a bullet through his stomach, which is full of wet, soggy, green, energy-sucking material. And that bullet needs to continue on through his lungs, possibly only hitting one, and out his chest, perhaps hitting the shoulder, so that there is a blood trail to follow in the fading light. Which cartridge would you prefer to shoot? A .270 Winchester with a 130-grain bullet and 1,800 ft.-lbs. of energy remaining at 200 yards? Or would you like a .338 Ultra Mag. with a 225-grain bullet and 3,585 ft.-lbs. of energy smacking that elk?

Yup, the .270 will kill elk, every Jack O’Connor fan (including me) knows that to be true. But will it kill this elk? Will it kill it and allow you to find it in the little time you have available?

An ethical hunter with a .270 should pass on the shot. Those who don’t are very likely in for even more heartbreak as the wounded bull escapes to a painful, lingering death. With a .338 Ultra Mag. firing a 225-grain Barnes MRX, you can penetrate all that elk, leave a big exit hole for a blood trail (if you need it) and probably have enough power left to plow a furrow in the dirt deep enough to plant a row of peas.

One thing about that last point. I don’t buy the “leave the bullet in the critter and expend all the energy” school of thought. I want my bullets to exit if possible, and I want them exiting with lots of remaining horsepower. Energy doesn’t kill elk, death happens because of damaged body parts. A well-designed bullet that is still traveling at high velocity on exit does a lot more tissue damage than one that stops inside the elk. That’s because the wound channel remains large all the way to the exit. It also will usually result in a larger exit hole, for a better blood trail if needed. With elk, it often is.

One more thing: The bullet does all the work and it is the most important decision you can make. Always pick a good bullet. I would prefer a marginal cartridge with a superior bullet to a fire-breathing, dragon-slaying magnum cartridge with a poor bullet. But if I have a choice, I am bringing the dragon killer with the best bullet I can find.

Fear of recoil is not an acceptable excuse today to use an inadequate cartridge. A cartridge like the .30-06 is hardly a shoulder dislocater. Besides, while a muzzle brake will not endear you to your guide, it will cut the recoil of an elk rifle by a large margin. If you are tough enough to hunt elk you are tough enough to handle a compensated elk rifle. I know a couple of little bitty women who hunt with non-ported .338 magnums. If a 100-pound, 5-foot-tall woman can shoot a full-grown elk gun, you ought to be able to handle a lesser cartridge with a muzzle brake.

Sure, it takes practice. But are you telling me you will invest all that money, all that time and all those dreams in an elk hunt and then not practice with your rifle? Think for a minute about how foolish that sounds.

I am not talking about using a cartridge designed for elephant hunting here, simply that you follow Robert Ruark’s posthumous advice and “use enough gun.” He was referring to African dangerous game, but that simple advice applies to elk just as much as buffalo.

Short-Action Cartridges
This is one that’s going to get me into trouble, but I really am not a big fan of traditional .308 Winchester-based, short-action cartridges for elk. Yes, a .308 Winchester can work, but refer back to the previous 1,300 words for my thoughts.

The newer .338 Federal is actually a decent enough elk cartridge for timber hunting, as is the old-but-hanging-in-there .358 Winchester. They are two of my all-time favorite cartridges. But I need to be honest here. If you have to take a 300-yard shot they are starting to show their limitations. With a 200-grain bullet the .338 Federal is down to about 1,800 ft.-lbs. of energy, similar to the .30-06 at the same distance. The .358 Winchester is way out of the running due to the round-nose bullets in factory loads with only about 1,100 ft.-lbs. left.

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12 Responses to “Enough Gun” Elk Cartridges

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