As every seasoned elk hunter knows, there’s an ancient fireside tradition in elk camp of debating the best cartridge for taking the large-bodied wapiti. While there are about as many opinions as hunters regarding the best cartridge for the take, most of us would agree that over the last century several cartridges have proven themselves worthy.
Whether you side with Roy Weatherby’s need for speed or Elmer Keith’s principle of pumpkin rollin’ an elk with a truckload of lead, there’s a wide variety of effective elk cartridges that span the spectrum from high velocity, sleek bullet designs to slow moving thumpers. In general, an effective elk round will penetrate through thick shoulder muscle and create a massive wound channel through vital organs without coming apart. Since elk are often spotted and hunted at distance in wide-open country, a cartridge capable of maintaining velocity and energy up to at least 350 yards is ideal.
As bullet designs and factory loads have drastically improved over the last few decades, some of the favorite cartridges on this list have only gotten better. That said, there’s a few newbies on the list, too. Here’s a look at the top 10 elk cartridges ever made.
1. .243 Winchester Many would consider the .243 Winchester too anemic for elk, but a cartridge like Hornady’s 90-grain ELD-X is capable of 3150 fps at the muzzle with 1,983 ft.-lbs. of energy and has proven itself effective with ideal shot placement. It’s an especially good option for youth and recoil-averse shooters and is lethal out to at least 300 yards. Combined with a quality bullet design, it’s more than capable of vaporizing an elk’s vitals. First introduced in 1955 for the Model 70, the .243 has been popularized among predator, deer and elk hunters. Thanks to its mild recoil, it’s a versatile option as long as shots are kept to a reasonable distance.
2. 6.5 Creedmoor Introduced by Hornady in 2007, the 6.5 Creedmoor is easily the hottest-selling rifle cartridge on the market today. Extremely effective out to 1,000 yards and beyond, the cartridge is a prime choice among long-range competitors and has gained a strong following among serious elk hunters, too. Hornady’s 143-grain ELD-X leaves the muzzle at 2700 fps with 2,315 ft.-lbs. of energy and is equally good at close and long ranges. Thanks to high-BC 6.5mm bullets, the Creedmoor is excellent at bucking wind and delivers minimal drop at serious range. It’s chambered in bolt guns and AR platforms alike, with plenty of viable big-game loads—including monometal and long-range designs—available from Federal, Nosler, Barnes and Hornady.
3. .300 Winchester Magnum For those who believe a magnum is necessary for big-bodied elk, the .300 Win. Mag. is easily one of the top choices for many hunters. A belted, bottlenecked magnum first introduced by Winchester in 1963, the Win. Mag. is a descendant of the mighty .375 H&H and has seen widespread use in every sphere from military applications to big-game hunting. Popular in 180- to 220-grain variants, the .300 Win. Mag. is effective past 400 yards and packs a serious punch. The 178-grain ELD-X leaves carries 2789 fps at 100 yards with 3,075 ft.-lbs. of energy, exceeding 2,000 ft.-lbs. out to 500 yards.
4. .30-06 Springfield Originally a U.S. military cartridge introduced in 1906 and used well into the 1970s, the mighty .30-06 Springfield followed many servicemen home from the battlefield to the backcountry. The .30-06 was of course replaced by the 7.62x51mm (.308 Win.) for military use, but the cartridge is still a staple for big-game hunters from Kansas to Alaska. Popular in various projectiles from 150 to 220 grains, the dirty ought-six can reach velocities up to 2900 fps and deliver a whopping 2,980 ft.-lbs. of energy, more than enough for downing a big-bodied bull elk. As many Alaskan hunters will testify, it’s effective on everything from moose to dangerous game like the grizzly bear. And since many of the cartridges on this list were designed to outperform it, there’s no question the .30-06 has left its mark.
5. .308 Winchester Speaking of military cartridges that made a perfect big-game round, the .308 Winchester was introduced in 1952 and was adopted for use in the armed forces as the 7.62x51mm. It was popularized in the Model 70 for sporting purposes and is available for elk hunters in projectiles ranging from 150 to 185 grains. It conveniently comes in a short-action, offers similar performance to the .30-06, and is arguably one of the most popular cartridges in the world. It produces less recoil than other popular .30-caliber rounds and is lethal on moose, elk and bear. It’s also found a home among the long-range shooting crowd in bolt guns and semi-autos. The .308 is an efficient round that delivers up to 2800 fps and around 2,700 ft.-lbs. of energy.
6. .280 Ackley Improved A wildcatter’s dream, the .280 Ackley Improved was developed by P.O. Ackley from Fred Huntington’s .280 RCBS Improved by adding a 40-degree shoulder in the late 1950s. The result was a cartridge that offered 300 fps more than Remington’s factory SAAMI-spec .280 load, and has since proven itself on large game at considerable distances. The cartridge was standardized by Nosler and accepted by SAAMI in 2008, and since then the availability of factory ammunition and rifles chambered for the .280 AI have steadily increased. Popular in rifles like Kimber’s Montana, the .280 AI has become a favorite among sheep and goat hunters and is equally well-utilized in dark timber elk country. Paired with the right bullet, like Nosler’s AccuBond or Hornady’s ELD-X, the .280 AI is an exceptionally accurate, heavy hitter on big game.
7. .280 Remington Introduced in 1957 by Remington, the .280 is based on a .30-06 case necked down for a 7mm, or .284, bullet. Projectile weights range from 140 to 175 grains, with velocities around 2800 fps with 2,800 ft.-lbs. of energy. In terms of energy on target, the .280 Remington is roughly equal to the .30-06, but is capable of housing higher-BC bullets. Because almost every major rifle manufacturer offers a firearm chambered in .280 Rem., and ammunition is usually easy to find at a local gun store shelf, it’s continued to be one of the more popular elk cartridges in use today.
8. .270 Winchester The .270 Winchester is one of the oldest big-game cartridges on this list, first introduced in 1925 for Winchester’s bolt-action Model 54. It’s hard to find an elk camp that doesn’t feature at least one rifle in .270, which is largely the result of the praise it received for so many years from gun writer Jack O’Connor. Available in 130- to 150-grain bullets, the .270 is capable of velocities up to 3200 fps with up to 2,950 ft.-lbs. of energy. In one sense, the .270 was a long-distance workhorse before long-range shooting was a thing. For elk-hunting purposes and with the right optics and rifle, the .270 is easily effective out to 500 yards.
9. .338 Winchester Magnum Developed by Winchester in 1958, the .338 Win. Mag. is based on a blown out and shortened .375 H&H case, with bullets ranging from 200 to 275 grains. Capable of sending a 200-grain projectile at almost 3000 fps, the .338 delivers a whopping 3,800 ft.-lbs. of energy, which many consider to be ideal for larger-bodied game species like elk. It’s not the gun for the recoil averse, but it has proven itself effective on everything from elk to brown bear and is unquestionably lethal.
10. 7mm Remington Magnum Commercially available in 1962, the 7mm Rem. Mag. was first chambered for the new Model 700 bolt gun and is another belted magnum based off the .375 H&H case. The 7mm produces moderate recoil for a magnum cartridge, but exceeds the .30-06 ballistically. Extremely accurate at long range, the 7mm has been chambered in plenty of high-end hunting rifles from Gunwerks and GA Precision to Remington and Montana Rifle Company. A 162-grain ELD-X bullet leaves the muzzle at 2940 fps with 3,109 ft.-lbs. of energy, proving the “stopping power” necessary for even the biggest bull elk.