The Ultimate Showdown: The Best Caliber for Elk Hunting

Matt Johnson
Matt JohnsonPublished: August 3, 2023
The Ultimate Showdown: The Best Caliber for Elk Hunting

So you're heading out on your big elk hunt and considering which caliber to use. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced hunter, choosing the right one for the job is essential.

After all, your success depends on it!

To help make this decision easier, we've compiled a comprehensive guide outlining some of our favorite — and the best — calibers for elk hunting.

CaliberWhat Makes this Caliber Great
.338 Winchester MagnumBest overall for elk hunting, powerful with great accuracy, suitable for various hunting scenarios.
.300 Winchester MagnumIdeal for long-range elk hunting, handles strong winds well, high ballistic coefficient.
.30-06 SpringfieldExcellent for brush hunting, moderate power with low recoil, affordable and widely available.
.270 WinchesterBest lightweight caliber, moderate recoil, excellent accuracy at extended ranges.
7mm Remington MagnumKnown for take-down power and flat trajectory, suitable for long-range hunting.

How we determined the best caliber for elk hunting.

There's not a single rifle cartridge that can be called the "best" for elk hunting. The perfect rifle cartridge for the hunt depends on various factors, including the terrain, the type of game hunting, and personal preference. However, after much research and discussion, we've identified a few top categories that stand out from the crowd regarding elk hunting.

  • Best caliber overall. This one is a bit of an all-rounder caliber and can be used in various hunting scenarios. We wanted to find an elk cartridge that could cover everything, so we focused on several calibers widely accepted and proven to work well in different scenarios.
  • Best caliber for long-range elk hunting. Long-range shooting is a popular way of taking down game from a distance. We had to consider bullet drop, wind drift, and the effective range of the cartridge.
  • Best caliber for brush hunting. Brush hunting requires staying essentially relatively close to your prey while stalking them. As such, recoil becomes an important factor when selecting a cartridge. We prioritized calibers offering minimal recoil and fast follow-up shots.
  • Best lightweight caliber. One of the most important things to consider when elk hunting is weight. You'll carry your rifle for extended periods, and a light caliber can make all the difference in how much you enjoy the hunt. We looked at calibers that offered good power without the extra bulk.
  • Best caliber for take-down power. If you're hunting elk, especially in the western states with large herds, you want a caliber that will pack enough punch to take down a big bull. We looked at calibers with proven knockdown power and deep penetration capabilities.

Now that we've established what we were looking for in these categories let's discuss why finding an elk cartridge that is perfect for you is crucial.

The importance of finding the right caliber for your elk hunt.

For elk hunting, accuracy and consistency are king. You need a cartridge to do the job without being overly powerful or cumbersome. An elk cartridge that is too slow will leave you with meat damage, while one that's too fast can cause excessive recoil and shoot through the animal instead of stopping it in its tracks.

The right caliber for you depends on the type of terrain and game you're hunting, your budget and preferences, and your shooting skills.

Range.

One of the most critical aspects of elk hunting is the range you will shoot. If you're hunting in an open field, a long-range cartridge like the .308 Winchester or 6.5 Creedmoor might be your best bet. Not only is the bullet weight important, but you'll also need to consider an optic for your elk rifle.

Environment.

Another important factor to consider is the environment in which you'll be hunting. A light caliber might be best if you're hunting in dense brush or woods since you won't have to lug around a heavy rifle all day. If you hunt in open country, a heavier caliber will give you more power at longer ranges.

Take-down power.

When it comes to elk hunting, take-down power is key. The right cartridge should offer enough energy to penetrate the animal deeply and cause an instant kill. Bullet construction is also important here; some cartridges are designed with controlled expansion to penetrate deeper without damaging too much meat (this is called a controlled expansion bullet).

Weight.

Finally, you'll want to consider the overall weight of your rifle. If you carry a gun all day, you'll want something lightweight but still packs enough punch to finish the job. If you're patiently waiting in a stand or a blind, a heavier rifle might not be an issue.

Breaking down the best elk cartridge.

With all that out, let's get into our top picks for the best elk cartridges. We think you'll find something that fits your hunting needs here.

Best caliber overall — .338 Winchester Magnum.

338 Win Mag
ProsCons
Powerful, suitable for large game at long distancesMay be too powerful for smaller game
Great accuracy and consistencyHeavier recoil, not ideal for beginners
Versatile for various hunting scenariosHigher ammunition cost

For the best overall elk cartridge, we selected the .338 Winchester Magnum. This powerful magnum packs a serious punch and can take down large game at long distances.

It offers great accuracy and consistency, making it an excellent choice for hunting in open fields and brush. Plus, with its recoil-taming features, the .338 Win Mag is still relatively easy to shoot accurately.

What we love the most about the .338 Winchester Magnum is its versatility. This big-game cartridge is suitable for elk and moose, giving you plenty of options for hunting large game.

Whether you're taking down the biggest bull elk you've ever seen or even going deer hunting, the .338 Winchester Magnum is up to the task.

Best caliber for long-range elk hunting — .300 Winchester Magnum.

300 Win Mag
ProsCons
Ideal for long-range huntingCan be overkill for closer ranges
Handles strong winds wellHigher recoil compared to smaller calibers
Controlled expansion bullets for minimal meat damageRequires more skill to handle effectively

Easily one of the most popular cartridges for long-range elk hunting, the .300 Winchester Magnum is an ideal choice.

This classic magnum cartridge offers power and great accuracy at extended ranges.

It's also relatively easy to control in various shooting positions, making it a top pick for experienced hunters who want to take their shots from a distance.

Its ability to handle strong winds sets the 300 Win Mag apart from other long-range cartridges.

It's high ballistic coefficient and flat trajectory make it an excellent option for hunting in windy conditions. And with its controlled expansion bullets, you can expect deep penetration and minimal meat damage.

Best caliber for brush hunting — .30-06 Springfield.

30-06 Springfield
ProsCons
Moderate power with low recoilNot as effective for very long-range shots
Affordable and widely available ammoMay lack the stopping power of larger magnum calibers
Good accuracy and deep penetration in brush

Sometimes, elk hunting in the brush can be a challenge. You need a powerful cartridge to take down your prey but still lightweight and easy to maneuver in tight quarters.

That's where the .30-06 Springfield comes in. This classic deer and elk cartridge is an excellent choice for brush hunting due to its moderate power and low recoil.

Plus, with its flat trajectory and controlled expansion bullets, you can expect good accuracy and deep penetration in tight spots.

Our favorite thing about the .30-06 Springfield is its affordability. The factory ammo offers great performance at a reasonable price, and it's also widely available and easy to find in most gun shops.

Best lightweight caliber — .270 Winchester.

270 Winchester Cartridge
ProsCons
Lightweight with moderate recoilLess suitable for very large game
Excellent accuracy at extended rangesMay struggle in extremely windy conditions
Versatile for various game animals

The .270 Winchester is a great choice for hunters who need a lightweight cartridge with plenty of power.

This classic deer and elk cartridge offers moderate recoil and excellent accuracy at extended ranges. It's also quite versatile, as it can be used for various game animals, including elk and deer.

The thing we love the most about the .270 Winchester is its recoil. Compared to other elk rifles, a rifle chambered in .270 Winchester has mild recoil.

Hunters of all experience levels can accurately shoot their target with manageable recoil. And with its excellent accuracy, you can be sure to take down your elk in one shot.

Best caliber for take-down power — 7mm Remington Magnum.

7mm Rem Mag Rifle Cartridge
ProsCons
Unmatched take-down power for long-range huntingHigh muzzle velocity not ideal for close-range
Superior ballistics and excellent accuracyCan be challenging for less experienced shooters
Flat trajectory for precise shootingHigher ammunition cost

Finally, we have the 7mm Remington Magnum. This popular elk cartridge is known for its unmatched take-down power and flat trajectory, making it an excellent choice for long-range hunting.

It has superior ballistics and offers excellent accuracy, allowing you to take down your target precisely.

With the high muzzle velocity of the 7mm Rem Mag, this wouldn't be a good choice for close-range hunting.

But if you're looking for a cartridge that can easily take down a big bull elk at extended ranges, then the 7mm rem mag is your best bet.

Pro tips for finding the perfect elk hunting rifle.

Finding good elk cartridges is only half the battle; you must also find the perfect elk hunting rifle. Here are some pro tips for finding the right setup:

  • Understand Your Hunting Environment: The terrain and environment where you'll be hunting can significantly impact the type of rifle you need. For instance, a lighter, more maneuverable rifle might be your best bet if you're hunting in dense forests with shorter sight lines. On the other hand, if you're hunting in open spaces where longer shots are expected, a heavier, more stable rifle that's accurate at long distances would be ideal.
  • Consider the Caliber: As discussed earlier; some calibers are better suited for elk hunting than others. Powerful rounds like the .338 Win Mag, .270 Winchester, and .300 Winchester Magnum are all good choices. Consider what you feel comfortable shooting and what will effectively take down an elk.
  • Choose the Right Action: Bolt action rifles are popular among elk hunters because they're reliable, accurate, and can handle powerful rounds. However, lever action and semi-automatic rifles can also be suitable, especially if you anticipate needing quick follow-up shots.
  • Check the Weight: Remember that you'll likely carry your rifle for a long while hunting. Balance the need for a powerful, stable gun with the practicality of hauling it around all day. Lightweight rifles are easier to carry but might have more recoil.
  • Look for Quality Optics: A good scope can make a huge difference in successful elk hunting. Look for optics with clear, bright images and a good magnification range. A quality scope can help you make accurate shots at various distances.

Our hunting experts have bought countless rifles over the years and agree that following these tips can help you pick the perfect elk hunting rifle. You'll be ready to hit the woods and bag your next big bull with the right setup.

FAQs for elk hunting Calibers.

To round off our comprehensive guide to elk hunting calibers, here are some frequently asked questions—

What is the best caliber for elk hunting?

The best elk hunting calibers depend on your hunting style and environment, but some of the most popular options include .300 Winchester Magnum, .30-06 Springfield, .270 Winchester, and 7mm Remington Magnum. These are all great choices for taking down an elk at extended ranges.

What is the most accurate caliber for elk hunting?

The .300 Winchester Magnum is widely considered one of the most accurate cartridges for elk hunting due to its flat trajectory and high ballistic coefficient. It's also a powerful round that can effectively take down large game animals. 

How far can you accurately shoot an elk?

The effective range for taking down an elk will vary depending on the caliber, shooter experience, and environmental conditions. As a general rule of thumb, most elk hunters should have no problem making accurate shots out to 500 yards with the right rifle and optics. Of course, it's always best to practice shooting at various distances to develop good shooting habits and accuracy.

Is a .308 big enough for elk?

A .308 Winchester is generally considered big enough for elk hunting. The rule of thumb for the minimum amount of kinetic energy needed to kill a mature elk is 1500 ft-lbs, which a .308 can deliver. However, it's important to consider shot placement and the hunter's ability to shoot accurately.

Is 6.5 Creedmoor or 308 better for elk?

The debate between 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Winchester for elk hunting is a topic of much discussion among hunters.

Both bullet weights have strengths and weaknesses, and their choice largely depends on your needs and circumstances.

The 6.5 Creedmoor has a slightly flatter trajectory, less wind drift, and less recoil than the .308 Winchester, making it easier to shoot accurately, particularly at longer ranges.

However, it's worth noting that some hunters consider the 6.5 Creedmoor too light for elk, with most suggesting a minimum of 1,500 ft-lbs of energy for a clean kill. On the other hand, the .308 Winchester is known for its superior frontal surface area and wound channel creation, which can lead to more effective kills.

Its ammunition is also more widely available and typically cheaper, making it a more economical choice for many hunters.

What is the preferred rifle shot for elk?

The preferred shot on an elk is a broadside shot. This shot placement affords the best chance of striking the animal's vital organs while still allowing for maximum penetration.

Ideally, you should aim for the highest point of the shoulder to ensure a clean kill. 

Can you shoot a bedded elk?

Yes, you can shoot a bedded elk, but it is important to ensure an ethical shot. This means considering the wind direction, background noise, and the animal's position.

If you doubt whether your shot will be ethical, it's best to wait until the elk stands before taking the shot. 

What is the best follow-up shot for elk?

The best follow-up shot for an elk depends on the initial hit placement and the circumstances of your hunt. If you've made a clean kill, there's no need to take additional shots.

However, if you haven't achieved a clean kill with your initial shot, you'll want to take another shot as soon as possible. A quick follow-up shot can help ensure the animal is taken down humanely and quickly. 

Finding the right caliber.

The quest for the perfect elk hunting rifle and caliber is a personal journey heavily influenced by your unique hunting style, environment, and comfort level.

Whether it's the .338 Win Mag with its sheer stopping power, the .30-06 Springfield's brush hunting prowess, the .270 Winchester's light recoil, or the 7mm Remington Magnum's exceptional take-down ability, each caliber offers unique advantages.

Remember, a critical part of your success in the field is not just the rifle and its caliber but also understanding your hunting environment, the rifle's action type, weight, and optics quality. And never underestimate the power of trying before buying.

Armed with these insights, you're on your way to finding the perfect partner for your next elk-hunting adventure.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Master Outdoorsman

Matt is a seasoned outdoorsman with expertise in fishing, hunting, and wildlife. With a Master's degree in Wildlife Science, he combines his passion for nature with conservation efforts, sharing his knowledge through his writing for Fish and Game Report.

We may be compensated through the links you find on this page.

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