Hunting elk? Here are the 12 best cartridges

The bull elk is North America’s toughest hooved big-game animal. And the bigger they get, the tougher they become. Mature bulls have heavy bones, dense muscle, and loads of resilience from years of shrugging off battle wounds.

Killing a bull cleanly takes a good cartridge. Killing a big bull at a steep quartering angle takes a very good cartridge, topped with a tough, deep-penetrating bullet.

These 12 cartridges have just what it takes. The list starts with the welterweights and moves up to the heavy hitters.

Side Note: I determined the muzzle energy data by choosing the most useful elk bullet weight for each specific cartridge, and then plugging it into along with an average of common factory-ammo muzzle velocities with that bullet weight.

The “Creed” is no dragon slayer. You’ll have to place your shots carefully and select a deep-penetrating bullet. So why is it included? It’s phenomenally accurate, pushes aerodynamic projectiles with high sectional densities at reasonable velocities that don’t tear bullets to shreds on impact, recoils little, and has proven more capable than it has any right to be. It’s the finest all-around cartridge available for youth, women and new shooters. But don’t try to punch a raking shot through a bull’s hip — it doesn’t have the juice for that.

Great 6.5mm elk bullets: Hornady 143-grain ELD-X; Nosler 140-grain Partition; Swift 130-grain Scirocco II; Barnes 127-grain LRX.

  • Bullet weight: 140 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,750 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 2,350 ft/lbs

With the right bullet, a .270 will put down any bull walking the earth today. Ammunition can be found at every small-town hardware store across America, even in Roswell, N.M. Before the 6.5 Creedmoor was born, this was my favorite cartridge for any recoil-sensitive shooters. I grew up hunting with one stoked with 150-grain Partition handloads, and I never had a problem cleanly killing a bull.

Great .270 elk bullets: Nosler 160-grain Partition; Barnes 140-grain TSX BT; Swift 150-grain A-Frame.

  • Bullet weight: 150 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,850 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 2,705 ft/lbs

Loved by eccentric handloaders, this sleek hotrod generates 7mm magnum-like velocities out of an “improved” cartridge case. Sharp-angled shoulders and minimum taper provides increased propellant capacity, resulting in turbo performance coupled with higher magazine capacities (since the parent case is a standard .280 Remington most bolt actions hold 4 or 5 rounds). Plus, widely available standard .280 ammunition can safely be fired in the improved chamber, so you won’t be left out of the hunt should the airline loose the luggage with your ammo in it. I’ve made my longest two kills on elk with the .280 AI—both one shot and done. It’s not my all-time favorite elk cartridge, but it’s a really, really close second.

Great .280 elk bullets: Hornady 175-grain ELD-X; Barnes 168-grain LRX; Nosler 160-grain AccuBond.

  • Bullet weight: 168 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,850 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,030 ft/lbs

It’s so common that it may seem a bit boring, but this is probably the most versatile elk cartridge available — so long as you choose the right bullet. Early on, the 7mm Rem. Mag. developed a reputation as a wounder because ammo companies and handloaders were stoking it with light, thin-jacketed projectiles meant for 7x57 Mauser speeds. At magnum velocities, the soft bullets tended to fragment and fail to penetrate adequately. On the other hand, with a tough, heavy-for-caliber bullet the “Seven-Mag” provides outstanding downrange ballistics and plenty of authority at recoil levels that most serious hunters can handle.

Great 7mm elk bullets: Hornady 175-grain ELD-X; Barnes 168-grain LRX; Nosler 160-grain AccuBond; Federal 160-grain TBT.

  • Bullet weight: 175 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,900 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,267 ft/lbs

Although it’s new on the block, this cartridge is the best-engineered hunting 7mm available. It offers shocking good performance in a beltless, standard-length case and is becoming the go-to, extreme-range hunting cartridge. Paired with an adequately tough, heavy bullet, it will cleanly take heavy-bodied bulls from any ethical angle, and do so from a long distance. Recoil is brisk, and barrel life will likely be short.

Great 28-caliber elk bullets: Barnes 168-grain LRX; Nosler 175-grain Partition; Swift 175-grain A-Frame.

  • Bullet weight: 175 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 3,150 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,855 ft/lbs

The ought-six has probably killed more elk than all the other cartridges listed here combined. Not that it’s a better choice; it’s just extremely common, and yes, it’s pretty darned good at making meat. It’s superb on elk to 350 yards or a bit more in the hands of a very good rifleman. Beyond that distance, it doesn’t carry the steam of the faster cartridges listed here. When picking an elk bullet, shy away from light, fast projectiles and pick a heavy version. Just about any 180-grainer will do, since the .30-06 doesn’t produce bullet-destroying velocities.

Great .30-06 elk bullets: Swift 180-grain Scirocco II; Nosler 180-grain AccuBond; Barnes 175-grain LRX.

  • Bullet weight: 180 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,700 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 2,913 ft/lbs

While I’m generally not a fan of short magnum cartridges, this one has proven itself a very capable elk cartridge and deserves a place on the list. Factory ammo performs neck-and-neck with the legendary .300 Win. Mag., and does so out of shorter barrels. However, it doesn’t handle projectiles heavier than 180 grains as well as other magnums. If you want fast .30-caliber authority coupled with compact-rifle ergonomics, this is your poison. Pair it with an accurate 180-grain bullet and hunt confidently, knowing that your rifle is adequate for any reasonable scenario.

Great .300 WSM bullets: Swift 180-grain Scirocco II, Nosler 180-grain AccuBond, Federal 180-grain TBT.

  • Bullet weight: 180 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 3,000 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,596 ft/lbs

In purely practical terms, no elk cartridge equals the beautifully balanced .300 Win. Mag. It offers bull-thumping authority at a recoil level just at the cusp of what most serious shooters can handle. It’s extremely versatile with a broad selection of bullet weights, and with the right bullet is a great long-range performer. Handloaders easily equal or outdo factory-load performance — something that can’t be said of the other fast .30s listed here. I’ve taken as many bull elk with the .300 Win. Mag. as with all other cartridges, and in every case it’s been outstanding. It was my choice when I drew a limited entry Utah tag and dropped a 402 B&C gross (official) non-typical with one 180-grain Federal TBT.

Great .300 Win. Mag. elk bullets:Federal 180-grain TBT; Nosler 180- and 200-grain AccuBond; Swift 180-grain Scirocco II; Barnes 175-grain LRX; Hornady 200-grain ELD-X.

  • Bullet weight: 180 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 3,050 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,717 ft/lbs

No other elk cartridge offers the combination of style and performance like the .300 Weatherby does. Pushing heavy bullets at well over 3,000 fps, it hits elk like a freight train. Before modern rangefinders, it was the cartridge of choice for world-traveling hunters who liked its flat trajectory and emphatic impact. Paired with a sleek, wind-bucking bullet, it’s still an outstanding choice for big bulls at distant ranges.

Great .300 Weatherby elk bullets: Barnes 180-grain TSX and 175-grain LRX; Nosler 200-grain AccuBond; Swift 180-grain Scirocco II; Hornady 180-grain GMX and 200-grain ELD-X.

  • Bullet weight: 180 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 3,150 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,965 ft/lbs

In pure engineering terms, the 30 Nosler is the best of the entire flock of 30-caliber magnums. Featuring a belt-free, standard-length case with a shoulder sharp enough to provide ultimate capacity and internal efficiency, yet not too steep for slick feeding, it outperforms even the .300 Weatherby Magnum — and fits in standard-size bolt actions. It almost equals the .300 Ultra Mag, and does it with a whole lot less gunpowder. Recoil in a standard-weight rifle without a muzzle brake is tooth-rattling, but down-range performance is oh-so-impressive. If you’re one of those all-American .30-caliber guys, get a 30 Nosler precision rifle with a good brake, pair it with a tough, accurate bullet and never look back.

Great 30 Nosler elk bullets: Nosler 200-grain AccuBond; Swift 200-grain A-Frame; Barnes 200-grain LRX.

  • Bullet weight: 200 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 3,050 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 4,130 ft/lbs

This unsung cartridge is awesome for a light, short-barreled, all-around elk rifle. Built into a titanium short-action with a 20-inch Proof Research carbon fiber barrel and a McMillan Edge stock, it will weigh under six. For excessively rugged, steep-canyon elk country such as Idaho’s River of No Return wilderness, such a rifle could mean the difference between steaks and tag soup. With the right bullet, the .338 RCM is good all the way from 500 yards down to thick-timber distances.

Great .338 RCM elk bullets: Hornady 200-grain SST; Nosler 200-grain AccuBond; Swift 210-grain Scirocco II.

The .338 Win. Mag. has been called the ultimate elk cartridge. If you can hack the recoil, it offers truly impressive energy. If you hunt elk in grizzly-infested country, a rifle chambered in .338 is comforting. Offering the perfect balance of tremendous energy, large frontal diameter, ballistic efficiency, and long barrel life, the .338 has garnered disciples among rifle savants such as F&S’ own David E. Petzal. Shot opportunities come dear when hunting big bulls on public land, and nothing is better for tricky shot angles than a hard-hitting, deep-driving .338 bullet. Plus, ammo is available in just about every sporting goods shop across the West.

Great .338 Win. Mag. elk bullets: Nosler 225-grain AccuBond; Barnes 225-grain TTSX; Swift 225-grain A-Frame.

  • Bullet weight: 225 grs.
  • Muzzle velocity: 2,800 fps
  • Muzzle energy: 3,916 ft/lbs