Unless you’re lucky enough to have them in your backyard, elk are often a once-in-a-lifetime trophy. Should you be fortunate enough to draw a tag, you may spend months pouring over maps, scouting terrain, getting in shape, and searching for the right guides. Then, when you finally have an opportunity to take a shot at one, the last thing you want is to deliver a non-lethal shot and lose your trophy. Elk are ruggedly tough, almost Herculean animals. They’ve evolved to thrive in harsh environments and survive vicious predators. They don’t die easily. Elk survive falls off of cliffs; gaping wounds from grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions; and misplaced shots from hunters. I’ve butchered elk and found old, mushroomed and flattened bullets embedded in their shoulders.
I once observed a bugling 6×6 bull with two green-fletched arrows sticking out of his ribcage and back. As I watched, he jumped up and bred a cow—undeterred by the arrows in his side. To take down an animal like that, most hunters agree you need a serious big-game rifle like a .375 H&H or .416 Rigby that can punch through and break bones at long range. While this may be true, not everyone can afford to run out and buy a new gun just to hunt elk. So most elk hunters must make do with the rifle that they’ve got. That said, shot placement and having the correct ammunition for said rifle is absolutely key. With the right load, an elk can be taken down with almost any big-game caliber. But as far as common calibers go, these are among the best rounds for bringing down your bull.
.300 Winchester Magnum
If the elk is the king of big game, then the .300 Win Mag is the king of elk cartridges. Easily the best-selling elk round in the country, it was introduced by Winchester back in 1963 as a magnum round meant to pack a punch at long range. For hunting in the open country of the West where elk are wary and hunters are frequently forced to take shots ranging beyond 300 yards, having a .300 Win Mag provides a lot of reassurance. It’s available in everything from 150 to 220 grain loads, but for elk hunting 170 to 180 grains is the recommended dose. That will deliver around 3,000 ft-lbs of energy at 2,800 fps.
7mm Remington Magnum
Like the .300 Win Mag, the 7mm was a caliber designed to deliver impressive potency at long distances. Designed as a belted magnum derived from a .375 casing, the 7mm is a surprisingly light-shooting gun with minimal recoil. It’s popular with a number of whitetail hunters in the American Northeast, where the round is favored for its ability to punch through thick brush without much deflection. In the elk world it’s a workhorse, able to perform no matter what extremes are asked of it. A 160-grain round travels at close to 3,000 fps with minimal bullet drop inside of 400 yards.
An absolute classic and a personal favorite, the .30-06 Springfield originated as a military round back in 1906 and was the cartridge loaded in the M1 Garand clutched in the hands of American troops as they stormed the beaches of Normandy during WWII. This prolific round has been tested everywhere from the Arctic to Africa by big-game hunters. As an elk round it is second to none. Whether still-hunting elk though thick timber or stalking close to a bedded bull in the scrub brush of the wide-open mountains, the .30-06 can handle almost any conditions and still deliver impressive results. While available with heavier-grain bullets, the .30-06 firing a 165-grain round has about a two-inch bullet drop and maintains 2,100 fps at 300 yards. More than enough to stop a big bull.
Among the most popular cartridges in the world, the .308 first came into being in 1952 as a military round favored by marksmen and snipers. It quickly became favored as a hunting round after Vietnam given its flat-shooting performance. The .308 performs very similarly to the .30-06 but has a little less recoil (and velocity) and is often favored by shooters who prefer AR-pattern rifles. (The AR-10 is chambered to the .308.) A .308 firing a bullet between 165 and 185 grains delivers around 2,500 to 2,700 ft-lbs of pure smack! That means it can drop an elk in its tracks anywhere from 30 to 300 yards.
If you’ve read anything by Jack O’Connor, perhaps the greatest big-game hunter in history, you’ll know of the praise he heaped upon the .270. Originally considered the “little brother” of the .30.06 (it shares the same cartridge case, but has been necked down to fire .277-diameter bullets), the .270 was first introduced to the hunting world in 1925. Its capabilities as an elk rifle make it perhaps the best one on this list: It shoots flat, has low recoil, and delivers excellent potency. While it’s mostly available in lower-grain rounds meant for deer, a box of 150-grain .270 shells will leave a rifle barrel at 3,200 fps and bowl over a big bull elk with 3,000 ft-lbs of energy at ranges well beyond 400 yards.
While there are larger and more popular elk rifles specifically designed for the task, I feel these are probably the more common all-around big-game calibers available that will deliver the best performance. That said, there are plenty of other calibers that will do the job, including the humble .30-30 or .243. In the end it all comes down to shot placement. Unlike deer, where a hunter can get away with taking some more liberal shots and still drop their buck, elk hunters need to be precise. An inch off in any direction can result in days of following a blood trail or a bull getting away. When presented with an opportunity, a hunter has to be patient and willing to pass on any shot that isn’t perfect.