Best Elk Cartridge?

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Wayne bet a hunt in the Bob Marshall Wilderness on his Marlin .30-30. He shot this nice bull at 55 yards.

An elk cartridge should recoil comfortably in the lightweight rifles you’d prefer to pack in tough country.

Until you’re fortunate enough to shoot at an elk, the cartridge in your rifle matters no more than the size of your boots. As elk can be devilishly hard to find, you’ll want to make good on every chance. But the fact of the matter is a clean kill depends more on your marksmanship than the cartridge. The elk has a hand in the results too.

Many moons ago in a Douglas fir thicket, I got the drop on a spike bull and sent him a softpoint from my .375 H&H. Overgunned, you say? At 30 steps even iron sights afforded true aim. The 300-gr. RN got both lungs but rather than drop obligingly, this elk simply loped off through the timber.

Some seasons later I closed on another spike in the aspens. At the snap of my .30-30 carbine, the animal wilted.

Okay, the elk I laced with 4,300 ft.-lbs. of .375 mayhem didn’t go far, while the other one took the 170-gr. SP from my lever carbine high in its neck where even 1,800 ft.-lbs. weren’t needed. Nothing proven. Besides, those elk were in cover. No one shoots elk in cover anymore. Hunters belly down behind a bipod on a butte, tap their smart-phone for dope, then dial the scope to arc a bullet as long as a ballpoint pen into the next county.

Wayne took this Utah bull with a Remington Model Seven in .308 — a fine choice for elk.

Thirties Aplenty

At one time Colorado’s top-scoring elk was attributed to the .30-40 Krag. It had fallen in 1899 to Slovenian immigrant miner John Plute, who lived in a Crested Butte boarding house and pestered dwindling game herds to get venison for the Elk Saloon. Details of the hunt and his loads and rifle (probably a Winchester M95) have been lost. Reportedly, when he returned from Anthracite Creek with meat, onlookers didn’t believe his description of the antlers he’d discarded so he rode back and fetched them. Plute died in 1922, victim of a fall from the saddle after a party.

I like the .30-40 and a Navy Krag in this caliber was the first centerfire rifle I ever fired. Its sight radius was long as a hoe-handle; still I missed the soup can on the lip of a plowed furrow and the steel buttplate was brutal.

Even with blunt 220-gr. bullets, the .30-40 has more reach than flat-nose 170s from a .30-30. Drop at 300 yards with 100-yard zeroes is 28" for the Krag, 36" for the .30 WCF, which lands only 850 ft.-lbs. at 300 steps. Hunters soon craved a more punch, flatter flight.

They got it with the .30-06. Now in more than 80 types of factory ammo, it wrings as much as 2,800 fps from 180-gr. bullets to bring a ton of smash past 300 yards. My surveys of thousands of elk hunters had the ’06 edging 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester Magnums in popularity. Of course, this was long after iron-sighted leverguns dominated hunting camps.

I once bet a hunt into Montana’s Bob Marshall on a .30-30. When a bull came thundering through the timber, I threw myself prone. The shot to his chest turned him, and he labored to a stop. My next bullet landed well; the elk dropped to a third.

A single .32 Special bullet from an iron-sighted Marlin 336 salvaged another hunt. I’d spied the antler curving up beside the sagging limbs of a snag. Shot from 130 yards, the bull ran 50 and piled up.

Savage’s .303 in its 1895 rifle used .308-diameter bullets (the .303 British fired .311s). In 1920 an updated Model 99 arrived, its frisky new .300 Savage round driving 150-gr. bullets 2,670 fps. In 1952 the .308 Winchester would give the M99 even more muscle.

Gentle in recoil, the .270 accounted for 122,323 pre-64 M70s. Current bullets make it deadly on elk.

The .250 Savage has its limits but it took 20 big bulls for a Utah rancher. Good judgment and marksmanship counts more than caliber!

The flat-shooting, hard-hitting 7mm Remington Magnum with 160-gr. bullets is a top-tier elk load.

The .30-06 remains wildly popular for elk and rightly so.

Wayne’s first bull fell to the .300 H&H (left). He prefers the .308 Norma (center) to the .300 Winchester Magnum (right).

Smaller Options

Most of the elk I saw shot in a decade of guiding hunters fell to big .30’s and the .338 Winchester. These were costly hunts, for truck-shouldered bulls clients assumed would shrug off all but magnum hits! But one hunter wanted his son to hunt too. “He has a cow tag. Should he use his 6mm or my .30-06?” I asked the youngster, slight of frame, which he shot best. “The six,” he said. I assured him it would do fine. At dawn the lad and I sneaked up on a herd, and he threaded a 95-gr. Partition through a cow’s heart.

An aging rancher who also guided hunters told me he’d killed 20 bulls with his .250 Savage lever rifle. “Big bulls. The .250 puts ’em down if you take only good shots.”

I’ve felt more comfortable hunting with the .270. A .277 bullet seemed an odd pick, given options in 1925 when the cartridge was unveiled. Maybe Winchester wanted a distinctive number but the cartridge proved a brilliant mix of tradition, innovation and ambitious breech pressures. At 3,140 fps off the blocks, the .270s 130-gr. bullets beat 87-grainers from a .250 Savage, and reached 300 yards clocking 2,320.

To elk hunters of the day, the missile seemed light. The .30-30 had been hailed just three decades earlier as a small-bore, high-velocity cartridge. But doubts vanished as sportsmen of stature used the .270 — most notably Jack O’Connor. He liked it and said so. It gained traction too as a charter chambering in Winchester’s Model 70 in 1937. Of 581,471 Model 70s built before the rifle’s ’63 overhaul, 208,218 were .30-06s; 122,323 were .270s.

The first elk I shot with a .270 took the bullet in the forward ribs but kept its feet and senses. The missile had blown up on entry, peppering one lung. Had not my second shot broken its neck, I might have lost the bull. Early soft points included some floozies. Slender bullets depend heavily on double-diameter mushrooms and high weight retention.

Bullets have since improved. An elk shot by a client at 90 yards with a .270 reared up and toppled backward, spearing the earth with its great antlers to lie dead, belly-up. Another, hit midships by a .280, staggered, fell and quickly died.

The 7mm Remington Magnum delivers a comforting margin of energy with little more recoil than the .270 or .280. At its 1962 introduction with the Model 700, Remington and Wyoming outfitter Les Bowman hawked it masterfully as a long-range deer/elk cartridge. Oddly, it was factory loaded with 150- and 175-gr. bullets. I asked a pal at Big Green why it hadn’t loaded a sleek, stout 160 to 3,000 fps for elk. “We had lots of 175s on hand,” he replied.

The .33 Winchester (1902-1940) was a potent elk round for the Model 86 rifle.

The .300 Ruger Compact Magnum — developed at Hornady — wrings high velocities from short barrels.

Euro-metric power: Not all top elk rounds are home-grown. The German 9.3x62 is like a super .35 Whelen.

Faster, Bigger, Better?

Powerful .30-bores kill lots of elk, but many seem to me needlessly violent. A .300 H&H downed a surprise bull at dusk 46 years ago. Since then, I’ve thought the “Super .30s” 180-gr. bullet at 2,900 fps a useful standard for the toughest elk and most difficult shots. I also like its slick-feeding case and the way bullets leave without slamming the door.

Other .30s have served as well. Specifically Remington’s Model Seven-friendly .300 SAUM, the .300 Ruger Compact Magnum which shines in short barrels, Hornady’s .308 Marlin Express for leverguns.

Dating to 1925, the .300 H&H had a predecessor in Charles Newton’s .30, circa 1913. It launched 180-gr. bullets at 2,860 fps and was loaded by Western Cartridge until 1938. The belted .30s got little attention stateside until after the .308 Norma Magnum in ’60. Essentially a .30/338 (but slightly longer), the Norma’s hull appeals to me more than the later .300 Winchester. In steep Idaho forest once, I heard the rumble of hoof beats. Elk streamed by. I caught the wink of antlers — then muffed the shot! A follow-up struck home. The bull tumbled downhill to wedge between the slope and a fallen fir. I had to disassemble him from the top in rain as night fell.

The misery soon faded from memory. For .30-06-length actions, I’m still sweet on the .308 Norma.

What about .33s? Elk hunters have used ’em since 1902, when the .33 Winchester appeared in the fine Browning-designed Model 1886. Its 200-gr. bullet at 2,200 fps struck a mighty blow, upstaging the .30-30. But its flat nose put it behind the Krag’s more efficient missile at a distance. Still, it was a top-tier elk round until 1936, when Winchester announced the Model 71 in .348. Though the .33 dropped off ammo lists in 1940, wildcatters pioneered its progeny.

After WWII Charlie O’Neil, Elmer Keith and Don Hopkins necked up the .30-06 to fashion the .333 OKH. It nearly matched England’s .333 Rimless Nitro Express, or .333 Jeffery, which powered 250-gr. .333 bullets at 2,500 fps. The OKH team later changed bullet diameter to .338.

The .338 Winchester Magnum — a 1958 arrival — got a slow start in the Model 70 Alaskan. It has since charmed elk hunters. Hurling two tons of thump from the muzzle, it bangs your clavicle too, especially with heavy-bullet loads. More recently, Hornady grew the .33 field with the .338 Marlin Express and .338 Ruger Compact Magnum. Both resulted from Dave Emary’s work on proprietary powders yielding long, flat pressure curves (translation: high velocities under normal pressure lids plus tolerable recoil).

To date I’ve taken elk with 36 cartridges, .250 Savage and .30-30 to .340 Weatherby and .375. It seems to me all were adequate, but some limiting. Light, thin-jacketed bullets can’t thread quartering elk. Slow flat-points fail at a distance. Recoil matters too. I shoot better and recover for follow-ups sooner without savage shoulder-pounding loads. I also appreciate hulls that slip effortlessly from magazine to chamber.

Long shots? I’ve taken very few, the longest with a 6.5 Creedmoor. For open places, the .270 and 7mm Weatherby Magnums excel. But I still prowl the timber, and the last elk I took with either of those fast-steppers was 14 yards from the muzzle. No bipod.

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