Does your cartridge or shot placement matter more when it comes to cleanly killing big game like elk?
A few days into the late-season cow elk hunt here in Utah in 2018, my buddy Chad and I sat around his kitchen table. Chad’s brother Clint was on the phone, which lay on the table between us.
You’re trying to kill an elk with a .308?” Clint’s voice garbled from the phone.
I nodded, even though he couldn’t see me. “Yeah. Why?”
Clint sighed. “That’s just not enough bullet to kill an elk.”
I glanced at Chad. Between the two brothers, I reckon they’ve harvested north of 80 elk in their forty-odd years of hunting together. If anyone knows elk hunting, it’s Chad and Clint.
“Well what should I shoot?” I asked Clint.
“You can borrow my 7mm Remington Ultra Mag,” Clint said.
I raised my eyebrows at Chad. A 7mm Remington Ultra Mag felt like overkill for a cow elk, especially with how well I’d closed the distance on elk so far. If everything went according to plan, I wouldn’t need to shoot past 300 yards.
A week or so after that conversation with Clint, I shot my cow elk at 400 yards with Chad’s old Ruger .270 Winchester. She dropped with one shot.
Now, as I while away the rest of winter waiting for pre-runoff fly fishing and turkey season, I’ve thought a lot about that conversation with Clint. Was my .308 really not up to snuff for elk? Other friends of mine, elk hunters as avid as Chad and Clint, had recommended the .308. My own research supported the .308’s capability.
Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
Richard Mann wrote the following for Petersen’s Hunting regarding the .308:
“It will work splendidly on whitetails – I’ve done that – and it’s sufficient for moose – I’ve done that, too . . . When properly zeroed it will allow to you hold dead on out to just the other side of 300 yards.”
John B. Snow, the Shooting Editor for Outdoor Life, had this to say on the .308:
“It wasn’t that long ago that a .308 Win. would have been considered on the margins as an acceptable elk round, but with improvements to bullet design and cartridge technology, you have no need to worry.”
Well John, I did worry. I worried a lot that my .308 wouldn’t answer the call for 2019, so I sold it for a Weatherby Vanguard Sporter .270. What’s really interesting, though, is that while I spent hours and hours deciding between a .270 or a .25-06, just about every article I read comparing the two cartridges agreed on at least one thing.
Any reasonable bullet – from the .25-06, 6.5 Creedmoor, .270, and yes, the .308 – will knock down an elk if that bullet hits true through the vitals. Remember, I took my elk last season with one shot from a .270.
That naturally brings up the question hunters have debated for millennia (I’m sure our cavemen ancestors argued over which arrowheads were better for saber-toothed tigers – a sobering thought). Does your cartridge or shot placement matter more when it comes to cleanly killing big game like elk?
Shot placement has the edge in my book – call it 70% shot placement, and 30% cartridge type. The consensus from articles I’ve read and hunters I’ve talked to is that any round using the .30-06 as its parent cartridge (as the .270 and .25-06 do) is a reasonable baseline for adequate elk-killing ammo. The 6.5 Creedmoor was built by modifying a .30 Thompson Center case to handle .264 bullets.
As long as you’re using a bullet with enough foot-pounds of force at 300 yards, the bullet you shoot doesn’t really matter when it comes to killing elk. Shot placement matters far more. A 7mm Remington Ultra Mag will punch through damn near anything, but it’s not likely to kill an elk if you shoot it in the hindquarters instead of the vitals.
Perhaps Bryce Towsley said it best in a 2010 article for American Hunter.
“First off, I know all too well that elk can and have been killed with little cartridges. I also know there are stories of at least one elephant being killed with a .22 Long Rifle, but no sane person will argue that the .22 LR is an adequate elephant cartridge.”
That elephant story sounds like more of a fisherman’s tale to me, but Towsley gets to the heart of the matter here – if you put an appropriate bullet in the right place, you’ll bag your game.
Photo Credit: Spencer Durrant
The debate around the “best” elk cartridge, I think, has more to do with where and how you hunt than the round’s actual knockdown power.
Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.