Cartridge or Shot Placement – Which Matters Most?

Does your cartridge or shot placement matter more when it comes to cleanly killing big game like elk?

Mar 1st, 2019 #hunting#biggame

Big game Elk

Elk with a .308

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

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.

Spencer DurrantSpringville, Utah, United States
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James Prekeges Hard to take seriously an author who questions whether the .308 is enough of a cartridge, especially when he then tells us that a .270 is. If you compare the ballistics for the 180 grain Trophy Bonded Tip from Federal in .308 with any .270 cartridge (including 130, 140, and 150 grain bullets), the .308 delivers more energy on target at any distance. I have used my Steyr scout chambered in .308 using a 180-grain Trophy Bonded Tip from Federal for over 20 years, and killed everything including elk, kudu, and tougher animals like zebra, giraffe, etc. etc. We're not talking fancy shooting, just good old heart-lung minute-of-pie-plate accuracy. Any author who questions the ability of a .308 to begin with, and then tells us that a smaller, lighter bullet is perfect, has no credibility.
a year ago
Chad Ellis I shot a late season cow this year with my 300win mag in Montana. Watched it for a long time, showed no sign injury. While butchering i found what i guess to be a 243 bullet in its front shoulder blade. There was no bone breakage at all and only a little damaged/brused meat. Dont leave it to a perfect shot, use enough bullet to do the job. Have respect for the animal.
a year ago
Mike Vetters I think you help yourself w a magnum cartridge gor elk. Sure smallers will do it but i think you are better served with heavier bullets at higher velocity. I use a 300 RUM. Pretty good performance with a 180 grn bonded bullet.
a year ago
Leroy Brune Many Elk were killed with the old 257 Roberts. It is all about shot placement and knowing the capabilities of your rifle. All one needs is an accurate rifle and a little common sense.
a year ago
albuqrmef I have been hunting and guiding elk since 1985. Most guys that shoot those big magnum cartridges don't shoot them very well. They are afraid of the recoil. Too many hunters do not take their hunt as seriously as I think they should. There is no substitute for practice. I have many hunters ask me what gun they should bring on their elk hunt and I tell them "bring the gun you shoot the best". Shoot the best premium bullet you can shoot and start practicing. I've only been on about 150 elk kills and I am sure not as many as some on this post but the guy that shoot his gun accurately brings home the game. Shot placement is key. Another part of accurate shooting is patience. Patience will put more animals in your freezer. Happy hunting!!
a year ago
Michael Ballinger Well said!
2 months ago
bensterhan Shot placement is most important to me, at the same time if you are shooting too small of a caliber there is no room for error. If you double lung an elk with a 243 it is likely to travel farther than if you double lung an elk with a 300, and that could possibly change the outcome of your hunt
a year ago
Aden Holmes Shot placement. My 25-06 is the only rifle I hunt "big" game with... I haven't got my elk yet, but my mule deer didn't move at 310 yards. She was quarted away and I managed to hit high in the back of the lungs and tumble the bullet into her spine. I'm confident it'll take an elk.
a year ago
Bob Caperton I agree. Definitely shot placement first, followed by proper bullet selection and last is the cartridge. I shot my 2019 cow elk with a 150gr ELD-X from my little Kimber Montana in 7mm-08 at 211 yards. Fairly close range. I got a complete pass through and a reasonable exit hole which I didn't need as she dropped at the shot. Hunt with what you can hit with.
3 months ago