Let’s start out by stating the obvious. There are literally hundreds of good cartridges that are more than adequate for deer and elk hunting. There is neither time or space here to go over all the possibilities. So lets focus on a few excellent groups of cartridge choices.
Today’s subject matter is deer and elk, two animals I am quite familiar with and I have had the good fortune to take many of both over my hunting career. One of the many takeaways from these many years, is that neither of them are bullet proof, and most people use much more gun than necessary. Let me be clear; Use what you think is best, if you think you need a .338 super magnum to take down a bull elk, be my guest. But I certainly don’t. With that in mind, lets get into some cartridges.
The ’06 Case for elk and deer
The popularity of the 30-06 is undeniable. Probably as many deer and elk have been killed by the 06 as anything else. Quite frankly it’d be hard to go wrong with it, but there are a few offspring from the Springfield that are also more than adequate hunting cartridges. And they may assuage your taste for something more exotic.
The .270 Winchester and 25-06 Remington are both derived from the 06 case, and both are excellent choices for your next hunting rifle. While the 25-06 may be considered a bit light for elk, it is an outstanding choice for any deer. It’s fast bullets fly a very flat trajectory, and its lower recoil make it an excellent rifle for a new hunter or one who is a bit recoil shy. The bigger .270 has a better bullet selection. With a wider range of bullet weights, and a heavier overall selection.
This probably makes the .270 a better choice if elk are in your future. I killed both my first buck, and my first elk with a 25-06. But honestly any one of these 30-06 based cartridges would be an excellent choice for your next deer or elk rifle.
Of the many elk I’ve killed over the last twenty years, most have them have been from short action cartridges like the 308 and Creedmoor. The last seven alone have been dropped in their tracks by the 6.5 or smaller.
A Magnum Option
Many hunters choose magnum cartridges in their caliber discussion for deer and elk hunting, they do so for a variety of reasons. The main advantage of magnum cartridges is power. The high velocities and typically heavier bullets used in magnum cartridges gives hunters additional power to take down animals. As skills and tech advance the range of hunters, the additional power of magnums can come in handy down-range.
The always popular 300 Winchester Magnum has long been the standard magnum cartridge for deer and elk hunters. With loads varying from 165 grain up to 240 grain bullets, and ammunition available almost anywhere ammo is sold, it is hard to go wrong with a 300WM. The 338WM and 7mm Remington Magnum are not quite as common, but comparable and excellent choices. But the old gold standard isn’t the only good option. If you want something more exotic or just different there is a cartridge just for you.
Short Magnums were a big craze years ago, and still make a good choice today. While they are not as common in the retailers, they offer some good advantages. The Winchester Short Magnum family with 270, 7mm, and 300 calibers would all make excellent elk rifles to pack into the back country. One of my all-time favorite hunting cartridges, and has claimed several of my best shots, is the 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Magnum (7SAUM). Fast seven’s are lightning on big game. The selection of great bullets for them give you the ability to customize them to your hunting needs.
Whether you choose one of the golden oldies, or something brand new like a 300PRC, or 28 Nosler. Make sure you don’t fall for the old mistake of thinking that your magnum will make up for poor shooting. A good shot with a small cartridge is better than a bad shot with a big cartridge.
The Right Bullet
Choosing the right cartridge for your hunt is perhaps not as important as choosing the right bullet to shoot. For example, a .270 is a great cartridge for deer and elk hunting. But if you are shooting too light a bullet then you may as well be shooting a .243.
Not that it cant be done with either a .243 or light .270, it’s just a better choice to shoot something heavier. Heavy bullets carry more energy, and energy is what kills our prey. So when picking out ammunition for your next hunting rifle, pick something that is towards the heavier side. Especially if you are on the smaller side of the cartridge spectrum.
If your shooting a 6.5, you may want to steer away from 100-120 grain bullets and get into a 140 or bigger bullet. If your shooting something like a 7mm or .30 caliber, bullet weights like 150 grains and above are pretty normal and more than adequate.
Bullet construction is another subject you should consider in your selection. Not all bullets are built the same. Traditional copper-cup and lead-core bullets have worked for generations. But today we have bonded bullets, copper solids, and more.
The most important thing I could mention here is that “hard bullets” or those bonded and built to stay together, work great at high velocities and up close. But if its a long shot, and much of your velocity has been lost. You may want to use a “softer bullet” with a simple lead core and thin jacket. Otherwise you may have less than satisfactory terminal performance due to the bullets impact velocity and its ability to open.
As I mentioned at the intro to this subject, these animals are not bullet proof. But magnum horsepower, and the worlds best bullet don’t mean much if you cant shoot it well. I also mentioned that a good shot from a small caliber is better than a bad shot from a large caliber. I’d rather make a heart shot with a 25-06 than a gut/liver shot with a 338 Lapua Magnum. This line of thinking applies to everything we’ve discussed here today. If the shooter is intimidated by heavy recoil, or out of practice, they are more likely to make a bad shot.
My son shot his first elk with a .260 Remington, read that story here
Keep this in mind when selecting your next hunting cartridge. Flinch factors and the ability to shoot with enough frequency to become more than proficient are just as important as the rest of the considerations.
There are more good options than bad ones nowadays, so don’t sweat it too hard. You should evaluate the application of your choices and the way you plan to hunt. Then balance it against your shooting skill level and the cost, you will be setup for a successful hunt. Enjoy it and make the most of the opportunity.