Let’s start by stating the obvious: There are plenty of good cartridges that are more than adequate for deer and elk hunting. There’s neither time nor space here to go over all the possibilities, so let’s focus on a few excellent choices.
Today’s subject matter is deer and elk. These are two animals I’m quite familiar with, and I’ve had the good fortune to claim many of both during my hunting career. I’ve also learned over the years that most people use much more gun than is really necessary. To be clear, you should 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 do not. With that in mind, let’s get into some cartridges.
The ‘06 Case
The popularity of the .30-06 Springfield is undeniable. This cartridge has probably claimed as many deer and elk as anything else. Quite frankly, it would be hard to go wrong with it. But there are a few offspring of the Springfield cartridge that are also more than adequate for hunting.
The .270 and .25-06 are both derived from the .30-06 case. 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. The fast-flying bullet has a very flat trajectory, and the lower recoil makes it an excellent rifle for a new hunter. The bigger .270 has a better bullet selection and a wider range of bullet weights.
A Short Action
There are plenty of great short-action cartridges for hunting deer and elk. Perhaps one of the most popular is the .308 Winchester. It has been used for hunting big game since the 1950s. There are lots of great bullet options that will take down even the toughest of the deer family.
A relative newcomer to the market, the Creedmoor is nearly a ballistic twin to the 6.5×55 Swede. This round has been used for hunting deer, elk, and even moose for over a hundred years. While many are quick to discount the Creedmoor, it is a perfect fit for hunting with its flat-shooting bullet selections.
Of the many elk I have killed over the last 20 years, most have been from short-action cartridges like the .308 and Creedmoor. The last seven alone have been dropped in their tracks by the Creedmoor or smaller rounds.
Many hunters choose magnum cartridges for their deer and elk hunting. They do so for a variety of reasons. The main advantage of magnum cartridges is power. The high velocities and heavier bullets give hunters additional power to take down animals.
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, it’s hard to go wrong with a .300 Win Mag. The .338 Winchester Magnum and 7mm Remington Magnum are not quite as common, but they are comparable and excellent choices. Still, the old gold standard isn’t the only good option.
Short magnums were a big craze years ago, and they still make a good choice today. The Winchester Short Magnum family with .270, 7mm, and .300 calibers would all make excellent elk rifles to pack into the backcountry. One of my all-time favorite hunting cartridges that has claimed several of my best shots is the 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Magnum (7SAUM). Fast sevens are lightning on big game, and the selection of great bullets give you the ability to customize them to your hunting needs.
Whether you choose one of the golden oldies or something new like a .300 PRC 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 cannot 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 you’re shooting a 6.5, you may want to steer away from 100-120 grain bullets and get into a 140 or bigger bullets. If you’re shooting something like a 7mm or .30 caliber, bullet weights like 150 grains and above are pretty normal and are 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 it’s a long shot, 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 bullet’s impact velocity and its ability to open.
There are more good options than bad ones nowadays, so don’t sweat it too hard. If you 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.