LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Long-range hunting is all the rage these days. Tales from far off battle fields about one-shot kills at over a mile have fired hunters' imaginations. Rifles and bullets are now on the market which can sling lead accurately at game animals out to distances considered impossible just a decade ago—if the shooter is up to the task.
Perhaps no other game animal frustrates hunters more than the North American elk. These crafty critters seem to possess some sixth sense about hunters' whereabouts. They often linger across valleys, safe in the assumption no one a thousand yards away can harm them. Until now.
There are many excellent long-range (beyond 500 yards) rifle cartridges, from the mild-shooting 6.5 Creedmoor to the flinch-inducing .338 Lapua. Which is best for elk, though?
Elk: Use Enough Gun
In addition to their paranoid natures, elk have one other attribute which makes them difficult to hunt; they are bullet sponges. Almost every elk hunter has a story about a big bull which took a solid hit from some death-ray magnum only to wander off as though nothing had happened. These beasts are tough, tough, tough, and elk cartridges need to put tremendous power into a wapiti's vitals: many experts say 1000 to 1500 foot-pounds on impact.
Many Are Called, Few Are Chosen
There are as many opinions about elk cartridges as there are cartridges. Hearsay evidence abounds, but there is little empirical information out there. In the past, a hunter would have to buy five or ten rifles chambered for different cartridges, test them all at the range, shoot bullets into ballistic gelatin, and then shoot them at live elk in the field just to get some idea as to the answer.
Science to the Rescue
Fortunately, there is a better, simpler way thanks to modern ballistic software. We can take the guess work and outright voodoo from the equation. The author has designed a test protocol to even the playing field and give hunters a good idea which cartridges they should spend their hard-earned money on.
A Ballistic Laboratory at Your Finger Tips
This test uses the software available free on the web at shooterscalculator.com to determine bullet trajectory, velocity, energy, and wind drift. All calculations for this shootout were based on Nosler AccuBond Long Range™ bullets for consistency. There are many fine bullets on the market, but Nosler has a well-deserved reputation for not just accuracy but also effectiveness on game—the real test for any hunting bullet. The author chose the following criteria to determine which long range cartridge is best for elk.
- Minimum impact velocity: 1500 fps. Nosler claims their AccuBond LR will expand down to 1300 fps, but with elk it’s best to have some margin for error.
- Minimum impact energy: 1200 ft-lbs (the rough average between 1000 and 1500 ft-lbs)
- Trajectory: least amount of drop while meeting criteria one and two.
- Drift: least amount of drift off center in a 90-degree, 10-mph cross wind, and meeting criteria one and two.
- All calculations were based on standard temperature and pressure (59° F/15C and 29.92 inHg/1013 mBar) at sea level.
And in This Corner...
The author selected ten cartridges based on several criteria:
- Reputation for either elk lethality or long-range accuracy
- Currently available in mass produced rifles
- Calibers for which Nosler makes an AccuBond LR bullet
This is not an attempt to test every available cartridge. No doubt, someone’s favorite isn’t here. The author selected the heaviest bullets offered by Nosler in each caliber, and the muzzle velocities are a reasonable average based on Nosler’s reloading manual. Since this is a long-range test, results were calculated from 500 to 1000 yards with a 500-yard zero. Here are the contenders.
142 grain bullet at 2675 fps muzzle velocity with a .719 ballistic coefficient (BC).
The Creedmoor has gained a large following since its introduction in 2007. In this test though, it proved marginal for long range elk hunting. While it produced 1590 fps at 1000 yards, it hit the energy wall at 600 yards with 1239 ft-lbs. It dropped 203 inches below line of sight and drifted 59 inches at 1000 yards.
142 grains, 2900 fps, .719 BC.
This precision target round turned hunter showed good elk performance to 800 yards with 1206 ft-lbs and 1956 fps. Drop at 1000 yards: 169 inches. Drift at 1000: 52 inches.
150 grains, 2890 fps, .625 BC.
The .270 is a legend due to famed writer Jack O’Connor. It reaches its elk limit at 700 yards in this test. Energy: 1257 ft-lbs. Velocity: 1942 fps. Drop at 1000: 185 inches. Drift at 1000: 63 inches.
.270 Weatherby Magnum
150 grains, 3100 fps, .625 BC.
Roy Weatherby’s flat shooter stretched its elk legs to 850 yards. Energy: 1234 ft-lbs. Velocity: 1925 fps. Drop at 1000: 158 inches (best in test). Drift: 56 inches.
175 grains, 2725 fps, .672 BC.
Perhaps the best balanced hunting cartridge ever produced, the .280 is elk medicine out to 800 yards. Energy: 1206 ft-lbs. Velocity: 1762 fps. Drop at 1000: 202 inches. Drift at 1000: 63 inches.
7mm Remington Magnum
175 grains, 2875 fps, .672 BC.
The most popular hunting cartridge in the world is a great long range elk stopper. It delivers a 1219 ft-lbs punch and 1771 fps at 900 yards. Drop at 1000: 179 inches. Drift at 1000: 58 inches.
210 grains, 2550 fps, .730 BC.
This old war horse never fails to impress, and like the 7mm Rem Mag, is elk worthy to 900 yards, although its trajectory is poor. Energy: 1195 ft-lbs. Velocity: 1601 fps. Drop at 1000: 224 inches. Drift at 1000: 62 inches.
.300 Winchester Magnum
210 grains, 2850 fps, .730 BC.
Favored for decades by long range target shooters and military snipers alike, the .300 Win Mag is a true 1000 yard elk killer. Energy: 1398 ft-lbs. Velocity: 1731 fps. Drop at 1000: 174 inches. Drift at 1000: 53 inches.
.338 Winchester Magnum
265 grains, 2675 fps, .778 BC (highest tested).
Elmer Keith’s favorite elk cartridge is a long range overachiever with 1620 ft-lbs and 1659 fps at a full 1000 yards. Drop at 1000: 194 inches. Drift at 1000: 54 inches.
.340 Weatherby Magnum
265 grains, 2725 fps, .778 BC.
This Weatherby is a freight train disguised as a rifle cartridge. It makes 1693 ft-lbs (best in test) and 1696 fps at 1000 yards. Drop at 1000: 186 inches. Drift at 1000: 52 inches.
And the Winner Is…
All these cartridges have their good points. The 6.5 Creedmoor, for example, has the flattest trajectory for the least amount of recoil, while the oldest cartridge here, the .30-06, hits with authority out to 900 yards.
Yet, there is only one winner in any group, and only three cartridges in this test are reliable 1000-yard elk killers: the .300 Win Mag, .338 Win Mag, and .340 Weatherby. Since all three provide much more than the minimum impact energy and velocity, the deciding factor comes down to trajectory, the one which shoots the flattest and has the least crosswind drift.
The .340 Weatherby has the lowest drift at 52 inches, but the second worst trajectory. The venerable .338 Win Mag has the worst trajectory and drift. This leaves the .300 Winchester Magnum with the flattest trajectory and second best drift. If all things are equal and high ballistic coefficient bullets are used, the powerful, versatile .300 Winchester Magnum is the best long-range elk cartridge tested.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: You said the 6.5 Creedmore was the flattest, and it drops to 203" at 1000. The only cartridge you listed that drops more is the '06 with a 210. Who would shoot a 210 in an '06? What you need to say is that of the cartridges you tested, the Creedmore was next to last in trajectory and last in energy!
Answer: What I said was the Creedmoor was flattest for the least amount of recoil, not the flattest overall, and the .30-06, as old as it is, still hits hard at extended ranges. There were flatter shooting rounds in the test, but they all hit the shooter's shoulder much harder than the Creedmoor. The cartridges are listed by increasing bore diameter and/or power, not first through last place. It is up to the reader to determine which, if any, cartridge here would best suit their long-range elk hunting needs.
Question: What is your opinion of the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum (RUM)?
Answer: While the .300 RUM is a fine cartridge, and a capable long-range elk round, there's just wasn't sufficient space in the article to include it. Its heavy recoil and muzzle blast relegate it to boutique status much like the .300-378 Weatherby Magnum. It's not for everyone, and as such not what I consider a more mainstream round such as the .300 Winchester Magnum, which can do just as much work on an elk out to 1000 yards as the RUM or Weatherby. As I said in the article, it was inevitable some fine cartridges were left out.
Question: Why was no 26, 28, or 30 Nosler listed?
Answer: Because they are too new with too little market share. The piece focused on mainstream, established cartridges. Perhaps I will include them in an updated article in a year or so--assuming those rounds gain in popularity.
© 2017 LJ Bonham
Dan on February 13, 2020:
I should have added that although the 338 Mag in 200 gr comes closer and has a little larger diameter, the 300 win mag still outperforms it but only slightly in ballistic data.
Dan on February 13, 2020:
Interesting analysis but I suspect there is a little 300 win mag bias here. The author's comparison utilized the 338 with a 265 gr bullet rather than a 200 gr bullet-HUGE DIFFERENCE!
T. on December 03, 2019:
PEOPLE THAT NEED 2 SURVIVE OUT THERE, LIVE THERE USE RIM-FIRE LR 22 FOR THE WHITE BEAR. PEOPLE ALSO USE COMPOUND BOW FOR THIS. NOT SOME FANCY RECOIL BOUTIQUE. PLACEMENT/ BULLET QUAL. IS EVERYTHING. Would rather be shot by a 300 Win Mag in arm than a HRM.17 in the Temple SMACK ANYDAY!! 6.5 CREED.
Jay Thomas on April 17, 2019:
Have you EVER personally shot an elk??? ..... if so what cartridge used .... based on my experience I will suggest that maximum humane kill range for 30-06 is 450 yards on an elk..... 300 WinMag is about 600 maximim on an elk...... I do NOT ever recommend anything smaller than 30 caliber except 270...... maybe I am old fashioned but a 6.5 creedmore is basically a .260 and suitable for discussion on elk (much like a 25-06 which is also one heckuva round..... tremendous..... but I do NOT recommend for elk which is very large and very tough....,,I would not recommend these smaller rounds for bear either) ....... why try to do things with a cartridge that it is not intended for.....what's next? shooting elk with a 22 magnum?..... just use a proper cartridge.... thank you
Muhammad Abdullah on April 15, 2019:
Great article ....
Clay Burke on April 01, 2019:
Thank you for your time and research. I found this very helpful. I own many of the rifles listed and have made a decision on what I’m using in Colorado this season based on your article.
Everyone that posted unpleasant comments,this was about math and science not ethics and judgments. You should have kept your judgements to yourself,it was unnecessary.
Don Chapman on January 14, 2019:
you forgot to include my 50 cal muzzleloader. at 1000 yards it has a drop of about 1000 yards. impact at the same energy as a butterfly. I wish it would shoot 600 yards.
Mark Williams on October 28, 2018:
How many Elk are you going to kill at sea level? Should have based results on a more reasonable elevation! 7000 ft would have been more like most hunting situations.
Shane Justice on October 16, 2018:
Why do you NEED to advertise your lack of woodsmanship by making unethical shot choices?
Clay Benjamin on April 09, 2018:
Flinch inducing 338 Lapua? Really???
With the advent of muzzle brakes there is absolutely no excuse to put up with ANY recoil on ANY rifle......
I have American Precision Fat Bastards on all of my guns. My 6 year olds favorite gun to shoot is my 338 Lapua......
Joe on November 13, 2017:
Excellent shooting, but lousy hunting and stalking skills.