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Long-Range Elk Cartridge Virtual Shootout

Updated on March 7, 2017
LJ Bonham profile image

LJ Bonham is an author, historian, hunter, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. Minimum impact energy: 1200 ft-lbs (the rough average between 1000 and 1500 ft-lbs)
  3. Trajectory: least amount of drop while meeting criteria one and two.
  4. Drift: least amount of drift off center in a 90-degree, 10-mph cross wind, and meeting criteria one and two.
  5. All calculations were based on standard temperature and pressure (59° F / 29.92 inHg) at sea level.

And in This Corner...

The author selected ten cartridges based on several criteria:

  1. Reputation for either elk lethality or long-range accuracy
  2. Currently available in mass produced rifles
  3. 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.

1. 6.5 Creedmoor

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.

6.5 Creedmoor Trajectory
6.5 Creedmoor Trajectory | Source

2. 6.5-284 Norma

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.

6.5-284 Norma Trajectory
6.5-284 Norma Trajectory | Source

3. .270 Winchester

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 Winchester Trajectory
.270 Winchester Trajectory | Source

4. .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.

.270 Weatherby Trajectory
.270 Weatherby Trajectory | Source

5. .280 Remington

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.

.280 Remington Trajectory
.280 Remington Trajectory | Source

6. 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.

7mm Remington Magnum Trajectory
7mm Remington Magnum Trajectory | Source

7. .30-06 Springfield

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.

.30-06 Springfield Trajectory
.30-06 Springfield Trajectory | Source

8. .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.

.300 Win Mag Trajectory
.300 Win Mag Trajectory | Source

9. .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.

.338 Win Mag Trajectory
.338 Win Mag Trajectory | Source

10. .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.

.340 Weatherby Trajectory
.340 Weatherby Trajectory | Source

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.

Good Advice From a Custom Rifle Maker: Choose Your Cartridge Based on the Animal You Hunt

© 2017 LJ Bonham

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