best calibers for elk hunting | West Canyon Ranch

Utah is home to world-record-sized elk. The only type of elk you’ll encounter when hunting in Utah is the Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) — one of North America’s six recognized subspecies of elk. Rocky Mountain elk bulls average 700 pounds and are about 5 feet tall at the shoulder; the cows are slightly smaller at around 500 pounds and 4.5 feet. 

An animal of this size requires plenty of firearm power to take down quickly and effectively when on the hunt. But, any cartridge in a caliber large enough to bag an elk has a recoil that’s pretty hard on you, too. That’s why a crucial step in preparing for an elk hunt is selecting the right caliber rifle. If you’re new to elk hunting in Utah, or want to prepare before your next guided hunt at West Canyon Ranch, this article is for you. To help you choose your caliber, find the most common elk hunting rifles our hunters use below and the pros and cons of each.

Common Elk and Deer Hunting Calibers

Utah’s rifle regulations on taking big game are minimal: all Administrative rule R657-5outlines is that “A rifle used to hunt big game must fire centerfire cartridges and expanding bullets.” For hunters, that means the choice is yours of which rifle to bring, which makes your rifle selection the first key part of your hunting experience.

Before we get too far, let’s clarify something: “Caliber” means the diameter of the bore. “Cartridge” is the case holding the powder that drives the bullet. Plenty of hunting articles and blogs incorrectly label elk “calibers” when they’re really describing “cartridges.” We’ll explain the top cartridges below.

.270 Winchester for Elk Hunting

The lighter .270 Winchester consistently makes the list for an excellent all-around hunting rifle. It has a high velocity, allowing for deep penetration. Yet it has a flat shooting, and its recoil is more subdued for a powerful rifle. This gives it an accurate shot; it’s why it’s become an iconic cartridge used by plenty of big game hunters. 

PROS of .270 Win

  • Some bullets can go as fast as 3,300 feet per second. That should be more than enough to take out a large animal, like an elk.
  • Penetrating a target with a high-velocity bullet can cause significant internal damage. Bullets like the Nosler AccuBond have an expanding tip which increases damage potential and creates the characteristic mushroom shape that allows a single shot to take down a significant target.
  • The .270 cartridge also has fairly limited recoil, especially considering its power. This is a critical benefit because, with less recoil, it’s easier to use the gun, increase your accuracy, and improve confidence about reaching your target.
  • Finally, in terms of accuracy, a cartridge from the .270 will fly fairly straight and flat. 

CONS of .270 Win

  • Bullets for the .270 can be pricey. It’s not unusual to pay $1 for a .270. While it may not stand out initially, those costs increase over time. 
  • The .270 is extremely popular, yet many manufacturers are shifting their attention to other trending cartridges like the .308.
  • Long-range hunters may struggle with this cartridge; the effective range for most .270 bullets maxes out at around 400 yards. 

Our picks for Best .270 Win Rifles For Elk

  • Remington Model 700
  • Winchester Model 70
  • Browning X-Bolt Speed
  • CZ USA-557 Sporter

.308 Winchester for Hunting Deer and Elk 

Many hunters enjoy using the .308 because of its low recoil and high accuracy. A .308 is sure to deliver plenty of damage thanks to its deep penetration. It’s more than enough power to take down an elk. 

PROS of .307 Win

  • Unlike larger cartridges, the .308 is a lighter shot. For those new to hunting, it’s a perfect entry point. However, it can also benefit experienced hunters, too. Dealing with less recoil improves accuracy. 
  • The .308 Winchester is a heavier bullet than the .270. That means it delivers more damage, more reliably. Its shape is designed to defy wind resistance and deliver greater accuracy.
  • The .308 is an excellent multi-purpose cartridge. From heavily wooded landscapes to open plains, it handles domestic hunting species, like moose, deer, or elk, as well as more exotic game like an ibex or oryx.  
  • Because of its wind resistance, the .308 has been widely adopted by the military; this makes it easier to find and more adaptable to innovation and improvements over time.

 

CONS of .307 Win

  • While the .270 is known for a flat shot, the .308 is not. This could impact accuracy but can be mitigated by choosing a grain below 150. 
  • The .308 is more noisy than average, which could increase the chances of spooking your prey. 

Our Picks for Best .308 Rifles for Elk

  • Nosler M21
  • Mossberg MVP Scout
  • Winchester XRP

Is .30-06 Springfield a good elk round?

The .30-06 is still a top choice for elk hunting. It generates more than enough force to take out an elk — even at a distance. In fact, the.30-06 Springfield promises an accurate shot up to 1,000 yards away. In addition, this caliber offers a wide selection of bullets and guns to choose from.

PROS of .30-06

  • When you pull the trigger, you depend on the accuracy of your cartridge. The .30-06 has earned its reputation for delivering a highly accurate shot. It shoots flat and often has less than one minute of angle. 
  • Even from a distance — up to 1,000 yards away — it’s a reliable, long-range cartridge. 
  • It’s ideal for targeting animals, like elk, that travel in tight groups. Its accuracy allows for a clean shot through herds.
  • The .30-06 delivers power. The bullet travels at around 2,800 fps, so if you hit it in the right spot, you should be able to kill it instantly. If not, you still have a heavy blood trail to track. 

CONS of .30-06

  • Recoil is expected with any hunting rifle, but because of the power of the .30-06, it also has a powerful kick.  has earned a reputation for having a powerful kick. This is needed to put enough power behind the bullet to kill the elk. A modern rifle will have a recoil of between 10 to 25 foot-pounds, with the .30-06 delivering around 22 foot-pounds. Using a stabilizer will help, but remember that punishing recoils take a toll even as an experienced hunter. 

Our Picks for Best .30-06 Rifles for Elk

  • Weatherby Vanguard
  • Browning Composite Stalker
  • Winchester Model 70

7mm Remington Magnum for Elk Hunting

Since its creation in 1962, the 7mm Remington Magnum has remained a classic cartridge choice for elk hunting. Thanks to superior bullet design, it packs a punch capable of quickly taking the largest bulls.

PROS of 7mm Rem Mag

 

  • Ballistics are truly where the 7mm Remington Mag sets itself apart. It can retain 1500 ft-lbs of energy to around 450 yards, stay above 2000 fps until 400 yards, not drop out of the vitals until 300 yards, and not drift out of the vitals until 250 yards.

 

  • The 7mm Remington Mag is also highly versatile with a wide range of bullet weights. Everything from an antelope to a bear can be easily killed with a 7mm.
  • If you enjoy handloading, the Remington Mag is easy to reload and most handload models still retain optimal energy and speed in distances beyond 200 to 300 yards (even with bullet weights of 165 grains or higher). 

CONS of 7mm Rem Mag

  • As a magnum, one of its pitfalls is its relatively short barrel life and heavy powder consumption. Throat erosion is an issue after around 1,500 rounds, and barrel life lasts anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 rounds; this depends largely on your ammo load and rifle make. However, for most hobby hunters, this can easily last for up to 10 or more years of happy hunting.
  • The 7mm Remington Mag’s recoil is heavy, coming in at around 23 foot-pounds, which is less than the 300 Winchester Magnum (see below) but high enough that it will be a heavy hit that can affect your shot. 

Our Picks for Best 7mm Remington Magnum Rifles for Elk

  • Remington Model 700
  • Winchester Model 70
  • Ruger M77 Hawkeye

.300 Winchester Magnum for Elk Hunting

If we can only recommend one cartridge, it has to be the .300 Winchester Magnum. The .300 Winchester Magnum has won countless long-range target matches and is considered by many expert hunters to be the premier long-range elk round. With an excellent blend of power, manageable recoil, and flat trajectory, the .300 is a cartridge that you can’t go wrong choosing. 

PROS of .300 Win Mag

  • The .300 is widely available. While gun shops used to focus on keeping .270 Winchester, .30-30 Winchester, or .30-06 Springfield in stock, the .300 Winchester is now a part of the list of classics, making it easy to find wherever you are. Ammunition options are available for bonded-core, lead-free, premium, or affordable — whatever you want, you won’t have trouble finding it. 
  • Thanks to sound ballistics design, Winchester gave the .300 the powerful punch of the.30-06 with the flat trajectory of the .270. In the process, they created something even better than what they set out to make. That’s why nearly every rifle manufacturer offers a model for this impressive cartridge.
  • It’s capable of taking everything from beavers to bears. Hand loaders can tailor the round even more with premium bullets. Few other cartridges give you that level of flexibility.

CONS of .300 Win Mag

  • If there are downsides to the .300, it may only be its heavy recoil. It certainly intimidates some hunters. However, when chambered in a rifle with a properly designed and fitted stock, most hunters can handle it well. Just make sure the gun is substantial; the .300 doesn’t work well with ultra-lightweight models.

Our Picks for Best .300 Winchester Magnum Rifles for Elk

  • Browning X-Bolt
  • Weatherby Mark V
  • Remington 700

Take Your Best Shot at West Canyon Ranch

Selecting the cartridge and caliber of your rifle is only the beginning; for the best elk hunting experience in Utah, visit West Canyon Ranch. Our pristine 4,000 acre hunting ranch high in the Wasatch Mountains offers unparalleled views and guaranteed shots of elk, bison, turkeys, and everything in between. See for yourself why our Utah hunting ranch books quickly for Utah elk season. Contact us now for more information or to book your next guided hunt.