Big Game Rifle: Is There Really a “Best Elk Rifle”?


The debate about the best big game rifle, particularly rifles for elk hunting, will never end. (Share your opinion below.) Elk are bigger than deer and big elk can get very big! Elk are very strong animals with a strong drive to survive. They are known for running after a lethal hit. Regardless of the size of the game or caliber of the gun, shot placement is critical. A good lung shot is the most preferred and deadly, regardless of the caliber of the elk rifle.

Whatever elk rifle you choose, make sure you sight it in properly and that you do good rifle practice with it each year. (Click on those links for our discussion of those topics.)

One Size Fits All?

Many people, if they could only own one big game rifle, would choose the 30.06. There is a wide variety of ammunition available for it. Premium, high power bullets make it effective as an elk rifle. As a deer hunting rifle, it has a long history of being the most popular caliber.

Another rifle that has wide acceptance as a good caliber for elk hunting is the 300 Winchester Magnum. Among elk hunting rifles, the 300 Win Mag holds its own. I see less elk travel distance with my 300 Win Mag than a 30.06, but there are bigger guns that may be even more suitable for elk and other big game. Potential penetration from 30 caliber rifles will be less than the .338 or 8 mm calibers, for instance.

People do hunt elk with smaller caliber rifles. I know a guy whose only big game rifle is a .243, including for elk. That would not be my choice and he gets a lot of ribbing for it, but he has killed a number of elk with it and has never lost one. I would feel irresponsible recommending a .243 or .270 as an elk rifle, since a bull can weigh a thousand pounds and don’t die easily.

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Take Your Best Shot,Then Take Another One!

Big bulls often need a follow up shot, regardless of the caliber chosen. The second shot doesn’t always present itself but, if it does, take it! An old elk hunter once told me “three quarters are better than none”, meaning, take the second shot even if it is in a meaty leg area. A little meat loss is better than losing an elk that travels and disappears after the first shot.

Unless you’re into only very close up hunting, choose a big caliber for elk hunting that you can shoot well and can operate quickly for a second shot, if one is presented. With practice, bolt actions are plenty fast enough and are the most popular because of their accuracy.

Other excellent calibers for elk hunting rifles are the 8mm Rem Mag, 308, .338 Win Mag, 300 and 338 Remington Ultra Mags, 340 Weatherby Mag, .375 H & H and others in between. Bullet weights from 165 to 240 grain can all be acceptable for killing elk, depending on the caliber.

Since I only have experience with a few big game rifle calibers, I want to open up the discussion below to anyone who wants to chime in, disagree or fill in the gaps.

Stock and Barrel Composition

A big game rifle that is light in heft weight (not necessarily caliber) will have a more memorable kick. Once you “remember” it, you might never shoot the light gun with accurate consistency again. A lighter gun is nice for carrying in rough elk terrain, but a little bit more heft might make a more accurate shooting gun for many, because of the more manageable recoil. (Take a look at the Safari Sling to make carrying your elk rifle easier in the ready position. I have chosen never to carry my big game rifle on my back again.)

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Elk hunting is rough on a rifle. Put it on your backpack, mountain bike, four-wheeler or horse and it takes a beating. Weather can take its toll on big game rifles while elk hunting, too. Many hunters still prefer blue metal and wood stocks, but stainless steel and synthetic stands up to the bumps, snow and rubbing of traveling to, from and in elk habitat. All of my guns are ugly, so I don’t have to worry about it too much. Buying a good used gun that has taken a cosmetic beating takes the stress out of protecting it, as well as the bank account.

Choosing a big game rifle caliber for elk hunting should involve some research into the widely varying opinions, tried and true knowledge, experience as well as scientific data. What works for you and what hasn’t? Please share your experience, opinions and knowledge about big game rifles below.

Other Rifle Hunting Topics on This Site:

Sighting In a Rifle Rifle Practice Free Paper Targets

Other Forum Topics

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>