Elk may be a species of deer, but they’re not like the small deer that bounce across the road in front of you when you’re driving home in the evening. These are large, majestic animals. They can fill your freezer for months. But only if you do your part by selecting the right gun, using proper ammo, and placing your shot properly.
.308 Winchester is known to be a good deer hunting round for both whitetail and mule deer species. It’s also a very common round, already owned by many sports shooters. However, is it wise to use .308 for elk?
With the right hunting load, .308 Winchester is powerful enough to harvest both cow and bull elk. You may want to keep your shots within 300 to 400 yards max, though, and be sure to choose the right ammunition.
Let’s go through why .308 is good enough for elk and how to choose the right load. Then we’ll cover potential disadvantages and other cartridges you may want to select instead.
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Is .308 Good for Elk?
First, let’s look at the questions you should ask when choosing any hunting caliber for any animal:
- Can the bullet penetrate deep enough through the animal to damage both lungs with a broadside shot?
- Will the cartridge propel the bullet at a velocity sufficient to fulfill the above need at the ranges at which you’re willing to take a shot at the animal?
If the answer to those two questions is “yes” then the round is suitable for the animal you’re hunting.
Now, let’s see if .308 Winchester meets these criteria when it comes to elk.
The rule of thumb when taking down an elk, whether it’s a bull or cow, is that you need a minimum of 1,500 foot-pounds of kinetic energy when the bullet hits. Otherwise, the bullet may not adequately penetrate the vital zone. You’ll wound the elk, not kill it, and we don’t want that!
Load that .308 case with a 165-grain bullet, fire it with a muzzle velocity of almost 2,700 fps, and it’ll have more than 1,600 ft-lbs of kinetic energy at 350 yards. I’d say that’s more than good enough for most elk hunters.
My experience with hunting guides has been that, though they prefer .30 caliber magnum cartridges, more elk have been dropped with .308 Winchester than any other single cartridge.
Related: Best .308 Rifles Reviewed
How Far Can You Take an Elk with .308?
.308 has less initial velocity than a .30 cal magnum and will bleed velocity more quickly than a more-aerodynamic slimmer caliber, such as .270. This makes .308 less than ideal for long-range elk hunting.
The general consensus is that a skilled hunter firing a good .308 bullet can take down an elk at ranges up to 400 yards. 165 gr or 168 gr bullets are preferred for these long-range shots.
180gr pills will hit the above-mentioned 1,500 ft-lb minimum at 350 yards. 200 gr bullets will bleed too much velocity to even get that far.
If you plan on hunting elk at long ranges, I’d spend some time at your local long-distance shooting range getting familiar with wind drift and bullet drop.
I’d also plan to only shoot out to 350 yards, which will give you some wriggle room when you find a tempting bull elk walking 375 yards away. That’s a shot I would take. But not at a bull 425 yards away.
Best .308 Ammo for Elk
As already mentioned above, the sweet spot for elk hunting is to use a bullet in the 165-168 gr weight range. There’s not a large difference in the ballistics between the two weights.
However, you do need to ensure you’re picking a hunting bullet, not a match bullet, as those won’t deliver devastating hits.
Soft points are older technology and are an echo of the age when .308 was considered marginal for elk. Stick to modern hunting technology unless you will only take close-in shots.
Nosler AccuBond is my go-to choice for elk hunting. You can find a 165 gr AccuBond bullet in ammunition loaded by Federal, Underwood, or Nosler themselves. And it’ll always serve you well against elk.
168gr Barnes TTSX bullets are popular amongst reloaders who want to reliably take elk.
Also well-regarded are Hornady ELD-X precision hunting ammunition, though these will be a bit heavier at 178 grains. Still good enough for a 350-yard shot!
Pros of .308 for Elk Hunting
.308 Winchester has several advantages, reasons why hunters go for this round instead of something with more oomph.
The first of these pros is that .308 is a very common round. Many hunters own .308 rifles and use those rifles on a large variety of targets.
This means that .308 has a lot of attention from all the ammunition companies. It’s common on store shelves so you can find hunting ammo wherever you go.
Plus, a lot of research & development has been made by those companies to encourage hunters to choose their ammo. This means .308 stays on the cutting edge of ballistic technology.
However, .308 has another advantage that draws many hunters: it’s a short-action round.
If you don’t know what this means, there are two standard rifle receiver (or action) lengths for full-sized rifle cartridges: long-action and short-action.
Long-action cartridges are similar in length to .30-06 Springfield.
However, .308 Winchester is shorter than .30-06, so rifle manufacturers took the same guns, made them slightly shorter, and called it “short-action.”
These short-action rifles are stiffer and lighter than their long-action counterparts. This means you get slightly better accuracy while saving weight.
Some hunters will start with a .30 cal magnum rifle, ruck it through the woods, then decide they want to carry a rifle that weighs less and is easier to handle without sacrificing the ability to put down an elk.
This means .308, often with a short barrel. Well, short for a hunting rifle. It’s rare to see a .308 hunting rifle with a barrel shorter than 18″.
Cons of .308 for Elk Hunting
The main disadvantage .308 has compared with other cartridges that are commonly used to hunt elk is range. That’s been covered above, and it won’t come into play until you want to take down an elk that’s 300 yards away or more.
It’s also a bit on the weaker side of elk-hunting cartridges, so you have to pay more attention to bullet selection than you would have to with, say, .300 Win Mag. Just about any .300 Win Mag load will be good for elk.
But if you pick up a box of Federal “blue box special” .308, well, that budget soft-point ammo will limit your range.
Neither of these are serious disadvantages, however.
Alternatives to .308 for Elk
While .308 Winchester is a popular cartridge for hunting elk, many hunters choose to carry a different rifle.
For example, .270 Winchester may be a better choice. It’s a versatile cartridge that can be used at a surprisingly long range. It’s powerful and flat-shooting but can be tamed with a lighter bullet.
Combine the .270 with the .308 and you get the 7mm-08 Remington, which is ballistically superior to .308 but keeps much of the oomph that can get lost if you go much smaller in diameter.
A classic choice for elk hunting is nearly any .30 caliber magnum cartridge. All will be more than powerful enough to knock down a bull elk. Good choices are .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 Winchester Short Magnum, and .300 Weatherby.
If you want to take a lever-action rifle with you elk hunting then the .45-70 Government would be my choice. With modern loads, this venerable cartridge can take down an elk up to 200 yards away.
The cartridges mentioned above are not the end of the list, though.
Many cartridges are lethal against elk, such as .30-06 Springfield, 7mm Remington Magnum, .338 Marlin Express, .338 Win Mag, and many others.
Should You Use a .308 for Elk Hunting?
With modern bullet design, cartridge selection has become less important than in years past.
If you have a rifle chambered in .308 Winchester, you have a rifle capable of hunting elk past 300 yards.
The main consideration you need to keep in mind when hunting with .308 is to use a good hunting bullet. With the right load, .308 is more than enough to one-shot a bull elk.
Just keep calm, make a good shot, and you’ll have a successful hunt!
What Is the Best .308 Bullet for Elk Hunting?
165-grain Nosler AccuBond bullets are often regarded as the best bullet to use when hunting elk with a .308 rifle. You can load your own or buy commercial ammo with this bullet from Nosler, Federal, or Underwood.
What Is the Maximum Effective Range of .308 on Elk?
With the right load and under good conditions, .308 Winchester is effective against elk out to 400 yards.
What Is the Best Bullet Weight for Elk Hunting with .308?
When hunting elk, you want to use a bullet weight that’s medium for the caliber. With .308, that means 165/168 grains.