Hunting season comes around once a year and when it does you better be ready for it. You need to be ready for that moment when the bugling bull Elk you heard two valleys over is now stepping out of the thick brush just three hundred yards away from you. An entire year has passed for this moment. Looking down at your .308 rifle, you are going to think to yourself, “Is my .308 capable of getting the job done?” Well, is it?
The Bull Elk
If the .308 can be viewed as a short bodied, compact rifle that is quick and easy to maneuver, then a bull Elk can most certainly be described in the opposite manner.
A large, hefty animal, with bulls easily tipping the scales to over 700-pounds, standing 5-feet tall at the shoulder and holding an impressively wide set of antlers aloft their thick muscular neck.
However, do not be fooled as that burly body can cover considerable distance in a very quick time. Not having the correct equipment or placing that shot in the right spot will have dire consequences.
The rule of thumb for the minimum amount of kinetic energy needed to kill a mature elk is 1500 ft-lbs. The size of the “kill zone” on a bull elk ranges from 16 to 18 inches. Essentially then, any caliber and bullet capable of producing the required kinetic energy with a minimum drop of around 12 inches at specific distances should be enough to kill an elk.
Parameters for Success
For the .308 to be officially declared suitable to hunt an Elk with, it must first meet a certain set of parameters and criteria. A worthy caliber must achieve the following on a mature bull Elk standing broadside at a distance of at least 300-yards.
- Achieve deep penetration through both lungs
- The bullet needs to travel fast and flat enough to minimize trajectory, holding a kinetic energy above 1500 ft-lbs.
- Balance both internal and external ballistics for minimal recoil that does not affect the hunter’s ability
- Must hold accuracy to within an 8-inch radius of center out to 300-yards
- The bullet must achieve sufficient expansion upon impact, which is done at a velocity above 2000 fps
.308 Winchester’s Capabilities
- Bullet Diameter: 0.308 in (7.8 mm)
- Neck Diameter: 0.3433 in (8.72 mm)
- Shoulder Diameter: 0.4539 in (11.53 mm)
- Base Diameter: 0.4709 in (11.96 mm)
- Case Length: 2.015 in (51.2 mm)
- Overall Length: 2.800 in (71.1 mm)
- Maximum Pressure (C.I.P): 60,191 psi
Ballistics – From Three Recommended Hunting Brands
Velocity (Feet Per Second)
Energy (Ft. Pounds)
Trajectory (Bullet Drop in Inches)
It is said that recoil energy determines just how hard the recoil is and that the recoil velocity determines how abrupt the blow to the shoulder will feel to the hunter. An important factor of a rifle’s recoil is the weight. However, this theory does not run true when trying to chamber a lightweight rifle with a powerful cartridge. This should be remembered when choosing a .308 that has a shorter barrel length and weight when compared to other calibers.
Generally, as the gun’s weight increases, the recoil should decrease by a comparative percentage. A rifle’s reaction will equal the momentum of the bullet and those gasses created being ejected from the barrel.
The British Textbook of Small Arms which was released back in 1909, proclaimed that 15 ft. lbs. of free recoil energy were the maximum allowable for a military service rifle. Anything over this measurement would create sufficient discomfort to the shooter in a negative way, i.e., developing a recoil flinch. The .308 Winchester has a maximum recoil velocity rating of 12.5, meaning the recoil is sufficient for two or three successive shots, but there after the hunter may begin to feel the effects of the recoil on their shoulder.
The shorter and lighter frame of the .308 makes for ease of maneuverability through the brush and thick stands of trees where Elk are commonly found. This is especially helpful when the hunter needs to move or adjust quickly into a better shooting position.
It is unfair to place a statement of whether a rifle caliber is accurate or not, because there is an almost endless number of factors that go into the actual pinpoint accuracy of the rifle.
Factors such as:
- Skill level of the hunter and their technique
- Ammo type
- Cartridge loads and bullet weights
- Wind and other environmental factors
Pros and Cons
- Very popular caliber that has been used and trusted by many hunters
- Not considered a long-distance shooting caliber
- Very good velocity up to 300 yards
- Shorter more compact rifle
- Large variety of bullet manufacturers to choose from
- Tolerable recoil
- Lacks sufficient penetration at distances greater than 400 yards
- Has a poor trajectory when compared to similar calibers at distances greater than 300 yards
.308 vs .30-06 for Elk
Both calibers are very close in many ways and the separation of each will come down to fine details. The focus needs to remain on which caliber is best suited for hunting elk and in those common elk hunting scenarios. That generally means performance of the round at average distances of between 280 to 400 yards.
As mentioned above, it is difficult to accurately label a caliber as being accurate or not because of many external factors. So focus needs to be on the velocity, energy and trajectory of each caliber.
Both cartridges are extremely close in specifications with an identical bullet diameter of 0.308” and similar neck diameter. The real difference comes in the overall length of the cartridge with the .30-06 being 0.5” longer. This extra length means a higher case capacity producing better ballistic coefficients and allowing the .30-06 to be loaded with heavier projectiles up to 220 grains, in contrast to a .308 that is rarely loaded to above 180 grains.
This additional cartridge space effectively gives the .30-06 a little more punching power with an additional 100 to 150 fps. That makes quite the difference when you plan on reaching out and tagging a big bull elk standing at 400 yards.
It is a close call between the two calibers, as either one can produce the goods under certain conditions. But for peace of mind with that added bit of power, we would suggest the .30-06 Springfield for hunting big bull elk.
Best .308 Rounds
For those that are dead set on the .308 for hunting elk, there is a variety of rounds to choose from. That is after all one of the best features of the caliber.
We have determined that kinetic energy, velocity and trajectory are all important factors when it comes to hunting elk. A quick reminder, the rule of thumb for a mature elk is a minimum kinetic energy of 1500 ft-lbs., a minimum drop of 12” (at desired distance) and achieve sufficient expansion upon impact through a velocity greater that 2000 fps.
For this section of the article, we will use the scenario of a mature bull elk standing broadside at 300 yards, as this may be the most common situation the average North American hunter will find themselves in.
We will then compare six different .308 rounds with their ballistics and see how they perform at 300 yards in the table below.