.28 Nosler for Elk Hunting: Is it the ultimate elk cartridge?

Last year, I purchased a Browning X-Bolt Pro in .28 Nosler.  I wanted it to be my “hunt the world” gun that I could use for hunting everything from wild hog and deer up to elk, wildebeest, waterbuck, and other large-bodied game. A year later, I couldn’t be happier with my purchase.

The .28 Nosler cartridge is one of the best cartridges for hunting elk as long as controlled-expansion bullets are used.  The .28 Nosler shoots flat and powerfully, but it is expensive to shoot, burns barrels quickly, and has significant recoil.

Benefits of the .28 NoslerDrawbacks to the .28 Nosler
Extremely flat shootingFactory loads are expensive
Very resistant to wind driftLess variety in factory loads on the market
Maintains high energy at long rangesHigh recoil
Inherently accurateShort barrel life

In this article, I’ll cover the pros and cons I’ve found with shooting the .28 Nosler on my recent big game hunting adventures.

Can a .28 Nosler Effectively Take Large-Bodied Game Like Elk?

No discussion of a cartridge’s ability to take large game would be complete without discussing foot pounds of energy. This is, perhaps, one of the worst ways to measure a cartridge’s suitability for hunting because it doesn’t take into account shot placement or bullet design; however, it at least provides some barometer of the cartridge’s power.

The conventional (and mostly misguided) wisdom is that an elk cartridge should have 1,500 foot pounds of energy at the distance from which you shoot. Measured in foot pounds of energy, the .28 Nosler is a powerhouse. Not only does it pack a whopping 3,188 foot pounds of energy at 100 yards, it maintains a measurement of over 1,500 foot pounds out to 747 yards. By this measurement, the .28 Nosler is one of the best elk cartridges for long range shooting.

The .28 Nosler is an ideal elk hunting cartridge for today’s longer-range, flat-trajectory shooting style. While there are some drawbacks to this cartridge for elk hunting, in general it’s one of the best rounds on the market.

28 Nosler Average Ballistics

DistanceEnergy (Ft lbs)Velocity (Fps)Bullet Drop (Inches)
100 Yards3,45729835.1
200 Yards2,841
300 Yards2,704
400 Yards2,570
500 Yards2,441
600 Yards2,315
700 Yards2,193
1,000 Yards1,850
1,200 Yards1,642
1,500 Yards1,372
The data in this table is averaged from several different loads to provide a benchmark for comparing cartridges.

Video of Elk Being Shot with .28 Nosler

Nosler even advertises the .28 Nosler primarily as an elk cartridge.  On much of their marketing material for the cartridge, they call it “The New Herd Bull.”

I took two black wildebeest with my rifle chambered in .28 Nosler.  One of the shots put the wildebeest flat on the ground immediately. In the other case, it bucked around for about 5 seconds before expiring.  That’s excellent performance for a tough animal. In both cases, the 163 grain ELD-X bullet did not exit the animal’s body and used all that energy inside the vitals.  

The two old wildebeest bulls weighed about 315 pounds each, and a mature bull elk weighs approximately 650 pounds.  However, simply not passing through the body is not necessarily a bad thing, and depends highly on the bullet construction.  The ELD-X is not a deep penetrating bullet, but instead is designed for reliable expansion even at longer distances and slower speeds.  Consequently, it is not surprising that the bullet did not pass through.

This point, however, brings up a problem with the .28 Nosler if you plan to shoot factory loads rather than reloading yourself.  In local stores, you are unlikely to find anything other than Hornady’s Precision Hunter 162-grain ELD-X, or a Nosler’s 175-grain Trophy Hunter load with an Accubond bullet.  Those are the two loads I keep seeing in my local Sportsman’s Warehouse and Cabela’s. There are several more options if you purchase online or order your loads from a local store, but you should be aware that those who don’t reload and purchase from local shops will likely not have many options.

If you plan to order your ammunition online, the best elk hunting cartridge I’ve seen is probably the Nosler 160-grain Trophy Grade ammunition with a good old Partition bullet.  The partition has proven itself over the years to penetrate deep. Although there are more advanced and fancy bullet designs created more recently, most factory loads for the 28 Nosler focus on long range expansion, and I’d prefer to have a Partition’s deep penetration for elk.  

I think the reason the .28 Nosler factory loads are so focused on long range expansion is that it is an extremely capable long range cartridge.  Having said that, I’d like to see more manufacturers focusing on deeper penetrating bullets in their .28 Nosler factory loads because the cartridge already shoots so fast that I am less concerned with expansion at a distance than I am about penetration—at least for elk.

If there were a factory load of .28 Nosler Cartridges with a 168-grain Barnes LRX, I’d order a whole pallet right away.  Okay, maybe not a pallet, but a lot.

Does the .28 Nosler Have too Much Recoil for a Lightweight Elk Gun?

Hunting elk is hard work.  It usually includes hiking steep country for days with a pack on your back.  Nearly every elk hunter will care somewhat about the weight of their rifle after a long day of hiking.

The Browning X-Bolt Pro I purchased in .28 Nosler weighs a mere 6 pounds, 10 ounces un-scoped.  I put a Vortex Viper PST Gen II 5-25x scope on my rifle, so the finished setup weighed 31.2 ounces.  So my final hunting setup only weighs 8 pounds, 8 ounces. That’s a very nice lightweight setup, without going to the extremes. 

Chambered in .28 Nosler, this 8 pound, 8 ounce setup kicks quite hard.  Although I’ve been shooting all my life, I have to mentally check my shoulder mount before I pull the trigger.  With a muzzle brake (included with the X-bolt Pro, the gun is quite tolerable. If you like your hearing, on the other hand, shooting without a brake will kick hard.  For me, it’s quite tolerable for shooting up to 30 shots in a practice session and certainly a shot or two for hunting. In my situation, I think the tradeoffs of recoil are far outweighed by the positive aspects of the cartridge.

However, you should be aware that the recoil on a .28 Nosler is not right for all shooters.  In fact, the first time my friend, who is a seasoned shooter himself, shot my 28 Nosler, he got scoped!  He wasn’t quite prepared for the recoil when the rifle was mounted on his shoulder over a puffy coat.

I wouldn’t want to use my lightweight rifle in .28 Nosler for a range gun when I want to shoot 50-100 shots for a practice session.  However, strong-bodied hunters who will only shoot 20 shots in a practice session and a few shots for hunting will likely have no trouble at all.  

For me, I haven’t developed any flinching issues and I’d prefer to have a gun that I know will shoot incredibly flat with little wind drift at long distances for those cross-canyon elk shots.  I don’t personally shoot extreme ranges when hunting by any means, but when I can consistently hit 600 yards in practice, I know 300 won’t give me any trouble when hunting.

I’m not not the kind of shooter that whips out a 50BMG or .338 Lapua for a casual day on the range. I wouldn’t say I’m especially recoil sensitive, but I don’t have an iron shoulder either. If I can shoot the .28 Nosler without any issues, the vast majority of adult male shooters won’t have any issues either.