9 Best Elk Hunting Cartridges for Youth Hunters

If you plan on taking a youngster to the elk hunting grounds it is time for some serious cartridge consideration. Elk are large-bodied animals that require enough gun to take ethically. Youth hunters may not be expected to manage the heavier recoil of the most common elk cartridges, so finding one that not only hits game hard but also hits the shooter lightly can be challenging.

Fear not, Backfire friends, this list of elk cartridges has been compiled with youth hunting in mind.


The Best: 7mm-08 Remington

The 7mm-08 Remington cartridge houses enough bullet, with enough energy to take elk while fitting in a manageably-sized rifle with relatively low recoil; making it the best option for youth elk hunting.

Based on the .308 Winchester cartridge, the 7mm-08 fires sleeker .284 caliber (7mm) bullets that recoil less than the parent .308 yet still has a relatively large frontal diameter and bullet weight for taking elk. Hitting with just above 1700 ft/lbs at 300 yards, shot selection within that distance leaves room for error.

Recoil is around 14 ft/lbs, which is plenty tolerable for most hunters. Rifle options abound as most manufacturers produce rifles chambered in 7mm-08. Ammunition, too, is readily available (well, at least pre-pandemic) with an array of different bullet weights to choose from. Handloaders will also find plenty of bullet options in the popular 7mm diameter, and cartridges can be tailored to your hunt.

Why is the 7mm-08 the best youth cartridge for elk hunting? The 7mm-08 fires an ideally sized projectile with enough energy and moderate recoil out of rifles of different dimensions and weights. Finding ammunition and a rifle chambered in 7mm-08 suitable for a young elk hunter should not be a problem.

Cartridge7mm-08 Rem6.5 Creedmoor6.5×284 Norma6.5 PRC.270 Winchester.280 Ackley Improved.243 Winchester.308 Winchester.30-06 Springfield
Recoil14.4511.7114.2815.7416.2917.98.916.9710.2 (125 gr reduced recoil)
Energy at 300 yards (ft/lbs)17031543171819601894207612171787980 (125 gr reduced recoil)
Comparing cartridges in two categories that make them viable for youth elk hunting: recoil and energy.

The 6.5’s

6.5 millimeter cartridges (.264 caliber) offer generally lower recoil and long range accuracy, making them the first consideration of elk cartridges for youth. Are they the best cartridges for elk hunting? The answer is no. With bullet weights mostly topping out at 143 grains and a small diameter frontal area, questions of energy and trauma must be overcome.

Though the 6.5’s are readily used in long-distance shooting competitions, remember that they are generally punching paper, not hide, muscle and bone. Leave the long-range shots at the range, get in close to the animal you are hunting, consider shot placement paramount, and the 6.5’s will do the trick.

6.5 Creedmoor

6.5 Creedmoor

Wildly popular, the 6.5 Creedmoor is an accurate, soft recoiling cartridge that works in lighter guns. All of those qualities are what you should be looking for when taking youth hunters to the hunting grounds. Bull elk can top 700 pounds however and are the second-largest ungulate in North America.

Backfire does not recommend elk hunting with a 6.5 Creedmoor. Jim, the owner, has shot many animals with a 6.5 Creedmoor and he feels it’s just not enough on elk-sized game. We would instead suggest the 6.5 PRC with a Barnes monometal bullet such as the TTSX or the LRX.

6.5×284 Norma

Another 6.5 but with a bit more “oomph” than the Creedmoor, the 6.5×284 Norma fires the same size bullets but with more powder loaded behind them. Recoiling under 15 ft/lbs, this 6.5 is very manageable for those who are more recoil-sensitive, yet it lands with authority: reaching over 1700 ft/lbs of energy at 300 yards.

Generally chambered in rifles with longer barrels for use in competitions, finding a rifle chambered in 6.5×284 in a configuration suitable for youth hunters may be challenging. Is it the best 6.5 for youth elk hunters? No, but perhaps the next option is.

6.5 PRC

The 6.5 PRC boasts more powder capacity, greater speeds and energy levels than both the Creedmoor and 6.5×284 Norma. The PRC is the Creedmoor’s bigger brother, holding 1500 plus ft/lbs of energy well beyond 300 yards. SO why isn’t the 6.5 PRC atop this list? It still fires the same .264 caliber bullets as the Creedmoor and Norma rounds, making shot placement an imperative consideration to ensure an ethical kill rather than a wounded elk.

Selection of rifles chambered in 6.5 PRC is increasing, and the cartridge still fits in small action rifles. Like the 6.5×284 Norma, barrels are generally slightly longer than those found on rifles chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. Overall weight of the gun can become daunting for youth hunters to carry afield, but that depends on the youth.

Another knock on the 6.5 PRC is magazine capacity, where two or three rounds is often the limit due to the ample powder capacity of the cartridge.

Best For Larger Youth: .270 Winchester and .280 Ackley Improved

Both based off the venerable .30-06 cartridge, the .270 Winchester and .280 Ackley Improved are excellent Elk options, though they fit in heavier, long action rifles. Still below 20 ft/lbs of recoil, both the .270 Win. and .280 AI recoil at a reasonable rate for sturdier youth hunters.

.270 Winchester

.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester fires a 6.8 mm (.277 caliber bullet) with nearly 1900 ft/lbs of energy at 300 yards. The slight caliber increase from the 6.5’s, with near matching energy and recoil levels of the 6.5 PRC, makes the .270 Winchester an upgrade for elk.

Rifles and ammunition are readily available for the .270 Winchester, as it has been in production since 1925.

.280 Ackley Improved

.280 Ackley Improved

Like the .270 Winchester, the .280 AI reaches out with more energy than the 6.5 PRC, with less than 10% recoil increase over the 6.5 PRC. Oh, and it shoots 7mm (.284 caliber) bullets, offering a larger frontal area projectile. The 280 AI retains above 1500 ft/lbs of energy out past 500 yards, boasting the highest energy levels on this list.

The .280 AI is an excellent choice for elk hunters in general but for youth hunters, the overall rifle weight and recoil may be too much. Rifle selection is limited but improving for the .280 AI, while its little brother, the 7mm-08 is chambered by many rifle manufacturers.

The .30 Calibers

.308 caliber (7.6 mm) cartridges have been the choice for Elk hunting for some time. Firing large bullets that hit hard, these .30 calibers may be manageable enough for youth hunters.

.308 Winchester

The .308 Winchester is a moderate recoiling cartridge that fires an array of bullet weights, making it a versatile option to take into any woods. With more than enough energy for elk within 300 yards, recoil reaches .280 AI levels out of a lighter gun.

Here is a slight conundrum: is it better for a youth hunter to lug a heavier rifle that absorbs some of the felt recoil or a lighter rifle that bites harder only when fired? It depends on the hunter, of course, and time at the range is the best way to gauge a shooter’s ability to handle recoil.

Ammunition and rifle options abound for .308 Winchester shooters, so this option truly comes down to recoil tolerance and expected shot distance.

.30-06 (125 grain Reduced Recoil round)

Though the .30-06 is a parent cartridge to two of the choices on this list, standard cartridges for this chambering generally recoil harder than youth hunters will want to absorb. If you are set on using .30 caliber bullets on your elk hunt, there are reduced recoil rounds on the market that are ideal for recoil sensitive shooters.

Hornady offers a .30 caliber, reduced recoil, 125 grain option that given proper distance and shot placement will work on elk.

The 125 grain cartridge is anemic compared to most of the other cartridges on this list, and best used within 200 yards on elk. The upside is you get larger entrance holes with the .30-06 projectile. You will not have any problem locating a rifle chambered in .30-06, and ammunition has historically been available.

At just over 10 ft/lbs of recoil with the lighter 125 grain bullet, the .30-06 can be handled by just about any hunter, though .30-06 are fit into long actions that will weigh more than your typical short action rifle.


Elk are taken every year with compound bows, usually during the rut when bugling elk can be called within close proximity to the shooter. You do not need a long range capable rifle to take elk, you can indeed get up close and personal-often within 50 yards-during an elk hunt. At these close ranges any of the catridge selections on this list will work.

If spotting and shooting from across canyons is expected, look toward the long action cartridges on this list. Remember to practice with your rifle of choice, at distances you may expect to take a shot and from varying shooting positions so that when your time comes, you will be prepared.