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Elk Rifle Progression

Elk Rifle Progression

By John Haviland

Last fall marked my 38th season chasing elk. During those years, I���ve hunted elk with a variety of rifles and seen other hunters carry about every imaginable rifle in pursuit of elk.

The guns that work best have several things in common. They’re chambered in cartridges that develop enough energy to take on elk at any reasonable range, but not so much that recoil knocks the wax out of your ears. They’re also light enough to carry all day. They never let down hunters who know elk and when to shoot and when to work closer for a sure shot.

Placing the Shot

The first lesson of elk hunting is proper shot placement. It doesn’t matter if you hit elk in the wrong spot with a .375 magnum or a plain Jane .270, it’s going to run off, and you’ll be lucky to find it.

One of the first elk I dropped came running around the side of a hill above me. I fired my .30-06 and the bull went to his knees. He recovered, though, and ran out of sight. I followed his tracks through the snow all day, but never caught up with him. Fortunately, my brother found the bull in his bed the next day and delivered the coup de grace. My bullet had gone through the small hollow spot above the lungs and below the spine.

The next year, I carried that same rifle. This time, a bull came running up the hill and I placed a single bullet square in his lungs. He kept his stride. I hurried to fire another shot, and he collapsed.

Elk are large and look as tall and big as a horse. Even when they take a good hit through the heart or lungs, they will run or casually walk away. One time, I shot a cow through both lungs with a 250-grain bullet from a .338 magnum. She ran up and over the top of a steep hill without missing a step. Still, the crosshairs looked steady when the rifle barked. So I climbed up the hill after her. The animal lay just over the crest. The lesson is to follow up every shot.

Placing a bullet in the right spot requires practice, and lots of it. The confidence that comes from training helps you make a good shot whether it’s far or a quick poke through the timber. And that one shot might be the only chance you get during an entire hunt.

Elk Rifle ProgressionBest Cartridges

The world is full of good elk cartridges. Everyone has his reasons for preferring a certain one, too. Some hunters like a certain bullet diameter, others prefer heavy bullets or are partial to light bullets at high velocity. A lot of this quibbling is splitting hairs. For instance, the difference in trajectory and bullet energy between a 160-grain bullet from a 7mm magnum and a 180-grain bullet from a .300 magnum is insignificant.

But how much power is required for elk? An elk is three to four times larger than a whitetail or mule deer. So if a .243 Win is adequate to kill deer, is a cartridge with three times as much bullet energy required for elk? If so, then a cartridge on the order of a .378 Weatherby launching a 300-grain bullet at 2,900 fps would be required.

One of the most used elk cartridges is the .270 Winchester, even though some people defame it. In an article in the November 1952 American Rifleman, one writer said the .270 Win was inadequate to consistently kill elk at all ranges. “The bullet may be called upon to travel through considerable tough brush before finding its mark,” he stated. “Therefore, I am convinced that a more powerful gun than the .270 should be used on elk.”

The writer listed 15 elk he’d taken with the .270. He said about half of them were shot in the “ribs,” which presumably means through the lungs and the neck, at 60 to 500 yards. Those bulls died on the spot or ran a short distance. One running bull was shot at 17 times from 650 yards. One bullet struck the bull in the “ribs,” he went into the brush, and the writer trailed it up and finished it. The rest of the bulls were shot in the “belly,” “hind leg” and other non-vital spots out to 400 yards. He trailed these wounded elk for hours on end and finished them.In the 50-plus years since that article appeared, no shoulder-fired rifle has been developed to compensate for poor bullet placement.

While the .270 Win is at the lower end of the elk-cartridge scale, that doesn’t mean it’s barely adequate. It hits elk hard, plus its light recoil makes it easy to place a bullet in the right spot. The first years my son hunted, he absolutely flattened elk with single shots from his .270 at 60 yards to slightly over 300 yards.

We can include the 7mm-08 Rem, .308 Win, .280 Rem and .30-06 in the same category as the .270. The .30-06 is, and probably will always remain, the most popular elk cartridge because of the variety of rifles chambered for it. The availability of great factory loads with controlled expansion bullets in put it right on the heels of magnum cartridges.

Still, a lot of hard-core elk hunters I’ve met over the years have switched from the .30-06s they started with to a magnum cartridge. Their first choice was the .300 Winchester Magnum, which has an increase of bullet energy over the ‘06 of about what the .22 Hornet develops. Bullet drop is also about 5 inches less at 400 yards.

The big .300s, like the .300 RUM and Weatherby’s .30-378 increase bullet energy over the ‘06 by about what the .30-30 Win produces, and reduce bullet drop by 9 inches at 400 yards. This increased performance comes at the expense of twice as much powder and toting a couple extra pounds of rifle with a 4-inch-longer barrel.

The short-magnum cartridges, such as Winchester’s .270 WSM, 7mm WSM and 300 WSM, are a step in the right direction for elk hunters. These rounds pretty much mirror the ballistics of standard 7mm and .300 magnums. For example, the Remington 7mm SAUM fires 150-grain bullets at nearly 3,100 fps from the 22-inch barrel of a Remington Model Seven Magnum rifle, which weighs no more than a comparable rifle chambered in .270 Win or .30-06. I hunted elk for five days last fall with a Model Seven Magnum in 300 SAUM in country as steep as a cow’s face. With a 3-9x scope, the rifle tipped the scales at slightly over 8 pounds and never weighed me down.

Heavier bullet weight is the whole point of cartridges larger than .30 caliber. Many hunters believe a relatively heavy bullet is required against an elk’s heavy bones and on less-than-broadside shots. Years ago, several friends and I bought .338 Win Mags. I found the cartridge with 250-grain bullets a bit of overkill, but one friend pointed out there is no such thing with elk.

Elk Rifle ProgressionBullets

A good bullet is the key to all these cartridges. Bullets built with a feature that keeps them intact and retains most of their weight helps them penetrate deeply and withstand an elk’s thick bones. I’ve aimed at the rear ribs of standing elk that were quartering away and driven bullets forward into the lungs. Bullets of standard construction from a .270, .30-06 or 7mm magnum usually failed to penetrate past the diaphragm. But stoutly constructed bullets fired from these same cartridges usually plowed clean through elk.

When my friends, brothers and I started shooting magnum cartridges, we discovered good bullets became even more important. The magnums’ additional bullet speed tore apart standard bullets, resulting in less penetration than smaller cartridges. But the problem disappeared when we started using Nosler Partitions.

About 10 years ago, when the market was flooded with good bullets, many of my friends turned away from large-caliber cartridges such as the .338 for elk. Bullets like the Combined Technology Fail Safe, Barnes X-Bullet, Speer Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Swift A-Frame fired from .27- to .30-caliber rifles killed elk just as reliably as the .338.

Elk Rifles

Bolt-action rifles rule in the elk woods, and for good reason: They’re dependable and keep working even in the toughest conditions. My brother-in-law was hunting above the timberline one November when a blizzard blew in and plastered his rifle. The bottom fell out of the thermometer in the next couple of hours, and his rifle turned into a block of ice. He chipped the ice from around the rifle’s bolt handle, ran the bolt back and forth a few times, dry-fired the rifle and was back hunting in a few minutes. Any other type of rifle action would have required major attention and even stripping.

Bolt-action rifles are also generally a bit lighter than other action styles. A Remington Model Seven Magnum rifle wearing a 3-9x scope weighs slightly over 8 pounds. When every ounce counts as you’re wheezing your way to the top of a mountain, you’ll be glad that the Browning A-Bolt Mountain Titanium chambered in 300 WSM or Remington 700 Titanium in .30-06 weigh only 5 1/2 pounds.


The extra pound or so of a scope clamped on a rifle helps pick a tunnel through the brush for a clear shot, or lets you see through the dim light at the first and last of day when elk are up and moving. A scope’s magnification also helps instantly determine if an elk in the brush wears antlers and how many points if it does.

The 4-power scope was common when I first started hunting. It’s still a good choice because it provides all the magnification you need to place the crosshairs on an elk at long range and a wide field of view when jumping them out of their beds in the timber.

Today, you can hardly give away a 4x scope. Everyone wants a variable-power scope. Hunters look at a variable scope and reason, “Here, with the mere twist of a dial, is five, six or eight scopes for the price of one.”

That makes sense, to a point. A 2-7x or, at the most, a 3-9x variable are great scopes for elk rifles. They can be set on a low power for a wide field of view for hunting in the timber or a higher magnification for a long shot. Just remember that you might not have enough time to turn up the power for a long shot, and there’s never enough time to turn the power down for a close shot.

Subscribe Today!Lessons Learned

Months before the hunting season last fall, my youngest son practiced at least once a week with his Remington Model Seven in 7mm-08, shooting from sitting, kneeling and offhand positions. When the elk season arrived, Thomas often hunted for days at a stretch from dawn to dusk. At slightly over 7 pounds, his rifle never weighed him down on grueling hikes up and over mountains.

During the last days of the season, he cut the tracks of a herd of elk that had fed in a meadow the previous night. He returned that evening and moved slowly into the area from the downwind side. Peeking over a rise, he saw 30-some elk staring at him from the next ridgetop. He raised his rifle and saw nearly all the elk through the wide field of view of his Nikon 4x scope.

He fired offhand at a bull at the edge of the herd as it turned to run. The shot sent a confusion of elk running in every direction, but Thomas kept his eye where the bull had run off the backside of the ridge. The 140-grain Fail Safe bullet had punched through both lungs. Thomas found the elk lying in the tall bunchgrass 75 yards away.

Fortunately, Thomas has had a sharper learning curve than his old man. In the few years he has hunted, he’s discovered there are no shortcuts to elk-hunting success. But by learning elk behavior, faithfully practicing with his rifle to put that one shot in the right spot, he’s taken long steps to begin his journey.

Reprinted from the October 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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