There are many ways to start an argument in polite company, but three of the best are to kick a man’s dog, kiss his wife or insult his elk gun. Even at that, most folks will forgive a virgin offense of the first two, but when you disrespect any hunter’s elk gun, you insult his honor.
The last time I wrote about elk cartridges for American Hunter, the mailbags were full and it’s an understatement to say that not all of it agreed with me. But it’s been a few years and in spite of the death threats I decided to have another go at the subject. I am not asking you to agree with me, just to hear out my opinions and think about what I am saying.
First off, I know all too well that elk can and have been killed with little cartridges. I also know there are stories of at least one elephant being killed with a .22 Long Rifle, but no sane person will argue that the .22 LR is an adequate elephant cartridge. Yes, smaller cartridges work, but nobody can argue successfully that they work better, or even as well as, a bigger cartridge.
That’s like saying your Dodge Neon is fine for NASCAR. Sure it can run around the track and even go fast, but is it a winning plan to drive it in a race? I am not exploring cartridges that will simply kill elk here, nor is this an article about “adequate” elk cartridges. This article explores those cartridges that are going to give you an edge in elk hunting, not by being “adequate” but by being down and dirty, serious, no-holds-barred, remove-the-doubt, kill-them-dead elk cartridges. I think these cartridges should be no smaller than .30 caliber and deliver a bullet weighing at least 180 grains to the elk with a minimum of 2,000 ft.-lbs. of energy. For most of us that means the elk should be 300 yards or closer. Beyond that distance, shooting becomes tricky with any cartridge.
I don’t know about you, but in the 25 years I have been hunting them, no elk has ever given me a break. I do not intend to make this a fair fight and I want every advantage. Keep in mind, too, that a big bull elk can be five or six times the size of the average whitetail deer. Thinking that your deer cartridge is big enough might be a mistake.
Elk are tough, and nobody with any real experience with them will ever argue that point. If you wound a deer he will lie down. If you wound a moose he will run in circles, acting stupid. But wound a bull elk and he will head for the next ZIP code with nothing but dust behind him. Shots that would cause deer or moose to give up and die just aggravate elk. They can soak up a lot of misplaced lead and still leave a lot of tracks. The physics are simple: the bigger the bullet, the bigger the hole. Physiology is also simple: the bigger the hole, the faster the elk dies. For most of us, elk hunting is expensive and can be emotionally draining. Why risk the outcome of your hunt with a small, possibly inadequate, rifle cartridge?
All too often the letters I get preaching about using smaller cartridges for elk or any other big game are thinly disguised bragging sessions about the writer’s shooting ability. I prefer to prove my shooting abilities at the range and in competition, not when I am hunting. I like easy shots at elk. Proving I am a good shot does not seem like a viable reason to use a marginal cartridge.
Tell me with a straight face that you would pass the following shot:
You just saved every dime for five years to pay for your elk hunt. You skipped movies, brought your lunch from home, worked overtime, whatever it took. This was your dream, the thing that kept you up nights for years and now, finally, you are in elk country with a tag and a rifle.
But it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. It’s the last day and you have yet to see an elk. You have been running on the ragged edge for 10 days with hardly any sleep, climbing those steep mountains every day, giving everything you have and all you can see is your dream slipping away.
Then just before darkness ends it forever, your guide spots a 6x6 bull 200 yards away with a bunch of cows. By the time the bull is clear of the cows, they are in the timber and he is following. All you have is a sharp quartering-away shot and about two seconds before he disappears.
Will you shoot?
Remember, lying is a sin.
I doubt one hunter in a thousand would pass on this shot. But you need to drive a bullet through his stomach, which is full of wet, soggy, green, energy-sucking material. And that bullet needs to continue on through his lungs, possibly only hitting one, and out his chest, perhaps hitting the shoulder, so that there is a blood trail to follow in the fading light. Which cartridge would you prefer to shoot? A .270 Winchester with a 130-grain bullet and 1,800 ft.-lbs. of energy remaining at 200 yards? Or would you like a .338 Ultra Mag. with a 225-grain bullet and 3,585 ft.-lbs. of energy smacking that elk?
Yup, the .270 will kill elk, every Jack O’Connor fan (including me) knows that to be true. But will it kill this elk? Will it kill it and allow you to find it in the little time you have available?
An ethical hunter with a .270 should pass on the shot. Those who don’t are very likely in for even more heartbreak as the wounded bull escapes to a painful, lingering death. With a .338 Ultra Mag. firing a 225-grain Barnes MRX, you can penetrate all that elk, leave a big exit hole for a blood trail (if you need it) and probably have enough power left to plow a furrow in the dirt deep enough to plant a row of peas.
One thing about that last point. I don’t buy the “leave the bullet in the critter and expend all the energy” school of thought. I want my bullets to exit if possible, and I want them exiting with lots of remaining horsepower. Energy doesn’t kill elk, death happens because of damaged body parts. A well-designed bullet that is still traveling at high velocity on exit does a lot more tissue damage than one that stops inside the elk. That’s because the wound channel remains large all the way to the exit. It also will usually result in a larger exit hole, for a better blood trail if needed. With elk, it often is.
One more thing: The bullet does all the work and it is the most important decision you can make. Always pick a good bullet. I would prefer a marginal cartridge with a superior bullet to a fire-breathing, dragon-slaying magnum cartridge with a poor bullet. But if I have a choice, I am bringing the dragon killer with the best bullet I can find.
Fear of recoil is not an acceptable excuse today to use an inadequate cartridge. A cartridge like the .30-06 is hardly a shoulder dislocater. Besides, while a muzzle brake will not endear you to your guide, it will cut the recoil of an elk rifle by a large margin. If you are tough enough to hunt elk you are tough enough to handle a compensated elk rifle. I know a couple of little bitty women who hunt with non-ported .338 magnums. If a 100-pound, 5-foot-tall woman can shoot a full-grown elk gun, you ought to be able to handle a lesser cartridge with a muzzle brake.
Sure, it takes practice. But are you telling me you will invest all that money, all that time and all those dreams in an elk hunt and then not practice with your rifle? Think for a minute about how foolish that sounds.
I am not talking about using a cartridge designed for elephant hunting here, simply that you follow Robert Ruark’s posthumous advice and “use enough gun.” He was referring to African dangerous game, but that simple advice applies to elk just as much as buffalo.
The newer .338 Federal is actually a decent enough elk cartridge for timber hunting, as is the old-but-hanging-in-there .358 Winchester. They are two of my all-time favorite cartridges. But I need to be honest here. If you have to take a 300-yard shot they are starting to show their limitations. With a 200-grain bullet the .338 Federal is down to about 1,800 ft.-lbs. of energy, similar to the .30-06 at the same distance. The .358 Winchester is way out of the running due to the round-nose bullets in factory loads with only about 1,100 ft.-lbs. left.