TAKE DOWN BIG ELK
WITH YOUR TRUSTY DEER RIFLE
Planning an elk hunt and think you need a bigger rifle? If you hunt deer, think again.
Planning an elk hunt and think you need a bigger rifle? If you hunt deer, think again
I’ve never been a big-gun advocate. I killed my first elk at age 12, a New Mexico 5x5 bull at 200 yards, with .243 Winchester; my second was another bull at the same range, using the same rifle, two years later. These early experiences shaped my perspective on rifles.
That attitude was reinforced while guiding elk hunters for 23 years in New Mexico’s Gila region. I witnessed too many sports arriving for their longawaited adventures armed with big .300 Weatherby or .338 Winchester magnums—cartridges generally deemed ideal by gun-writer types—who couldn’t hit their butt with both hands while shooting these blunderbusses. Who could really blame them? Especially in the custom 6 ½-pound mountain rifles many of these clients chose for the big event, these cartridges punish from both ends.
Accuracy Trumps Power
In time, I developed the general attitude that I’d rather have a client shoot a lighter cartridge well than a larger round with mediocre accuracy. This doesn’t even begin to address the issue of youth or petite women hunters.
First, since these hunters usually used their light rifle extensively for white-tailed deer and were intimately familiar with it (and not afraid of it), they typically shot it well. More pointedly, the notion that larger cartridges compensate for sloppy shooting is ridiculous. Killing big game is all about bullet placement and always will be. Some argue that visiting sportsmen must sometimes take the shot presented or go home empty-handed, a point made as a way of excusing shots taken at steeply-quartering or straight-away animals that require bullets to plow through lots of body. Placing precedence on larger cartridges to excuse risky shots, again, is ridiculous. Risky is risky, and elk deserve better.
Granted, elk are, pound for pound, as tough as they come, but nothing lives very long with perforated lungs. Furthermore, in this day of exponentially better bullet designs and factory ammo, lines have blurred considerably.
Terms and Conditions
Setting parameters regarding what is “big” and what is “small” is pretty subjective. I know a notable gun writer who considers the .375 H&H—A cartridge suited to African Cape buffalo—ideal for elk. If recoil wasn’t a factor, I’d call the .338 Winchester perfect elk medicine. Many others point to any of the .300 magnums, and I wouldn’t argue with those choices, either. But, we’re not arguing “ideal” here, but rather employing a perfectly good deer rifle you already own and shoot well for elk hunting.
I could argue for cartridges as mild as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .257 Roberts and
.25-06—all rounds I’d hunt elk with myself—with caveats, of course, which I’ll discuss momentarily. More realistically, though, we’re looking at cartridges in realm of the 6.5x55mm Swedish Mauser (developed in 1894), .260 Remington (.308 Winchester necked to 6.5mm/.264 caliber), newly popular 6.5 Creedmoor, Jack O’connor’s .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington (.308 necked to 7mm), 7x57mm Mauser (developed in 1892) and .300 Savage, with the .280 Remington, .308 Winchester and venerable .30-06 Springfield at the heavy end.
How Ballistic Coefficient Factors
Ballistic coefficient (BC) is an index of how a bullet decelerates as it speeds downrange, or how efficiently it slices through the atmosphere. It also has a large bearing on factors such as wind drift and penetration. A BC of 1.00 is considered perfect.
In general terms, the best penetration is provided, relative to the cartridge under discussion, by bullets carrying a BC of around .450 to .500 or higher (look for these numbers when shopping for ammo). This translates, especially with the lightest cartridges under discussion, into long/heavy-for-caliber bullet designs. For example, in 6.5mm, this would generally mean a 140- to 160-grain bullet instead of a 120; in .270, a 150 instead of 130; in 7mm, a 160-plus instead of a 120; in .308, a 190-200 grain instead of 150.
But, bullets that heavy sacrifice velocity and flatshooting characteristics, you protest. Forget muzzle velocities. You don’t shoot elk off the muzzle, but 200- to 300-yard shots are quite common. Lighter bullets with low BCS shed speed and energy (in the air and while penetrating game) faster than those with higher BCS. So, while a lighter bullet may look good out of the blocks, higher BCS typically present superior velocities and flatter trajectories at true hunting ranges.
Furthermore, all that bullet weight stacked behind long-for-caliber bullets pile-drives game—a sharp, slim spear versus a heavy, blunt rock, to exaggerate the point a tad. High BCS are characterized by long, sharp-pointed bullets, opposed to blunted or steep-ogive tips.
Add high BC to more ruggedly constructed bullets, and lighter cartridges can be made to perform well on large game such as elk. The catchwords here are “controlled expansion.” Varmint bullets, at one extreme, are designed to come apart on impact, delivering dramatic impacts on vermin like prairie dogs and woodchucks. In the middle are deer bullets, average soft or hollow points made to expand aggressively to impart maximum shock, but retain enough weight to push completely through vitals, often exiting. On elk, where penetration is paramount, controlled-expansion bullets are designed to mushroom evenly after meeting resistance, but also constructed to ensure weight retention in the 80 to 90 percentiles.
The original controlled-expansion design is Nosler’s Partition. These bullets include a fully tapered, copper-alloy jacket, creating a standard, soft-nosed bullet up front, an integral partition-
checking expansion and protecting the rear lead core. I used this bullet on those early elk from my .243 Winchester. Other soft-nosed bullets include bonded cores—interior lead chemically fused to the copper jacket to prevent separation—like Speer’s Grand Slam or Nosler’s Accubond bullets, as examples. Classic soft-point bullets with high BCS also include Sierra’s heaviest-for-caliber Gameking series, with BCS in the upper .400s to upper .500s.
Polymer-tipped bullets generally increase BC numbers, while anything labeled “long range” (granted they’re suitable for hunting applications), like Nosler’s Accubond LR (Long Range) or Hornady’s ELD-X (Extremely Low Drag-expanding), takes these values as far as possible, respective of caliber.
Also common today are lead-free, homogeneous pills constructed from copper alloy, often holding polymer tips to boost BC and act as a wedge to promote more reliable expansion. To my mind, in addition to those already mentioned, these epitomize what we’re discussing here: designs that have cemented my conviction that you don’t need a magnum cartridge to cleanly harvest elk.
Copper is lighter than lead, so by necessity, these bullets are long for caliber, typically boosting BC. Prime examples include Barnes’ original X Bullets, Nosler’s E-tip and Hornady’s GMX, all relinquishing BCS in the upper .400s to mid .500s.
The reloader can obviously capitalize on these options (see sidebar, “Pet Loads, Deer Rifles and Elk Loads,” pg. 85) by experimenting with various powder/bullet combinations to find one that groups well from their rifle. This gives you a much wider array of bullets to choose from to meet your goals.
Those depending on factory ammunition need not fret, as manufacturers annually offer more loads holding premium bullets. Scour ammo catalogs or websites and you’ll surely find several of the bullets suggested above, ready to shoot out of the box. Sure, you’ll pay more for these premium loads than standard deer-hunting fodder, but for most hunters, elk hunts are special events, and the added expense is insignificant considering the big picture. Shoot several loads to find one your rifle prefers.
Take Your Deer Rifle Elk Hunting
Elk hunting is hugely exciting, adventurous and sometimes just a bit overwhelming, especially for the sport traveling far from home. You’ll have enough to wrap your head around without the added confusion of a new or borrowed rifle. Stick with what you know best. Use your familiar deer rifle for elk, and you’ll do just fine. But, heed these suggestions to ensure your ammo is up to the task of tackling North America’s toughest commonly hunted big-game animal.
Would a larger cartridge make such a running shot any safer? Maybe, maybe not. It’s still all about bullet placement, after all, and a heavier, faster bullet won’t turn a paunch shot into a killing one, should you fail to lead the animal sufficiently....
There’s no disputing that elk are one of the largest, toughest big-game animals regularly hunted in North America, but quality bullets with high ballistic coefficients placed correctly will always do the job, no matter how powerful the cartridge.
(above) Many sports feel compelled to bring along a big gun with a large load to hunt elk when they would do well to use a smaller rifle with which they’re comfortable. It’s also wise to consider an ammunition with a suitable ballistic coefficient.