Modern Pioneer - - Front Page - By Pa­trick Meitin

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.

Bet­ter Com­po­nents

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.

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