Author: Craig Boddington
He's big and very strong, and you need to take him seriously.
Just recently, I was on a late elk hunt on the NRA Whittington Center in northern New Mexico. Even though it was February, the winter had been dry, and there was very little snow. The bulls were still up high on the oakbrush-covered slopes, where visibility was poor and the going was extremely noisy. That country is a system of ridges, so we could glass feeding bulls from afar in the early mornings and late afternoons-but because of the thick, noisy cover, we couldn't get close. The only way to get a shot, was to read the ground and shoot from one ridge to another. This could mean 100-yard shooting, or it could mean 400-yard shooting. I drew the latter, a very long way to shoot an elk.
The issue isn't hitting an elk at that distance; the target is huge, and if you know your trajectory, any flat-shooting cartridge has enough reach. However, the issue is one of size, and also of strength. Elk are big, tough animals. You have to hit them right, which is far more important than hitting them hard-but it's good to try to do both. So I set up over shooting sticks, and, figuring I'd have 17 or 18 inches of bullet drop, centered the vertical crosshair on the shoulder, and the horizontal wire just under the backline. At the shot the bull took three steps uphill, then somersaulted backwards and crashed into a deadfall, leaving a spray of leaves and winter hair drifting down in the evening sunlight.
I shot my first bull elk fully 30 years ago, and in the years since I have taken quite a few, not one every year but something over 20. I don't recall ever seeing a mature bull elk go down so fast or so finally with a pure body shot (meaning no trauma to the spine). The cartridge was a little .270 Winchester firing a 150-grain Nosler Partition. Based on this one event, I would have to rate the .270 as the finest elk cartridge I have ever used. I do not rate it so-but that's because I have quite a history with elk to base my opinions on.
On the other hand, this was not altogether an anomaly. The bullet entered centered on the on shoulder, penetrated it, passed through the top of the heart, and lodged against the skin on the far side. Shot placement is paramount, but so is bullet performance; in this case both were perfect-and both are actually more important than the exact caliber you use. Too, there are elk and then there are elk. This was big-bodied mature bull, weighing something over 700 pounds, a different class of animal from a cow or spike bull weighing little more than half that. But this bull was calm and completely unaware, with no adrenalin coursing through his veins. Any elk so hit (or, for that matter, through both lungs) is a dead elk-but I've seen quite a few that didn't know it for a while!
It's my opinion that the .270's, 7mm's, and .30 calibers are pretty good elk medicine, especially for general-purpose work in relatively open country. With apologies to 7mm fans, I don't think there's much difference between the .270, bullet diameter .277, and the 7mm, bullet diameter .284. The .30's, bullet diameter .308, give you a bit more. So, with apologies to no one, I think the good old .30-06 is a better elk cartridge than any .270 or 7mm cartridge. The magnum .30's are better yet. On the plus side, all of these cartridges from .270 up to the fast .30's (including the .30-06) shoot flat enough for any sensible shot at elk, and (if you pick aerodynamic bullets) carry enough energy far enough downrange to get the job done. They are all easier to shoot well than harder-kicking, larger-caliber magnums, and of course this especially applies to the .270's and 7mm's.
The down side is a bit subtler, so let me give you an illustration. A couple of years ago I shot a bull elk in the timber with the very fast Lazzeroni 7.82 (.308) Warbird. The bull had heard us approach, and had jumped from his bed; I shot him square on the shoulder with a 180-grain Nosler Partition just as he gathered himself to run. The distance was about 70 yards, so he absorbed more than 4000 foot-pounds of energy . . . yet there was no visible sign of a hit. He ran as if nothing had happened, instantly vanishing into the dark timber.
We waited for a few moments, then started the followup. I was sure of the shot, but my old buddy Mike Ballew, who had binoculars on the bull as he received the bullet, wasn't. We immediately found his deep-cut tracks in the snow . . . but there wasn't a drop of blood! Fifty yards farther on, thanks only to clean snow, we found a couple of small drops. And then we found the bull piled up, stone dead, about 70 yards from his bed. Okay, no problem. Perfect shot, perfect bullet performance, dead elk. But what if there had been no snow? I was sure enough of a hit that I think we would have searched until we found him-but it might have been extremely difficult. Had it been near sundown we might not have found him 'til the next day-which can mean spoiled meat.
So, while the .270's, 7mm's, and .30's are good elk cartridges in careful hands, I am absolutely convinced that ideal all-purpose elk cartridges are represented by the medium magnums, from the 8mm Remington Magnum up through the .33's. The primary difference isn't found in simple bullet energy; enough is enough, and lesser cartridges carry plenty. Rather, it's a matter of penetration: On game as big and as tough as elk can be (not always are), I want an exit wound.
Brain and spine shots aside, there is no place you can hit a charged-up bull elk-with anything-and guarantee that he will go right down. He probably won't go far, but in timber or brush, with no snow, an elk doesn't have to go far to be difficult to recover. An exit wound insures a blood trail. With the right shot and the right bullet a .270 can surely penetrate an elk through-and-through. So can the 7mm's and .30's-but a 220-grain bullet from an 8mm Remington Magnum, or a 225 or 250-grain bullet from a .33 will achieve complete penetration on almost any broadside penetration. Of equal importance, the bigger, heavier bullets greatly expand the range of acceptable shots. Not distance, but angles. I'm not talking about "Texas heart shots;" that simply isn't a shot on an unwounded elk. Had the New Mexico bull I mentioned at the start been standing any way other than almost broadside, I couldn't have taken that shot with a light rifle. With one of the medium magnums, and a well-constructed heavy bullet, you can take a strong quartering-away angle-what old Elmer Keith called a "raking shot"-with full confidence.
I have a personal love affair with the 8mm Remington Magnum, but it isn't very popular and is thus a handloader's cartridge. The most available of this class, and in many ways the best choice, is the .338 Winchester Magnum. It's fast enough and flat enough for almost all situations, and its recoil, although considerable, isn't unbearable. The faster .33's-.338 Remington Ultra Mag, .340 Weatherby Magnum, the behemoth .338-.378 Weatherby Magnum, Lazzeroni's 8.59 (.338) Titan-are even better. They're faster, flatter-shooting, and carry even more energy downrange. The problem is that the recoil goes up exponentially, so as effective as they are, the simple fact is that the faster .33's are too much gun for a lot of hunters. If you can handle them, the fastest .33's are, in my view, the best elk cartridges available-but they aren't much fun to shoot. The .338 Winchester Magnum offers an ideal combination of power, penetration, adequately flat trajectory, and recoil most of us can live with.
Most of my elk hunting has been done up in the high country, where shots may come at close range, but a bit of reach is frequently required. Under these conditions-normal elk hunting for me-it's important to have a cartridge that shoots flat enough so that shots at 250 yards, sometimes farther, aren't a big stretch. I'm convinced that the medium magnums are superior in the timber as well as at longer range simply because, in the timber, it is much more difficult to pick your shots with precision. However, not every elk hunter needs a cartridge that will reach out. In the Pacific Northwest, in Montana's jackpine jungles, and in heavy timber and oakbrush throughout the West, there is a lot of elk hunting that is done at very close range.
Once again, in thick it isn't always possible to pick your shot with perfect precision-and for darn sure you want to hit your elk very hard the first time, because the vegetation will likely preclude a second shot. Under these conditions, and if a shot much beyond 100 yards is extremely unlikely, then the traditional "brush cartridges" are darned good choices. The "on paper" energy figures aren't as high, but the big, blunt bullets of cartridges like the .444 Marlin and .45-70 are absolutely devastating on elk-which is exactly what you want in the thick stuff. Don't overlook the .35-calibers, either. Loaded with 250-grain bullets cartridges like the .348, .358 and .356 Winchester are extremely effective, and give you a bit more ranging ability than the slower-moving big bores. For a wonderful "compromise" cartridge that hits hard without a lot of recoil, consider the .35 Whelen. Loaded with 250-grain bullets, it will reach out to 250 yards or so without a great deal of holdover-but hits like a freight train up close.
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).
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