The converse is also true. A hunter doesn’t need, or probably want, a .458 or .375 magnum for elk. Montana Elk Hunting is more of a marathon than a sprint. Packing a big, heavy African-Buffalo-blaster in mountainous terrain zaps people more than is appreciated by most hunters and hunting writers.
With those elements in mind it is important to address the two most important elements of “what rifle/caliber should I use on elk?”:
1. The shooter. If the shooter doesn’t practice it doesn’t matter what super whazoo-special-elk-blaster is bought. A leg blown off or a jaw blasted away with a .375 H & H Magnum will be blown off or blasted away by a 30-06 or a .243. Practice doesn’t just include launching bullets at targets, it also means hunting practice. Without practice, buck fever causes hunters to make poor decisions on when, how far, or where to take a shot.
2. The bullet. No one would advocate using full metal jackets on elk, but there is a lot of flotsam on what constitutes the correct elk bullet. I haven’t done any exhaustive test, but I know what works—and what doesn’t work—in the field.
All of my elk have been killed with Core-Lokt, Silvertip or Bronze Point bullets, except one that was killed with a Bear Claw. That is all I have bought, including reloading components. They work and keep with my elk hunting principal, “K.I.S.S.-Keep It Simple Stupid,” and its corollary, “If it’s not broken, don’t F*** (mess) with it.” Those cheap bullets have killed all my elk, so I won’t mess with them. Today’s editorial consensus says these cheap bullets are not constructed well enough to mushroom correctly and kill efficiently.
A well-mushroomed bullet is not necessarily a good thing, unless you are shooting into blocks of gelatin or stacks of wet phone books. I have never taken a perfectly mushroomed bullet from a dead elk, deer, bear, mountain sheep or goat. I’ve included a sample of the bullets that I have taken from my big game. All came from elk. The ones in the photo represent what I have.
1. Number one is a 130-grain .270 Winchester CoreLokt that now weighs 80.5 grains.
2. Number two is a 180-grain Bear Claw 30-06 Springfield that now weighs 55.4 grains.
3. Number three is a 130-grain (unsure of the type) .270 Winchester that now weighs 39.5 grains.
4. Number four is a 180-grain (unsure of the type) 30-06 Springfield that now weighs 38.1 grains.
5. I am unsure of the type and weight of Number five, but it is a .270. It now weighs 95.8 grains.
Number one bullet killed an elk at over 550 yards. The number one had a little luck. It hit the bull in the spine just above his shoulders and dropped him in two-feet of snow.
Number two killed an elk at about 75 yards.
Number three and four bullets killed elk at less than 200 yards.
The only bullet of the group that shows anything close to the stereotypical mushroom-shape is Number Five. And, although I don’t know the original weight, Number Five has reached another heralded hallmark for good bullets—retained mass. Oddly, Number Five is the only bullet that didn’t kill an elk, and I didn’t shoot it.
I took that bullet out of a 6x6 bull elk killed with the Number Two bullet on 27 November 2002—my birthday. One of my guides found the Number Five bullet in the edge of the loin as we packed them on the mules. He handed it to me and said, “Here’s your bullet.” I took it, walked away and then asked where he found it. He showed me the lump of gristle he cut it from. I knew then that it wasn’t mine. I had shot this bull threw one shoulder, heart and lung, and it had lodged under the hide on the far side. Later, a caliper showed that the Number Five bullet was a .270. I was shooting the M1903A3 that my grandfather had sporterized in the 1960s. The riflings were also different. The ‘03A3 has a two-groove barrel. The Number Five bullet has multiple riflings.
When we got to camp we examined the loin closer and found a partially healed bullet-trail from the bullet's resting point to a point high in the rump. The bullet had traveled through 12 to 14 inches of muscle, mushroomed perfectly and didn’t kill the bull.
Yes. Anything short of an anti-tank weapon shot into the same location won’t kill an elk, regardless of the bullet. (See comment number one, subtitled, “The Shooter” above.)
The most perfectly mushroomed bullet didn’t kill an elk because the shooter, who ever it was, didn’t take a good shot. Meanwhile four “cheap” bullets killed four elk with one shot each and didn’t mushroom perfectly.
When you visit the sporting goods store to get that new elk blaster make sure you take the hunter who is more concerned with making a clean shot than with what caliber or make of rifle is best.
Under perfect conditions they all work. Each hunter needs to know the correct conditions--even for an African-Buffalo-Blaster.
More later on individual calibers.