Big Medicine for Our Big Deer
Ammo Photos by Mark Fingar
Thanksgiving in western Montana, 1972, six inches of fresh snow. John Ward and I picked up the tracks of two bulls in the bottom and followed them up through the timber. They jumped on top of the ridge, two pale rumps staring back at us. I figured it was over, but John knew there was clear-cut beyond; I was a few yards behind when he started shooting. His bull was already down when I slid in beside him; mine dropped a few yards farther. John shot his battered .270 Winchester; I was shooting a .375 H&H.
Fast forward 30 years, early 2002: I was leaving for the second Gulf War, but Chub Eastman and I managed a late-season New Mexico elk hunt. Chub hammered a big bull up on a steep hillside, down in its tracks. Mine was the farthest shot I’ve ever made on an elk, a bit over 400 yards. The bull took one step and fell backwards. In a bit of role reversal, Chub was using a 9.3x64 Brenneke, a European cartridge every bit the equal of the .375 H&H. I was shooting a .270 Winchester stoked with 150-grain Nosler Partitions.
A GOOD SPECTRUM FOR ELK
I sincerely hope nobody ever suggested that cartridges capable of killing an elephant are needed for elk. However, I think the cartridges used on those long-gone elk hunts establish pretty good parameters for sensible elk cartridges. The .270 Winchester is not the bottom-line minimum, but it’s a pretty good starting point for elk. Our American wapiti is a very large and strong animal, at least twice and often thrice the size of a big deer. I have huge respect for elk, but they are not bulletproof. The good old .270, especially when mated with the tough, deep-penetrating, weight-retaining bullets we have today, is not a “big gun” on elk, but is adequate for any elk that walks, with careful shot placement.
That said, I’m not certain “overgunned” is a concept that should be applied to large, tough game. The goal is a dead elk, without any chasing around the mountain. Back in 1972, kid though I was, I had a .375 and was itching to use it. I also had a .270 back then, but I wanted to use my .375, so I did. Similarly, Chub Eastman, no kid in 2002, had a 9.3x64 and he wanted to use it—so he did. There’s no major downside to using too much gun on big animals, except perhaps you’re carrying more weight and sustaining more recoil than necessary.
Those two hunts were memorable, both with good friends now gone, but hardly my only experience with elk. I don’t hunt elk every year, and not every hunt has been successful, but I suppose I’ve taken a couple dozen bulls. It’s important to highlight that word: bulls. I’ve taken my share of small raghorn bulls, but I’ve never shot a cow elk. A lot of folks who live in elk country go after a tasty cow for the freezer every fall. And well they should, but it’s important to understand that there’s a major order of magnitude in both size and stamina between cow elk and mature bulls.
Meat hunters who are willing to pick their shots can probably get by with a .257 Roberts or .25-06, and many freezer elk are taken annually with .243s, the legal minimum in many places, by locals. But if you are someone who is going to take the time and effort to journey out of state for a non-resident elk hunt, for me, the actual bare-bones minimum for elk is the 6.5mm. I don’t think there’s a maximum. I know folks who use .416s (probably because they have them), but the .375 H&H is the largest cartridge I’ve ever used for elk. Effective, you bet, and totally unnecessary. I won’t mention large calibers again, except to say: If you have a .375 that you’re itching to use, consider loading up one of the light .375 bullets—there are several great choices between 220 and 250 grains. The lighter bullets increase velocity, flatten trajectory, and reduce recoil…and make the .375 a pretty darned good elk rifle! But so is the .270 Winchester. Somewhere between there you might find perfection…if such a thing exists.
GOING TO SCHOOL
When I was a kid we didn’t have Internet or outdoor TV, but we had magazines. The two best-known writers were Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith, but they held classes in two altogether different schools. ‘Twas O’Connor who taught us the .270 was adequate for elk. Although the Professor was a family friend, I was a child of the first magnum craze. I didn’t dare to question him, but I wasn’t certain he was right (hence a .375 for my first elk).
Elmer Keith believed in heavy-for-caliber bullets of larger calibers, but mostly, he hated all things O’Connor held dear. Especially the .270 Winchester, which he called a “damned adequate coyote rifle.” The .33-caliber was Keith’s baby. He should have been ecstatic with the .338 Winchester Magnum, introduced in 1958, but apparently was not, perhaps because Winchester designed their own cartridge rather than adopting his .333 or .334 OKH wildcats.
Whether the .338 Winchester Magnum had Keith’s unqualified support or not, it was (and is) an elk rifle. Years would pass and much experience would be required before I fully accepted that O’Connor had been right all along about the .270’s adequacy. As Mark Twain said, “it’s the difference of opinion that makes horse races.” We can (and will) argue about minimums, and you have my opinion on maximums. But the adequacy of the .338 for elk cannot be argued: It is not essential, but it is effective.
The .338 Winchester Magnum is part of a fairly small class of “medium-bore” cartridges between our all-American .30 and .375 (and/or 9.3mm, .366-caliber), which is where “dangerous game cartridges start.” Bullet diameters include 8mm (.323-inch), .33, and .35. Depending on velocity, most of the cartridges in these calibers are adequate for elk, and the faster numbers are fantastic. A story like this should not be a cartridge catalogue, so now I’m treading into dangerous territory.
The .338 Winchester Magnum is by far the most popular cartridge between .30-caliber and .375, but far from the only choice. I have actually taken very few elk with the .338, largely because I was twice diverted by dalliances with the 8mm Remington Magnum, once when it was new, and again in the 1990s. With the right loads the 8mm Remington shoots a bit flatter than the .338, but so do several .33s that are faster than the .338, including the .338 RUM, .340 Weatherby Magnum, and the mighty .338 Lapua. The problem with faster .33s is they kick too darn much! The .35 Whelen is a marvelous elk cartridge, less recoil and blast than the .338…but also a bit less effective range.
I suppose I’ve taken more elk with the 8mm Remington and .35 Whelen than the .338, but the whims of a gun writer cannot always be relied upon as Gospel. If you seek a serious elk cartridge above .30 caliber that shoots flat—and will flatten elk—then just get a .338 Winchester Magnum and be done with it. Montana outfitter and hunting consultant Jack Atcheson Jr. has used a .338 his whole life—not only for elk but most everything. As he says, “the .338 numbs them.” Now, whether you really need a serious elk cartridge above .30 caliber leaves some room for discussion. So, I guess you should keep reading.
OK, I admit it: The .270 Winchester is the lightest cartridge I’ve taken a proper elk with.
Honestly, I suppose because of its incredible current popularity, but the magical performance properties attributed to the 6.5mm Creedmoor horrify me. The Creedmoor is an adequate elk cartridge, but only at very moderate range. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than a 140-grain bullet of .264-inch diameter at roundabout 2,700 fps. Which puts it in the same power class as the 6.5x55, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, and 7x57. With good shot placement all of these are fully capable of cleanly taking elk but only with careful shot placement at very moderate ranges.
However, none of these have the case capacity, and thus cannot produce the velocity and downrange energy of the .270s (Winchester, Weatherby, or WSM); or of the larger-cased and faster 7mms from .280 Remington on up through the numerous 7mm magnums. So, despite all the current hype surrounding the 6.5mm Creedmoor, I think of its class of cartridge (6.5x55 through 7x57 and 7mm-08) as a sensible minimum for elk and elk-sized game, and only at very moderate range. Yes, the Creedmoor is an awesome long-range target cartridge. That’s what it was designed for, remaining supersonic to beyond 1,200 yards with minimal recoil. These properties don’t make it a long-range hunting cartridge. It can be used for elk and, like all 6.5mm and 7mm cartridges, you can hedge your bets with heavy bullets, but I think it’s wise to keep your shots within 250 yards on elk.
There is another entire class of cartridges that are also elk-capable, but need to be kept within very moderate ranges. These are the “brush cartridges,” larger calibers, heavy bullets, lower velocities, effective, but not as versatile. These probably start with the .338 Federal and .338 Marlin Express, include old-timers like the .348 and .358 Winchester, and run on up to .444 Marlin and .45-70. I like these cartridges, but have done little elk hunting with them because I prefer to keep my range envelope wide-open. I am not an extreme-range shooter on game, but with elk I like to think I can take a 400-yard shot if that’s what I draw. I gravitate to more versatile choices for elk but all of these cartridges are fine for closer shots.
THE DIRTY THIRTIES
I’ll give my young friend and colleague Skip Knowles credit for the “dirty thirties” moniker. We were talking about this the other day, and he suggested the .30-calibers were “about right” for elk. Yes, but not essential. Shot placement is always critical, and the great modern bullets we have today make a huge difference. Despite what I might have believed when I was young and lacking in experience, I’m perfectly comfortable hunting elk—and recommending the use of—the faster .270s and 7mms.
I’m still very happy to recommend the over-.30 mediums, though they are not essential. Recoil levels will exceed what some shooters are comfortable with, but the .33s—plus a few suitable 8mm and .35-caliber hunting cartridges—are just plain awesome for elk. I’ve carried a .338 Winchester Magnum on several hunts, but taken more with the 8mm Remington Magnum, which I find similar (and marvelous!) in effect. And still more with .270s,but, honest, I’ve taken exactly one bull with a fast 7mm Remington Magnum. As with the .338, I’ve carried 7mms on several elk hunts, but not every outing is going to be successful.
OL’ RELIABLE .30-06
However, with the .30-calibers I think we’re getting down to business. In years gone by I might have theorized that the .338 Winchester Magnum was the ideal elk cartridge. Damn good, but it kicks too much for a lot of folks, and too many elk are taken cleanly every fall by lesser cartridges to suggest any “over-.30” is mandatory. More recently, I’ve suggested the great old .30-06 might be the all-time (and all-around) best elk cartridge. If we could know the unknow-able, I’ll bet since 1906 more elk have fallen to the .30-06 than any other cartridge, and despite my predilections for magnums and oddballs, I’ve taken more elk with the .30-06 than any other.
Some have been impressive one-shot kills. Some have not. On a snowy afternoon in Montana I had a bull almost straight down a long slope. He was about 350 yards away, a fair poke. I shot him with a 180-grain Barnes TSX from a Savage 116. I thought I hit him pretty well, but he didn’t go down. I kept shooting and hit him a couple more times. No apologies, recovery would be tough enough and I didn’t want it to get any worse.
I’ve never had any reason to question the adequacy of a .30-06 with a good 180-grain bullet. At least in part that’s because I’m a “.30-06 guy.” The .30-06 has been a favorite cartridge and frequent choice for many years, so I’ve used it a lot. I am not a “.308 Winchester guy.” Sorry, never one of my favorites. If it happens to be a favorite of yours, forget everything said and apply it to the .308. The .308 Winchester runs a wee bit slower than the .30-06, but with modern powders the gap is fairly narrow and I doubt any elk out there will ever know the difference.
The faster .30s are also extremely effective. Come to think of it, maybe they’re even better if you’re willing (and able) to accept a bit more recoil. I’ve taken elk with the old .300 H&H and the .300 Winchester Magnum. Same formula: Add a good 180-grain bullet and you can’t go too far wrong. Just the other day I was glassing a huge valley at about 10,000 feet elevation, maybe an hour before sundown. On the far side a few cows were starting to feed out of timber. A great bull was behind them, 800 yards, with maybe enough cover to cut the distance in half. We started scrambling and for once it was actually better than it looked. When we crawled out onto a last little rock shelf all the elk were in the open right below us, about 250 yards, the bull in the middle of the group. The first shot hit low in the shoulder, about a third up. I was reasonably certain he was going to go down, but he was in wide-open ground, headed for timber. So, when he stopped I shot him again, a bit higher in the shoulder, and he was down in short grass, nice. I was using a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel from my Blaser R8, shooting Hornady 200-grain ELD-X, the rifle topped with a Zeiss 5-16x50mm scope. This was not a difficult shot for a setup like that, but I was ready for pretty much anything. As awesome as the .308 and .30-06 are, the fast .30s are even better…provided you can shoot them well.
With my Blaser I pretty much had it all: an accurate, flat-shooting rifle, a good scope, and a bullet that would surely do the job. I’ll comment on all three, but first an admission: That particular “elk,” in Sept. 2018, was an Asian wapiti in Mongolia’s Altai Mountain. Elk hunting isn’t altogether a North American event. The rifle, a “dirty .30” is never a bad choice, but my Blaser is walnut and blued metal. Elk hunting is often very tough, hard on you and tough on equipment. That rifle is a favorite, a consistent and dependable choice, but elk hunting is a good place for synthetic stocks and rustproof metal. Also, if you can maintain equal dependability, a bit lighter rifle might be more ideal. That depends a bit on how you are hunting. We were on horseback, which is a whole different deal from a backpack hunt.
The scope: As I said, I’m not an extreme-range shooter on game. That Zeiss 4-16x50mm on a 30mm tube was wonderfully clear, but a bull elk offers a very large target. So, within reasonable range, there isn’t strong justification for packing a scope much bigger than, say, a good old 3-9X for elk hunting.
Finally, the bullet. Elk are tough and the bullet must be heavy enough for caliber and tough enough to guarantee penetration. I like the homogeneous alloy bullets for elk, both Barnes TSX and Hornady GMX. If you don’t like the tough all-copper bullets then consider bonded-core bullets, combining expansion with weight retention: AccuBond, Interbond, Scirocco. The ELD-X I was using in Mongolia is “none of the above,” neither homogeneous alloy nor bonded-core. However, when in doubt, bullet weight usually works. Intended for downrange performance, the ELD-X is accurate and, at 200 grains in .30-caliber, it’s heavy. The second shot wasn’t needed, but both bullets exited. You can’t ask for more.