There's a lot more to hunting elk than simply hearing its bugle ring through the mountains. You have to put a lot of thought into selecting the appropriate cartridge and bullet as well as the rifle and scope. Here are an expert elk hunter's musings.
Layne took his best elk to date with a Browning A-Bolt Mountain Ti in .300 WSM.
Nature holds many wonderful sounds for those who will take the time to listen, and I am one of those lucky people who has, down through the decades, paused long enough to enjoy more than my share of them. Some I continue to hear quite often, others I long to hear just once more.
How can I ever forget the croaks made by those big, fat bullfrogs as I, with flashlight and .22 rifle in youthful hand, enthusiastically stalked along the shores of a small pond out behind our farm house? Then many other dark nights later, the roars of lions made me snuggle even more deeply into my sleeping bag on the Zambezie River. Never will I forget the first time my ears enjoyed the honking made by a gaggle of Canadian geese as they flew over a cold winter morning or the plaintive call of a whippoorwill outside the window of a hunting cabin my father and I had just finished building of rough lumber hauled from a South Carolina sawmill.
Even today I can close my eyes and hear the first loon I heard on a backwoods lake in Maine, and I can also hear two Alaska-Yukon moose shatter the stillness as they, time and again, collide mighty antler against mighty antler. Have you ever heard the rifle-shot crack made by a couple of bighorn rams as they meet head on at full throttle? I have, and it is an unforgettable sound.
The "Bob-White" of a quail, the "cooooo" of a mourning dove, coyotes howling on a fine Texas morning, hippos honking the night away, the gobble of a boss gobbler on a fine Alabama morning, the mating roar of a red stag on the North Island of New Zealand, the song made by chicadas as they awake from their seven-year sleep — you can add those to my preferred music list as well. All are sounds of nature that I dearly love, and while I would have great difficulty picking a favorite, the bugle of the Rocky Mountain elk on a cold, frosty morning painted brilliantly by the turning leaves of quaking aspen would be a strong contender.
But there is a lot more to hunting a bull elk than hearing its wonderful bugle ring through the mountains. There is also the country he lives in. I've been in some parts of the world often enough to last me for a lifetime, but I will never get enough of being in elk country. Nor will I ever get my fill of hunting them, and I have been at it for a very long time.
I took my first elk with a Remington Model 700 in 7mm Remington Magnum not long after the rifle and cartridge were introduced in 1962. Forty-three years later I bumped off the best bull I have taken — possibly the best I will ever take — in New Mexico with a Browning A-Bolt Mountain Ti in .300 WSM. During that same year I took another bull in Colorado with a prototype Sako rifle in .338 Federal several months before that cartridge was introduced. My second-best bull came from Utah, and I took it with a rifle in .270 Winchester. A New Mexico bull I bumped off with a new Remington Model 700 XHR in .30-06 during the 2008 season was my 35th elk, and hopefully it will not be my last.
Layne's longest shot on an elk was made with a Weatherby Mark V in .340 Magnum, and his closest shot was with a Winchester Model 71 in .348 Winchester. Both were one-shot kills.
I have taken about 60 percent of my elk while hunting on my own, and the rest were taken while hunting with various professional outfitters. My longest shot to date is 420 yards with the .340 Weatherby Magnum, and my closest is 15 yards with a Winchester Model 71 lever gun in .348 Winchester. Both were one-shot kills. I have taken more elk with the 7mm Remington Magnum and .30-06 than any other cartridges, but through the years I have made it a point to use as many different rifles and cartridges as possible. Others I have used include .308 Winchester, 7mm STW, 6.5 STW, .280 Remington, .340 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .300 H&H Magnum, 7mm-08 Remington, .358 Winchester, .358 STA, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x62mm Mauser, and .45-70 Government.
Among the elk I have taken, I will never forget the one I put the brakes on with the .338 Winchester Magnum. Another hunter higher up on the mountain spooked the animal toward me, and as it passed through an opening in the timber at about 40 yards, I swung the Model 70 like a quail gun and squeezed its trigger just as the intersection of the crosshairs of my scope caught up with the front of the elk's shoulder. The bull was running full-throttle downhill, and when my 250-grain bullet passed through both of its shoulders, it immediately hit the ground hard and did a complete tail-over-antlers somersault before piling up in a cloud of dust. I do believe that elk was dead before its nose touched the ground.
Knock wood, but I have yet to lose a single elk that I have shot, and only one was not recovered soon after I shot it. There was only about an hour of daylight left in the days when I shot the bull with the .270 Winchester loaded with bullets that were too soft for use on anything bigger than deer. Fortunately, it was an extremely cold night, and when I found the bull early the next morning, its meat had not spoiled.
Magnums Are Great, But They Aren't Necessary
Magnum cartridges most definitely have their advantages, but when all is said and done, the .30-06 is the best elk cartridge for many hunters due to its relatively mild recoil. It also packs enough punch for the job at hand, and you would hear no complaint from me if I could use no other cartridge for any elk hunting I will do in the future.
When loaded with the right bullet, magnum cartridges of .30, .33, and .35 calibers are more effective on elk but only when used by those who can handle their recoil well enough to accurately place a bullet into a vital area. An elk shot in the guts with the .338 Win. Mag. is likely to put miles of tracks between it and the hunter before expiring, whereas one shot through a vital area with the .30-06 will usually go down close to the spot where it was shot.
The Right Bullet Is Critical
A well-placed, heavy-for-caliber bullet designed for the job driven through the shoulders of an elk will drop the animal more quickly than a shot to its lungs, and that's what I have long preferred. The ideal design is one that's soft enough to expand on a shot at long range but tough enough to hold toget
her and blast through heavy bone at any range. I have taken more elk with the Nosler Partition than any other bullet simply because for many years it handled both chores better than anything else we had, but it now has some competition. I continue to use the Partition, but today I am just as likely to head to the woods with the Swift A-Frame. It will do anything the Partition will do, plus it retains more weight during expansion. I have very little experience with the Speer Bear Claw, but my guess is it would perform about the same as the Nosler Partition. The Barnes X-Bullet is also a good one, but due to its extreme toughness, I consider it a better choice for magnum cartridges and their higher velocities than for the standards. Bullets such as the Swift Scirocco, Remington Ultra Core-Lokt, Hornady InterBond, and Nosler AccuBond work great on a lung shot, but I consider them to be a bit soft for a shot to the shoulder.
Layne says a good rifle in .30-06, such as this Sako Model 75, is the ideal elk rifle for many hunters, and it's one of the author's favorites.
A Lightweight Rifle Can Be The Right Choice
Not a single elk hunt I have been on through the years could be considered easy, but some were more difficult than others. Regardless of whether you hunt from horseback, as I have done on a number of occasions, or on foot, as I have done more often, a relatively lightweight rifle is not a bad idea. One of the first rifles I used, a Winchester Model 70 in .300 H&H with a 26-inch barrel, tipped the scale at close to 10 pounds with scope, sling, and a magazine full of cartridges. I was too young and eager to notice the extra baggage, but now that I am older and wiser, I have become fond of elk rifles that hang lighter from the shoulder.
In my battery is a trio of custom rifles in .257 STW, 6.5 STW, and 7mm STW built by Lex Webernick of Rifles Inc. on Remington Model 700 actions. Depending on the scope they might be wearing, each weighs around 6 pounds. I have yet to take an elk with the .257, but the 6.5mm and 7mm rifles have been blooded in the field on more than one occasion.
Another of my favorite elk rifles is a Browning A-Bolt Mountain Ti in .300 WSM; it weighs exactly 7.5 pounds with a lightweight nylon carrying sling, three cartridges, and a Zeiss 3-9X Diavari C in a Talley two-piece aluminum mount. I have never hunted with a Remington Model 700 Alaskan Ti, but my guess is it would weigh about the same when fully equipped.
The ideal weight for an elk rifle also depends on a number of other things, including the cartridge it is chambered for and how well its owner can handle recoil. I have no problem shooting a rifle weighing less than 8 pounds and chambered for a standard cartridge of any caliber, including .338-06, .35 Whelen, and 9.3x62mm Mauser. The same goes for the various magnum cartridges up to .30 caliber. In fact, my favorite rifle in .300 RUM weighs exactly 8 pounds on the button, and never have I noticed its recoil in the field. But anything bigger calls for a few more ounces of recoil-absorbing weight. My rifles in .338 Win. Mag. and .340 Wby. Mag. weigh half a pound more, and that's about right for me.
Too Much Scope Can Spoil The Hunt
Then there is the matter of telescopic sights. The trend among some hunters nowadays is to use a scope so large the rifle appears to be attached to it rather than the other way around. Doing so is fine for some hunting applications; however, it is not only totally unnecessary on an elk rifle, but it's too heavy as well. And just try carrying such a rig in a scabbard when hunting from horseback.
For many years I made it a point to equip any rifle I used for elk hunting with a Leupold Vari-X II in 2-7X, and I still consider it to be one of the very best choices available. In addition to having excellent optical quality, it is lightweight, compact, rugged, and sheds bad weather like a mallard drake. But there are other good scopes, and any good variable from Leupold, Zeiss, Swarovski, Nikon, Burris, Bushnell, Schmidt & Bender, Kahles, and others with a maximum magnification range in the neighborhood of 6X to 9X is not a bad choice.
As for weight, any scope heavier than 18 ounces is a bit much for a mountain rifle, and 12 ounces is none too light. More important than anything else, a scope can take a severe beating on an elk hunt, so it must be durable and weatherproof.
If you already have a few elk hunts under your belt, I am sure you love the sport as much as I do. If you have never been on an elk hunt, you owe it to yourself to go, but watch out because once you do it, you'll be hooked for life.