By Perry Durr
You have made the decision to hunt elk in Colorado, congratulations and good luck. One very important decision involves your method of take. This installment of Elk Hunting University focuses on the ballistics of cartridges commonly used for elk hunting. The vast majority of elk hunters opt for a scoped, bolt-action centerfire rifle. To legally hunt elk with a rifle in Colorado, you must use a rifle that fires expanding bullets with a minimum caliber of .24 cal. or 6mm, a minimum weight of 85 grains that delivers at least 1,000 ft. lbs. of energy at 100 yards. The rifle must also have a minimum barrel length of 16 inches and if a semiautomatic rifle, can hold no more than six rounds in the magazine and chamber combined. For more information, see the latest Big Game Brochure for complete details.
I have been hunting elk for 25 years and have made cartridge performance my hobby for longer than that. I use the Sierra Infinity Exterior Ballistics software, numerous reloading manuals, and a chronograph to help me determine the performance of my loads. Quite often I will duplicate the performance of the premium factory ammunition with my hand loads at a significant savings.
If your experience is hunting whitetail deer and you are transitioning now to the Rocky Mountain elk, you will notice that there is a significant difference in size between the species. I interviewed Brian Dreher, Senior Regional Biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s southeast region, who described the body weights of common big-game species. Mature southern whitetail bucks will run between 150 and 200 pounds. In the northern states, whitetails will average around 250 to 300 pounds on the hoof. A mature Rocky Mountain bull elk will weigh in between 660 and 780 pounds on the hoof. A mature cow will average 500 to 600 pounds. Yearling spike bulls will average 450 pounds. That 6-month-old calf born in June can weigh up to 250 pounds by November. In other words, a calf of the year will weigh as much as a whitetail buck by the time the late seasons roll around.
Beyond body size, the thing I noticed when I started hunting elk was the massive bone structure of an elk compared to that of a mule deer. There is a huge difference. The elk needs that massive bone structure in order to carry all that weight. With that in mind there are important factors to consider when you decide on what rifle cartridge to use on your elk hunt. Key among these are downrange energy, bullet performance, recoil, accuracy and cost. I’m going to concentrate on the more common cartridges that we see in the field. There are many fine cartridges available and if they are not listed here, that in no way indicates that they are not able to get the job done.When you have an elk in your sights you should concentrate on the heart- lung area of the chest cavity just behind the front leg. Head and neck shots are NOT recommended. You will need to penetrate into the tissue with enough destructive force to destroy those vital organs to ensure a clean one shot kill. Cartridges that deliver 1,000 foot-pounds of energy are sufficient on deer species because they are smaller, thin-skinned and have a much lighter skeletal structure. The general consensus is that for a broadside shot on an elk you need 1,200 foot-pounds of energy and at least 2,000 foot-pounds for any quartering shot.A quartering shot when the animal is partially facing you is the most challenging shot. You have to penetrate heavy, dense muscle tissue and the heavy bone structure of the shoulder and then still have enough bullet and energy left to destroy the vital organs.
On impact, your bullet will begin to mushroom and transfer its energy into the tissue of the animal. Controlled expansion bullets are designed to retain more of their weight during the extreme conditions of initial expansion, allowing them to penetrate further into the tissue. Standard bullets will usually retain 45 to 55 percent of their original weight after passing through the muscle tissue, bone and vital organs. Controlled expansion bullets are designed to retain 70 to 85 percent of their original weight. Boat-tail bullets have better aerodynamics with less drag, which lets them retain more velocity and deliver more energy at longer ranges. Controlled expansion, boat-tail cartridges are a very good choice for elk. Many of the manufacturers are now offering premium cartridges that have better down range performance both in energy and bullet construction. Check their websites for more detailed information.
LIGHT-WEIGHT BULLETS VERSUS HEAVY BULLETS: Many centerfire calibers offer comparatively dazzling muzzle velocity numbers when using light-weight bullets – and decent energy numbers at longer ranges. But experience has shown that these light-weight bullets do not penetrate as well as a heavier bullet that is moving at lower velocity. Think about it: What would hurt more – a golf ball stinging you at 100 mph, a baseball thumping you at 90 mph or a bowling ball hitting you at a bone-crushing 80 mph? All of them will hurt, but the bowling ball is the one that really gets my attention. I recommend that you use one of the heavier bullets available for your caliber.
SHORT-ACTION CALIBERS: The most common of the short action calibers are .243 Win, 7mm-08, and .308. They have acceptable power at medium ranges with less recoil. All are capable, but let’s look at their energy numbers in the following table to find their limits, then compare them to the standard-length cartridges. (All numbers are from standard factory ammunition from major manufacturers.) The caliber is listed along with the bullet weight in grains. Muzzle velocity is feet-per-second at the muzzle. Range is the longest range that I recommend for that cartridge. Wind drift is inches of drift off of the line of sight at 250 yards with a 10 mph crosswind. I am including the venerable 30-30 which is almost always found in a lever-action rifle and always uses flat point bullets in a tube magazine. A number of interesting new short magnum calibers have been introduced. If you have one, or are looking at one, check the available ammunition. Choose a heavy bullet for better down range performance.
SHORT ACTION CALIBERS
Range 1,200 ft. lbs.
Range 2,000 ft. lbs.
.243 Win, 85gr.
.308 Win, 165 gr.
.308 Win, 180 gr.
30-30 Win, 150 gr.
STANDARD LENGTH ACTIONS-NON MAGNUM CALIBERS
Range 1,200 ft. lbs.
Range 2,000 ft. lbs.
.270 Win, 130 gr.
.270 Win, 150 gr.
30-06, 165 gr.
.30-06, 180 gr.
STANDARD LENGTH ACTIONS-MAGNUM CALIBERS
Range 1,200 ft. lbs.
Range 2,000 ft. lbs.
7mm Rem, 175 gr.
.300 Win, 150 gr.
* 300 +
* 150 +
.300 Win, 180 gr.
.338 Win, 225 gr.
A “+” after a yardage number indicates the bullet may still have acceptable energy, but shooting beyond that range at an elk is not recommended. Long-range shooting at over 300 yards is a specialty that requires special equipment and a lot of practice. Using light-weight bullets at over 150 yards for quartering shots is not recommended. If you start with a 150 grain bullet, it may shed half of its weight and much of its velocity in the bones and muscle of an elk. Then you still need to penetrate and destroy the lung and heart tissue. A bullet that works well on deer is facing much heavier bone and more tissue when it is penetrating an elk.
I am not including performance data on the full-length magnum calibers, they have sufficient power at any range that you can accurately shoot with heavy bullets.
The magnum calibers offer much more velocity with the heavier bullets. But there is a price to be paid, not only in dollars for more expensive ammunition, but in RECOIL. Significant amounts of recoil quite often brings the “F” word into our shooting. That’s our old nemesis, the Flinch. A lightweight magnum rifle delivers a heavy hit in both directions. A quality recoil pad can help reduce felt recoil by up to 50 percent and a good muzzle brake is very effective in reducing felt recoil also. On the plus side, magnum calibers do provide extended range and more knock-down power. But if you opt for a magnum, you may need to think about your bullet. Any time you have a cartridge that is traveling near to or over 3,000 feet per second, a controlled expansion bullet is a good choice. Major ammunition companies now offer controlled expansion cartridges in almost all calibers. As for the cost – it’s well worth the extra money. You have made a significant investment in time and money to get into position for the shot. In your sights is a thick-skinned, heavy-boned, large game animal. It doesn’t make sense to skimp now.
KNOW YOUR RANGE AND SHOOT IT. This slogan has been in use for a long time, because it is how ethical hunters have always hunted. Most of the cartridges out there can outperform our ability to shoot accurately. This is where it all comes together. The idea is to hit accurately with enough energy to do the job. It is the hunter’s responsibility to find his or her range limit.
The first order of business is to know your rifle. That means sight in your rifle before you go hunting and become comfortable shooting it. Most hunters zero their rifles in for 200 yards, that is, the range where your bullets should hit the center of the target. For most calibers, a 200-yard zero will put you 1.25 to 2.0 inches high at 100 yards depending on muzzle velocity and bullet weight. I checked the web sites of three major ammunition companies and they all offer the zeroing information you need.
A word about bore sighting: Most gun shops will bore-sight your rifle, but bore sighting only gets you on the paper target. Bore sighting is never a substitute for time at the range. NEVER EVER hunt with a rifle that has been bore-sighted only. It’s a recipe for a missed shot or a wounded animal.
On the bench at the range, you should strive to shoot three- or five-shot groups under 2 inches in diameter at 100 yards. I recommend setting your scope at the 3- or 4-power setting. Higher settings magnify the slightest movement and you will tend to chase the holes you are making in the target.
The most common problems I see with rifle accuracy start with the scope. Over time, heating and cooling of the rifle due to weather and the repeated shock from shooting cause scope base screws to come loose. Before each season, it’s a good idea to check those base screws or take it to a gunsmith to have it checked.
When you’re at the bench, hold the rifle across your body, not perpendicular to it. Hold the stock firmly against the cup of your shoulder. If you hold the rifle away from your shoulder, it allows the rifle to slam back into your shoulder, like a punch, magnifying the recoil. That often allows that “F” word to creep into our shooting.
Now you have your rifle bench-sighted, but do you know your maximum range in the field? You should be able to shoot six-inch groups at your maximum range in conditions that duplicate what you will face in the field. When you have a large elk 150 yards out in front of you, adrenalin will become a factor. Your accuracy will drop off some. The personal standard I have for myself with hunting rifles is the milk jug test. I take a 1 gallon milk jug full of water and place it down range. If I can hit it on the first shot every time from one of the shooting positions (not from the bench) with sufficient energy, that is a range I can hunt at. Please pick up after yourself.
If you’re a deer hunter, you’ve probably spent time in a tree stand. Very few elk hunters use tree stands because of the amount of open ground elk cover. Most elk hunters will use the spot and stalk method. Expect to spend a great deal of energy covering terrain and glassing large expanses of habitat. Often when you spot elk, they will be a mile or more away. Then you must get within hunting range, without them seeing, hearing, or smelling you. This is not an easy task. This is where knowledge of your capability, your cartridge’s capability and your practice comes into play.
Wind is a fact of life in the Colorado high country. Positioning yourself so that the wind doesn’t carry your smell toward the elk has implications for your shot. For example, you should try not to let elk get downwind. They’ll smell you a long way off and go somewhere else in a hurry. So you will often have a cross wind. Cross winds can have a significant effect on your bullet, especially lighter bullets. You should understand that those cross winds will cause your bullet to drift off of the line of sight. High winds can cause a bullet to drift two or more feet at 300 yards. This is where practice on the milk jug can really pay off.
Whether or not there’s a wind, it’s important to shoot from a solid, steady rest for accuracy. Off-hand shots are risky even in the best of conditions. Taking an off-hand shot at 150 yards, even at an animal as large as an elk, is often good for an empty freezer. But there aren’t a lot of shooting benches stationed out there in the forest with a deer or elk downrange – I’ve been looking for 30 years, I am still looking. I seem to end up wrapped around a tree or lying on a pile of rocks when I shoot an elk. Your pack laid on the ground makes a good rest. Shooting sticks are good tools, too. But the key is to practice.
Practice all four shooting positions, but concentrate on kneeling, sitting, and prone. Very few people can shoot accurately from standing position. Find out what is comfortable for you. Prone position with a solid rest is a must for long-range shooting. Shooting sticks help stabilize the rifle in kneeling and sitting position. I like to practice with a scope on my bolt action .22, it’s inexpensive and invaluable practice.
If you are coming from a lower altitude and are going to hunt at altitudes of 9,000 feet or more there is less drag on your bullet due to the thinner air. It will change your zero point slightly. Try to check it before you hunt if you can.
The drop on any shot is less if it is an uphill or downhill shot, there is less gravitational pull for the distance. It is much more difficult to judge yardage on a cross canyon shot. Never shoot at a sky lined animal. Elk will often run off even when well hit.
AFTER THE SHOTOnce you have taken a shot at an animal, you must insure you have not wounded the animal before you continue hunting. An elk is a large animal and may travel several hundred yards, even with a perfect shot placement. Visually mark the place where the animal was standing then look around the area for signs of blood or hair. Only after you are sure you have missed the animal should you continue your hunt.
Once you have harvested an animal, Colorado Law requires you validate your tag at the site of the harvest. Before you begin to field dress, take pictures or any other action: Detach your carcass tag from the license, sign and date it, mark the sex of the animal harvested with a pen. You must attach the tag to a major portion of the carcass with evidence of sex attached to the portion before you transport the carcass.
Many white tail hunters will leave the skin on their animals for days to let it age. An elk is a thick-skinned animal wearing its winter coat, so you need to get the skin off as soon as you reasonably can. Meat spoilage can happen in a matter of hours if you don’t. Place your meat in game bags that breathe so it can cool while keeping the flies off.
If you have to pack your animal out you will have to quarter it at least. Many Colorado hunters will bone out the animal and just take out the meat. There is a new technique called the gutless method that saves a lot of time and energy. The skin and skeletal portion of an elk weigh around two hundred pounds and more, that is a lot of unnecessary weight to pack at high altitude.
I recommend you go back and review EHU Chapter 1 Lesson 15 – Field to the Table. Tom does a great job explaining some great tips on properly preparing your elk for consumption.
The better you prepare for your hunt, the more enjoyable it will be. Enjoy your hunting experience in Colorado.
I would like to thank my fellow Huntmasters and friends Ron Reich, Don Chrisman, and Randy Matthews for their suggestions.