Will a .243 Kill an Elk? (The Final Word)

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.243 for elk. This is one of the most widely asked questions and most controversial subjects ever to be written about by hunting aficionados, authors and a-holes, present company included.

So settle in, strap on your opinion hat, and enjoy the ride. Because I ain’t gonna pull any punches on this one.

Will a .243 kill an Elk? Yes. A .243 bullet, in any weight from 90 to 105 grains will definitely kill an elk. The key factors in that affect that statement will be shot placement, distance to the elk, and the bullet construction and how well it holds together on impact.

And yet you can find equal number of opinions on either side of this argument on a hundred different hunting boards and a dozen different hunting “experts”.

A quick story.

I just got a text image from an old hunting buddy of mine with the picture of a hefty Eastern Washington coulee mule deer buck lying in the bed of his pickup, stone cold dead and headed to his freezer and wall. My friend, as I remember, was a “canon” shooter, so I asked him, “What you get that with, your .300 Win Mag?”

The reply I got back surprised me at first, because he’s the last person I would’ve thought I could make a convert out of, “Nope, .243. My .270 and .300 were passing right through them and I saw how devastating you guys were getting with the .243.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I just said, “Yep…”

Because here’s the reality folks, I’ve walked around the woods most of my life with a bow and a stick with a pointed razorblade on the end of it, skewering all manner of creatures, and blood loss and vital organ tissue damage are all it takes.

So speared, stuck, or shot… As long an animal’s hit in the vital areas and organs, it’s going down … eventually. And therein lies the rub.

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.243 Win for Elk Hunting

As I said above, it’s not so much can you hunt elk with a .243, but more should you. And if you do, what are the circumstances in which a .243 will ethically and efficiently kill a 300-1,000 pound, elk-sized animal.

For example, if you’re 25 yards from a broadside cow elk and put a 100 grain, .243 bullet through both lungs, that’s going to be a short trail to find that animal.

Conversely, I’ve trailed big mule deer, shot in the “non-vitals” with big, “tough-guy” canon 7mms and .300s, for miles and miles, never to be seen again.

There’s simply no substitute for good marksmanship, rifle accuracy, and shot placement.

Energy Needed to Kill an Elk With a .243

Forget for a minute the fact that bow and arrows don’t kill with energy, they kill with blood loss. Bullets are designed to kill with shock (kinetic energy), wound channel and tissue damage. But in effect, there’s no difference in the end result.

The 1,000 ft. lb Rule

That said, there’s a widely held rule of thumb that it takes a minimum of 1,000 ft. lbs. of that rifle bullet kinetic energy to reliably kill big game. And if we apply that to 100 grain, .243 bullet ballistics, a .243 should be able to kill an Elk out to 300 yards. And that’s more than enough distance for a majority of the shots on big game in North America.

But let’s play devils advocate—let’s move that energy mark up to 1,500 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy needed to kill an elk. At that number, an elk would have to be less than 150 yards away in order to reliably dispatch it with a .243. And once again, how many animals are taken at under 150 yards every year. Rhetorical…

Regardless, I think that a good case for the .243 being able to kill an elk. Not to mention the cases of women, kids, and men (who lied and said it was a .270) having actually taken elk with a .243.

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The Realities of .243 Elk Hunting

Okay, so we could probably kill an elk with a .243 out to about 300 yards. It’s possible and has been proven to happen. But how? What would need to happen?

  • First, we’d have to give up all thoughts of taking anything but broadside and/or slightly quartering away shots. Anything else would be just asking for trouble and a wounded animal.
  • Second, we’d have to get better at knowing and shooting our rifle than hauling it out to the range once a year, the week before hunting season.
  • And finally, with that added practice, we’d have to become better, more experienced, and more restrained and ethical marksmen than the average hunter. We’d take nothing but a double lung or heart shot and absent those opportunities, simply have the self discipline to wait.

The reality and unpredictable nature of elk hunting, any big game hunting for that matter, makes hunting elk with a .243 Win. more akin to bowhunting than longer range rifle hunting with larger calibers. Because the game of patience, perseverance, and persistence is one that gets you in those kinds of short range situations.

While the main thing that larger calibers do is allow you to shoot farther, they’re never a substitute for the marksmanship and shot placement you have to use with any rifle or bow.

But we’ve come this far without asking a primary question…

Why Hunt Elk With a .243?

This is the real question, “Why hunt elk with a .243?” There are plenty of more suited cartridges with more efficient killing power than a .243. So why not just choose one of them?

There are a couple of really good reasons why you might choose to hunt elk with a .243:

  1. That’s the rifle/round that you own.
  2. In order to avoid new shooter/hunter flinching from too much recoil.

Let me tell you, I’ve experienced both of these, and another one that’s just a personal choice.

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If you’re not made of money or the rifle you learned on may be the rifle you hunt with. And a .243 may be all you have to hunt elk with. If that’s the case, set some personal guidelines for yourself based on the information I’ve given you above and go hunting.

Just remember, if you’re going to use a .243 on elk, only take high-percentage lung and heart shots, at close ranges under 300 yards, and on undisturbed elk. Stalk in close like you’re bowhunting and put one in the “pumphouse”.

Flinching is a very real habit that new shooters develop in response to recoil. No one’s ever really ready for recoil.

However, being introduced to a sport where in order to practice it, someone’s got to punch you in the shoulder 20-30 times…? Well, the very skills you’re trying to teach—trigger control, relaxed breathing, and slow steady squeezing the trigger—are hard to learn when you’re closing your eyes, readying to get smacked.

The very invention and nature of the .243 caliber was developed in response to and deals very well with this problem. Ans a short range deadly marksman beats a “canon” man just about every time.

.243 For Elk – The Final Word

It’s up to you, your ethics, experience, and resources, how and what you choose to hunt elk with. That’s the beauty of a free country and being in the wide open outdoors, choices. Do what’s right for you, but practice, take high percentage shot choices, and be patient and willing to hold off on pulling the trigger.

Those more than anything are how you’d hunt elk with a .243.

That third reason?

Well, my father and I shelved our .270s and started packing .243s long before I got my daughters their .243 Savage Muddy Girl. Why? Simple, because it was lighter to pack in the mountains all day and didn’t pound us when it was go time.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>