I've been asked many questions about hunting over the years, given my full-time career as a hunting journalist, especially with Outdoor Life magazine. Of all those questions, the one most asked is my opinion on elk rifles. Most of those were from folks who didn't live in elk country and were coming west for the first time, but some came from experienced hunters who were no strangers to the elk woods.
So here's my two cents worth. I'm basing my opinion on the 40 or so elk I've taken in 50 years, and a hundred others I've personally witnessed taken by other hunters. For me, elk hunting has been a lifelong passion. During the peak of my writing and TV career, I hunted them in three or four states a year as well as western Canada. I wrote seven books and countless articles on elk hunting, and I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about them. Far from it. I learn something every time I step into the elk woods. If you're expecting a detailed article on hot-shot calibers, firearm models, bells and whistles, and ammo ballistics, you'll be disappointed. I'm offering an opinion on what worked for me, what didn't, and what I did to improve my shooting when an elk offered a tough shot.
An old outfitter buddy has a motto that I've frequently quoted: "It don't matter what you're shootin', as long as you can shoot it." That seems to make sense, but an elk changes the equation a bit, because of its size and the environment in which it lives.
My first rifle was a Winchester Model 94 .30-30. I quickly learned it was unsuitable for the open country of the west, at least for my tastes, and I acquired a Winchester pre-64 Model 70 in .30-06 caliber. That rifle and I connected. It became my sweetheart, and I went on to take some 15 elk with it, and countless deer and other big game. I would still shoot that gun, but my job as Hunting Editor of Outdoor Life required me to use firearms of other makes and calibers. Magazine advertising being what it is, that made sense.
As the years passed, I used other rifles in different calibers. All were bolt action, with the exception of some black powder models. Being a traditionalist, I was dead set against synthetic stocks. To me, they were products of manufacturers who had no sense of true beauty in a firearm. That meant a gun adorned with a wood stock. But somewhere along the line, again because of my job with Outdoor Life, I embraced the synthetic stock, though I must admit I was screaming and kicking. I've since learned to accept the ruggedness and accuracy afforded by the synthetic stock.
My elk were taken with very conventional calibers, specifically .270; .308; 7mm Rem Mag; .30-06; .300 Win Mag; .300 Weatherby; .300 Rem Ultra Mag, and a .338. The majority were taken with the 30/06, 7mm Rem Mag, and the .300 Rem Ultra Mag. I've never felt like I was under or over-gunned, though many will say the .270 isn't up to the task of downing a 700 pound bull elk. I disagree. This caliber, championed by the late, great, legendary shooting writer, Jack O'Connor, is, in my opinion, certainly up to the task. Having said that, I believe it's at the low end of the caliber regime.
Every credible hunter will tell you that bullet placement is everything. No surprise there. You put the bullet in the vital area, and the elk is yours. Getting the bullet into the magic spot may not be that simple. Here's a scenario. You've managed to ease within 150 yards of an elk that's totally unaware of your presence. You have the time to set up on an adequate rest, and you take the shot at the animal that offers the perfect broadside shot. If your aim is true, the elk will be yours, whether you're using a .270 or much larger caliber. Now, let's look at another scenario. You're hunting in the timber, and an elk offers a marginal shot. It's looking at you and at full alert. You've been hunting hard for five days and this is the first elk you've seen. You have mere seconds to shoot, and you realize that, because of the elk's position, your bullet must drill through the heavy shoulder bone to hit the vital. This is when you want the bigger caliber. I've seen many cases where the .270 bullet did not have the wherewithal to get that job done. So it's all about choices. You impose rules on yourself that work within your constraints.
Newcomers to elk country often ask how far the average shot might be. The answer varies enormously, of course, but I'd say 200 to 250 yards is about what you can expect. That's been my experience, but I've taken elk with a rifle from 15 yards to 500 yards. I wouldn't recommend calibers that are short range guns, such as the .30-30, because of the obvious need to reach out much farther beyond it's capability.
All hunters know the importance of sighting in a rifle before the hunt, but your western hunt will require extra consideration. In many instances, the hunter takes his firearm to the local range and sights it in at 100 yards, perhaps three inches high to account for a longer shot. With a nice, tight group, the hunter is satisfied, and heads west confidently with his gun. But what happens when the elk is across the draw at 375 yards? Your gun is capable of making the shot, but do you know where to hold the crosshairs to make that shot? Unfortunately, many hunters never shoot beyond 200 yards, either because they don't think it's necessary or because the rifle range allows only for 100 yard targets. One way to resolve the problem is to shoot your gun at 300 yards or more when you arrive for your hunt. There are tens of millions of public acres where you can pull over and set up a target.
There are accessories I want on my elk rifle. A scope, of course. Most scopes nowadays are variable, but I've gotten along fine with a fixed scope. Four or five power works for me. My .30-06 was topped with a four-power Weaver with a dot reticule. I never had any problems with that scope. You don't need to acquire a scope that will break your bankroll, but investing in a quality scope is a prudent idea. I want a sling on my firearm, because elk hunting typically requires negotiating through rough terrain and timbered country where I want both hands free to help me travel in tough country. If an attached bipod rest works for you, use one. Otherwise carry a set of shooting sticks. Many folks think the trigger is of little importance on your perfect rifle. Not so. The trigger may be the most important part of your rifle, allowing you to make a smooth squeeze that's so necessary to take that accurate shot.
Recently I put together a rifle that has shown me plenty of potential. It's a Mossberg in .308 caliber topped with a Swarovski scope and equipped with a Timney trigger. The way I figure it, if I mess up a shot, it's not the gun's fault. It's mine. That's the way it ought to be.
This blog, as I had indicated, doesn't have all the answers, and it wasn't my intent to recommend a single rifle as the best one for elk hunting. The choice is yours, but I always fall back on my pal's advice. "It don't matter what you shoot, as long as you can shoot it."