These days there are a dizzying array of options when it comes to elk rifles. There's a larger selection than ever, and it can be hard to wade through all the opinions and hype you find out there. We've tried to cut through all this and bring you a solid foundation of information that you can use as a starting point in figuring out which elk rifle is best for you.
In this article, we'll cover the requirements of a good elk rifle; selecting the right cartridge, bullets, scope, and accessories; and how to sight in and practice so you're ready for opening day.
Elk hunting in the West demands a lot of a rifle. First of all, it needs to be capable of longer-range shots. Depending on the area you're hunting, you'll likely encounter shot opportunities out past 200 yards. In really open country, you might even get a chance at a 350 or 400 yard shot.
Second, it needs to be powerful. Elk are tough creatures, and your rifle needs to throw out enough energy to penetrate hide, bone, and vital organs. It also needs to be powerful enough to punch through a reasonable amount of vegetation. You could easily end up having to shoot at an elk that is standing partially obscured by brush or moving through thick cover.
And third, it needs to be tough. Most elk country is in the mountains, and that means extreme temperature swings, horizontal rain, dirt, mud, dust, and a lot of other things you can't predict that will wreak havoc on a flimsy rifle.
The first thing you need to decide on when selecting an elk rifle is the cartridge it will be chambered for. This is a source of endless debate among elk hunters. However, it is generally agreed that your cartridge needs to be able to deliver at least 1,500 - 1,800 ft./lbs. of kinetic energy at the point of impact. With this in mind, the .270 Winchester is widely considered to be the minimum you need for elk hunting.
A good rule of thumb: if you already hunt deer with a rifle you shoot well, and it's at least a .270, then you should stick with that rifle for elk hunting. If you don't already own a rifle, or if you hunt deer with a rifle smaller than a .270, then you should choose the largest caliber you can shoot comfortably. These days, there are a ton of great elk cartridges to choose from. However, the following cartridges are the most widely used (listed from smallest to largest):
If you're just starting out, you really can't go wrong with one of these proven performers.
It's easy to be tempted to go with one of the more powerful magnum cartridges, thinking that the more kinetic energy you have at the point of impact, the better. This is good thinking, except that it's leaving out the most important factor of all: accuracy. The larger cartridges have a tendency to make many shooters flinch, and this habit can result in a serious loss of accuracy. If you've never fired a large-caliber magnum rifle, try to find a buddy who has one and will let you test fire it. That way you can determine if you can shoot it accurately.
After you choose your elk cartridge, you'll need to choose the right type of bullet. There is a lot of debate about bullet weight among elk hunters. Some consider 150 grains to be the minimum, while others wouldn't consider using anything lighter than 180 grains. Still others who use larger calibers prefer monster weights like 270 grains.
In general, as long as you're using one of the popular elk cartridges, your best bet is to choose the heaviest bullet weight available for that chambering. For example, the .30/06 Springfield is available in weights ranging from 110 grains all the way up to 220 grains. For elk, consider going with the 220 grain bullet.
One thing there isn't a lot of debate about is the importance of using premium bullets instead of standard soft-points. These bullets will cost more, but their increased penetration and improved expansion make them worth every penny. Examples of popular brands include (to name a few):
Now that you've selected a cartridge and a premium bullet, you're ready to choose the rifle itself. The first question here is: what type of action should I get? This is an easy one. Get a bolt action and don't look back. They're simply the strongest, most reliable, easiest to clean, and most accurate of the elk rifle actions. The bolt action is by far the most popular action used by elk hunters today.
Because of the extreme conditions you're likely to find yourself in when elk hunting, you should strongly consider buying a rifle with a synthetic stock instead of a wood stock. Wood stocks may look nice, but synthetic stocks are more weatherproof, lighter-weight, and generally tougher and less likely to break or throw your rifle out of zero.
For the same reason, you might also consider going with a stainless steel barrel and action. Your rifle is likely to encounter a lot of moisture, and stainless steel resists rust better than carbon steel.
The major gun manufacturers all make quality elk rifles. Some brands you might consider:
One final consideration when choosing an elk rifle to buy: the "feel" of the rifle. This is a bit more intangible, but it's still quite important. A gun that you like and that feels good when you hold and shoot it instills confidence. And confidence will go a long way toward making you a better shot.
Unless you're already an expert shot with open sights and you have a good reason for using them, you'll want to get a quality scope mounted on your rifle. A good scope is an invaluable counterpart to a good rifle.
Choose a scope that is durable, waterproof, and made by a major manufacturer like Leupold or Nikon. You don't need to buy the top-of-the-line, $2,000 model, but the $60 low-end models simply won't cut it. Buy something that's somewhere in the middle. There's no need to buy scopes with enormous lenses, though -- a 40mm objective lense is plenty big for low-light elk hunting conditions.
Fixed power scopes (such as 4X) are popular among elk hunters, as are variable power scopes (such as 3-9X). If you choose a variable power scope, make sure you sight in, practice, and hunt with the same magnification power. Never change the magnification power in the field as this can throw your accuracy off. Also, keep in mind that the higher the magnification, the poorer the scope's performance in low light. For this reason, many hunters keep their variable rifle scopes somewhere in the 4X-6X range.
You don't need to trick your rifle out with all sorts of gadgets, but there are a couple accessories that will make a huge difference in the field.
The first is a sling. You want to have your rifle in your hands as much as possible. However, there are always times in elk country when you will need both your hands free. This is when having a sling and being able to throw the rifle over your shoulder is pretty much a necessity. Look for a sling that is wide, padded, comfortable, and made of no-slip material where it rests on your shoulder.
The other essential accessory is some sort of rest you can steady your rifle on when there are no natural rests available. Lightweight, collapsible, bipod shooting sticks are probably the simplest, cheapest, lightest, and most versatile way to go. Other choices include tripods, rifle-attached bipods, and monopods.
No matter what type of rifle you decide to buy for elk hunting, you need to practice shooting with it as much as you possibly can. You'll need to find a shooting range that simulates the conditions you're likely to face in elk country -- that is, longer shots, say 200 - 300 yards or more. Don't make the mistake of shooting your rifle exclusively at 100 yard targets and thinking you'll be able to make a 300 yard shot. You need to practice those shots to be able to make them.
The first step is sighting in your rifle. Just like other subjects discussed above, the distance at which to zero your scope for elk hunting is a much debated subject. Zeroing at 100, 200, or 300 yards are all viable options for most elk rifles. However, the most common approach (and a good starting point) is to zero in at 200 yards.
You should also practice shooting from multiple positions that mimic the shots you might take in the field. Try making shots at various distances while sitting, standing, kneeling, and prone.
Your goal is to determine your maximum effective shooting range for elk. The kill zone on a mature bull elk standing in the ideal broadside position is about 18". If it's a smaller elk and/or it's quartering away, quartering toward, or standing head-on, that kill zone will shrink considerably.