Ideally, the gun makers, ammo loaders, scope builders and gun writers would like you to buy a new elk rifle—and honestly, who wouldn’t love to do that? But if you already own a .270 Win. or it’s rough equivalent, the elk won’t care.
Much is made of 300 magnums, 338 magnums and even 375 magnums for elk. Yes, these cartridges thump with authority, but they don’t knock elk over, push them back 10 feet or flatten them like roadkill. Bullets from a .270 Win. 7mm-08 Rem. or even a lowly .243 Win. do not bounce off.
Last fall I felled a mature 6x6 Montana bull with a .270 Win. and a pair of 130-grain bullets. The first was the new Winchester Extreme Point deer bullet. I put it behind the shoulder where it severely ventilated both lungs. The bull trotted about 10 yards and stopped, clearly at death’s door. To hasten its demise, I added a 130-grain XP3 bullet to the high shoulder, which clipped the spine and anchored him.
This spinal tap is the key to flattening elk or any other game, and it’s often what encourages shooters to claim that their super magnums “knock ‘em flat,” as if they’d hit them with a semi-tractor pulling three fully loaded trailers at 65 mph.
Bullets don’t perform like trucks. Sure, a 300-grain .375 H&H Mag. bullet to the spine will drop an elk or moose or elephant in its tracks. But so will a 55-grain bullet from, say, a .223 Rem. It’s not the bullet weight, velocity or energy that kills. It’s tissue destruction. And nerve tissue closely connected to the brain is delicate stuff.
A short while ago I finished off another hunter’s wounded whitetail as it was running away. I was using a 300 Win. Mag. and 150-grain bullets moving at well over 3,100 fps. It took three of them to do the job. Yup. That little, 240-pound deer absorbed more than 3,000 foot-pounds of energy from each bullet without getting knocked over or even sideways. It just sucked up the energy and kept going until its blood pressure dropped and it lost consciousness.
If you believe that keeping a bullet inside an animal so all the kinetic energy is absorbed for maximum impact, you’ll be disappointed to learn that two of my .300 Win. Mag. bullets did stay inside that buck. So, it truly did absorb enough kinetic energy to lift 6,000 pounds a foot off the ground, yet it was neither lifted nor even knocked sideways so much as a foot.
And this brings us back to that elk hunt and your old deer rifle. Look, elk hunts are expensive enough without the added cost of a new rifle and scope. If you can afford a new rifle, by all means get one and get the biggest one you want. It can’t hurt to throw big bullets at high speed if you can direct them accurately. Various 300 and 338 magnums have been proven deadly effective on elk. But, ordinary deer rifles more than suffice. The trick is to park the right bullet in the right place. Boring though it might be, accuracy trumps firepower, muscle and everything else.
Now, bullet selection should be a major concern. My choice of the Extreme Point deer bullet was not the best, but I knew its limitations and how to exploit them. A relatively thin-jacketed, soft lead core bullet tends to flatten like a pancake or break up upon striking thick hide, muscle and bone. If you use a traditional cup-and-core bullet designed for deer, restrict your elk shots to broadside or behind-the-shoulder placement.
For better penetration and the ability to break big bones while still reaching vital organs, use a controlled expansion bullet like the XP3 I used as a follow up. Bullets that expand 1.5 to 2X normal diameter while retaining 80 percent or more of their weight are most likely to run deep, which is where they need to go to maximize tissue destruction and bleeding.
It's the decrease in blood pressure that causes animals to lose consciousness and fall over. Oxygen depleted brain cells die. The elk dies. You feel as if you’ll die when you carry that last 100-pound load of meat up and out of that nasty canyon in which you shot the elk. With your ordinary deer rifle. With extraordinary accuracy. Congratulations.