Big Bull Elk Minimums

by Patrick Meitin

Modern technology has blurred long-held assumptions about the “ideal” elk medicine.

Boone & Crocket New Mexico Bull Taken With 30-'06
Skip Brunhaver used a 30-’06 with hand loads to take this Boone & Crockett New Mexico bull. A premium bullet assured maximum performance on the big animal.

It’s obvious to say that elk are big, but it seems we need a reminder every once in a while. The average Rocky Mountain bull elk weighs 600 or 700 pounds – translating into three or four mature deer – and Roosevelt bulls, on average, are even bigger. And in this context I’m not referring to cow or raghorn elk, but fully mature bulls that have survived past their fourth or fifth year to become one of the toughest customers, pound for pound, in the entire West. The biggest bulls wear thicker hide, carry heavier bones and more muscle than anything regularly hunted in North America’s Lower 48; because, of course, few of us regularly hunt moose or bison. There’s no such thing as over kill in elk hunting, but there certainly are minimums that must be heeded.

I hesitate to use the term “minimum” because there have been plenty of elk killed with light “varmint” cartridges and/or 45-pound recurve bows. I’m thinking in terms of viable minimums established to assure success at ranges of, say, 200/45 yards (rifle/bow, respectively) or shot angles other than perfectly broadside. After 23 years guiding elk hunters I’ve developed some definite convictions – and not only based on the lowest end of the spectrum.

Magnum Mentality

I’d rather guide a fellow toting a .308 deer rifle he shoots confidently than someone with a magnum rifle he’s deathly afraid of. Many gun writers insist elk should be hunted with nothing short of a .338 Win Mag. Problem is many shooters develop debilitating flinching habits while shooting these powerful, hard-kicking cartridges. This magnum mentality has also infiltrated bowhunting. Shooting 70 to 80 pounds is certainly a good thing if you can truly handle such draw weights, but isn’t absolutely mandatory. The inability to draw such weight during a sapping encounter with a trophy bull, or spooking nearby elk with arm-sweeping draw cycles while fighting the string to anchor, are scenarios that play out every season in elk habitat in direct regards to “over-bowed” bowhunters.

Patrick Meitin with Pistol Killed Cow Elk
Author Patrick Meitin cleanly took this late-season cow elk with a single shot from a .30-30 T/C handgun, a round that would be considered light for the job by most.

The elk-hunting tyro too often buys into the idea of magnum cartridges or extreme draw weight, without understanding it can prove detrimental to success. If you can absorb the magnum kick of a big rifle without ill effect, assemble consistently-tight arrow groups while drawing 80 pounds, that’s all the better, but don’t set it as a solid requirement if you are physically unable to do so. In all reality, the middle-of-the-road deer rifle you already own is in all likelihood plenty of gun for mature elk. In regards to the modern compound bow combined with quality carbon arrows, your 60-pound whitetail rig likely delivers all the energy needed to cleanly tag a trophy bull. Bullet velocity and kinetic energy; especially bow draw weight, are only part of the bigger picture.

Maximizing Efficiency

Modern, controlled-expansion bullets have blurred the lines of elk-hunting minimums considerably. Premium bullets – now commonly offered in factory loads via premium ammunition, available to reloading buffs for decades – are designed to penetrate deeper and hold together better following punishing bone hits that would normally cause lesser bullets to fail miserably. Names like Barnes X-Bullet, Winchester Fail Safe, Remington Safari Grade, Swift A-Frame and original Nosler Partition (just off the top of my head, as there are many more), help boost cartridges like the .243 Winchester or Remington .25-’06 into the realm of viable elk rounds with careful shot placement. In reality though – and hedging bets on less-than-ideal scenarios – I’ll return to the venerable .270 and .30-’06 and similar rounds when talk turns to elk. Combined with premium bullets they offer more than enough killing energy to get the job done on the biggest bulls.

Cut On Contact Broadheads Are Excellent for Elk
Those bowhunting elk with minimum energy should choose a highly-efficient broadhead that penetrates deeply with minimal resistance. Cut-on-contact heads are the answer. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

When bowhunting trophy bulls, everything depends on the terminal tackle; assembling arrows and broadhead combinations that maximize penetration when delivered with minimum KE. This means draw weight alone becomes somewhat arbitrary. For sake of a solid number, let’s call 50 to 55 pounds a safe minimum benchmark (60 to 65 is better, but not essential). Establishing a minimum draw weight translates into poundage you can comfortably pull to anchor while pointing your bow directly at the target and smoothly pulling it straight back to full draw and then holding a pin on target steadily for up to 20 seconds. This creates less attention-grabbing movement, and provides more options should a bull hang up momentarily behind brush while you wait at full draw for him to expose vitals.

Maximizing performance when you’re drawing minimal draw weight means staying away from lightweight speed arrows. In elk hunting choose instead carbon shafts in the 9.5 to 11.5 gpi (grains per inch) class in appropriate spine, combining them with sturdy 100- to 125-grain fixed-blade broadheads with efficient cutting tips. These designs shed less energy while slicing through hide, tissue and especially boring through bone. This describes a 400- to 500-grain finished arrow offering a well-balanced combination of speed, accuracy forgiveness, rugged dependability and penetration performance.

Choosing a reliable firearm or archery setup for the express pursuit of mature elk normally boils down to a game of compromises; balancing physical abilities (tolerance for recoil or how much draw eight you can handle) with available components. It also means maximizing performance when situated at the low end of the energy scale, choosing terminal options designed to get the job done more efficiently with less delivered energy.




Cheyenne, WY
Searching Outfitter & Guide directory...