A hard-core hunter has a shot opportunity at a great public-land bull elk. He’s shooting a 6.5PRC rifle, which some consider too light for elk. Should he take the shot?
Last fall several buddies and I horse-packed 24 miles into the wilds of Montana to hunt. I was after mountain sheep, my friends were pursuing elk. The trip in was grueling, with several miles of the trail covered up in deadfall timber where a forest fire had raged years earlier. Then, as we neared our intended destination we found that a Forest Service trail had been abandoned years ago and was no longer passable. After an hour of searching, stomping up and down, and saying nasty things about the Forest Service for closing a trail and not making it known, we hit a different trail to detour around. What should have been four miles to our destination was now 12.
Even so, we made it to our intended camping spot just before dark; horses and hunters both tuckered out. The next day we scouted for sheep, finding instead a herd of rutting elk. Dawn the following morning was opening day and found us climbing toward the same bugling bull. He was now atop the highest peak in the area, feeding along a steep slope with his harem. By the time we closed the distance he was gone, having moved down into broken timber. We could see cows filtering in and out of the trees, run ragged by several bulls. One, in particular, was huge for a public-land bull. My friends Jim and Monroe set into the timber in pursuit as I turned along the ridge to search for sheep.
I had no luck and neither did they, but the next day they climbed back up the mountain and got back on the same herd. The elk were working back and forth, feeding and rutting through the timber. Jim found a long shooting lane through the trees and set up, his rifle rested over a log, and his crosshairs covering a grassy meadow the elk were moving back and forth across.
RIFLE, OPTIC, AND AMMO
Jim was hunting with a beautiful bolt action ClymR rifle custom built for him by Gunwerks, sporting a 22-inch barrel and chambered in 6.5 PRC. Now, this cartridge is arguably a bit light for elk, especially big mature bulls with their heavy bone and hide. It simply doesn’t carry the bullet weight and frontal diameter of traditional elk cartridges like the .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, and .338 Winchester Magnum. However, both Jim and I believed that with careful shot placement and good judgment on the shot angle he’d be just fine.
Mounted atop Jim’s rifle is a 3-18X44 Leupold VX6-HD with a Leupold CDS (Custom Dial System) turret matching his rifle’s ballistic profile. The rifle is zeroed at 200 yards. To shoot at longer distance all he has to do is laser the target, crank the turret to the corresponding yardage, and execute an accurate shot. As I’ve mentioned in previous Take The Shot articles, this is a fast, reliable system that functions smoothly when the pressure is on. Jim was good to about 600 yards with his setup, which is a long way for most shooters.
Hornady Precision Hunter ammunition completed the setup, loaded with their 143-grain ELD-X bullet, which possesses a reputation for fantastic accuracy and sports a G1 BC of 0.625. Factory projected muzzle velocity for this ammo is 2960 fps when shot from a 24” barrel, but as mentioned above Jim’s rifle has a 22” barrel. According to my Shooting Chrony chronograph, his muzzle velocity is 2927 fps. Accuracy with Jim’s rifle is sub .5 moa, when he can do his part. He’s like me; not every day is a half-moa shooting day.
TAKE THE SHOT?
After Jim got set up over his log he simply waited. Monroe was working through the timber at an angle, trying to call the bull closer to Jim. It worked; the big bull responded to the call, bugling as he came. He trotted into Jim’s lane and stopped, but his vitals were perfectly covered by an intervening tree. Then he took three more steps and stopped broadside. Jim had ranged the distance to the meadow at 320 yards, and had already adjusted his turret. His crosshairs were steady on the bull, and the moment of truth had arrived. His finger settled on the trigger.
Place yourself in Jim’s shoes: You’ve traveled halfway across the US to hunt elk, ridden a horse many miles into the wilderness, and worked hard to be ready for this moment. You’ve never killed an elk before, and now the bull of your dreams is in your crosshairs. He’s big, mature, and heavy-boned, but he’s broadside and wide-open. Will you take the shot?
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED: TRUE STORY
Jim pressed the trigger. He saw the bullet impact, just fore of the shoulder crease and an inch above center. The bull flinched and ran, immediately disappearing into the timber. Silence fell over the mountain, and Jim sat still and listened. About two minutes later a tremendous crash sounded through the trees, and Jim’s dream bull was down. It only traveled 30 yards.
As he processed the bull Jim found the bullet, mushroomed to perfection, under the hide opposite the entrance. The bullet had done massive damage to the lungs, resulting in a clean kill. It is a point of interest that the bull stayed on his feet for several minutes, and I think that this is where a larger, typical elk caliber would have made a difference. However, there’s no arguing that the cartridge and bullet performed as designed and expected, and a beautiful wilderness bull is the result.
Jim later cleaned and measured the bullet. It now weighs 77 grains, meaning that it retained 53.8 percent of its weight. That’s not great retention, but the shape of the expanded bullet is awesome (see photo).
In my opinion, The 6.5 calibers are a bit light for elk. I have seen a pile of elk killed with that same 143-grain bullet and it works great, except that the big old bulls seem to die slowly. And, one of the big bulls that I saw shot at an angle required a follow-up shot. That said, elk are supremely tough to kill and follow-up shots are often the norm, even with classic elk cartridges.
To answer our main question; yes, I would take that shot. Every time. The bull was broadside at a reasonable distance, Jim had a dead rest, and his rifle is very accurate. There is no earthly reason to pass up that shot.
What would you do? Let me know in the comment section below!