“Suddenly, I saw antlers showing at the edge of the timber. Josiah flopped down prone and readied for a shot as I ranged the bull at 205 yards. No shot offered, so I blew a soft cow mew. The antlers swiveled our way, and a moment later the bull answered with a bugle. Then he walked out of the timber…”
TAKE THE SHOT?
The afternoon was hot, especially for elk hunting. My young son and I had been hunting for several days, camping out of our backpacks and glassing from high points in search of elk. The first day, while hiking into the backcountry, we had surprised two spikes and a two-by-two bull – all yearlings. Josiah had opted to let them grow, so we watched as they trotted into the timber and away. I wondered if we would regret that; it’s not often easy for a young hunter to get his first elk.
But Josiah is no ordinary 12-year-old kid out on his first hunt. He is dedicated and passionate about hunting, and though this was his first-ever elk tag, he had been following me into the woods since he was eight years old. Counting elk that I and my wife and friends have killed he’s probably seen 25 or more harvested, so he understood the game before he was even old enough to own a tag himself. He shoots very well too and is steady under pressure. I had no doubts about his ability to kill an elk. I just wasn’t sure we would be able to find one. Especially in this heat.
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The afternoon grew long, and nothing moved. It was too hot for bulls to bugle, too hot for them to move. We followed their example and rested in the shade, worn out from hiking rough country with heavy packs. Finally, a couple of hours before dark we heard a bugle; big, raspy, and authoritative. Just one bugle, and then silence again. The sound seemed to come from about five hundred yards away, near a wallow. We moved in that direction, glassing, and listening. Carefully, we closed to four hundred yards, three hundred, and then two. Suddenly, I saw antlers showing above the brush at the edge of the timber. Josiah flopped down prone and readied for a shot as I ranged the bull at 205 yards. No need to dial at this distance.
No shot offered, so I blew a soft cow mew. The antlers swiveled our way, and a moment later the bull answered with a bugle. Then he walked out of the woods. Never stopping, he angled toward us and disappeared into a patch of dog-hair trees. We could see nothing but occasional glimpses of antler and whipping treetops as he raked the brush, trying to impress the sexy cow he’d heard. I whispered to Josiah.
“He’s a five-by-six, or a six-by-six. One side for sure is a six-point,” I said.
“I want to shoot him,” Josiah responded, never taking his eye from the scope.
“Okay,” I told him, “Wait till he clears the brush.”
I cow-called again, and again the bull responded. Striding into the open like only a mature bull elk can do, he rapidly closed the distance. I wondered if Josiah was holding it together; his steady, slow breathing and calm demeanor were evidence that he was. The bull stopped.
“Are you on him?” I asked. He was.
“It’s a frontal shot. Are you steady enough to make it?” He answered that he was.
RIFLE, SCOPE, AND AMMO
Josiah was shooting a mountain rifle chambered in .280 Ackley Improved. The rifle is extraordinarily lightweight, which is great for a 12-year old kid schlepping it up and down gnarly mountainous elk territory. It’s topped with a 2.5-8X36mm Leupold VX-3i riflescope, also superbly lightweight. The scope is mounted in lightweight Talley one-piece mounts; my favorite for backcountry rifles. These mounts are simple and supremely tough, and the bases and rings are integral – rather than being two pieces, both of which could move under duress, there is only one sturdy unit.
The scope is topped with a custom yardage-marked turret cut to match the rifle and ammo’s ballistic profile. Josiah knew to keep the turret set to its 200-yard zero, and the power ring turned down to 2.5. That way, should a fast, up-close opportunity at a bull present while we were hunting through brush and timber, his zero would be set and his field of view wide. He’d be prepared to make the shot. If we spotted a bull at a longer distance Josiah could simply range his target, crank the dial to match, and hold dead nuts. A Spartan Precision bipod rested in his pocket, ready to be snapped onto the rifle in an instant. A lightweight rear shooting bag was snapped to his pack. He’d been practicing with the setup and was lethal at longer distance than I like to admit.
The ammunition nestled comfortably in the rifle’s magazine was Hornady’s excellent Precision Hunter load, topped off with their 162-grain ELD-X bullet. G1 Ballistic Coefficient is superb, at 0.631. Muzzle velocity from this rifle is exactly 2,836 feet per second. It’s a potent combination, yet recoil remains civilized and comfortable to shoot.
SHOOT OR DON’T SHOOT?
Place yourself in my shoes, or if you prefer, in Josiah’s shoes. Either way, the decision is yours to make. Keep in mind that the bull has closed the distance since you hit him with your rangefinder, and is now about 160 yards away. You (or your kid that’s behind the gun) are prone, a super-steady field position. The one complicating factor is the bull’s angle.
Bull elk, especially big, mature ones, possess massive bone, muscle, and will-to-live. They can be hard to kill, and if hit poorly can travel miles while trying to put distance between them and you. Should you take the shot?
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED (TRUE STORY)
“He’s ever-so-slightly quartered to his left. See how just a sliver of his right butt-cheek is showing? Okay. You’ll need to hold just a couple of inches left of the center of his chest. Squeeze it off whenever you’re ready.” I plugged my ears and waited for the shot. It was not long in coming. The bull lurched hard and turned in a mad dash toward the timber he’d emerged from. He only made it twenty-five yards before crashing in a cloud of dust. I looked at Josiah, still glued to his scope, ready with another round in the chamber.
“You just killed your first elk! And he’s a big bull!” His answering smile made every moment of climbing mountains and carrying heavy backpacks worthwhile.
The bullet impacted exactly where I told Josiah to hold, crashing through the front of the chest and into the thorax. We did not perform an autopsy, but judging from external evidence the bullet took off the top of the heart and turned both lungs to mush. The only time I would pass on this shot angle, at this distance, would be if I was shooting a very light caliber (6.5 Creedmoor and under), or a very soft bullet. So long as your bullet is heavy and elk-tough, a frontal shot on elk is incredibly deadly. Ideal bullets for this kind of shot include Nosler Partitions, Federal Premium Terminal Ascent, Barnes TSX, and similar projectiles.