Take the Shot? A Hard-Core Hunter Gets a Shot at a Public Land Elk with a Light-for-Elk-Caliber. Should He Take the Shot? Presented by: Badlands

Quintessential elk hunting: big, wild country, packhorses, and a big six-point bull. This is the stuff of dreams.

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.

A big bull heading to his favorite, deep-timber wallow. This is the sort of beast that can unravel even seasoned hunters!

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.

You’ll always shoot better with some type of support. Here, the author’s son practices over a Spartan tripod.


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.

The author’s favorite hunting scope setup is a Leupold VX5 or VX6 set up with a CDS turret.

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.

Finding elk can require long hours of searching through quality binoculars. Here, the author uses a trekking pole to help stabilize his glass.


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?

Jim’s bullet perfectly expanded after impacting the broadside bull at 320 yards.


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).

Jim, more than happy with the results of an accurate shot. This quality of bull is hard to find.


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!

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  • David Martini October 5, 2022, 1:43 pm

    I would do the same with a 270 Win with a Speer 150gr flatbase. 3000fps at the muzzle.

  • Frank October 5, 2022, 8:53 am

    The shot was dead-on, and the bull was recovered. That’s obviously not in question. Cartridge selection could certainly have been better. Having an exit wound ALWAYS provides more sign (for trailing) than just the entry wound alone. It’s true that even heavy magnums do not always exit as when big bone is encountered or in the case of raking shots. Still… the bigger/heavier bullets (at effective velocities) create a larger wound channel and increase the odds of an exit wound. Bring enough gun.

  • DaveR October 4, 2022, 2:30 pm

    Great shot, ample power in that cartridge – conservatively, still traveling at 2,500 fps with 1950 ft-lbs of kinetic energy at terminus of 325 yards. Not marginal at all.

    Good to 600 yards, where still have 2170 fps and 1500 ft-lbs energy at impact, with the BC of that 143 gr eld-x.

    One reason the retained weight was about 50% and not more is because it was still going fast – further out it would have opened more slowly for a through and through. 6.5 in 143gr has excellent sectional density.

    That said, this applies to broadside, boiler-room shots through ribs, and good, high-BC bullets.

    If trying to punch bone such as point of shoulder or front quartering shots, then magnum-up – bigger & heavier the better. (And good luck placing it where it needs to go).

  • ADZ October 4, 2022, 12:41 pm

    Maybe. Jim was confident with his equipment but the bullet/caliber were marginal for the game he knew he was going for and the post mortem showed his bullet choice weight retention was marginal, especially for a 320 yd shot. It’s not like he was in Africa hunting medium plains game with a 30 cal and an unexpected opportunity at a big animal presented itself where a 338 or 375 would be the caliber of choice. If I was Jim the lightest caliber I’d bring would be a 7 mag and would likely bring a 338 or maybe 375 with a 250 Gr partition. However in this case it worked out because the animal didn’t move and the shot placement was perfect. JMO

  • TLord October 4, 2022, 8:59 am

    I plan to do the same thing next week, only difference is I will be shooting the Berger 156 gr bullet.

  • john lallemand October 4, 2022, 8:09 am

    you can kill a elk with a 22 rifle or pistol with the right range and shot placement—however doing so is agtainst the law in most places…shot placement is the key…

  • Mike Welch October 4, 2022, 7:03 am

    not for nothing brother, but for the effort and planning that goes into an elk hunt, why compromise that with a questionable rifle, in fact a rifle that questions the ethics of hunting, ie quick clean kill, no doubts, take the shot

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