Setting Up A Rifle For An Elk Hunt

A hunter is set up on a ridge top, his rifle is equipped with a bipod for some possible longer range shooting.

A very wise gun writer once said, “You can’t miss one close enough with a big rifle to kill it.” The “it” being spoken of was Alaskan Peninsula brown bears, the speaker, a lifelong brown bear guide. His point being, it doesn’t matter how big the caliber of a rifle a hunter shoots if he can’t get a bullet where it needs to go. The same holds true for elk, if a hunter isn’t comfortable with his setup, it won’t matter how much velocity or down range energy is left if the bullet sails past it’s intended target.

As an elk guide in my earlier years, I saw numerous examples of this truth play out in front of me. My hunter and I would ride and hike countless miles sometimes before an opportunity at a bull elk would present itself. Nothing is more heartbreaking than days of work culminated in a shot that is pulled or rushed because a hunter is unfamiliar with his elk rifle.

In the interest of full disclosure, this article won’t cover what caliber is the best medicine for these majestic creatures, since that is up to the hunter to decide. Familiarity is much more deadly than a brand new rifle that hasn’t been shot enough before the hunt begins. A 140-grain bullet in the lungs will kill an elk faster than a 200-grain bullet over his back every time. What this article will help the reader with is prepping their existing rifle for the hunt of a lifetime.

One of the biggest factors in deciding what to take on an elk hunt is the style of hunting anticipated. If a person is hunting with his buddies, an outfitter, or even going it alone, it’s important to anticipate what kind of terrain and techniques a person expects. Are you hunting opening weekend and planning on sitting ridgetops while people bump elk to and around you? Are you going to still hunt timber and try to sneak up on a bull in his bed? Each scenario’s opportunity can be greatly improved upon by having the right tool for the job.

If you’re going with an outfitter or buddy who is ramrodding the trip, ask them questions about anticipated shot distances and topography. If the game plan is to be set up on a long park for days on end, it will pay off to know ahead of time and plan accordingly. Pre-trip target practice should reflect the hunt’s intended plan.

If you are going it alone, planning and practicing before the moment of truth arrives will pay dividends when you finally have an opportunity at the bull of your dreams. Below are some options to add or subtract from a rifle to put the odds more in your favor.

Longer ranges

A rifle set up for longer range shots.

One of the most popular early season elk hunting tactics is to get to a good vantage point and let other people move the elk. As elk receive pressure for the first time of the year, they can and do cover phenomenal amounts of country in a hurry. For the hunter set up in a natural funnel or saddle, this can equate to longer shooting distances and less time to react to an ever-changing hunting situation. You can stack the odds in your favor by outfitting your rifle with a quality bipod or shooting sticks and familiarizing yourself with your rifle’s ballistics out to your maximum comfortable shooting range. Another must-have tool is a quality, variable power rifle scope. Anything in the 4-12x or larger range should suffice for most hunter’s needs.

A horse camp in classic elk country.

Mid Ranges

The author’s mid-range elk rifle setup.

If your game plan will involve a mix of hunting styles, such as sitting a park morning and evening but diving into the timber for the midday lull, it’s important to have all of your bases covered as much as possible. A variable power scope in the 3-9x range works well for an all-around option. Keep it turned down in the timber for a wider field of view when shots are anticipated to be closer and crank it up when you are ready to sit at the edge of a meadow in the evening.

Snow and sunshine, a beautiful day in the elk mountains.

Short ranges

Knowing your mode of transportation in elk country can determine what accessories you opt for on your rifle.

Another popular option, especially as the season wears on and the elk get more cagey, is to go into the timber after them. Slowly still hunting through the woods with some fresh snow on the ground ranks up there as one of the most satisfying ways to punch an elk tag. While this option generally requires above average woodsmanship skills, it is a proven technique to get elk in your crosshairs. A low fixed or variable power scope in the 3 or 4x magnification is your greatest mechanical asset in this situation.

Other options

I generally prefer to keep my elk rifle as simple as possible. This means keeping all unneeded accessories off of the sling and stock yet close at hand. Cartridge carriers can get in the way and hamper quick firearm handling, I prefer to put one extra round in each of my front pockets or binocular case to keep them from clinking together yet keeping them close at hand. A mature bull elk will not tolerate human noises in his domain so it’s important to put everything you can at your advantage.

A bipod can be a blessing or a curse depending on the day, so weigh the pros and cons of having one on your rifle for the duration of a hunt. They can add extra weight, make it impossible to carry a rifle in a scabbard and hang up in the timber at the wrong time but may also provide the only rest available if you’re hunting open country. It is up to each person and their personal preferences to decide if it is a worthwhile tool to have along.

Scope covers are another must have on most elk hunts, whether it’s raining or snowing, odds are you will encounter some sort of inclement weather before you head for home and keeping your scope covered will ensure a clear field of view when you finally have your chance at an elk. There is any number of different designs and models for most hunting scopes so pick one that works best for you and your style.

Slings are another tool that can positively or negatively affect the outcome of a day in the woods. If you’re hunting off of horses with a saddle scabbard, a sling can hang up at inopportune times when you are trying to get a rifle out quickly. Seconds can count, it pays to think ahead and anticipate. If you are like most hunters and hunt on foot, slings can be a great tool to keep your arms from fatigue as well as free your upper body to glass or use an elk call.

Doing some research into the intricacies of your elk area, as well as how you’re going to hunt it should help determine what accessories will play a part in your success this fall. Customizing what you carry on your rifle will give you an edge when that elk you’ve worked so hard to find finally shows himself.

If you prepare and hunt smart with the right rifle, this can be the result.

***Shop GunsAmerica for your next hunt***

About the author: Jordan Voigt is a lifelong passionate outdoorsman. He has been blessed to hunt in numerous countries and several different states, as well as having worked for outfitters in Montana and Alaska as a camp jack, packer, and guide. He lives in Montana with his beautiful wife and is busy teaching his two sons about the outdoors and chasing the next adventure. You can follow him on Instagram @jordan.voigt

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • William Smith August 6, 2019, 9:54 am

    Great preparedness info for the beginner as well as a seasoned elk hunter. You’re never ever done getting it right and better each time. Too old too early, too late too smart.

  • Michael Christensen September 28, 2018, 1:56 pm

    The one animal that I have always wanted to hunt in the US.

  • Old Bud September 28, 2018, 1:56 pm

    To prevent the barrel from getting plugged with snow, mud, water, etc. wrap a 4″ piece of vinyl electrical tape across the front of the barrel and secure along the sides. Take 4 or 5 wraps of the same tape around the barrel just in front of the forearm for spare. This will not affect your point of impact. To prove it, shoot your rifle prior to leaving on your trip with a piece of tape wrapped over the barrel. This will save you a lot of grief if you happen to inadvertently plug up “Ol Betsy”. At a bare minimum, carry a sectional cleaning rod in your pack, just in case!

  • david e parsons September 28, 2018, 12:50 pm

    I liked the article. Being 60 and hunting in north idaho since I was 12 and following my dad and grandpa before that. I found that your rifle can make you or break you depending on the terrain. I think your advice on long range hunting across canyons is spot on on guns and scopes. The midrange hunting as well that most people do. But you didnt cover brush hunters and there are plenty of them in north Idaho.
    I am a dedicated brush hunter in the alders that cover north Idaho. There is no jungle on earth that is more dense than alders. I have been called mashocistic a number of times for hunting in them. But elk feed in them and can always be found in them. For this type hunting the average shot is less than 35 yards and more often than not 25 yards. A scope is of no use and a brush grabbing added weight that gets leaves on the lense etc. A barrel longer than 20 inches is a hinderance as well hanging up and brush and added length to slow the split second you usualy get for a shot. Carbines rule in brush hunting and lever actions shine. A 30-30 is very effective on a elk at 35 yards. The bigger slow calibers work well to.But I have been stalking in heavy alders and stopped to take a break and looked across the canyon to see elk out at 500 yards. If I were packing a 30-30. Or other slow moving calibers in a carbine form. I can just watch the elk and never hope to shoot that far. So I hunt with a model 600 350 remington magnum. I have had this gun all my life and can hit with my iron sites at 450 to 500 yards. But any carbine in a short cartridge and barrel works. Like a model 7 remington in 308 or 7mm 08. Age Is catching up to me and I will soon leave the brush busting to the younger guys and go with a midrange rifle probably a 30-06 with a like you say 3 to 9 scope and hunt the timber. For canyon busting I will get a long barreled heavy rifle in a appropriate caliber with by pod and more powerful scope.You wrote a very good article though and I enjoyed it.

    • Jordan Voigt January 2, 2019, 9:05 pm

      David, you raise a good point, we will have to do a brush hunter’s guide for elk in the future, thanks for the input.

  • Al September 17, 2018, 5:06 pm

    And for those of us who hunt with a Pistol??????????????

  • Mark Hummel September 6, 2018, 10:13 pm

    I liked your choices and agree with you on nearly everything. I do use a cartridge carrier on my stock. I do like a Crooked Horn belt cartridge carrier and have several. Usually, I am hunting Mule Deer in open country though. I may or may not use my bipod. I liked that you mentioned to keep your scope magnification set low. The photos are beautiful.

    • Jordan Voigt September 12, 2018, 2:40 pm

      Thank you Mark, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Good luck with your mule deer hunting!

  • Owen Dahlen September 4, 2018, 5:59 pm

    Great common sense article. Good photos, I like it!

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