Elk Cartridge Field Report: .270 Winchester, 7mm Rem. Mag. and .300 Wby. Mag.
Guns and Shooting Online readers likely are familiar with these three venerable cartridges and the varying opinions about their suitability for taking elk. Some consider the .270 barely adequate, due to its comparatively low down range energy; some view the 7mm Magnum as an ideal balance of power and relatively manageable recoil. Still others view the .300 Weatherby as the hard hitting gold standard (at least those who don't mind mule kick recoil and shelling out $75 for a box of Weatherby factory ammo). Opinions aside, this article chronicles how each performed on a recent northern Arizona elk hunt. Below is a table summarizing some relevant cartridge performance factors and following is an account of their field performance.
Near Winslow, the high deserts of northern Arizona’s Colorado Plateau range from roughly 5000 to 7000 feet in elevation. The topography varies from soaring, windswept mesas to smaller mountains. Foothills fractured with rugged canyons and sandstone formations fall away from them. Farther below sprawl vast plains. From a distance these appear as "flats," but on walking inspection one finds them riven with draws deep enough to hide herds of elk, high ridges over which elk can quickly disappear and the occasional steep rock canyon. The ground is either strewn with sole-pounding, ankle-twisting volcanic rocks or, on the tops of mesas and parts of the flats, topped with a thick, floury layer of dirt iced with a crisp crust, such that game hooves and boots crack through and leave deep, lasting tracks. The vegetation is primarily pinon pines, juniper trees, Manzanita, lots of prickly pear and pineapple cactus and sagebrush thick as shag carpet in some areas.
Our group consisted of eight good fellows from their late 20's to mid 60's, all but I (the dreaded lawyer in the group) and one other are current or retired Tucson Fire Department firemen. Five of us, including my brother and I, were lucky to draw coveted bull tags in a limited opportunity hunting unit, where our group over the years had enjoyed good success. The tagless three were willing and able spotters and field scouts.
Our main spotter, Wade, daily before dawn trekked up a steep, rock strewn path to the top of the main mesa, West Sunset Mountain, whose peak rises some 800 feet above the desert floor. From this vantage point, equipped with a hand held radio and using tripod mounted 20 power binoculars, Wade was our “eye in the sky.” He was able to glass the flats for miles around, as well as the draws accessing the top of the mesa, which the elk sometimes traverse. This is big country, with the mesa stretching for miles and the flats to the horizon. Each night our group devised plans for the next day’s hunt, starting with several tried and true areas and expanding our range as the hunt progressed, always with Wade in his spotting perch.
“Guys, I’ve got eyes on a big herd, maybe forty elk, way out in the flats, but they seem to be moving this way.” It was about 8:00 A.M. on opening morning and the crackle of Wade’s radio put a spring in my morning-chilled step. The elk were at least a half mile mile away, but their location was accessible and they were feeding our way. Two of my hunting partners and I agreed to converge and begin stalking toward the herd, with Wade watching and providing guidance. Along the way, we were surprised by a lone roving bull buffalo, the first I’d ever seen in the field. It ran to within fifty yards of us and gave us all an adrenalin jolt.
After thirty minutes of stalking, with Wade doing his best to guide us from his high perch, we finally spotted the herd atop a ridge line. I was stunned. I had seldom drawn a bull tag over the past ten years and never had a shot opportunity on the few occasions I had. Here were some forty elk, including five or six bulls, with two big mature bulls. They were probably 800 yards away, undisturbed and feeding. I was with my friend, Jim. Our friend Scotty, who also had a tag, was two hundred yards off to our left.
We were hoping the elk would bed down to facilitate us stalking within shooting range, but that hope was dashed when we saw two other hunters approaching from far off to our right, homed in on the same elk. Jim and I resolved to immediately stalk forward in an effort to get within safe shooting range before the other two hunters shot or otherwise scattered the herd. I scrambled slowly down the opposing hillside and began moving up the hillside on top of which the now edgy elk continued to feed. Something spooked them when I was perhaps 350 yards away and the elk instantly disappeared over the ridge line, though they did not break and run.
Upon topping the ridge where they had been feeding, I saw the herd reformed some 700 yards up a shallow meadow-like draw to my left, in the direction of my hunting partner, Scotty. The wind was in my face and I began a slow, hunched stalk to get within a range I felt comfortable shooting my new Savage American Classic in .270 Winchester, topped with a Bushnell Elite 3200 3x9x40mm scope and shooting factory 150 grain Remington Core Lokt bullets. To my amazement, perhaps one hundred yards behind the elk stood a group of mule deer and off to the right of the elk was a group of pronghorn antelope.
Scotty, who shoots a beautiful .300 Weatherby Magnum made by Tucson’s esteemed Harry Lawson and Sons custom shop, whispered on the radio that he had a long shot at one of the mature bulls. I told him to take the shot if he felt the elk were gonna break, but otherwise to please wait as I was closing in with the wind directly in my face and plenty of cover. I considered taking a shot from about 300 yards, but felt the distance was unsafe because of the many cows clustered around the bulls.
Then, the unmistakable report of Scotty’s .300 Weatherby shattered the moment. The elk bolted in a cloud of dust. He had missed and our spotter Wade confirmed that the herd was fast on its way to nowhere. My initial reaction was selfish disappointment, but I quickly refocused and relished seeing so many animals and the opportunity to watch a beautiful group of elk on opening morning, not to mention buffalo, deer and pronghorn. After the fast start, the rest of the day revealed no more elk.
Jim shot the hunt’s first bull the next day. Before light he had stumped up on a small knoll, Elk Knoll we have long called it, which rises just enough to give a good perspective on the opposing ridgeline and hillsides. Those hillsides are cut with draws that flow down to a flat area that runs laterally across in front of the knoll and ultimately up toward the mesa a half a mile behind the knoll. About 10:30, Jim glassed a small bull with a group of cows on the far hillside. To his good fortune, they fed down the hillside and toward the intersecting bottom draw in front of his position. Jim shot the bull at about 175 yards with his Howa 1500 7mm Remington Magnum rifle and Vortex 4x12x40mm scope, firing hand loaded 168 grain Berger Classic Hunter bullets. Perhaps because of the bull’s walking angle, he did not hit the vitals and it took a follow up rifle shot and a final pistol shot to the head to kill the bull. Jim is an experienced and excellent hunter, but this is a good field example of the importance of bullet placement to achieve quick kills, even with a magnum cartridge.
Scotty and his .300 Weatherby Magnum struck big the next day. He was spotting and stalking far out in a hilly area. Around mid-day he glassed, from over 500 yards away, a large elk bedded under a cluster of juniper trees below a hillside’s crest. He radioed Slater, one of our non-hunting scouts, to hotfoot it over and watch the elk while Scotty stalked toward it. When Scotty had closed to about 175 yards, the elk stood up and revealed itself for the first time to be a massive, mature 6x6. The big bull began walking away and presented glimpses of broadside shots through gaps in the trees. Scotty fired, using Weatherby factory 180 grain cartridges. His first shot was behind and hit the big bull in the rear flank. A follow up shot missed the vitals, but temporarily put the bull down. However, it was still alive, rose and began to run when Scotty approached it. A pistol shot to the head finally killed the big bull. Tom, the senior member of our group with 40 years elk hunting experience, believed it was the biggest bodied elk he had seen in Arizona.
Elk are powerful animals and non-vital shots are not lethal. This is another lesson in the importance of bullet placement, even with an ultra powerful magnum delivering a bullet with good sectional density and very high energy.
Then, finally, it was my turn. I hunted hard on days three through five of the hunt. On the fifth day, I missed a very long shot at a lone, mature bull at about 400 yards, but otherwise saw no other bulls. That was a shot I should not have taken, but I shot from a sitting position and rationalized that the elk was about to disappear into a deep canyon. Still, I know in retrospect it was a mistake that I hope not to repeat.
So it was that day six of the hunt was dawning. It would be my last day. I planned to hunt until 9:00 A.M. and then pack up to return to my family and the nagging pull of my law practice. With Jim, who had already filled his tag and my brother Brett, we planned an early morning hunt near where Scotty had taken the big bull. We had subsequently hunted through that area and seen scores of fresh bull tracks and still wet sign in bedding areas. However, the morning turned up no elk and we found ourselves back at the truck about 9:00, with my mind shifting out of hunting mode and into the morass of returning to work.
It was Wade’s voice on the radio that ultimately made my day. “Hey guys, I’ve got a group of about 15 elk over here in front of Elk Knoll and they keep coming out of the woodwork. I haven’t seen any bulls yet, but it might be worth heading over there to check them out.” I decided work could wait, so Brett, Jim and I started the mile or so drive toward that area. On the way, we hatched a plan to drop off Brett and have him stalk in from the east, along the top of the ridgeline across from Elk Knoll. Jim and I would approach from the north and creep to the front of Elk Knoll, where Jim had taken his bull.
It was exactly 10:00 A.M.when Jim and I began the 0.6 mile walk to the knoll. As we climbed it, we saw four cows bedded down under juniper trees some 600 yards away, in front and slightly to our right. Jim and I glassed the whole area, looking for a bull and Wade continued his spotting from on high. The cows were lolling about and snoozing in the grass. I had to remind myself to stop watching them and keep glassing for a bull.
After an hour or so, Wade called to say that he had seen an elk bed down that he thought was probably a bull. My brother continued stalking on the far ridgeline, past the point where the likely bull had bedded, so he could then descend and approach the area with the wind in his face. Brett faded into the tree clumps, as he approached the spot Wade had pinpointed. It was my hope that Brett would spot the bedded bull and shoot him there.
Time dragged and we continued to see more bedded cows. Some began standing up and looking antsy. It was now past noon. I was also antsy and considered stalking down toward my brother, hoping to catch the bull in a pincer move. However, I realized I would have better visibility and shooting lines if I stayed high on the knoll. I compromised by crawling slowly down to the lowest point of the knoll, closer to the elk, but still over 400 yards away. If the elk ran up the far hillside, they would run past Brett. If they ran left, right or down the hill, I might have a shot. I sat on a large boulder and took off my guide pack, setting it on another rock to use as a shooting rest. Wade radioed that Brett was right on top of the spot where the supposed bull had bedded and Wade reminded me, “Be ready Todd; take a good shooting rest.”
Suddenly, about thirty elk sprung up and galloped from my left to my right in a cloud of dust. Jim, above and behind me, confirmed what I had seen, a midsized bull bringing up the rear of the herd. The bull was probably 200 yards away and running full speed, angling away from my left to right. I blew hard on my cow call and the bull veered in my direction, breaking with one cow from the main herd. I stood up, found a gap in the junipers, waited for the cow to pass through the gap, then fired at the bull. Nothing but a puff of dust behind the bull.
I blew the cow call again and repeated the same drill: gap in the trees, wait for the cow, track the bull and squeeze. Again nothing, and then a third shot. This time the bull flinched and lurched to a halt, looking right at me from probably 125 yards. Through my scope, a bullet wound was plainly visible just behind his right shoulder and I could see lots of blood running down his coat. The bull turned and staggered behind a juniper.
That is where I found him, dead, a couple of minutes later. It was 1:15 P.M., three plus hours after we had began the stalk. The 150 grain Remington Core Lokt bullet had passed through both lungs, penetrating the rib cage on the opposite side, but not exiting. The “little” .270 quickly killed the bull, proving its adequacy as an elk cartridge with good bullet placement. Only Jim and I had seen the shooting, but all in our group heard the radio chatter, including my jubilant declaration that the bull was down. The bull was a 5x5, but all but one of his tines was broken in some way. Local guides we met knew of him and had nicknamed him “The Fighter” because of his penchant for mixing it up with bigger bulls.
In my book, hunts are not measured by whether one fills a tag. This hunt will forever be special, because of the memories of hunting with my friends and the teamwork involved. I also won’t forget Wade making the daily pre-dawn effort to scale the craggy face of West Sunset to spot. Without his efforts, my hunt would have ended unsuccessfully. Instead, after dressing and quartering the elk and a quick text to my wife, I decided to stay and enjoy the camaraderie of a final night around the campfire with my brother and friends.
Next year, I plan to serve as the spotter. I hope that my brother Brett, who taught me to hunt elk, showed me this area and passed on an easy shot on a small bull on opening morning, tags a trophy bull.
A final word about cartridge selection and field use. Two years before this hunt, I had fallen on a rocky slope in the same area and cracked the stock of my Smith & Wesson 1500 .30-06. Made by Howa, that was my first big game rifle. My now deceased Dad bought it for me in 1984.
While it was being repaired and refurbished to a better than new appearance, I resolved to save it for my son and get myself a new elk rifle. I bought a pair of Howa 1500 rifles with Hogue over-molded stocks, one in 7mm Remington Magnum (for elk hunting) and the other in .25-06 (for Coues deer). Shortly before my successful elk hunt, I found online a walnut-stocked Savage American Classic .270 in stainless steel at a price I couldn’t resist.
I intended to use the 7mm Magnum as my primary rifle and the .270 only as a back-up, until I took both out the day before the hunt for a final field check. I had brought along several two liter bottles of soda for targets and set them up at 170 yards. Even though I had recently bench sighted it at a rifle range, the 7mm Mag. seemed off to both me and two of my friends, who also fired it. On the other hand, the Savage .270 vaporized its targets with every shot. This made me lose confidence in the Magnum, so I decided to carry the .270 on my elk hunt.
This illustrates an important lesson. Too many hunters assume their rifle has maintained its zero between hunts. Make time to confirm your rifle’s accuracy before every hunt. Shooting two liter bottles from field positions is great practice and fun to boot, just be sure to pick up the plastic remnants after every practice session.
To summarize, while the trajectories of all three cartridges are similar (depending on the specific loads compared), the 7mm Remington and .300 Weatherby magnums deliver more energy down range. However, without proper bullet placement, even the most powerful magnum will not humanely harvest a bull elk. With good bullet placement, the .270 surely can.
Copyright 2013, 2016 by Todd E. Hale and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.