Four Good Elk Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
I have been fortunate to own and hunt with a large number of elk rifles during my life. Most were entirely satisfactory, but a few stick out in my mind as particularly good for the purpose.
This article is about the latter, listed in alphabetical order with a paragraph or two about each. These rifles are also included in the article "Elk Rifles in the Field" (see the Rifle Information Page) and they received good grades there, too. Individual reviews may be found on the Product Review Page.
You will notice that accuracy is not an issue, as all of my favorite rifles are plenty accurate enough for elk hunting. Elk, after all, are large targets! Hair splitting accuracy from a bench rest is inconsequential in an elk rifle. Far more important is practical accuracy in the field. That is, how a rifle performs when the requirement is a fairly quick shot from a field position. All of the rifles mentioned in this article pass that crucial test with flying colors.
My home state of Oregon is populated by Roosevelt elk, a large coastal forest dwelling species, and the better known Rocky Mountain elk. The latter tend to inhabit somewhat more open country. Most of my hunting involves still hunting (stalking on foot), so I am partial to rifles that are not overly burdensome. On the other hand, the calibers well suited to harvesting elk are powerful and a powerful cartridge in a light rifle equals heavy recoil, which degrades shot placement. I find that a medium weight rifle, say between eight and nine pounds, is a good compromise.
Kimber Model 84M Classic
The Kimber 84M action is a scaled down bolt action based largely on Mauser 98 and Winchester 70 design principles. It is sized in all dimensions specifically for short action cartridges based on the .308 Winchester case. Among these cartridges is the .338 Federal, the caliber for which my Kimber Classic is chambered. This traditional matte blued steel, walnut stocked rifle comes with a 22" light contour barrel, weighs only seven pounds with its Leupold VX-II 2-7x33 scope and measures 41.25" in overall length. This makes it one of the handiest bolt action elk rifles on the planet.
However, note that this light weight also makes it one of the hardest kicking. Fortunately, most elk rifles are carried a lot and shot very little, so the little Kimber qualifies as a favorite. Like practically all bolt action rifles, the Kimber's bolt handle sticks out on the strong side and its one-piece stock makes the rifle wider through the action than a lever action or single shot rifle. This means that the Kimber, while handier and easier to carry than most other bolt action rifles, including the Ruger M77-R (see below), is not quite the equal of a lever or single shot rifle in the easy carrying, fast handling sweepstakes. However, its very light weight is an advantage on long treks through steep terrain.
A scope of moderate size and magnification is appropriate to both the caliber and the rifle. I like a fixed 4x or a 2-7x or 2.5-8x variable. Right now my Kimber is wearing a 2.5-8x Zeiss Conquest.
In .338 Federal, bullets weighing between 200 and 225 grains are the most appropriate for elk hunting. Among the current factory load offerings, the Federal Premium load using a 210 grain Nosler Partition bullet (SD .263) is my favorite. This highly effective elk load produces a MV of 2630 fps and ME of 3225 ft. lbs. The maximum point blank range (+/- 3") is about 258 yards. The Kimber's excellent action, good workmanship, portability and powerful cartridge earn it a place among my favorite elk rifles.
Marlin Model 308MXLR
The lever action Marlin Model 308MXLR is actually the stainless steel 336XLR action chambered for the relatively new .308 Marlin Express cartridge. It features a stainless steel barreled action and a laminated wood stock. Barrel length is 24" in order to get full velocity from the 160 grain Evo spitzer bullet loaded by Hornady to a MV of 2660 fps. There is also a standard Model 308 with a 22" barrel in blue steel and walnut.
One of the big advantages of the basic Marlin 336 action design is its solid top receiver and side ejection that make low and over bore scope mounting easy. I prefer a one-piece Leupold standard mount for maximum strength and rigidity. A 4x fixed power scope is suitable for the .308 Marlin cartridge, as is a variable power scope in the 2-7x range. My choice is a Leupold VX-II 2-7x33mm riflescope, for which I have a Leupold rain filter set.
Hornady ballistics tables for the .308 Marlin Express cartridge call for a 160 grain spitzer BT bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2660 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 2513 ft. lbs. Here are the down range velocity and energy numbers: 100 yards = 2430 fps/2111 ft. lbs.; 200 yards = 2226 fps/1761 ft. lbs.; 300 yards = 2026 fps/1457 ft. lbs. For a rifle with a scope mounted 1.5" overbore, the trajectory of that load looks like this : +3" at 100 yards, +1.7" at 200 yards, -6.7" at 300 yards.
The Model 308MXLR is a fast handling, fast shooting rifle that is not burdensome to carry when still hunting. However, its best attribute in my mind is its relatively weather proof stainless/laminated construction. That, coupled with its adequate caliber, makes it my fall back inclement weather rifle for both elk and deer hunting.
Ruger No. 1-S Medium Sporter
TheRuger falling block No. 1-S Medium Sporter comes with a polished and blued barreled action and an attractive walnut stock. The barrel length is 22" and the No. 1-S looks almost identical to the No. 1-A Light Sporter, except for a heavier contour barrel. This is probably my prettiest elk rifle, as well as my favorite.
Ruger No. 1-S rifles come in only two calibers, 9.3x74R and .45-70. Either is entirely adequate for hunting elk, but 9.3x74R is more versatile. This European caliber has been bagging heavy game in Europe and Africa for over a century. Factory loaded ammunition is available in the US from Stars & Stripes, Hornady, A-Square, Norma, Sellier & Bellot, Nosler Custom and probably others. The Stars & Stripes load that I use launches a 286 grain bullet at a MV of 2360 fps and ME of 3538 ft. lbs. The MPBR (+/- 3") of that load is about 225 yards.
It is hard to imagine a better medium range elk rifle than the No. 1-S. It is about the same overall length as a .30-30 lever action with a 20" barrel, although at about 9 pounds with its 1.5-4.5x Weaver scope it is at least a pound heavier. There is no bolt handle protruding from the side of the rifle and the action is slender, so it is an easy rifle to carry in the hand or in a saddle scabbard. The falling block action is about as safe as it gets if you spend a lot of time getting into and out of a vehicle, as they are very easy to load and unload. The one addition I'd like to see for elk hunting in rainy Oregon would be a stainless steel barreled action. I wish that Ruger would introduce a "K1-S" in 9.3x74R and, perhaps, .350 Rem. Mag.
A single shot rifle, admittedly, is not as fast for follow-up shots as a lever action repeater, or even a bolt action. The whole point is not to shoot until you KNOW that you can make the kill. If you don't make your first shot good, you are very probably in trouble no matter what kind of elk rifle you are using. However, if you put one of those 9.3mm (.366"), 286 grain bullets into an elk's boiler room, it will all be over quickly.
Ruger Model 77-R Standard Rifle
The Model 77-R is Ruger's standard bolt action rifle. It features a blued steel barreled action with a 22" barrel and a walnut stock in a traditional package reminiscent of the better custom built rifles in terms of overall style and lines. This makes it an eminently practical, general purpose hunting rifle and, in the powerful .350 Remington Magnum caliber, a potent elk rifle. This is, in fact, my "go to" medium bore rifle.
The Mauser 98 inspired Ruger M77 is one of the best hunting rifles on the market. Its few shortcomings (notably an inferior trigger and an internally un-polished action) can be corrected. Accuracy buffs who do not understand the special requirements of big game hunting rifles are apt to point out that actions machined from bar stock, such as the Remington Model 700, Savage 110 and Tikka T3 are (theoretically) a hair more accurate than actions such as the Ruger M77. However, in the field, traditional actions like the M77 are functionally superior and a few tenths of a minute-of-angle are inconsequential.
My Ruger M77-R wears a Leupold VX-II 1-4x20mm scope, which is a good choice for a .350 Mag. rifle. At 4x it is powerful enough for shots at elk out to the cartridge's MPBR of around 250 yards (depending on specific load). My preference in ammunition is the Stars & Stripes factory load featuring a 225 grain Nosler Partition bullet at a MV of about 2550 fps or an equivalent handload. This is serious elk medicine if you get the bullet into the right place.
This rifle weighs about 8.5 pounds with scope, which is just about perfect for the caliber. Its overall length is 42". This makes it about average in size and weight as bolt action hunting rifles go and it is not a problem to carry in the field. The M77-R is a steady performer that reliably does everything a powerful medium bore rifle should with minimum fuss.
Copyright 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.
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