Handgunning for Elk

By Larry Weishuhn

"He's right there!" mouthed my guide, pointing just beyond a skimpy juniper less than 10 paces away.

 

Still, I couldn't see the monstrous 7-by-7 bull elk we had been stalking the past two hours. My guide, however, was just a couple of steps to my right and could plainly see the big bull.

 

Let the waiting game begin.

The bull bugled toward us, and I shuddered as the air moved. The smell of the bull's rut-tainted breath drifted toward us, but we could only wait. What seemed like an eternity later, we finally heard the crunching of hoofs on rocky ground. It sounded like the mountain monarch was walking away. Just then, my guide gently pulled me toward where he had been standing.

 

Less than 15 steps away stood the most magnificent, ivory-antlered bull elk I'd ever seen. With knees wobbling, I quickly - but with minimal motion - set up my shooting sticks and rested my .30-06 handgun in their crux. Even with the solid rest, the cross-hairs wobbled. After a couple of deep breaths, I aimed behind the elk's shoulder.

 

I gently tugged the trigger. The sound of the shot had scarcely echoed off the rocky canyon walls before I stoked a fresh round into the single-shot. In less than two adrenaline-heightened heartbeats, the bull was gone, running downhill and out of sight just below the rimrock.

 

I tried to follow the elk, but recent major back surgery slowed me to a shambling shuffle. The bull reappeared about 200 yards away. It was obvious the first shot had damaged its vitals, but bull elk are notoriously tenacious, and I wanted to put him down as quickly as possible. From a steady rest, I again aimed just behind his shoulder. That time, the bull went down for good.

 

Setbacks

The hunt had not gone as planned or expected. I had wanted an easy hunt for Rocky Mountain elk at Cotton Mesa Ranch in southeastern Colorado. I was still recovering from back surgery and was not sure my body could handle an extremely physical elk hunt. However, I knew I wanted to go.

 

I love hunting elk during the bugling season, but I also know my physical limitations. When setting up the hunt, Cotton Mesa seemed to be the ticket.

 

However, fate had different plans. My Cotton Mesa hunt was as tough and demanding as any elk hunt I'd been on. Thankfully, I triumphed, but the outcome had been questionable many times.

 

On the Edge

In previous years, I had killed several big-game animals with a bow. Eventually, I stopped bow-hunting and turned to firearms, mainly because I didn't have the time or inclination to regularly practice with archery equipment - something I consider paramount if you bow-hunt big game.

 

Although I gun-hunt, I love to get as close as possible to an animal before shooting. That is one reason why I hunt with a handgun when possible.

 

Folks addicted to handgun-hunting have the same passion for short guns as bow-hunters do for bows. Thankfully, several states permit hunting elk with handguns.

 

Killing an elk with a handgun is often as challenging and fun as bow-hunting. Handguns, like bows, have range limitations. My personal limit with a handgun is 75 yards except when shooting at a wounded animal.

 

Like archery, handgun-hunting requires you to be familiar with your equipment. You must know your firearm's capabilities - and your own. You must spend time at the range to become proficient, and learn where bullets strike at various ranges.

 

Your Instruments

When handgun-hunting elk, the minimum caliber is a .44 Remington Magnum, especially if you hunt with a revolver. A much better choice is the powerful .454 Casull or the .480 Ruger, which are available in many revolvers.

 

My preference is a single-shot. Usually, I hunt with a Thompson/Center Encore. When hunting elk, I normally shoot a .30-06 Springfield or the new .450 Marlin, which are excellent elk cartridges. I use factory ammunition in my .30-06, preferring Winchester or Nosler bullets. When hunting with the .450 Marlin, I use Hornady's factory ammunition.

 

Shooting from a bench at the range is great, but after you're sighted in, spend considerable time learning to shoot from real hunting positions. When you shoot, rest your handgun on crossed shooting sticks.

 

Use a rock, post, tree or your backpack as a rest. If there's one thing I've learned about the adrenaline rush of hunting elk or other big game, it's that I shoot much more accurately from a good rest.


Do everything possible to kill an animal as quickly and humanely as possible. Knowing an animal's anatomy and shooting from a rock-solid rest helps.

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