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Picking an elk rifle is complicated by the fact that these most majestic of deer are big (up to 1,200 pounds), tough, and taken at ranges both very short and very long. The experience of pulling the trigger on one was all summed up 30 years ago by a great elk hunter and gun writer named Bob Hagel:
“The shot you get will be during the last five minutes of the last day under the worst circumstances you can imagine. And you’ll take it.”
Accordingly, you should choose a rifle that is powerful enough to put elk down nearly every time. And it must have enough weight to counteract recoil so that you won’t flinch when you get your shot. If you don’t like the idea of lugging around a heavy, hard-kicking rifle, that’s tough. This is elk hunting.
These are bolt actions that fire heavy bullets at high velocity and will put an elk on the ground, near or far, in those last five minutes. They are no fun to carry but they are what I use, given my druthers. Notice that I opt for .33 magnums over .30s. The .30s are easier to hit with on very long shots, but a 250-grain .338 bullet moving at 2700 to 3000 fps is a cat of an altogether different breed, and if you’re looking for something to take the steam out of an elk, it’s the better choice.
1. Ed Brown Savanna in .338 Winchester Magnum
For a plain working rifle, the Savanna costs a hell of a lot of money. That’s because it is made as finely as it is possible to build a rifle. This is an indestructo-gun with wonderful handling and superlative accuracy. The .338 Winchester lacks the high velocity of the .340 Weatherby and .338 RUM but compensates by kicking less. ($2,895; 573-565-3261; www.edbrown.com)
2. Remington Model 700 LSS in .338 Remington Ultra Mag
Remington’s Model 700 LSS (which stands for laminated stock, stainless steel) in .338 Remington Ultra Mag is as delicate as the average boulder and as stable as a synthetic-stocked rifle. The stock is too shiny, but you can remedy that by rubbing it with a wad of 0000 steel wool. Also, the barrel is better at 231/2 or 24 inches than at the factory-issue 26. Although you lose maybe 100 fps, which is meaningless, you get a much handier rifle in the bargain. ($840; 800-243-9700; www.remington.com)
3. Weatherby Accu-Mark Mark V in .340 Weatherby Magnum
Courtesy of a composite stock, a specially tuned trigger, an aluminum bedding girder, and a fluted, 26-inch stainless Krieger barrel, this rifle could shoot the eyelashes off an elk. With a scope, the Accu-Mark weighs in the neighborhood of 10 pounds. You will curse every ounce-until you see the job it does. ($1,974; 805-466-1767; www.weatherby.com)
Much elk hunting takes place in dark timber where you are walking either nearly straight up, nearly straight down, or sideways on a 45-degree slope, constantly ducking under downed limbs. If you get a shot, it will be at under 100 yards, and for these circumstances, there are several specialized rifles that work to perfection. Here are three examples.
4. Remington Model 673 Guide Rifle in .350 Remington Magnum
This is the revival of Remington’s Model 660, a short bolt action that debuted in the mid-1960s and was not appreciated at the time because it kicked too hard and looked unconventional. Since then, hunters have gotten a lot smarter. The 673 is a nonpareil elk rifle-compact, powerful, and manageable. Its barrel length is 22 inches, and it weighs about 73/4 pounds. The vent rib is silly and useless, but that is about the end of the gun’s faults. ($825; 800-243-9700; www.remington.com)
5. Ruger No. 1S Medium Sporter in .45/70
This single-shot has a 22-inch barrel, but because the receiver is so short the overall length is about the same as the Marlin’s. And since the front sling swivel is sited far forward on the barrel, the Ruger rides very low on your shoulder. (If you think I’m making too much of carrying qualities, spend a week among the peckerpole pines and then we’ll talk again.) It gives you only one shot at a time, but you aren’t going to need more than one shot if it’s a good one. ($950; 603-865-2442; www.ruger.com)
6. Marlin Model 1895G Guide Gun in .45/70 With a stubby 181/2-inch barrel, this rifle is very short (only 37 inches overall) and light (7 pounds) as well. Combined with Garrett Cartridges’ (www.garrettcartridges.com) fire-breathing custom loads, it will knock an elk sideways. This little rifle works great with iron sights but is so accurate that it begs to be used with a low-powered scope. ($646; 800-544-8892; www.marlinfirearms.com)