Are Elk Really That Tough?

I read in one of my "Ask Petzal" answers that elk are big, tough animals. Since I don't believe anything anymore, no matter who says it, I wondered: Are they?

Let's do big first. As ungulates go, Cervus canadensis is what you can call big. A good-sized typical bull weighs 600 to 800 pounds, and in North America, of the hoofed animals, only moose and bison are bigger. Six to 800 pounds is also bigger than any of the African antelope except the eland. So yes, they're big, and when you try to field-dress one by yourself and then pack it out, you'll discover just how big.

Are they tough? Well, let's define tough. I think it means hit fatally, but still able to run far enough that it can't be tracked down. Elk have massive muscles, big bones, big hearts and lungs, and thick hides that shift over bullet holes and prevent blood trails.

Although it's hardly scientific evidence, the number of hit-but-lost elk episodes I know of beats that of any other species by something like 10 to one. Deer, if fatally shot, feel obliged to dash 100 yards or so before they accept the inevitable, which means that if you keep looking you'll find them. Elk, on the other hand, sometimes decide that the game is not up (as it were) even if their heart and lungs have been turned to soup. Then they'll go a lot farther than 100 yards and unless there's snow on the ground you won't find them. I've seen this in person more than once.

It's not a question of caliber. One of the two or three biggest elk I've ever laid eyes on, a veritable monster so heavy that it was all Wayne Van Zwoll and I could do to move it, went down in its tracks with one shot from a .280--simply collapsed in place. On the other hand, I once shot a bull that was nearly as big smack in the chest with a 250-grain Nosler Partition from a .340 Weatherby--which is the surest elk medicine I know of--and it plodded slowly, painfully away for a half-mile before it succumbed to that shot and a couple of follow-up hits.

Odd as it sounds, it seems to be a matter of temperament. Moose give up easily. Nilgai do not. If you breathe some bad breath on a kudu it will die, but roan or sable, which are roughly the same size, can take all manner of punishment and run away from you. Or toward you.

Caliber, in an elk rifle, is not nearly so important as bullet construction. You want a tough bullet that's designed to penetrate. A .270 with a strong slug is a lot better than a .338 than a squishy slug. And do not, I pray you, consider your job done when you hit a bull in the boiler room. If you possibly can, get off a fast second and third shot. An elk is too fine a trophy to lose because you were preening about what you thought was your one-shot kill. Send a couple more slugs. It shows you care.