Sunday, July 26, 2009

Getting Ready For Elk...

Some of the earliest muzzleloader big game seasons are the elk hunts offered in the West. Some of these hunts begin as early as late September. And if you've drawn one of the muzzleloader hunt tags...and haven't finalized the load you intend to use...time is ticking away. This is being written on July 26th...and next week this time it will already be August.

If you've never hunted elk before, keep in mind that they are big animals. One bull I took in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah back in the mid 1990s easily topped 900 pounds on the hoof. So, it stands to reason when you are hunting an animal this large (even if it weighs "just" 700 pounds), it's going to take more knockdown power to get the job done than when going after even a big whitetail. Most hunting experts agree that it takes a minimum of 1,200 foot pounds to consistently put elk down quickly. And that is at the distance of the target, not at the muzzle.

If you're headed for Colorado, where the majority of muzzleloader elk hunts are held, keep in mind that you're faced with a few ridiculous (and non-supported) muzzleloader hunting restrictions - one being that you cannot hunt with a modern saboted bullet. Here, a very unknowledgeable state wildlife agency mandates the use of a less effective patched round ball or bore-sized conical bullet. While I personally feel it is great that the hunter who wants the challenge of "getting very, very close" and taking his or her elk with an old style muzzleloaded rifle and patched round ball has that opportunity, I also feel that it is not only wrong but unethical for a game department to prohibit the modern day muzzleloading hunter from going out with the most efficient rifle and load possible for cleanly taking game - especially game as large as elk.

For those who aren't all that muzzleloader ballistics savvy...did you know that a .50 caliber round-ball-rifle, stuffed with a 100 grains charge of FFFg black powder and a patched 183-grain .495" soft-lead round ball is good for 1,928 f.p.s. at the muzzle of a 28" T/C Hawken barrel, with 1,509 f.p.e. at the muzzle. By the time that aerodynamically inferior sphere gets to 100 yards, it has slowed to 1,095 f.p.s. - and hits with just 485 foot-pounds of punch. That's not enough for taking a 600 to 900 pound animal. In fact, such loads drop below the accepted 1,200 foot-pounds minimum energy level at only about 30 yards. At 50 yards,the rifle and load are good for only 834 f.p.e. - enough for deer, but not enough for elk.

Still, the Colorado Division of Wildlife condones the use of such loads during the muzzleloader elk season, while prohibiting the use of more effective saboted bullets that would greatly reduce wound loss. Take a load I've been playing with lately - shooting a T/C "Triumph" primer-ignition in-line rifle with 120-grains of Blackhorn 209 behind a saboted 325-grain .458" Hornady poly-tipped FTX bullet (loaded with a Harvester Muzzleloading "Crush Rib" sabot). At the muzzle of "this" 28-inch barreled rifle, this load is good for 2,017 f.p.s., with 2,935 f.p.e. At 100 yards, this big bullet would plow home with around 2,080 foot-pounds of big game taking knockdown power.

Which of these 28-inch barreled .50 caliber T/C rifles do you think would put a big ol' bull elk on the ground the quickest and most humanely?

Weigh in on this topic and share your thoughts about muzzleloader elk loads...and backward regulations that seem to be geared more toward wound loss than the clean harvest of such a great game animal.

(For more on the Hornady 325-grain FTX go to

Toby Bridges


  1. Toby,

    Years ago my group was hunting Colorado's Gore Pass area for elk, and one of my hunting buddies killed a 5X5 with his .30-'06. I was helping him skin it out, and we found a Maxi-Ball stuck in the outside of a rib. It was encysted with tissue, and had been there for a while, but obviously it was not enough bullet for elk.

    Of course I have no idea of the story behind the shot, but my Colorado legal Bullshop Bullet will do the trick.

    jim dodd

  2. Jim;

    Even those old Maxi-Ball bullets lose velocity and energy quickly.

    The 370-grain Maxi for a .50 caliber has a b.c. of only .090 to .095. When loaded ahead of 100 grains of FFg black powder, that bullet will get out of a 28-inch "Hawken" barrel at around 1,425 f.p.s., and generate just over 1,650 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. At 100 yards, velocity is down to around 1,010 f.p.s. - and the 370 grain Maxi hits home with only about 830 f.p.e. While enough for comes up about 400 f.p.e. short for elk.

    With the bullets (and balls) mandated by the CO DOW, there are far too many deer and elk lost to such ineffective hunting projectiles. The bull your buddy took was one of the lucky ones...managing to survive and live another season or two.

    Thanks for chiming in on this one...I look forward to you becoming a regular.

    Toby Bridges

    1. Gee I've been getting them with a cedar shaft and single blade broadhead for 50 years,where you hit em that counts

    2. Gee I've been getting them with a cedar shaft and single blade broadhead for 50 years,where you hit em that counts

  3. Well, I've used the .54 cal Maxi-ball to take cow elk at 60 yards - broke the spine. Not enough experience there to make final decisions, although I'd be willing to try it at 100 yards.

    I recently used a 325 gr JHP Speer and sabot out of a .54 to take a nice bull at about 150 yards. That bullet came apart on the big bones and the bull was recovered only after an hour wait and some very thorough searching. It's not just about energy, the bullet has to be able to hang together as well. I won't be using that bullet again on elk. Maybe deer or antelope, but not elk.


  4. Eric,

    I agree.

    Structural integrity plays a big role. A bullet I believe has a lot of promise is the new 350-grain Scorpion PT Gold. This is an electroplated lead core bullet. And in my testing will hold 75% together through a lot of muscle and bone for deep penetration and energy transfer.

    It take both for the wallop needed to bring down elk quickly and cleanly.


  5. hello, a few years back I remember my father had brought home a nice 6 pointer and very similar to your experience we discovered a failed round ball attempt in the neck region of the body of this deer. It's obvious this was a failed attempt to cleanly harvest this beautiful animal with a less than required bullet to get the job done humanly. I was surprised that a neck shot such as this still failed but again so many times the added expansion of a jacketed bullet is what was lacking. I know many people here in Vermont that will not hunt Colorado under those restrictions. True hunters will pass on a beautiful wall mount if it means going after the game under gunned so to speak. I know for myself I wont get involved w/ this type of cruelty.

  6. Lets also remember that Colorado is iron sights, so 100 yds will be the max shot taken here for most. Personally, my shots are always under 75 yds. With most of them at bow range. Lots of elk are taken every year by bow hunters, so if you can't get that close. Don't blame the laws here in Colorado, but look at your hunting skills.

    So, lets look at the ballistics. I shoot a .54 cal sidelock. 100gr of Pyrodex, and a 425gr Hornady Great Plains bullet.

    This load starts at the muzzle at 1364 fps and 1756 fpe. At 100yds it still has 1274 fpe. More than enough for any elk here. That big hunk of lead will more than likely plow through bone, and still get a pass through. Not that it will be needed most of the time the elk won't go far.

    We're not handicapped here at all. We use weapons and loads that have worked for decades, and we do it in the spirit of what the muzzleloader season was started for.