Graduating from small game such as squirrels, groundhogs and birds to medium-sized game like whitetail and antelope often involves the use of a .243, it just seems to be the natural progression for a young hunter.
What tends to happen though is because the .243 does such an incredible job, most hunters making the progression in calibers tend to stop there and are content with the rifle in hand.
What happens though when our desire to target bigger game like elk increases, yet the satisfaction for our beloved .243 Win is too much to let go of, is the .243 suitable for hunting elk?
Requirements of a viable caliber
In order for a caliber to be deemed worthy of taking down a mature bull elk it needs to achieve the following specifications:
- High energy co-efficient
An elk is no pushover and whatever hits it, needs to hit hard. We are talking about a minimum of 1,500 ft-lbs. and not just out the muzzle, but at the specific distance the elk is standing at when taking the hit.
- Quick velocity
A high velocity will generate high energy, it’s simple physics. Velocity is closely tied to trajectory and the importance of having a flat shooting rifle greatly increases better shot placement.
That’s right, you can’t kill an elk if you don’t hit it in the right spot. Accuracy in any situation whether it’s hunting or competitive shooting is extremely important. A matter of inches can mean the difference between packing out quality, clean venison, or packing up and heading home filled with nothing but guilt and sorrow of not being able to find a wounded animal.
- Bullet performance
Sure, this is more specific to the actual bullet and its manufacturer, but it is nonetheless an important consideration that needs mentioning. Also let us not forget that not all calibers have the backing of premium ammunition manufacturers, luckily the .243 does and we will get into that a little later.
This may seem like a strange one when deciding if a caliber is suitable or not for elk but there is logic behind it.
Elk occur in a variety of habitats, from flat country to towering mountains and seemingly endless valleys. Hunting is unpredictable and you never know what situation you may find yourself in.
The correct caliber needs to be able to handle those variables, whether the elk steps out at 50-yards or 400-yards, on flat open ground, or between a break in the tree line on the opposite side of a deep draw.
By deciding on the caliber’s versatility, one needs to assess the performance of ammunition and its associated ballistics results.
Born out of the .308 cartridge, there are many qualities that the .243 inherited.
One of them being the ability for the cartridge to be loaded with a wide variety in bullet weights, from 55-grain pills for the varmints up to 115-grain bullets for medium sized game.
With us centering this article around the hunting of elk, its only right that we focus on the .243 ammunition that is on the higher end of the bullet weight scale.
Yes, one could hand load a heavier .243 bullet somewhere in the region of 115 grain but to keep this article within the bounds of the everyday hunter who truly contemplates whether or not hunting an elk with a .243 is viable, we will pick out some of the more common factory produced ammunition that is readily available and see how they perform.
- Winchester Power Point 100-grain
- Hornady ELD-X 90-grain
- Federal Berger Hybrid Hunter 95-grain
Coming out the muzzle, as is common with the .243, each bullet was extremely quick with the Hornady fastest at 3,150 feet per second, the Winchester at 3,110 feet per second and then the Federal with 3,050 feet per second.
All good speeds and they hold these somewhat respectable figures out to distance of 300-yards, with the range being 2,341 to 2,469 feet per second.
With speed and a “light” bullet generally comes a tighter trajectory and this is no different with the Hornady, Winchester and Federal ammunition.
With a zero on 200-yards, all the three bullets hold their trajectory well and have a drop of no more than -7.0” which is acceptable on an elk.
The area that is concerning is the energy, and although on paper as a reflection of the cartridge these figures are impressive, they don’t exactly provide the ambitious .243 owner with the confidence to start putting in for elk tags.
The seasoned elk hunters are aware that impact and penetration on elk is crucial and needs to be the foundation with which a hunter uses to choose their suitable caliber.
The Winchester ammo produces a muzzle energy of 2,147 ft-lbs. and then drops down to 1,217 ft-lbs. out to 300-yards, in my opinion that lacks sufficient energy for a bull elk.
The Hornady ELD-X doesn’t fare any better with a muzzle velocity of 1,983 ft-lbs. and 1,219 ft-lbs. on 300-yards, again those figures don’t quite make the grade.
Finally, the Federal comes limping in with a muzzle velocity of 1,962 ft-lbs. and at 300-yards produces a little more force than what a mosquito would with 1,233 ft-lbs.
As a matter of fact, neither cartridge even produces enough at 200-yards to meet the “golden rule” of it takes a minimum 1,500 ft-lbs. of energy to effectively kill an elk.
I know with that last paragraph the sceptics and devout .243 fans eyes have begun to roll their eyes and mumble negative thoughts against this author.
One needs to remember we are simply creating a measuring tool with this article by putting out factors that need to be considered by those less experienced hunters or by those simply willing to learn a little more.
Shot Placement and Distance
Energy, velocity, expansion, weight retention really doesn’t mean much without the correct shot placement.
We all know a .300 Win Mag, or a .338 Lapua Magnum has all the pre-mentioned qualities for hunting elk, but if you shoot it square in the gut or too far forward clipping the brisket, then all those “adequate coefficients” don’t really matter much.
Killing an elk efficiently and as quickly as possible means hitting the heart and/or lungs. A bull elk can still run a long way if only one lung is hit, so ideally the hunter needs to achieve a double lung shot and to achieve that you need good bullet penetration.
There is a lot muscle tissue on an elk that the bullet needs to get through before hitting any vitals.
We can see from the ballistics results above that may be a little difficult to achieve with a .243, but not impossible. Getting your distances right is crucial.
The hunter needs to be conservative in their approach and look at taking elk that are no more than 200-yards away, which is beneficial if the rifle is zeroed in at that distance, making for better shot placement.
Look to get into a position or have the patience for the moment when the elk is standing broadside. That is the best opportunity to obtain a double lung shot or hit the heart which would be absolutely ideal.
I am confident that anywhere within a 200-yard range the .243 loaded with the correct ammunition has the qualities to achieve sufficient penetration for a double lung kill shot.
Avoid frontal and quartering away shots, unless at close range or the shooter is proficient in their shooting ability. The lack of hard-hitting energy creates the risk of hitting any of the solid joints between the scapula and humerus and stopping the bullet from achieving the necessary penetration.
Can an elk be hunted with a .243? Yes it can, under certain criteria. Is it a viable caliber? In terms of what the ballistics reading say and to those that prioritize the ethics of hunting then no, it should not be considered an elk worthy caliber.
Have many hunters killed elk with a .243 in the past? Yes they have and they will be sure to tell you about it and continue to do so.
There is nothing in this article that should be taken as a means to discredit the .243 because it is a phenomenal caliber with a solid hunting reputation. If anything it only adds more credit to the elk and how this animal deserves every bit of respect by the hunter when coming up against a high quality caliber.
The main basis for this whole article is more about why choose to hunt with a rifle caliber that “may or may not” get the job done, when there is a plethora of calibers available to the everyday hunter that can and will get the job done on a mature bull elk.