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Rifles

The Combination Deer/Elk Rifle

by Craig Boddington   |  September 23rd, 2010 0

All elk are big, and big mule deer are harder to come by. Setting up for both isn’t as easy as it sounds.


Lightweight carbine? Heavy magnum? Long-range rig with powerful scope? Many rifles can be used effectively for both elk and mule deer, but the best choice for this combination takes a bit of thinking.

Everybody knows the jingle, “double your pleasure, double your fun. . .” Combination hunts are wonderfully attractive and enticing, because, at least in theory, if you have two tags for two different species you double your chances for success. Surely you’ll find at least one of the animals you’re looking for, won’t you? And if fortune really smiles, you’ll come with two great trophies for the expense of just one trip. Not bad!

Unfortunately these things don’t always pan out. Reality is that most of our big game species are fairly specialized and while habitats often overlap, what’s really perfect for one variety is rarely ideal for another. Too, the even grimmer reality is that with tag draws, quotas, and shorter seasons an ever-increasing part of life, genuine opportunities to hunt two varieties of big game simultaneously are shrinking fast. Still, there are some classic North American combo hunts that have tremendous allure: sheep and goat, moose and caribou. . .and of course elk and mule deer.

If you’re going to embark on such a quest the choice of rifles and cartridges has to be made with even greater care than a single-species quest. Sometimes this isn’t so difficult. On a classic hunt for Stone sheep and Rocky Mountain goat it’s a breeze: Anything flat-shooting from a .270 to a fast .30 will do just fine. Moose and caribou aren’t so difficult, either. Moose are a whole lot bigger than caribou, but not particularly tough. Sometimes you have to shoot fairly long on caribou, so you need something reasonably flat-shooting for caribou but big enough for moose. A good old .30-06 would do just fine, but anything from there up to a fast .33 would do the trick.

On the surface, picking the right rig for a mule deer/elk combo hunt would seem equally simple–but I’m not sure it is, especially if you’re looking for good specimens. Both animals are tough customers, and in altogether different ways.

Right now there are more elk than at any time in this century, so elk hunting opportunity is better than ever. But good elk are hard to come by. You have to hunt hard and well, and you won’t get many chances.

That’s just half the tough part; to my mind a big bull elk is one of the hardiest animals in North America. He can weigh a half-ton, and he’s stronger than any horse. He isn’t bulletproof, but he mustn’t be underrated.

Nor should the mule deer be taken lightly. He isn’t tough in physical terms–in my view, not at hardy as the whitetail–but these days a good mule deer is one of the most difficult trophies to obtain on the entire continent. There was a time when a decent mule deer was almost a given on western hunts into good country, and although elk tags might have been carried, chances for elk were very low. This hasn’t exactly reversed, but what has changed is that the days of easy mule deer are virtually over. This is especially true in the high country they share with elk; mule deer herds in typical alpine habitat have been declining for years. Part of it is almost certainly due to increased competition from elk; in a lot of areas that used to be prime mule deer country there are now, literally, more elk than deer.

So you have one animal that is big, strong, and difficult to hunt, and another that can be an extremely hard-won trophy. In neither will you get a lot of chances, and if you have both tags in your pocket you probably have a lot at stake. Your tags may have been won in a difficult draw, or after stockpiling preference points for several years. If you didn’t have to draw, then you’re probably in some kind of special situation, private land or an Indian reservation–which means you’ve invested a lot in the hunt.

Whichever the case, the chance to combine mule deer and elk today is a rare opportunity. You don’t want to blow it. Also, your time may be a bit limited–not just by the duration of the hunt or season, but also by the fact that you’re trying to find two different animals on one hunt. What all of this means is that you must be fully prepared to take any reasonable shot that is offered.

Elk are big animals, and their pale hides show up at great distances. Even without binoculars it’s no trick at all to spot elk at 800 yards. Obviously that doesn’t mean you should shoot that far. Maybe cut that in half. With a flat-shooting rifle of adequate power, and a steady rest, and enough skill, you should be able to cleanly take elk at 350 to 400 yards. The animal is huge in comparison to deer, so it isn’t all that difficult to hit elk at greater distances. The issue is that you must be able to hit them in the right place, and with enough remaining energy to ensure bullet penetration to the vitals-and enough bullet expansion to wreck those vitals.

Obviously I can’t tell you how far you should shoot. Many of us have no business shooting beyond 200 yards no matter what the conditions. Others, a few, given enough time to set up and a calm day, can shoot three times that far with total confidence. You and you alone can determine how far that is, but you want to pack enough gun so that you can shoot with confidence to whatever that distance might be.


A nice mule deer taken with a Rifles, Inc. .300 Weatherby Magnum, synthetic stock and rustproof finish. You could argue that a big .300 is more gun than needed for mule deer–but for elk on the same hunt, perfect.

Remember, too, that long shooting isn’t always–or even very often–the norm. You may catch elk in the timber, or you may stalk them along the edge of a meadow. You may bugle up a bull–so you also need to be prepared for a close encounter. I’ve taken a number of my elk at less than 75 yards, the majority between 100 and 200 yards, and just a few beyond 300 yards. This means that the ideal elk rifle must not only shoot flat and project plenty of energy a long way downrange–just in case–but must also handle fast enough to use in the thick stuff.

Obviously you don’t need nearly as much power for mulies as you do for elk. However, you need even more accuracy because your target is about a third the size. For the same reason, you need your mule deer rifle to shoot just as flat, perhaps even flatter, because the smaller target makes ranging errors ever more critical.

Despite all the gloom and doom, there are still lots of
mule deer throughout the American West. Finding and taking “any” buck isn’t really all that big a deal in a whole lot of places. But a big buck, ah, there’s the rub. Big mule deer are scarce–and those that live to become big are much warier than the mule deer we read about. Even though modern mule deer grow ever more wary, they are probably less switched-on and easier to stalk than whitetails. But this depends on the country and how the wind is blowing. Sometimes the terrain and cover allow a close approach, and sometimes not.


The author shot this bull in a high Colorado basin with a .300 Winchester Magnum firing 180-grain Barnes X bullets. The distance was about 350 yards, a long shot on an animal as big and tough as an elk–but the “little” .300 Win Mag was up to the job.

I’ve taken a lot of mule deer at ranges closer than 100 yards. My “best ever” was taken at just 60 yards. Most of my mule deer have been taken between 150 and 300 yards, so the average shot is a bit longer. Given a choice, I prefer not to shoot at longer ranges and avoid it whenever possible. But I do know how to do it. Several of the longest shots I have ever made have been on mule deer, and while my best buck was taken at close range, my second and third-best bucks were taken beyond 400 yards.

You can take elk with perfect satisfaction with .270s and 7mms all day long–if you pick your shots and do it right. But for me, ideal elk rifles start at .30 caliber and go up to the .35s. The .35 Whelen and its ballistic brethren are wonderful elk cartridges. Just how wonderful depends a bit on the kind of country you hunt–great in close or mixed cover, not so great in open country where you might need reach. Bigger cartridges, like fast .35′s and .375′s, are effective but not necessary.

To me the “best of the best” cartridges for elk are the 8mm Remington Magnum and the fast .33′s from .338 Winchester on up. All shoot flat enough for the longest shots that should be taken on elk, and all have the frontal area, bullet weight, and energy to take elk with authority–with any well-placed shot from any angle. Caliber alone isn’t the whole story. An ideal elk rifle should be fairly portable, because elk hunting is extremely hard work. Synthetic stocks and weatherproof finishes are good ideas any time you go into the mountains in the fall, and of course the rifle will wear a good scope. Elk are huge targets, so lots of power isn’t essential. My old .338 wears a fixed 4X, enough power for elk even at long range. But it’s a variable-power world. If you prefer something between 11⁄2-6X and 3-9X, just keep the scope turned down to no more than 4X until you want more magnification.


The western mountains are generally a poor place for good walnut, but either laminates or synthetic stocks are good options. Both are tough and stable, but the laminates tend to be heavier.

My second-best buck was bedded on a little knoll, surrounded by oakbrush and crunchy snow, no way to get closer. We found a flat boulder on the ridge across the valley and set up our packs almost like a benchrest. This was in pre-rangefinder days, but it was dead calm and we had lots of time. We figured about 500 yards, and we settled in to wait. Finally he stood, offering a good broadside shot. We must have been slightly off in our range estimation; instead of the center-chest hit I held for, my bullet hit slightly low, cutting the bottom of the heart.

Another time, on the last day of a Nevada hunt plagued by unseasonable heat and full moon, the late Jerry Hughes jumped a buck in the bottom of a thick canyon. I was on one side, and the buck went up the other side. I lay down on the rimrock and fired when the buck topped out and slowed to a walk, holding high and leading a bit. This was also in pre-rangefinder days, but it wouldn’t have mattered because there was no time to use one! I saw no reaction and heard no bullet hit, but the shot felt good and it was; we found the buck just inside the brush on the next ridge, centered through the lungs.

The cartridges that these two deer succumbed to were, respectively, the .300 Weatherby Magnum and the .30-06, but I’m not suggesting these are the most ideal,cartridges for mulies. Within broad limits, it didn’t matter too much what cartridge I used on either of those two long shots.

Most important factors were accuracy–always the first essential for long-range shooting–and the simple fact that I knew the cartridge’s trajectory, how the rifle was sighted in, and how to put these things together to make a good hit. This is far more important than raw velocity or power.

That said, there is certainly a range of cartridges that is ideal for mule deer. If you like the faster .25s–the .257 Roberts with good loads, the .25-06, or the .257 Weatherby–that’s fine. My personal preference, however, starts with a fast 6.5mm like the nearly defunct .264 Winchester Magnum, goes up through .270 and 7mm, and tops out at .30-caliber with the .300 magnums at the upper end.

To my thinking the “best” mule deer cartridge, if there is one, is probably a fast 7mm–a 7mm Remington or Weatherby Magnum, or one of the newer cartridges like the 7mm STW or Remington Ultra Mag. These cartridges have plenty of power and reach, but are light enough in recoil that you can lie down and shoot from one rimrock to another without being kicked into next week. While long shots aren’t the norm on mule deer, you need the capability to take a really good buck when and where you see him.

A good scope is essential, and since the target is a good deal smaller, a bit more power is useful. The ubiquitous 3-9X variable is always a good choice.

In any situation where you will be hunting two or more types of game with the same rifle you must be carry a rifle that is adequate for the largest animal you’re looking for, in this case elk. You already know my preference for elk runs to big guns like the fast .33s. You can surely use any of these for mule deer, but I’m not as much in favor of this as I used to be. The .338 Winchester Magnum, although one of the very best elk cartridges, is a bit on the slow side with the heavier bullets best-suited for elk, maybe 2,650 fps with 250-grain bullets.


Left to right: .270 Winchester, .270 Weatherby Magnum, .280 Remington, 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm STW, 7mm Remington Ultra Mag. These are all great mule deer cartridges, and all can certainly do a good job on elk as well. For perfection, however, the author prefers more bullet weight and frontal area for elk.

Fans of the .338 will quickly point out that their favorite shoots a whole lot faster and flatter with bullets of 200 grains and less. True enough, and also true that the lighter bullets are excellent for deer. But the light .33-caliber bullets aren’t the best choices for elk, and I don’t believe in carrying one bullet for one type of game and a second load for other game.

Faster .33s, like the .338 Rem. Ultra Mag, .340 Weatherby, and super-fast numbers like Lazzeroni’s Titan and the .338-.378 Weatherby solve the ranging problem–they shoot plenty flat enough for any hunting, anywhere. But they create a new problem, and that’s recoil. Relatively few hunters can withstand their punishment enough to shoot them well, and this is especially true of the precision, long-range shooting that may be required to take a big mulie buck.

The fast .33s, are wonderful all-around cartridges, and may be the best choices for “all-around use in North America,” especially if you include the big bears. But I don’t think they’re the best for elk and mule deer in combination. Nor are the ideal mule deer cartridges the best. You could use your .270 or 7mm magnum, probably with perfect satisfaction, especially if this is the rifle you know best and shoot best. But I think more frontal area and greater bullet weight is needed for animals as tough as bull elk.

To my thinking it’s best to meet in the middle, where it seems to me that there is a relatively narrow group of cartridges that offer enough gun for elk under all conditions–combined with enough ranging capabilities for mule deer under all conditions. For me this group is comprised of the fast .30s. You can start with the classic .300 H&H, the tried-and-true .300 Winchester Magnum, and the new .300 WSM. All of these, depending on whether you use factory loads or handloads, propel 180-grain bullets between about 2,900 and 3,000 fps.

You can step up a couple hundred fps to Lazzeroni’s short Patriot, the .300 Weatherby Magnum, and the Remington Ultra Mag. You can even step up a bit farther to Lazzeroni’s Warbird and Weatherby’s .30-.378. And don’t leave out proprietaries like the .300 Dakota and .300 Jarrett, or wildcats like the .30-.338. Obviously the faster cartridges in the group shoot a bit flatter and carry more energy farther downrange–but at a cost in greater recoil, and usually increased gun weight. I won’t even try to tell you which is the best; to a great extent it depends on the rifle. All of them can be very accurate, all of them shoot flat enough for any sensible shooting, and all of them–when mated with a good 180-grain bullet–will do a good job on elk.

Lord knows I haven’t used all of them, and almost certainly never will. However, I have used one of the least powerful among them, the .300 Winchester Magnum, to anchor a big-bodied bull in an open basin at about 350 yards, a long shot on an animal as big as an elk. And I have used the fastest among them, a 7.82 Warbird to take a big bull at 70 yards in heavy timber. On the former occasion I was using a 180-grain Barnes X; on the latter occasion I was using a 180-grain Nosler Partition.

With today’s good bullets, a fast .30 will handle elk under any circumstances, and at any distances near or far. As for mule deer, well, there simply shouldn’t be any argument. Under most circumstances you don’t need a magnum .30 to hunt mule deer, but if you have one in your hands you can handle any sensible shot at any sensible range.

So the fast .30s are my idea of the best setup for the West’s ultimate combo, elk and mule deer. As velocity increases recoil goes up, but cartridges from the .300 H&H on up to the .300 Ultra Mag remain fairly manageable in a rifle weighing perhaps eight pounds. But don’t think that having the right rifle will automatically put you in the picture with two great trophies! Neither big elk nor big mule deer come easy under the best of circumstances, and taking the two together on a single hunt is far more difficult than either one separately. The right rifle is important, but the quest also takes careful planning, hard hunting, and more than a bit of luck.

I have been fortunate to take a few darned good mule deer and about an equal number of pretty snazzy elk. I have often been in the woods with both tags in my hand, but I think I should end this discussion with an admission: Although I have been prepared, and I have tried hard, I have never, ever taken both elk and mule deer on the same hunt!

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