Reading the Hit
by Wayne van Zwoll
The first elk I shot dropped so fast I recall no movement. The 180-grain Core-Lokt from my .300 H&H struck it in the neck at 75 yards. One instant the bull was there; the next he was not.
Years later, still-hunting in drizzle through thick second-growth, I rousted a young bull from its bed. At 15 steps my .30-06 bullet shattered his neck. The report left nothing but swirling mist against a wall of Doug fir.
The effect in both instances was almost eerie, because the elk not only fell right away, they died right away. The echoes of those shots left silent woods.
You don’t always get such immediate news. More often, the only indication of a good hit is the memory of the crosswire bouncing from your point of aim. If you’re confident in your rifle and the call, you don’t need the elk to tell you where the bullet struck.
The sound of a strike comes later, unless the animal is so close that it merges with the report. Because the bullet is traveling at roughly three times the speed of sound, it reaches the animal long before you hear the strike. A bullet exiting at 3,000 fps from your .270 or.30 magnum will average about 2,700 fps over its first 300 yards of travel. So it reaches an elk 300 yards away in a third of a second. The sound of the strike takes a full second ambling back to you. During the half-second following ignition, your scope field is a blur. You’ll hear the hit on a distant elk long after you fire. Though late, that thwuck can reassure you and even indicate where the bullet landed. A sharp tone suggests a hit on bone; a sodden landing means you’ve probably paunched the elk.
In any case, what you hear is a postscript. What you see comes first and can be much more informative.
If you see the animal start to react after the bullet has landed, you’ve probably missed. If you are very close when you miss, or the elk is watching you as you fire, or if the bullet strikes nearby, you can expect the elk to flee. It isn’t running because it’s hit, but because it’s been frightened by you or the explosion or the bullet’s impact nearby. If you miss badly from a distance, an elk will seldom move. The missile’s sonic crack appears not to alarm most elk. It alerts some, but because it doesn’t signal an obvious hazard or reveal its origin, the animals have no incentive to move. Blind flight has little to recommend it; evolution favors creatures that run in safe directions only.
A hit usually brings immediate reaction. However, the attitude of the animal when you shoot can influence its reaction. An undisturbed elk is less apt to dash away than is an elk that knows about you or is otherwise alarmed. Once I shot a bull through one lung with a .270 bullet that went to pieces. The animal ran a few steps, then stopped, unsure as to what was wrong. A follow-up shot killed him. Had that elk known about me, I’d likely not have had that second chance.
Another time, a client shot a cow elk through the chest with a 165-grain bullet from a .300 Winchester, then watched while she looked about as if bewildered by the noise. “Same hold,” I whispered. The next shot brought similar results. I couldn’t see where either bullet struck, so I advised shading high and low. He did; the bullets sailed high and low. “Use your first hold,” I hissed. At last the elk got wobbly and fell. We found three holes in the shoulder pocket.
The movement of an elk after a bullet strike does not necessarily show injury, either. In my experience, hit elk often move just like elk that aren’t hit—at least for that initial sprint to cover. A broken leg, shoulder or hip, of course, impairs progress. But a hit anywhere in the body cavity could, by all indications, be a hit anywhere in the body cavity.
Usually I aim a third of the way up the chest from an elk’s elbow, to center its lungs. I expect the elk to jump at the shot and run away—or turn and trot away, or walk or stagger off, or just stand where it is on wobbly legs. I’ve seen lung-shot elk behave in all those ways. Once in a while an elk drops right away to a double-lung hit. But most commonly elk will move.
Shredded lungs doom the elk, and quickly. But most of the time you’ll watch it move some distance, and briskly. In open country, the animal is apt to go farther. An elk running with a herd will likely try to stay with the herd until it feels its strength ebb. That could be in a couple of jumps. A lung-shot elk that splits from a herd usually dies within a very short distance.
Occasionally lung hits elicit bizarre reactions. I recall a client hitting an elk in its shoulder crease with a 130-grain Hornady from his .270. A perfect shot—nonetheless I expected the animal to gallop off. Instead it reared up on its hind legs and fell backward, rear tines pegging its rack upside down in the meadow. Death came quickly. In another instance, I watched a bull elk crippled in the lower front legs by a hunter shooting long as night was setting in. I raced forward over the sagebrush to catch the elk before it made cover. All I had was my .250 Savage carbine. Out of breath, I stumbled to within a few yards of the bull just as it got a second wind. Though it struck no bone, my tiny soft-point dropped the animal instantly.
An elk shot through the heart typically dashes off. Again, unless supporting bone gives way, the beast is unlikely to drop on the spot. Heart-shot animals—and those hit in the lower lungs—often duck or crouch as they lunge for cover. They may also kick at their belly with their hind legs. Once upon a time someone wrote that a kick indicated a hit in the paunch. It may; I’ve seen paunched game behave this way. But kicks from animals fatally struck in the forward ribs are not rare.
Most bad hits are behind the lungs. It’s easy to aim at the biggest part of an elk. Or to assume a rifle is so potent an elk cannot survive its blow, no matter where the bullet lands. Alas, elk shot in the middle often escape, to die later of their wounds.
Powerful cartridges can inflict more damage and cause more visible reaction to a hit. The longest shot I’ve taken at an elk was with a .358 Norma. I had climbed hard to stay with him on a parallel ridge as he kept to the far side of a herd in rough terrain. Scrambling to my last vantage point, I watched the bull come clear. Prone, I held the crosswire at the top of his shoulder and loosed a 250-grain Oryx. The bullet’s long travel time and my steady position afforded me a glimpse of the elk right after impact. A glimpse was all I got, for the bull collapsed as if struck by lightning. I believe he died instantly; I saw no movement thereafter. The bullet had centered the lungs as intended—no damage to bones.
The problem with powerful cartridges is that they make rifles unpleasant to shoot. Riflemen who flinch don’t shoot well. Not only are they likely to miss; the shot will be hard to call because a flinch moves the reticle just when it’s supposed to stay still. I’ve shot elk not only with the .250 Savage, but with a .30-30 and a 6.5x55, modest rounds many hunters would relegate to the whitetail woods. They’ve killed mature bulls cleanly with hits in the lungs. Close, careful shooting makes them lethal.
These days, an elk that drops to my shot makes me nervous, because most animals I’ve seen collapse at impact have been spined. A spinal hit delivers shock that affects the animal’s motor controls. If your bullet shatters the spine and severs the spinal cord, muscles behind the hit are permanently impaired. So a hit back of the shoulder will immobilize the rear quarters. You’ll have to fire again to finish. A bullet through spine and both shoulders will often kill, as will destruction of the spinal column in the neck. But a hit to the spinal processes—those projections of bone to which back muscles attach—will drop an elk without anchoring it. Several times I’ve seen game floored by a bullet bounce up and run away. A spine-shot animal that gets up and moves off must be shot again quickly or it will almost surely escape. When an elk falls to your bullet, it’s best to chamber another round and wait a minute, ready to shoot, before walking to your prize. Then approach with extra caution, because the sight of a hunter can inspire a stunned elk to get up.
Quick collapses can lead to another problem. I’ve heard many stories of hunters who shot two animals because the first dropped instantly and a second animal got up. I once thought myself immune from the unintended double. Then, on (of all places) almost featureless tundra, I committed the unpardonable. A small group of caribou bulls were dancing ahead of me in a howling wind. My efforts to get close took me along the shore of a great lake. There, rocking in gusts so strong my eyes watered, I snugged elbows into knees with my sling and squeezed the trigger. The animals sifted after the shot but did not run. I waited patiently for my chosen bull to clear the others and fired again. They galloped off then, the stricken animal lagging. When they stopped, I finished the beast. Alas, on the way to the carcass I almost stepped on a freshly shot caribou. There could be no doubt that I’d killed it with one of the first two bullets from my .260 Remington.
It seems absurd on the surface—how could you miss the collapse of the animal in your sight? Or mistake another for the first? Well, an elk (or any other animal) can drop from sight as if yanked earthward. It’s easy to imagine that bull leaping back up after being stunned. But one elk can look just like another —especially when you’re in the “shoot” mode. It’s best to always assume a hit. Any time an elk appears in your scope field after the first shot, be sure your reticle is on your original animal before you fire again!
Unless you’re shooting far or with a very slow bullet, recoil will obscure the target the instant your bullet strikes. You’ll not catch the eruption of hair, dust or water, the flinch, the caving to the blow. You’ll not see muscles bunch, hooves dig. The elk will have absorbed the impact by the time you recover a sight picture. But what you saw in your sights at the instant the bullet left the barrel tells you all you should have to know about the bullet’s path. Animal reaction, like the sound of that bullet landing, should come as confirmation, not news. If the sight picture is right, you’ll call a good hit—and get one. If there’s nothing good about the call, you won’t find much to like about the read.
Wayne van Zwoll has published a dozen books, more than 1,500 articles and 3,000 photos about guns, ammo, optics and hunting. He has been a guide and logger, holds a Ph.D. in wildlife policy from Utah State University and was one of the Elk Foundation’s first field directors. His Bugle column, inaugurated in 1986, is our longest running department.