December 27, 2021
My first elk hunting experience was in the jack-pine jungles of southwest Montana. That was nearly 50 years ago in a time when there were much fewer elk. I was young, but Dad and I had done quite a bit of pronghorn and deer hunting in prairies, plains and foothills. Still-hunting in close cover was totally foreign to me, and I wasn’t very good at it. I saw elk ghosting through the trees, and yellow rumps sailing over deadfalls. My only chances were by dumb luck.
Back then, I was an open-country hunter. Mind you, I’m still not great at brush and timber hunting, but I’ve gotten better. Experience has come from more elk hunting, plus whitetails, hogs and bears on this continent, as well as other game in jungles and forests of abroad. These days, long-range shooting is the rage, but shooting at distance requires open ground — croplands, prairies, mountains, deserts — and there is a lot of close-cover hunting in our world. The techniques used are different, as are the ideal rifles and cartridges.
Uncle Elmer Speaks
Former Guns & Ammo Shooting Editor Elmer Keith was one of America’s most beloved and colorful gunwriters. From Guns & Ammo’s November 1961 issue, when he joined G&A’s staff, until his death in 1984, he was our premier writer. Recently, our esteemed editor, Eric Poole, recommended to me Elmer Keith’s 1936 book, “Big Game Rifles and Cartridges.” I read it (as Gospel) when I was a kid, but I’d never considered it in the context of newer developments, nor in comparison to the man I knew (and edited) toward the end of his life.
The first chapter in this book is labeled “Brush and Timber Rifles.” It runs 34 pages, nearly 8,000 words. I have written many articles and book chapters, and am not known for my curt reporting, but I have never written a standalone piece of such length. This is not criticism; Keith’s opus is the best thing I have ever read on the topic of close-cover hunting!
So, for just moment, let’s consider the context of his 1936 work. Many of the rifles and cartridges he recommends are still with us, but some are long-gone or nearly so. Bullets have changed dramatically, too. In 1936, there were no so-called “premium” hunting bullets as we know them. Riflescopes were not in common use either, and the scopes available in 1936 were probably inferior to the aperture and open sights Keith recommended for brush and timber hunting. Now, let’s take another moment to put Elmer Keith, then in his mid-30s, in a 1936 context.
Keith knew more about hunting elk in timber than I will ever learn. At this time, he had spent little time out of his native Idaho, hunting mostly mule deer and elk. He had hunted in western Canada, but he had not been to Alaska, and nearly 20 years would pass before he saw Africa. Keith was a student of firearms from the cradle, but not all rifles and cartridges passed through Salmon, Idaho. In 1936, he had not yet acquired his passion for the .33 caliber. However, he was already outspoken in his support of heavier bullets and larger calibers. Considering what was available at that time for larger game such as elk, I think young Keith had it pretty much right for fast shooting in close cover.
The “rifles” portion of Elmer’s long dissertation seems perfectly valid today. He describes a general scenario of fast shooting, often at running game, and usually from an unsupported standing position, and rarely beyond 150 yards. Models of rifles have changed, but available actions have not. Keith suggested two primary schools of thought: Hunters who concentrated on one perfect shot; and hunters who relied on repeat shots. Although personally of the first school, he made no judgment, stating, “Both get their game.”
In 1936, semiautos in suitable chamberings were pretty much limited to the Remington Model 8 and Winchester Models 1907 and 1910. These offered the fastest reloads, followed by slide or “trombone” actions, then lever-actions (dominant in 1936), with bolt-actions a bit slower. Single-shots were relegated to those who chose to concentrate on that one precise shot. One caveat Keith offered: A double rifle would be fastest of all for the oft-critical second shot, as well as short and fast-handling. In later years, Keith would be famous for using double rifles in Africa. This was an interesting early comment because I doubt he had yet owned a double! However, in an appropriate cartridge and not too heavy, I don’t disagree.
Regardless of action, Keith stressed that handling qualities were critical. He didn’t want a rifle that was too heavy or too long, but he also correctly noted that heavier rifles are steadier in the hands when the shooter is out of breath. Above all, he wanted a rifle that came up fast and on target like a good shotgun. Here is an appropriate time to remind everyone that Keith was also a wingshooting artist!
Velocity & Cartridges
Keith believed that moderate velocities worked better for brush and timber shooting. He wrote that “2,500 [feet per second]” was maximum, but that “1,800 to 2,000 fps” was an effective range. I agree in principle; extremely fast bullets are more likely to come unglued when encountering slight obstructions. However, Keith didn’t have the luxury of the great bullets we have today, so I’m not sure there’s any magic in his 2,500 fps rule. More about bullets later, but he made an astute comment regarding the slower cartridges. Brush and timber shooting often means fast running shots, and he noted that slower cartridges require increased leads. I learned firsthand on running pigs that I needed visibly more lead with a .45-70 Gov’t than with a .30-’06 Springfield.
Elmer Keith listed more than 20 cartridges that he considered suitable for brush and timber shooting. They started with the 6.5x54 Mannlicher and 7x57 Mauser, .30-30 Winchester and .303 Savage, and ran up to the .400 Whelen, which he was using at the time. He appended his preferred bullet weights, and then discussed most of these cartridges in greater detail.
His complete list is included in this article because many of his choices, though nearly forgotten, are fascinating for Keith fans. Interestingly, after World War II he became an outspoken fan of the .33 caliber, but the .33 WCF is the only .33-caliber cartridge on his 1936 list, and the only American .33 of that era. The .333 Jeffery would inspire his .333 and .334 O’Neil-Keith-Hopkins (OKH) wildcats, but he probably had yet to encounter it. In 1936, he was strong on the .35s, including in his list: .348 Winchester, .35 Remington, .35 Winchester, .35 Whelen, and .350 G&H Magnum.
One must speculate how Keith’s list of brush and timber cartridges might have looked 40 years later, but I’m sure his .35s would have been revised to include the .358 Winchester and .350 Remington Magnum. Certainly, there would have also been a spate of .33s including his wildcats and the .338 Winchester Magnum.
Keith was careful to distinguish between deer and elk cartridges, but he consistently recommended heavier bullets, both for greater penetration on game and better ability to “buck brush.” In 1936, the Winchester Model 71 in .348 Winchester was brand new, and while Keith raved about the Model 71, the jury was still out on the .348. The .348 was introduced with 180- and 200-grain loads; Keith suggested it would be much more effective with a 250-grain load. Perhaps Winchester listened because a 250-grain load soon followed and this heavier bullet made the .348 legendary as a brush-and-timber cartridge for elk and bear.
Keith also recommends blunt-nosed bullets because, in brush, they remained on course better than spitzers. This is one of few areas where I disagree. I am not convinced that any bullet can reliably stay on course through a latticework of sticks and twigs. The scenario: One can see the animal and visualize the vital zone, but there is a thin screen of brush in the way. In my experience, the result would be a matter of luck. Three times I have had large-caliber bullets deflected on Cape buffalo, for example. Two resulted in complete misses, inexplicable until we walked the ground and found fresh-cut branches. The third flattened the buffalo, except the 500-grain .470 solid entered the neck 2 feet left of where I had aimed and completely sideways, the entrance wound a perfect keyhole.
Years ago, former G&A Executive Editor Payton Miller and I constructed some baffle boards with interlaced dowel rods, simulating pencil-thick branches. If the obstruction was directly in front of the target the bullet would usually get through, although there was keyholing and sometimes fragmentation. If the obstruction was paced several feet in front of the target, results went haywire. We tried a number of cartridges with various bullets weights and shapes. There was no real consistency, but, strikingly, a sharp-pointed 100-grain .243 Win. did better than classic brush cartridges, and better than the .30-’06 with 220-grain round-nose. The most powerful cartridge we tried, the .375 H&H, performed similar to the .243. Our takeaway was that nothing “bucks brush” reliably, as some claim. You’d better find a window to thread the bullet through or wait for a clear shot!
The tough, reliable, premium hunting bullets we take for granted today didn’t exist in 1936. The first of them was John Nosler’s Partition, which came out in 1948. Keith was bullish on a long-gone Peters “belted” expanding bullet, which was available in heavy weights such as 225 grains for .30 caliber. Even with today’s super-bullets, I believe weight makes up for sins in construction. In the context of bullets available in 1936, Keith was totally correct to stress bullet weight, especially for heavy game.
Today, I’m not as convinced. I still don’t believe in light-for-caliber loads, but today’s medium-weight projectiles work well, and modern bullets work reliably at higher velocities. For instance, there is little need for 175-grain 7mm hunting bullets or .30-caliber bullets over 200 grains. I wonder how Keith would have viewed the tough homogenous-alloy and bonded-core bullets we have today.
Units of Measure
Americans tend to rely upon kinetic energy as expressed in foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.). In 1936, Keith wrote, “I have long ago quit using factory energy tables as any indication of what can be expected in actual killing power. Foot-pounds energy mean little to me.” He has a point. Kinetic energy in foot-pounds is hard science, but the mathematical formula uses the square of projectile velocity, and considers only bullet weight. Bullet diameter and other characteristics are not factored, so the foot-pounds race places a premium on velocity. Keith preferred “pounds-feet,” a simpler formula that takes bullet weight in pounds: Grains divided by 7,000 (grains to pound), times velocity to yield “pounds-feet,” also called “momentum.”
This method gives more credence to bullet weight, and is still used as a method of comparison. To me, the unsolved problem is that bullet design is still not taken into account. In 1948, ivory hunter John “Pondoro” Taylor tried to resolve this in “African Rifles and Cartridges” with his “Knock-Out Values,” which take into account velocity, weight, and the bullet’s frontal area. However, none of these consider bullet performance. Taylor’s KO Values were intended to reference only the ability of a non-expanding solid bullet to stun an elephant with a near-miss to the brain. With expanding hunting bullets, performance matters and varies radically.
So, while I actually like Keith’s pounds-feet as a comparative index, I don’t think we’ve yet found a formula that gives proper credit to the complex mixture of velocity, bullet weight, frontal area, and terminal performance.
Keith’s “Raking Shot”
Elmer Keith knew his stuff, and he was an accomplished big-timber elk hunter long before writing on the topic. Throughout his life, he was famous for wanting cartridges and bullets that would provide adequate penetration on bad-angle shots. In his younger years, Keith and his friends needed venison to feed their families. They weren’t using optics so they had to track in thick stuff, get close and take any reasonable shot. In his writing, the bad-angle shot is repeatedly referred to as the “rear raking shot,” meaning the southbound end of a northbound animal.
In 1936, Keith was an advocate for the .400 Whelen using a 350-grain bullet. Even so, he writes, “So far, I have never found anything in any caliber with an expanding bullet that would go on through rump, paunch, etc., and into the chest cavity of a big elk … .” The lone exception, “That rifle was an old Sharps side-hammer Creedmoor for the .45-120, 550-grain load, and that load did it on one occasion for me.” This was with a hard-cast bullet. On rear-raking shots, even his .400 Whelen bullets would stop in the paunch!
Those were different times. There were probably not more elk, but fewer hunters and, in the Great Depression, a strong incentive to bring home the bacon. Today’s tough bullets such as the Barnes X-series and Hornady GMX change the game a bit, but do any of us have extensive experience with “Texas heart shots” on elk-sized game? I hope not! On deer-sized game with a stout caliber and tough bullet, it’s a shot you can get away with much of the time, but you’re banking on bullet performance and asking for a lot of penetration.
Thinking back, I’ve passed on shots at very big deer because only the going-away shot was available. On game larger than deer, I’ve rarely tried it. Once, using a .411 KDF with 400-grain Barnes bullet, I shot an outbound nilgai under the base of the tail; 50 yards and down, bullet in the chest cavity. That’s the performance Keith wanted, but even with large calibers he didn’t have the bullets to support such shenanigans. I’m talking unwounded game. With wounded game, all bets are off. I have a lot of experience with going-away shots on animals that had already received a bullet, probably more African buffaloes than anything else. A non-expanding solid will often penetrate from stern to stem, but even the best expanding bullets usually won’t get past the paunch.
Keith didn’t recommend tough shots on unwounded elk, but he acknowledged that such shots are taken, often with dismal results. It was as true in 1936 as it is today.
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