What is the best elk hunting rifle for youth?
Here are some things to consider before you take a young person hunting.
The group of cow elk appeared, feeding near the top of the ridge, just as we had hoped. I set up the shooting tripod as a steady rest for the 120 yard shot. We discussed which cow should be my son’s target, ensuring no other cows were behind and there was a backstop for the shot. The youth model Savage .308 cracked loudly.
As I watched through my binoculars, I saw dirt fly at the cow’s feet, and none of them appeared to be hit. Although the elk were alerted, they didn’t immediately scatter. I reminded my son to jack another shell into the chamber as we discussed why he might have missed.
The elk did move away into some pine trees, but stayed near the top of the ridge. We repositioned, and as the elk came into the open we set up for a second shot. We didn’t have the luxury of taking our time, because the elk were on the move. They weren’t running, or even walking steadily, but they were no longer feeding and were looking for the source of the gunshot.
One of the cows stopped, providing a clear broadside shot. She was now about 150 yards away, but well within the distances we had practiced at the range. Another shot. Again, a clear miss.
We chalked it up to first day, first hunt jitters. My son had turned 11 years old the previous month, and we were able to secure a cow elk tag through New Mexico’s youth encouragement hunt program. This hunt was in a unit with many elk, so there was a good chance that my son would get another opportunity.
The next morning found us crunching through the snow on another ridge. We had a good cross wind, and scanned ahead for animals. That’s when I spotted a cow elk bedded at the head of the canyon. She had not seen us, and contentedly lay in the shade of a Ponderosa Pine.
There was enough cover on the ridgetop to allow us to move within 100 yards of the cow. My son lay down in the snow with his gun steadied on his daypack while we waited for the cow to stand. When she did, he squeezed the trigger while I again watched through the binoculars. At the sound of the rifle, the snow flew in front of the cow. She wasted no time looking for the source of the sound, quickly disappearing into the pines.
What had happened? Had the scope been bumped out of position during our trip to camp? While my son was not ready for a target match, he had performed reasonably at the range.
Back at camp we set up a paper plate with a backstop, and paced off 100 steps. My 21 year old son who joined us for the hunt set up with the rifle on the tripod. Two shots pierced the plate slightly high, as expected. We had zeroed the gun at 200 yards.
Next it was the 11 year old’s turn. I watched the target as my older son watched his brother shoot. It was a clear miss.
Immediately big brother spotted the problem. My hunter was not anchoring his cheek on the comb of the stock as he shot. Since I cut my shooting teeth with iron sights, I had installed the scope on this rifle with “see under” mounts. I thought this provided the best of both worlds. However, to see through the scope clearly, my son had to lift his head, thus creating a shaky aim.
We had him try his back up rifle. Another Savage youth model in .243. This one, with standard scope mounts. His next 3 shots all hit the paper plate with ease.
That evening we went to the same ridge where my son missed on the first day. The group of cow elk again appeared, early enough that we had time to stalk to about 100 yards. He again set up on the tripod and took a shot. Another clean miss!
I’m sure my bewilderment showed as I stood speechless. The difference this time was that my son knew what he had done wrong. “I pulled that one”, he said. The elk were milling around but had not left the area.
He took another shot. This time the cow humped up, clearly hit. The other elk moved off, but she stayed put. She moved behind some trees and we maneuvered to try for a follow up shot. She went down before we could get into position. My youngest son had harvested his first elk.
Best Elk Hunting Rifle for Youth
What is the best rifle for your young person to take on an elk hunt? My three top criteria for choosing a rifle are 1) Comfort; 2) Consistent; and 3) Caliber.
When I think of comfort in a hunting rifle, I think of comfort while shooting, and comfort while carrying the gun.
Comfort while shooting a rifle is largely due to the fit of the weapon. This can be a challenge for a youth. Obtaining a youth model rifle is a good start, but may not be enough.
If you are thinking of purchasing an elk hunting rifle for your young person, here are a couple of videos that will be helpful in determining proper fit.
Of course, shelling out a pocket full of cash to buy a proper fitting rifle may not be too appealing when you know that it may be too small next year. One option may be the new Accufit system from Savage. It has adjustable length of pull, comb height and trigger pull.
Another aspect of shooting comfort is recoil. When I took my oldest son’s new youth model .308 to the range to site it in for the first time, I left with significant bruises on my shoulder. The stock fit him well, so I took the rifle to a gunsmith and had the stock cut down to accommodate a high quality recoil pad. That tamed the hard kicking mule into big playful pet.
Since recoil is impacted by the weight of the gun, you might be tempted to give your youth a rifle on the heavier side. But much of elk hunting is spot and stalk, and may require covering long distances, usually in the mountains. Carrying around a heavy rifle all day can exhaust anyone, especially a young person. You are better off going with a lighter weapon, and handling the recoil with a pad.
In addition to weight, a good quality sling can make a big difference in the comfort of carrying a rifle. Choose a wide sling with plenty of padding and make sure it is adjustable to the size of your youth.
The best elk hunting rifle for youth is one with which the young hunter can hit the target consistently. Adequate practice at both the range and in the field is critical.
Many of us grew up plinking around with BB guns and then .22 rifles. Shooting for us is second nature. Like riding a bicycle, it doesn’t take much practice to get back in the groove. With the urbanization of the last few decades, that may not be the case for our young people.
Spending time at the range is important to allow the young hunter to get comfortable with the weapon. Don’t make the mistake I did, and just look at the results on the target. Take time to watch and make sure that good form is being used, and the weapon fits correctly.
Watch for flinching due to recoil anticipation. This is best done by allowing the shooter to fire an empty weapon without knowing it. If they jump without any recoil, then they are anticipating the recoil, and probably impacting their aim.
Simulate field conditions by not shooting off the bench. Practice prone, sitting, and standing positions using whatever rest (tripod, shooting sticks, etc.) will be used while hunting. Again, watch while they shoot to ensure proper form in these new positions.
If at all possible, get some practice in true field conditions. Ideally, this would be near your hunting area, and near the time of the hunt. This will be the dress rehearsal to ensure your hunter is ready to go.
When thinking about the best elk hunting rifle for youth, the first place our thoughts often go is caliber. While it is important to choose a caliber big enough to ethically kill an elk, there are a large range to choose from.
.243 Winchester is definitely at the low end of the range, in my opinion. But with a well-placed shot at a reasonable distance, it can certainly be fatal. Many elk have been harvested with the tried and true .243.
My nephew has a 7mm-08 that is a really sweet shooting rifle. Many good options are also available in 30 caliber.
If you expected me to jump into the age old argument about the best caliber for elk hunting, I’m sorry to disappoint you. There is a reason that it is third on my list of considerations for the best elk hunting rifle for youth. While caliber will impact the first two, I don’t think it is as critical as comfort and consistency.
If you are blessed with the opportunity to take a young person elk hunting, make sure your hunter is set up for success. Make sure that they are comfortable and consistent with their weapon, and that the caliber is adequate for a clean ethical kill.
For more information on elk hunting with youth, see my article on that topic.
Question: What is your opinion on the best elk hunting rifle for youth?