I used a Leupold Mil-Dot scope to go elk hunting in 2005. It was the first time I had ever been elk hunting and I did so much homework that most of my hunting buddies thought I was crazy. If you will allow me, I will try to make the case for using a Mil-Dot or Mil-scale reticle to hunt elk. At the end of this post, there is a list of lessons I learned either the hard way or through my experience thus far.
First, learn how to use the Mil-scale reticle. There's plenty of information out there about this. Two good places to start are the reference pages on:
and Sniper's Paradise
Second, understanding that if you know the actual size of your target and you can measure the apparent size of your target in mils, then you can figure out how far it is to your target. So, if you know how big the "average" elk is, you can easily "mil" the elk and know how far away he is. You're in great luck for elk hunting. One of the snipers on my team already did some legwork for me on this area. He went to a taxidermy shop and measured several different bulls from belly to back. (AKA: "Withers" to belly if you're a horse person) The measurement he came up with was that the average bull elk was 27" from back to belly (right behind the front legs.) I personally contacted the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and spoke with one of their staff about this. They confirmed that the average bull elk measures approx 22" to 30" on this part of his body. They were impressed that my buddy had done his homework and told me that assuming any bull elk in the field measures 27" would be close enough. As a teammate of mine often says, “That’s good enough for the girls we go out with.” Here's the part where you are REALLY in luck for elk hunting with a Mil-scale reticle: 27" is EXACTLY .75 yards or 3/4 of a yard. This makes all the math easy!
Now that you have a "constant" for the elk size, you can do all your math before you ever leave the house. Here is an "Elk Milling Card" I worked up:Elk - Mil Range Card
The numbers on the left are the mil measurements of the elk from back to belly. The numbers on the right are the corresponding range to the elk.
Now, all you have to do is go mil something that is 27" tall, or .75 yards tall and practice your ranging. This is where it gets even better....the average American Quarter Horse is also approximately 27" from withers to belly. I know what you're thiking and I didn’t believe this at first either. “There’s just now way a horse is the same size as an elk!” But it really is true for the vertical measurement from back to belly.
I AM NOT advocating that you go aiming your rifle at people's horses so you can practice your elk ranging.
Here's what I did: If you have access to a laser range finder, take your mil-scale scope and go find some horses in a field somewhere. Practice "milling" the horses at various ranges with the scope <u>DETACHED
</u> from your rifle. People take a dim view of others pointing firearms at their livestock. Just put the scope on your car roof or on the bed of your pickup and look through it. That way, it's steady. You can't hold it steady enough with your hands to properly mil. Once you mil the horse, estimate the range using the above range card. Then, check your work with the laser range finder. Because horses and elk both move around and are not exactly 27", your range estimation may be off by 10 yards or so. This is not a big deal for elk hunting. For hunting-effective range estimation you will be surprised at just how accurate you can estimate range on an elk or horse using your mil-dots and the .75 yard constant.
For elk hunting, I recommend a zero of 200 yards. Not 2" high at 100 yards but DEAD ON at 200 yards. This way, the shooter will not have to hold for any shots at 100, 200, or 250 yards. He really won't have to hold at 300 yards either. Just aim at the center of your "kill zone" on the elk and press the trigger. An elk is a big target and a few inches up or down won't really matter if the shooter is aiming correctly in the first place. Longer shots will require a "hold over." This means to raise the rifle/scope up so that the elk appears to be lower in the scope than the actual crosshairs. If you know exactly how far your bullet drops at certain ranges, you can use your mil-dots to make sure your bullet still hits in the "kill zone" of the animal.
(See my warnings/comments on "hold overs" at the end of this post.)
You will need to get a ballistic table which shows you how far your bullet drops at specific distances. There are plenty of these available online. Then, you MUST
confirm this data by actually shooting at those same distances. For my own elk hunt preparation, I took several IPSC targets and cut them to 27" tall. Then, I drew a 6" circle on them to simulate a heart/lung shot. Using my laser range finder, I confirmed my known distances all the way out to 500 yards and then shot to confirm the elevation corrections. If you know exactly how many inches your bullet drops at a certain distance, you can convert that measurement into mils. (At 100 yds, 1 mil=3.6". At 200 yards, 1 mil=7.2", at 300 yds, 1 mil=10.8") Lets say for illustrative purposes that your bullet drops 40" at 500 yards. If 1 mil= 18" at 500 yds, you just divide 40 by 18 and you get 2.22 mils. Round that to either 2.2 or 2.25 mils and now you know your "hold over" for 500 yards. For hunting accuracy, if an elk shows himself and you determine that he is 500 yards away, you would then raise your reticle up until the bottom tip (or maybe just a hair more) of the second dot DOWN from the crosshairs is in the center of the "kill zone" (if you are using the Marine Corps style mil-dots) and press the trigger. This assumes no wind correction.
Here are all of my elk-rifle range cards for my .338 Win Mag: Elk Rifle Range Cards
The drops and holds are all rounded for easier mental math while hunting hard. For shooting at such a large target, this will work just fine. While we are trying to be accurate, we can't necessarily expect SWAT sniper accuracy on an elk at in the mountains where the air is thin and your heart is pumping hard. However, at ranges past 500 yards, you probably SHOULD be doing everything you can to achieve extreme accuracy because of the many variables involved. Guesstimation or rounding of numbers past 500 yards will only enhance errors and ensure a miss.
NOTE TO READER: For my first elk hunt, I promised myself I would not shoot at any elk further than 500 yards away. I wanted to be as ethical and certain about my shooting as possible so I imposed this limit on myself.
I taped all of these range cards to the side of my rifle and I also made up a smaller "Mil=Range" card that I glued to the inside of my scope cap. Note: I always had my "reference cards" available in the field.
You may not have a chance to laser the elk to determine range. If you can "range" him with your mil-scale reticle you can then quickly determine the proper amount of "hold over" and take the shot before your buddy next to you even gets his laser range finder to give him a reading.
Here's the elk I shot in Colorado in 2005. Note the range cards taped to the rifle stock:
<u>Lessons Learned From The Hunt and My Tactical Training</u>
1) "Hold Overs" work great up to about 500 yards but keep in mind that they are NOT going to be SWAT sniper accurate. They work good on large animals but not past 500 yards. If you have to shoot further than 500 yards then you should make scope adjustments with your turrets. The margin for error when reading your Mil marks increases as the target size decreases in your scope. Errors in "Milling" mean missed shots or wounded animals. I strongly recommend AGAINST hold overs past 500 yards.
2) Mil-dots are nice but reticles with "hash marks" or mil and half-mil-scale lines along the posts are better for hunting and are easier to read. Between "Army," "Marine," and some other commercially available mil-dots, things can get very confusing. Dots can cover too much space. I have since switched over to a MIL Scale reticle from US Optics in my tactical rifle. Leupold is way ahead of me and is now offering their Tactical Milling Reticle. IOR Valdada, Schmidt&Bender, US Optics, and Premier Reticles all offer similar reticles.
3) Consider a First Focal Plane (FFP) reticle so that you can range at any power with your scope. If your scope is a 2nd Focal Plane (SFP)then you can only accurately range at one particular power. (Unless you know how to convert for the different powers and who really wants to do that?) When I first saw my elk, I was using 10X binoculars. Upon confirming that he was legal, I switched over to the rifle and lined him up in my scope where I used the Mil-dots to range him. I ranged him at approximately 500 yards, used the proper hold, and fired. He jerked his head up and looked around but kept munching grass. Nothing happened. I thought I had just missed him so I calmed down, settled into the rifle, and took another shot. Again, nothing happened. Then, I checked the power on my scope and saw that I was not on 12X where I needed to be in order to "Mil" correctly. Instead, the power ring was set somewhere around 5X to 6X. I corrected the power setting and saw that my range estimation was nowher near being correct. The steep angle had also messed with my mind and made me think he was much further away than he was. (This is a common error.) I "Milled" him again and estimated that he was only about 300 yards away. I held slightly high and pressed the trigger. The elk dropped immediately. True horizontal range turned out to be 277 yards. (Yeah I know this is a LONG Range Hunting forum but this was my first elk hunt so give me a break.) The lesson here:
If I had been using an FFP reticle it would not have mattered what power the scope was on, my range estimation would have been correct the first time. The FFP reticle is actually more flexible for ranging than the traditional US/American SFP. I suspect the reason we don't use them more in America is because most American hunters don't like the idea of a reticle that appears to change size as you change the power setting on the scope. This is not a problem and should not concern the shooter. With an FFP scope, a Mil is a Mil is a Mil no matter what the power setting is.
For more on this issue, I strongly recommend that you read this lengthy but very informative post written by a friend of mine, Zak Smith. OPTICS FOR PRACTICAL LONG RANGE RIFLE SHOOTING
Zak and I have shot some 3-Gun stuff together and he is a very knowledegable shooter with a technical professional background. Based on some of the latest developments in tactical and competitive bolt-action shooting, I have since switched over to a FFP scope with Mil-Scale hash marks and MIL scale turrets.
4) For truly long shots, consider the use of a "Palm" type device and a ballistics program such as Exbal or ATRAG. You can program your exact scope setup (including turret adjustment values) in conjunction with your rifle and cartridge setup. Your Palm device can generate a ballistic table based on your specific load and barrel length. I still strongly recommend that you actually confirm the informaton the palm program tells you. Just because it says to correct 18 minutes up at a particular range doesn't mean it will be exactly dead on correct. If you can, try to confirm all the "drops" at a long distance range.
5) Study elk anatomy charts and compare them to photos of elk. They are available online. You MUST know where your bullet needs to hit the animal and they DO NOT always stand there in a perfect sideways pose just begging to be shot. They stand at awkward angles. You will need to be able to know where the heart/lung group is no matter how the animal is standing. That should be your aiming point, not the whole animal. "Aim small miss small," I think the saying goes.
The use of a Mil-scale reticle coupled with some serious pre-season homework will make you a better shooter and a better hunter. By using this tool, you will be more likely to accurately hit where you need to after you have located your elk.
For 2006, I will probably limit myself to 700 yards. Hopefully, I will have a better hunting story to tell and then maybe I can become a true long range hunter. For what it's worth, I am not an expert on this stuff and many of the people reading this probably already know all about the subject. I apologize if this post is beneath anyone. Let me know what you think. I would really appreciate your feedback. Thanks for reading.