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Measuring Up: How to put the numbers to a big bull's rack.

Just 40 yards away, partially hidden by oak brush, a bull elk stared me down. Heavy brow tines jutted toward me, but I couldn't gauge their length. His nose tested the air, searching the drifting breeze for scent molecules that would bust me. He kept his head tipped back enough that I couldn't see the top of his rack at all.

What I could see were his thirds. Massive, wide sweeping, and long, they were pushing 20 inches or more. The tag in my pocket had taken 17 years to draw, and impressive as they were, big thirds alone were not enough to gamble on.

Suddenly, the back of my neck cooled, a light wind tugged leaves in his direction, and like a wraith, the bull turned and drifted into a thicket of aspen saplings. For a fraction of a second as he turned his antlers were fully exposed-and revealed one of the biggest bulls I'd ever laid eyes on.

Thankfully, this was two days before the season opener. Rather than being gutted, I was elated. I'd found him. I knew the bull but never put eyes on him before. My good friend Wes Hogan--whose wife, Cadice, shot the legendary 414-inch Utah bull nicknamed "Titus"--had trail camera pictures of him.

Two days later, after hard work mixed with a huge quantity of luck, I shot that bull. After the drying period, his antlers officially scored 402 gross and 385 net.

As an elk addict, I've seen only four bulls on the hoof that were clearly pushing that magic 400-inch mark. And I'll be candid: In a very high percentage of elk hunting, being able to field-score a bull isn't a relevant skill. In many areas, any elk is a good elk, as the old saying goes. Branch-antlered bulls are hard to find and harder to kill, and big, fully mature bulls can be as rare as hen's teeth.

So before diving into a discussion of how to field-judge bull elk, let me just emphasize that antler inches are nice, but good elk hunts are about so much more. Earning a bull in the backcountry, on public land, is a superb achievement, whether the bull is a raghorn 3x4 or a bruiser 6x6.


While the covers of trophy hunting magazines and armchair experts on the Internet would have you believe that 400-inch bulls are a potential reality for hard-working hunters, it just ain't true. A 400-inch bull is like a seven-foot man. They are anomalies. Only in a few very special areas, where it's shockingly hard to draw or obscenely expensive to purchase a tag, is hunting for a fair-chase, 400-inch bull realistic.

A better goal is a 350-inch bull, which is still a lofty achievement.

Then there is the 375-inch number required to "make book" in the typical category. As with mule deer, this number is right on the outside cusp of realistic. Very few public-land, OTC hunters ever actually see a legitimate 375-inch bull, let alone shoot one. They're hard to find even on private land and special-draw units.

To achieve a score of 375 inches, a bull has to have it all: beam length, tine length, and mass. A wide spread helps but isn't always necessary.

Most bulls don't have it all. Some have impressive mass but a tight rack with short beams or lots of tine length but no mass and short beams. The bull with the longest beams I ever measured had almost stunted tines--but was very impressive because of those 60-inch-plus main beams.

As with any species, looking at a lot of elk is critical before attempting to field-judge one on the hoof. If you can't get into elk country during the off-season, watch videos. I'll readily confess that I don't have a set method of mathematically picking apart a bull and adding the numbers for a field score. I've looked at enough bulls that I can usually estimate on the fly and be within 10 inches or so of the actual score. However, occasionally I'm way off, and there is a better method.


Steve Chappell--an outfitter and host of Extreme Bulls film series--writes about the "base 200" system he uses, suggesting that most big, mature bulls have a frame (beams, mass, and width) of right around 200 inches. Broken down, that's an average of 50-inch beams, 30 inches of mass per side, and a 40-inch inside spread.

Chappell notes that this best applies to bulls in the 340 to 360 class. However, it's easy to adapt to smaller and bigger bulls. Just knock off about 10 percent for a 300-class bull and about 5 percent for 320-class bulls. Add about 5 percent for 380-class and bigger bulls.

How do you know what class a bull is? Studying the body for signs of age can help, but there's really no substitute for experience. Look at and compare a lot of bulls.

Estimating tine length is trickier. If you only have time for a glance, look for two specific things: tine curvature and weaknesses.

Curved tines almost always measure significantly longer than straight tines. If you're really looking for score, look for curved G1s, G2s, and G3s and wide-swept, boxy main beams.

Next, look for weaknesses in specific tines. It's critical to get a look at the bull from the front and the side. If there's a weakness, it's typically in either the G3s or G5s--but it can crop up in one or more brow tines or even the sword tine. A difference between four-inch G5s and 12-inch G5s knocks total score down 16 inches--the difference between a 350 bull and a 334 bull.

Classically, for a bull to score 360 or better, all the tines have to appear impressively long. Brows should run out toward the nose and then hook well up. Thirds should sweep out and up and be close to the length of the G4 "sword" tines. Whale tails--composed of the G5 and main beam--must be jaw-dropping in size.

If you have time, study the bull's rack tine by tine. Starting at the bottom, brow tines (G1s and G2s) can run from 10 inches up to 20 inches. Use the nose as a yardstick--it's almost 1.5 feet from the antler base to the nose. A long, curved brow that looks as long as the face when mentally straightened is exceptional, pushing 18 inches. This applies to both G1s and G2s, but each must be estimated individually.

Take a careful read on the brow tines. Of all the tines they're the closest to a predictable size reference--nose length --and can be useful as a comparison for the other tines.

Thirds, or G3s, are usually shorter. Compare them to the estimated length of the brows and extrapolate. Fantastic thirds are rarely seen on medium to small bulls, so they can be an instant indicator that a bull deserves a closer look.

Sword tines--the G4s--are usually the most impressive tines. Even short, stubby swords will likely tape 14 inches, and a long G4 with some curve can easily go 20 inches or more. If sword length is close to two-thirds the distance from brisket to back line, it's probably near 18 inches.

Whale tails are made up of the G5 and the end of the main beam. Really great whale tails indicate long main beams, plus the benefit of well-developed, high-scoring fifth points. Honestly, big bulls may have G5s that rival the sword tine in length. Mostly, however, a G5 of 10 inches is enough to get any elk hunter excited, and G5s of 14 to 18 inches are exceptional.

With a little practice, you'll learn to average the tines on each side, double that average, and add to the 200-inch baseline. Do this for Gls through G5s, and you'll end up with a reasonably close field score.

One last note: Racks with non-typical tines can be scored just like a typical bull. Just run your typical score, then estimate and add the length of any additional tines.


Typically, a bull elk will grow five points per side in his last semi-adolescent year. These are like the college kids--out of high school and really interested in being taken seriously by the ladies and other bulls, but not quite dominant yet. In most OTC public-land units, a 5x5 bull is a solid bull, and few hunters will pass one up.

Then there's the "first-year six," which is a bull that's achieved the classic 6x6 antler configuration but still has slender antlers and shortish points. He's a mature bull and is beginning to develop savvy. Unless the area has really wonderful genetics, this bull will score 240 to 280 inches. Once you've laid eyes on a few truly big bulls, you'll recognize the first-year six at a glance. Narrow racks with minimal whale tails (the "Y" shape created by the fifth and sixth point on each side) and young-looking faces give them away. Typically, this age class of bull has a very athletic-looking body, well-muscled and considerably bigger than cows and spike or raghorn bulls, but they haven't yet gained the impressive mass of a really big bull.

As a bull passes through his second, third, and fourth years as a full-blown 6x6, his body fills out, losing a bit of that incredibly fit, muscular look and gaining mass. Swaybacked and sag-bellied, with heavy necks and blocky heads, these bulls have a distinct look--and distinctly bigger antlers. The antlers usually have impressive mass, long tines, and long main beams. This is the age class that hunters with limited, hard-to-obtain tags look for.

At this point, genetics and local conditions become influential. In some areas, most bulls will never grow bigger than 320 to 340 inches even during a good year. The magic combination of superb genetics, excellent forage, and hard-to-hunt habitat produce bulls that approach Boone & Crockett numbers. And believe me, they are rare indeed.

Interestingly, genetics can sometimes do hunters a disservice. I've hunted areas with distinctly different genetics in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, and Oregon, and at some point I realized that age and mass make a bull more impressive than pure inches of antler. I've seen old, gnarly, massive 330-inch bulls that are considerably more impressive than a young, willow-horned, but long-tined bull, that scores 350 inches.


Back to brisket: 24-28 in. Shoulder width: 18 in. Ear spread: 24-26 in. Antler base to nose: 16 in.

Caption: NOTE: The dimensions in the box at right apply to fully-mature bulls.

Caption: Seventeen years of waiting produced this 402-inch (official gross) bull, the biggest taken in the unit in 2015.
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Title Annotation:open Country
Author:Von Benedikt, Joseph
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Jul 24, 2019
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