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Through thicket and over broken stone in the cold morning air, a hunter searches for droplets of blood or tufts of hair to track a magnificent whitetail buck. The hunter is sure that the shot struck home, but now the buck is on the run. He could travel just a few yards or go miles before expiring, perhaps losing the hunter in the process. The hunter works in an expanding zig-zag pattern, hoping the deer is down. Each minute that passes makes it less likely the hunter will find the kill.
Proper shot placement is essential to bringing a whitetail deer down quickly. Bringing the animal down fast prevents it from running deep into areas that are difficult to retrieve, but a good shot is also the primary skill of an ethical hunter. Learning where the best place to shoot a whitetail deer for a quick and ethical harvest demands that the hunter know the anatomy of the deer.
We will explain how to identify the best place to shoot and also describe some of the critical shooting angles that hunters should avoid to prevent poorly-placed shots that injure but don’t kill.
We want to start out with the basics of anatomy before getting into shot placement so that the new hunter has an understanding of what to look for when spying a deer in the field.
Like most animals, a deer’s body is almost entirely made up of digestive organs. The stomach and intestines make up the majority of the body cavity. These organs are essential for life, but a deer that is shot in this area -typically called gut-shot- can live for hours or even days before eventually dying of disease or starvation.
All of the critical organs - mainly the lungs and heart- are clustered together under the ribcage, just like you and me. The bones provide stability for muscles but are also excellent defense against puncture wounds. Deer also have heavy shoulder blade bones called scapula that provide additional protection.
Arteries and veins run throughout the animal with critical passages leading through the neck into the brain and back to the heart. There are also large veins and arteries that run to the hind quarters to provide a substantial amount of blood flow for hard-working muscles.
In a perfect situation, a whitetail buck will be standing perpendicular to you line of fire. This position offers the greatest opportunity for a successful, lethal hit that quickly brings the animal down without suffering. Unfortunately, this is also an uncommon experience. Deer are usually at an angle, which means the hunter must carefully consider shot placement..
A shot of sufficient caliber or a broadhead of sufficient weight placed properly will puncture the lungs and pierce the heart. A heart shot is always lethal, but there are varying degrees of lethality. In many instances, a hunter will nick the heart or fail to penetrate through the lungs which gives the deer an opportunity to run before it eventually expires.
In order to align a heart and lung shot,the hunter needs to aim just behind the shoulder to avoid the scapula when possible. Waiting until the deer is stepping forward can help with a perfect lung and heart shot. Just behind and below the lungs is the liver. A liver shot will kill the deer, but it could take many hours before the animal goes down, forcing the hunter to track the deer.
Lung and heart shots often do not leave highly visible blood trails. When the heart is pierced, it is unable to pump blood which begins to fill into the body cavity rather than leak out of the wounded animal. A deer can also run for a surprisingly long time with damage to just one lung, so proper shot placement is essential both for an ethical, clean kill and to prevent the animal from suffering.
The shoulder blade offers a serious complication to heart and lung shots and is the biggest reason that hunters should never hunt whitetail deer with small caliber firearms. Hunters should be using .30-06, .223, .243, 300 Ultra-Mag, .30-30, or similar sizes. Proper shots can be made with a Winchester 270, but this round may struggle to penetrate the thick bones of mature whitetail bucks.
It is not recommended that novice hunters attempt head and neck shots until they are experts at shot placement. Even then, most experienced hunters will avoid head and neck shots when possible. Here is a completely true story that illustrates the point.
A few years back, I went hunting with a group of experienced hunters looking for mule deer in the Central California foothills. Just after dawn, an excellent buck appeared on a ridge overlooking where we were hiking and hunting. The hunter leading the group was using a Winchester 30-30 lever action and took the shot from about 75 yards. He attempted a head shot given that the distance was short and the deer was silhouetted against the morning sky.
He hit the deer in the head, except that the round was placed just a little too high. Half an inch lower and the round would have penetrated the skull, immediately dropping the deer. Instead, the round skipped off the top of the deer’s skull and struck the base of the antler, snapping it off. Dazed, the deer bolted into a dense thicket where it was much more difficult to get a clean shot off. Not only did the animal suffer, but the antlers were destroyed.
Neck shots are as risky since most of the neck is dense, strong muscle. In order for a neck shot to be effective, it must penetrate the arteries or sever the spinal cord. Even a well-placed shot stands a good chance of failing to make either of these important hits happen. I’ve seen several deer taken down with heart and lung shots that have a scar on the neck where a bullet passed through without causing death. Not only is this frustrating for the hunter who knows they will get only so many chances during the season, the injury often gets infected which can cause all sorts of slow, painful, and disgusting deaths.
We mentioned earlier that deer typically don’t give the hunter the best shot. This is also complicated when hunting from tree stands or shooting up a hill, since the trajectory of a bullet or arrow will be altered in these conditions.
A shot placement at an angle that trails from the front to the back is the most challenging placement for a heart and lung shot. The angle presents multiple opportunities for rib bones and the scapula to deflect the round and prevent serious injury. Shots angling away (toward the front of the deer from the side) are more likely to penetrate heart and lung tissue than shots angling toward.
SimIlarly, one of the most difficult lethal shots is straight on. There is an area about halfway down the chest of a whitetail in which a properly placed shot can cut arteries, esophagus, and penetrate lungs and heart. This shot is only likely when the hunter has a straight-on shot at relatively short range. Angles, particularly the type encountered in tree stands, can cause lots of suffering to an animal without being lethal.
Novice hunters and those who are still gaining experience should practice making shots just behind the back of the foreleg about halfway through the height of the chest. A shot in this area is likely to miss the scapula and strike the heart and lungs. A shot in this area is likely to lead to a short tracking experience as the animal will quickly succumb to the injuries and be unable to breathe or circulate blood. This is the best shot placement for both rifle and bowhunting.
Frontal, neck, and head shots are sometimes possible, but the hunter should practice consistent groupings of less than four inches square before attempting the shot. Bow hunters typically avoid head shots because the penetrating power of the arrow is unlikely to puncture the thick skull bones. Neck shots are possible with a broadhead, but the shot is also quite risky.
Never aim at the stomach, hind legs, or back of a deer. The chances of getting a clean kill from these locations is very low. Further, the areas in which the bullet or arrow penetrate will cause significant damage tot he tissue, and these are the best parts to eat.
Proper shot placement is all about practice. For every shot you take during hunting season, you should be spending several hours at the range and regularly fine-tuning your abilities to accurately place a shot. It is better to let a deer walk off than it is to critically injure an animal with a poor shot, particularly when hunting whitetail that can magically disappear into the thicket and woods. Hunters should also practice tracking skills because it is simply a matter of inevitability that a shot won’t go quite right and a deer will plunge off, forcing the hunter to find it.
The next time that you are practicing, try using targets meant for deer hunters that simulate the different angles you are likely to encounter and practic making those shots. The better you are at the difficult shots, the easier the less difficult shots become. Before you know it, you’ll be able to successfully take an impressive whitetail deer with one shot from just about any shooting position.
For a complete blog on the Sounds A Deer Makes, we have that too!