By Bob Humphrey
-- The goal for every deer hunter is a quick, clean harvest. Ethically, it demonstrates respect for the game we pursue. Logically, it reduces the time and effort required to recover the animal, not to mention eliminating the wastefulness of lost game. In any case, it begins and ends with proper shot placement.
Where you should aim can vary considerably depending upon circumstances, weaponry and the individual hunter, among other things. For example, firearms take down deer primarily through shock and trauma, while archery shots result in massive hemorrhaging (blood loss). In each case, you want to place the projectile where it will be most effective at its intended purpose, and where you feel most confident in your ability to do so.
Double-Lung Shot (Bow)
Let’s start with bowhunting. Most references recommend a broadside, double-lung shot, aiming for the “pocket” just behind the first front leg joint and about midway from top to bottom. The broadhead penetrates both lungs, slicing arteries and veins.
This shot results in massive internal bleeding, and in most cases, the animal suffocates by drowning in its own blood. While I wouldn’t call it pleasant, humans who have survived drowning claimed it is a painless and non-violent experience. An animal wounded in this manner will usually expire within six to 10 seconds.
Another option is a quartering-away shot, which punctures both lungs and the diaphragm, creating negative pressure in the chest cavity - the so-called sucking chest wound. This shot compresses the lungs, hastening death by several seconds. Either shot should put a deer down within 100 yards of impact. On quartering-away shots, it’s important to compensate for the angle and not shoot too far forward. Think of the deer in three dimensions. Try to hit the opposite shoulder by aiming farther back than you would on a broadside shot. Obviously, how far back changes with the steepness of the angle.
The quartering-to shot is a definite no-no. A deer’s physiology is designed to protect its vitals from frontal attack. Shoulders, neck and ribs can all deflect an arrow away from the heart/lung area. Hitting farther back on a shallow angle may clip the back of one lung, or the liver. At best it will be a long blood trail. More than likely you will not recover the deer.
Yet another option for bowhunters is the heart shot. It’s a much smaller target, but is sometimes a better option for treestand hunters. And you’ll need to recall your high school physics to understand why.
Buckmasters cameraman Chris Chastain dropped this fine Saskatchewan buck in its tracks with a well-placed shoulder shot from a Remington 7mm Rem Mag rifle.
First, the force of gravity is greatest on an object traveling parallel to the ground, and less on an object traveling at a steep downward or upward angle. Most bowhunters sight-in their bow while taking level shots on flat ground. Then they hunt from an elevated stand, taking steep angled shots. This can result in overshooting the target.
Second, even the fastest bows propel arrows at considerably less than the speed of sound. That means the sound of your arrow will reach the target before the arrow. Deer are jumpy animals and will, on occasion, duck an arrow. What they’re actually doing is crouching to load their leg muscles for a quick leap.
Aim for the heart and if you hit high, or the deer crouches, you’ll still hit its lungs. If neither happens, you hit the heart. And if you miss low, you miss the deer altogether.
Spine and neck shots will knock down smaller deer, but are poor choices for the archer.
Double-Lung Shot (Gun)
Firearms hunters have more options because their projectiles do more damage. All of the above shots will work fine with a gun. The double-lung shot is a good one because it offers the largest kill zone, and probably the best option for slug guns or muzzleloaders, both of which are inherently inaccurate compared to a rifle.
Another option, which seems to be more popular in the South, is the shoulder shot. A well-placed high-shoulder hit from a high-powered rifle will cause major trauma to the front shoulders and spine. You may lose a little shoulder meat and backstraps but the animal will typically drop on the spot.
However, you don’t have much margin for error. A few inches high and you miss the spine altogether. A few inches low and you break a leg. In both cases a deer will bleed extensively, but there’s a good chance you’ll never catch up with it.
Neck and Spine Shots
The same logic applies to a neck or spine shot. They are typically not recommended because they are such small targets. However, if you are capable of making them, they are very effective shots.
A straight-away shot is also an option, albeit a poor one. The likelihood of crippling loss is high, and if you make your shot, you’ll ruin a lot of meat. Straight-on is acceptable, but like the neck or spine shot, you’ve got to be dead-on. A shoulder hit will only result in a long, unsuccessful blood trail.
There are several “don’t shoot” scenarios that have nothing to do with the animal’s physiology. One is when the deer is skylined on the horizon. You have no idea what lies beyond that animal, just over the hill and out of sight. In the late 1980s, a New York hunter was shot dead while sitting in the cab of his truck eating lunch. Wardens later recreated the scene and discovered the shot came from another hunter shooting at a running deer as it crossed the top of a nearby ridge.
Another don’t is shooting at a deer when there is another directly behind it. Your bullet (or arrow) could pass through and kill both animals; and then you’ll have some explaining to do. Going strictly by the book, you should never shoot at a running deer. Your ability to accurately place your shot is severely compromised. You could hit saplings or other objects that might deflect a bullet. You don’t have adequate time to ensure there is nothing beyond or behind your target. It’s unethical and unsafe.
Another do not shoot scenario is when the deer is behind cover like thick brush or a patch of trees. Even though a rifle round has ample power to punch through small obstructions, the projectile’s path could be drastically altered. Likewise, shooting an arrow toward an obstruction is not recommended.
The best option here is to steady your rifle or bow just to the left or right of the obstruction and wait for the deer to step out to present a clear shot. Remember, patience truly is a virtue in the deer woods.
The more time you have and the more controlled the circumstances, the more precise you can be with your shots. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of resting our gun on the window of a shooting house while we wait for our deer of choice to offer the perfect broadside shot. Sometimes we’re rushed or nervous. As a guide, I recommend hunters take the first good shot they get. It’s then up to them to determine what a good shot is.
You can also increase your own accuracy by practicing. Be familiar with your weapon and its limitations, as well as your own. When all else fails, there’s one rule that will never steer you wrong – when in doubt, don’t shoot.