Shot placement, shot placement, shot placement. More important than caliber, bullet weight, velocity, or energy, shot placement is the most important consideration if you seek to quickly and humanely take deer. Proper shot placement will always guarantee quick, clean, one-shot kills. Knowing where to place your shot requires you to know which organs to target, and exactly where those vital organs are within a deer’s body. When shooting deer, the organs we are targeting are the heart and lungs. The heart and lungs are conveniently located together in the forward part of a deer’s chest. By aiming for the heart and lungs, you can place your bullet where it will do the most damage in the largest target, with the largest margin for error.
The proper area to aim for when shooting a deer is the forward portion of the chest which contains the heart and lungs. The heart and lungs are ideal as they are both the largest target, and the most critical organs. Life cannot be sustained without adequate oxygen available to the brain. This oxygen is provided to the brain by the cardiovascular system, the heart and lungs. When shooting a game animal, the goal is to interrupt the flow of oxygen enriched blood to the brain which in turn causes asphyxiation and death. The most efficient way to produce this asphyxiation is to damage the heart so significantly that it is unable to effectively move blood throughout the body. Placing a bullet through the heart will cause a rapid loss of blood pressure and quick death. So too will a bullet that strikes any of the vasculature around the heart. The ideal shot is through the top of the heart where all of the major veins and arteries that lead to and from the heart connect. A bullet placed here will completely disconnect the heart and cause massive internal hemorrhaging, resulting in nearly immediate death.
A bullet placed through the lungs will have several affects which work together to ensure a quick, clean kill. The lungs are made of soft, fragile tissue that provides very little resistance to a bullet and or bullet fragments. The lungs are literally a maze of blood vessels of various sizes. A shot through the lungs will destroy many of these vessels resulting in massive hemorrhaging within the body cavity and within the lungs themselves. The hemorrhaging that occurs within the lungs will have a secondary effect of preventing oxygen from being transferred to the bloodstream just like in drowning. Thirdly, the actual physical damage to the lungs will decrease their capacity to provide adequate oxygen to the bloodstream. Finally, puncturing the chest cavity causes a disruption in the balance of air pressure between the interior of the chest and the outside air. This disruption will result in inefficient inhalation as the action of the diaphragm which would otherwise draw air into the lungs, will instead be drawing air into the chest cavity surrounding the lungs, further limiting their ability to provide oxygen to the blood stream. A bullet passing through both lungs will always result in a quick kill.
When shooting for the heart and lungs, you are also afforded the greatest margin of error. In the chest area, the heart, lungs, shoulder bones, spine, and liver are all closely packed together. Even if your shot is off by a few inches in any direction, it will still have fatal results. A shot that is a few inches forward of your aiming point will pass through the shoulders likely breaking shoulder bones while still hitting the forward part of the lungs and perhaps the heart. A shot that is lower than intended will still strike the bottom portion of the lungs and will likely contact the heart. A shot that goes a little too high will catch the top part of the lungs and or hit the spine. Finally, a shot that is a few inches too far back will get either the rearmost portion of the lungs, or strike the liver. The liver is the body’s blood filter, and as such, it also contains a large amount of vasculature which if damaged will result in massive hemorrhaging. The liver is never the intended target, but it does provide a last chance vital organ before one’s shot is too far back into the stomach and intestines. A shot through the liver will be fatal, but it will take a few minutes longer for the animal to expire than it would with a heart or lung hit.
A lung or heart shot that does not contact the shoulder bones or spine will rarely if ever cause the deer to fall in its tracks. Typically, deer shot through the heart and or lungs will sprint for several dozen yards before falling dead mid-stride. This is due to the fact that it takes several seconds to several minutes for the animal to bleed enough that blood pressure drops to fatal levels. Initially, there is enough oxygen already in the blood, muscles, and organs to keep the animal alive and moving for a short period of time. During this time while the residual oxygen is being consumed, an animal can still run and even act as though it hasn’t been injured. Bullets are not lightning bolts, and more often than not, even a hard-hit deer will run at least a few dozen yards before expiring.
The proper point to aim at to hit the heart and lungs on a broadside deer is along the crease that runs behind the shoulder, about one third of the way up from the bottom of the chest. A bullet placed at this point should go through the lungs and take out the top of the heart. It is important to understand that your aiming point will change as the deer’s position changes. Do not become fixated on the point behind the shoulder thinking it is the proper aiming point for all situations. In fact, it is only the proper aiming point when a buck is standing perfectly broadside. An excellent way to practice proper shot placement is to look at photos of live deer either in books or magazines and imagine where you would aim so as to place your shot in the heart/lung area. It requires a little imagination to visualize the bullet’s path through the chest cavity. Rarely in the field will you be presented with a situation where a buck is standing perfectly broadside to you on the same level as you are. Rather, either you or the buck will be higher or lower, and the buck will be either facing slightly toward or away from you. This is when it becomes important to visualize where the vital organs are located and the path your bullet will take. In general, if you are higher than the buck, you will want your bullet to hit higher up on the buck’s side so that the bullet will still go through the heart and lungs on its downward path. If the buck is above you, you will want your bullet to enter the buck’s chest at a lower point so as to go through the vitals on its way up. For a strong quartering-to shot you will need to hold right on the near side shoulder rather than behind it. A good way to line up a quartering to shot is to align your vertical crosshair with the near side leg and then bring your horizontal crosshair one third to one half up the body. This will place your bullet squarely in the vitals.
The five basic positions that a buck can be in are, broadside, head on, quartering to, quartering away, and facing away. The broadside shot is the ideal and should be waited for if possible. More likely however, is some degree of quartering away or quartering to. When a deer is quartering away, its body is turned away from you at an angle. In some ways, this can be even better than broadside as it allows the bullet to enter the space between the shoulders from the rear without having to first pass through the shoulder itself. Quartering to is when a deer’s body is angled towards you. Quartering to is an acceptable shot angle, but it requires a little more thinking about where to place your bullet. With quartering to, instead of all the vitals being lined up one behind the other, they are sitting next to each other. For this shot, you will need to place your bullet in the near shoulder. With this shot, there is a little less room for error as the vitals present a smaller target. Also, if your shot is too far over towards the offside shoulder, it is possible to put a bullet through the chest that misses the vitals, but breaks the off side shoulder. A wounded animal can go a long way on three legs if its heart and lungs are intact. The head on shot, where the deer is directly facing you, is similar in that it is an acceptable shot, but it requires more care in bullet placement. In the head on aspect, the heart and lungs present a smaller target with less margin for error on either side. A shot placed in the center of the chest will hit the vitals, but any deviation to the left or right can easily miss the vitals. A shot that is off to either side will create massive injury to the deer without causing a quick death that would come from a hit to the vitals. If an animal is facing directly away from you, then you have no shot. Yes, people will tell you that they have taken this shot with great success. This is not a shot that should be taken. There is simply too much non-vital body mass between the bullet’s point of entry and the heart and lung area. The potential for severe wounding without immediately fatal results is too high for this to be considered an ethical shot.
A shot to the brain will produce instantaneous incapacitation and death, but it is far too small of a target to be practical or ethical for deer hunting. A deer’s brain is about the size of a fist and is surrounded by hard bone. Also, there is no margin for error with a brain shot. A shot at the brain only has to be off by a few inches to result in grievous injury instead of death. A buck with a bullet through his jaw will eventually die from dehydration or starvation, but he will cover a lot of country before doing so most likely eluding attempts at follow-up shots. A shot to the spine will also cause immediate incapacitation in the form of paralysis, but often won’t be fatal and will require further follow-up shots. The spine is very small and surrounded by non-critical tissue, which also leaves a small margin for error. The small target size and lack of margin for error make head and spine shots unethical and unadvisable.
As hunters we both love and respect the very animals which we seek to kill. Out of this love and respect comes our desire to kill the animals we hunt as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The way to do so is to place your bullet precisely in the heart and lungs. By doing so, you not only insure your own success, you also show respect for yourself, the animal, and other hunters.