WARNING: Some photos in this article may be considered graphic content.
Shot placement can be a touchy subject for some. Far too many hunters rely on their latest super magnum and a bullet manufacturer’s marketing campaign to effectively take down their deer, but many do not know where to correctly shoot a deer.
Shot placement is the king of clean kills. No super bullet or overbore magnum can compensate for the poor placement of a shot. A massive bull elk or mulie buck can easily be dropped in his tracks by the right amount of energy in the right place.
I would much rather take a shot through the heart with a diminutive 6 ARC than send a 338WM through the hips of my prey. But, there is a whole bunch of ‘what ifs’ and ‘shoulda done’ that lay in between those two scenarios.
Killing any animal only requires that you acutely damage one or more life-sustaining organs; how you carry out that purpose depends entirely on your skill level, equipment, prey, and conditions. The tactics described below can be applied to most North American ungulate species.
The vital organs of these animals are centered between the shoulders and low in the brisket. The angle of attack for any shot inbound should be focused on passing through that junction of organs.
Eye Level Shot Placements
The goal of every shot should be the rapid anchoring and effective killing of your target. First, we will discuss doing so from a level playing field.
The broadside shot is the ideal scenario for almost any situation, taught by most authorities as the right way to ensure a good hit. The broadside shot gives the best view of the animal’s vital area. The vitals consist of the heart, lungs, and liver to a lesser degree.
It gives you the best view of the vitals and puts the least amount of obstructive bones between you and the vital organs. It also reduces the likelihood of a bullet deviating from its intended target.
Aiming just behind the shoulder of a deer and favoring a tad low will put your bullet right through the bottom of his lungs and/or disconnect his heart from its plumbing. Either scenario is very effective.
The high shoulder shot is also favored by many and is often considered ‘The Off Switch”. While there is nothing wrong with this shot, it is my second choice because the meat will inevitably be lost to tissue damage.
The quartering-toward shot is a little more tricky than the broadside. If you picture a transparent deer, his heart and lungs centered between his front legs; you should be aiming for the center of that vital mass.
If a deer is quartered towards you, the closer shoulder will be slightly obscuring a portion of the vital zone. If you are shooting a large and heavy cartridge, it will likely plow through that shoulder if you hit it. Whereas if you are shooting something more petite, it is possible the structure of the shoulder will deflect the bullet to some degree.
For the quartering-towards shot, I prefer to shoot inside the shoulder to avoid that structure and focus my impact on the heart (center) and the far-side lung that isn’t obscured by the close shoulder.
The quartering-away shot is just the opposite. The shoulder is no longer in the way, and you have a clear shot of the rib cage on the near side. Depending on how angled away the animal is, you may need to aim further back than anticipated previously.
At times it may need to be so far back that you actually puncture the diaphragm and digestive areas in order to center your shot on the vital area between the front shoulders. This is why many people would prefer to wait for a better shot, myself included.
Elevated Shot Placements
If you find yourself elevated above the target animal, you can often make a clean shot at the vital mass between the shoulders. Again you should imagine the transparent deer and where the heart and lungs sit. I
f you have a clear view of the vital area (in a 3D imagined view), you will again want to aim for the center of the zone. This will sometimes mean aiming through the neck area or part of the shoulder. As long as your bullet’s path is aimed at the center of the vital zone, this shouldn’t be a problem. A broken neck, after all, is still quite fatal.
Shooting at an animal from the elevated rear position is also very feasible. There is a downside that you will likely lose some of your venison from the bullet’s impact. Looking ‘through’ the deer keeping your aim centered on the vital zone can produce a clean and effective kill.
Much like the level broadside shot, the elevated broadside is the better target. You will again need to focus on where the vital organs are housed. This may require the bullet to impact much higher up the side of the animal than normal as it travels down through the chest cavity.
There is also a need to remember that bullets fired from a high angle will hit higher than bullets fired from the same distance on a level plane.
Body Parts to Aim For
The Vital Organs
As previously mentioned, the heart, lungs, and liver are the largest area of organs that will quickly subdue an animal if they are damaged. A combination of two or three is even more likely to put the animal down quickly.
The ‘Off Switch’ I mentioned earlier is named so because not only does the high shoulder shot puncture the lungs, but it typically also breaks the spine of the deer.
Even a minor hit to the spinal cord will often drop the animal in its tracks, and with punctured lungs, it will quickly expire.
Headshots are not frequently recommended; they are an excellent option for certain situations. Cull animals and antlerless animals are potential headshot candidates due to little to no care for skull caps.
Headshots are extremely lethal, and in most cases result in an immediately anchored animal with zero meat loss.
Many shy away from headshots due to the potential loss of the animal due to poor shot placement. Gruesome scenes of jawless deer are a good reason to ensure that if you take a headshot, make sure your bullet impacts the brain or base of the skull.
Where to Shoot a Deer for One-Shot Kills
One shot kills are the goal of most hunters; ethical kills and less lost meat are excellent reasons to aim for this goal. Proper shot placement will ensure one shot is all you need, but do not be afraid to shoot again if needed. Better to lose a bit of venison than to lose the whole thing to coyotes.
The high shoulder shot is a good choice for one-shot kills, as is the heart shot. The headshot is also a near-guaranteed one-shot kill, provided you use good shot placement. Just make sure that you bring your A-game and ensure that your skills will allow you to put the shot where it needs to go.
Where to Shoot a Deer With a Bow
Shooting deer with a bow opens a few doors and closes others. There is no need to worry about meat loss when shooting through shoulders and such. The rest of what we’ve spoken about remains basically the same. Place your arrow in the right spot, and it will do the rest.
Where To Shoot a Deer With a Gun
Almost any modern centerfire rifle can easily take down a deer.
The above points are all relative to shooting a deer with a rifle, but the size of the cartridge can have some bearing on your shot placement. Larger cartridges carry more energy typically and are, therefore, more applicable for longer shots or angled impacts that require heavy penetration.
If you are shooting a lightweight cartridge with small bullets, you may want to evaluate your shot placement prior to shooting. Make sure that what you are shooting has the energy, accuracy, and ability to hit where it needs to and penetrate what it needs to. And if it doesn’t, make sure you have the self-control to wait for the right shot.
Shots You Should Never Take
This is a touchy situation, as I don’t like being told what to do, and therefore don’t like telling you what you should do. But I will tell you a shot I wouldn’t take, and that is up the kazoo. The likelihood of making a clean kill from directly behind the animal is slim, and you are very likely to destroy and/or contaminate a good portion of meat if you did.
Where to shoot a deer to drop it in its tracks?
The high shoulder shot would be my first choice, the vital damage coupled with the spinal injury is almost guaranteed to anchor your animal where it stood. The headshot will also do this but is certainly not the first choice for many scenarios.
Does it matter where you shoot a deer?
Where you shoot a deer absolutely matters. A poor shot on a deer will likely result in the deer going unrecovered, only for it to die some distance and time later. This is unacceptable for an ethical hunter.
Why don’t you shoot a deer in the head?
The easy answer is hanging in most folks’ living rooms. The antlers of a deer are one of the most likely memories we will have to remember a hunt, and shooting a deer in the head will invariably result in broken and possibly lost antlers.
Now, if you disregard antlers or the need to recover them, the only thing standing between you and a good headshot is your skillset. More meat and less mess are your rewards for good marksmanship.
Can deer smell you in a tree stand?
I’m not much of a treestand hunter, but deer have an amazing nose. So if you plan on hunting close to them, I would try and keep the human scent to a minimum. The air that carries your scent may be above the deer’s nose, but don’t take any chances and keep that stink down.
Shooting a deer is not as hard as some people may think, but doing it right does take a little bit more dedication. Spending more time at the range and sharpening your shooting skills is a sure way to increase the effectiveness of your hunting.
Studying the anatomy of the animals you hunt and using that information to make yourself a more lethal hunter will improve your ethics as well as the pounds of venison you serve your family.
Jeff Wood is a self-described "Freelance Sharpshooter", with a passion for precision rifle shooting, particularly as it applies to hunting. When not at work, he is likely to be tinkering with the next gun-related project or likely in the nearby mountains, either shooting or fishing with family.
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