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Shot Placement

These two words carry a lot of weight with deer hunters, for good reason.

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Take your time to aim before shooting at any game animal.
Klaus Vedfelt/Taxi/Getty Images
If you read much about hunting deer, including whitetail deer and other big game, shot placement is something you will see stressed again and again. There's a very good reason for this: shot placement is very important. It is not always everything to a deer hunter, but it's mighty close. The bottom line is, you'd better hit a deer in the right spot if you want it to go down and stay there.

The Spot

So where is that spot? Well, "the right spot" is a flexible concept. It depends on the angle of the deer as viewed by the hunter, how far the deer is from the hunter, whether or not the deer is calm, how solid a gun rest the hunter has available, and many other variables.

The traditional kill zone is still the hunter's best bet. This zone includes the shoulder area, and behind it the heart and lungs. Viewed broadside, it is roughly centered on the rear of the shoulder. This gives the hunter the best chance at hitting vital organs and/or the shoulder. Depending on the size of the critter, you're shooting at a zone that's approximately the size of a supper plate.

It's important to remember that the kill zone is not two-dimensional, like a flat paper target. If a deer is broadside, a shoulder or right-behind-the-shoulder shot is great. But if it's quartering towards or away from you very much, you should adjust your aim. Picture your bullet's destination in the center of the animal, and aim for that. Doing so may require the bullet to impact far back in the ribcage or in the neck/brisket area in order to penetrate to the heart/lung zone and effectively kill the deer.

In other words, "the spot" is not anywhere on the deer's skin, but is inside the critter. Remember that, and aim accordingly.

Hit the lungs, and the deer will run a ways and die. Hit the heart and you will likely also hit the lungs, and the deer usually won't go far. Hit the shoulder bones, and you break the deer down as well as probably hitting vitals - it usually falls on the spot and if it keeps kicking it's just where you want it, and you can easily deliver a finishing shot.

Some Folks Disagree

Not all hunters agree that it's best place to aim for "the boilerworks," but those with long experience and whom respect the game agree that this shot gives the greatest margin of error - and errors are easy to make. Yet some hunters go out of their way to try to place the bullet through the ribcage on a broadside deer for a lung-only shot (avoiding the shoulder), to minimize meat damage. Still others shoot for the neck. Some others aim for the head. Any of these are killing shots if everything comes together, but they don't offer the "room to miss" - while still making a solid hit - that the heart/lung/shoulder shot does.

Knock 'em Down

I like to see my deer fall dead. Where I place the shot - or try to place the shot - depends on many factors. If I have a nice calm deer standing not too far from me and I have a nice solid rest, a neck shot is a good one to take. On a moving deer and/or one that's far away, it's a low-percentage shot and I don't like it. When I say low-percentage, I mean there's a much smaller chance of hitting vitals in those conditions, vs. taking a shot at the "sweet spot."

During one hunting trip, a friend of mine shot a doe. She was standing broadside at 40 yards. He aimed for the center of the shoulder from a rock-solid rest, and that's right where he hit. It put her down ASAP, which was his intention. Totally ruined the meat in that shoulder, though.

That situation falls in the category of: I'd rather lose a pound or two of meat than to lose the entire deer because of a marginally-placed shot.

Making the Call - Which Shot to Take?

The following morning, I was sitting in a stand with a good shooting rest when a deer stepped out, way up the ridge. I got the rifle up and scoped the deer - a nice, legal, doe. I spoke to the deer to get it to stop - it did. The deer stood broadside at well over 100 yards - not the time to make a low-percentage shot. I aimed for the traditional kill zone, and pulled the trigger.

The 150-grain bullet hit just behind the shoulder, took out both lungs and the top of the heart (it cut the heart loose from all arteries), punched through the off-side shoulder blade and put an exit hole in the hide. Presumably, part of the bullet kept on going, but I recovered most of it (about 100 grains' worth) lodged in the hide at the exit wound. And she still ran 30+ yards before dying.

I was prepared to take a shoulder shot and lose some meat, in order to give myself a better chance of hitting the vitals. It worked. Any other shot would have been too risky for that situation. I hit within a couple inches of where I'd aimed, but if I had been a bit farther off, it still would have been a killing shot.

Use Your Head, and Avoid Head Shots

Head shots are to be avoided. Think about it - the head is the most animated portion of a deer's anatomy. When a deer moves, its head is the first thing to do so - and even when standing still, a deer will often move its head without warning.

Since writing this article, I have taken a couple head shots on whitetail does - at very close range, with a very solid rest and a very accurate scoped rifle, and each time the deer was standing perfectly still and un-spooked and I was calm enough to take a deliberate, steady shot. I still don't recommend taking a head shot, and I'm not sure I'll do it again.

Some folks say that if they miss a head shot then they've missed the deer entirely and it will live, but that's not necessarily true. Years ago, a friend shot a buck in the head - that's all he had to shoot at - and he hit it in the jaw. He severed a major blood vessel and the deer lost a lot of blood - but it also kept going for a long, long way. They tracked that deer for more than a mile before finally recovering it.

Play the Odds

So choose your shots with care, and go for high-percentage shots. It's a method that works, and you will be a much happier hunter. When you have to shoot quickly, remember Dad's words: Take your time, but hurry up. Too often, we forget the first part of that, and only hurry up. I've been guilty of it myself.

- Russ Chastain

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