As an ethical hunter, achieving a quick kill is the ultimate goal when it comes time to loose an arrow or pull the trigger. All you have to do is aim for the deer's vitals. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. Simply placing your shot in the boiler room is the surest way to bring an animal down quickly, but there's plenty to consider before and after you pull that trigger or release that arrow.
It's Deer Hunting 101 for many of you, but it never hurts to review. And new deer hunters join the ranks every year. The information given here may seem slanted toward bowhunting, but it also applies to a rifle or shotgun hunter. Here are the basics of deciding where to aim.
Where Are Deer Vitals?
The vital area is the lungs and heart location. The heart and lungs are vital organs, hence the term. If the lung and heart are damaged significantly, blood loss or suffocation occurs, and death comes quickly.
Ideally, you want your shot placement to hit both lungs and heart. So a broadside shot is the most preferred. It presents the surest scenario for your bullet or arrow to strike both organs, usually putting the deer down quickly. There are, of course, other shots that will drop a deer. Headshots and spine shots will drop a deer in its tracks, but these can be tricky. Missing a headshot by a couple of inches can seriously wound, but not kill, a deer. Suppose you miss and hit the jaw or other area in the head. In that case, the animal may escape, only to die an agonizing death from starvation or longevity of the wound.
Take a headshot with a rifle only if you are a skilled marksman and are 100-percent confident of your shot. It should go without saying that a bow shot to the head is highly inadvisable.
Neck shots can be lethal if you hit the spine. Missed the spine? You've probably got a wounded deer on your hands. There is little margin for error. There are other factors to be aware of when attempting head and neck shots, but we'll focus on the more reliable deer vitals shot.
You need to know a few things about deer anatomy to make a good shot from different angles. You also need to know the capabilities of your chosen weapon. The shot you make with your .308 Win. may not be advisable for your 50-pound longbow. A deer's shoulder blade provides little resistance to a rifle bullet, but that same bone could stop an arrow from reaching the vitals. You must be aware of the animal's front leg and shoulder when aiming for the vitals. The position of the leg dictates the position of the shoulder blade. The shoulder blade in a deer is not necessarily considered heavy bone. Still, it could be heavy enough to impede an arrow from traditional archery equipment.
The lungs are located behind and continue several inches rearward of the shoulder. They cover the area behind the shoulder down to the bottom chest area of the deer. The heart rests in the lower half of and between the lungs. These vital organs comprise a group roughly the size of a slightly deflated basketball inside the chest cavity. But your aiming point shouldn't be the entire chest cavity. "Aim small, miss small" is some time-worn advice. The difference between a kill shot and a wounded animal can be a matter of inches.
Broadside Shots on Deer
Again, a broadside shot is considered the best option. It gives you the best chance for a double lung and heart shot and a total pass-through (meaning your bullet or arrow exits on the opposite side of the animal).
You have more aiming options when using a gun. Many bowhunters will wait until the deer is not only broadside but takes a step forward to put the arrow in the best spot, unchallenged by shoulder and leg bone. This is important; if you have the chance, wait for a step forward with the front leg closest to you, and you'll increase your chances of missing the bone. You will want to pick a tiny patch of hair or some other identifying feature as small as possible upon which to set your crosshairs or bow sight.
Ideally, you want your projectile to strike both lungs and the top of the heart. Remember to adjust your mental image of the vitals area to the size of the deer you're looking at. A small doe or spike buck will have smaller vitals, but that size can be significantly smaller—like twice as small—as those organs on a large buck.
Aiming at that tiny spot where lungs and heart meet is forgiving if your shot is off by a couple of inches or more. If you miss the heart, you will likely still achieve a double lung shot, quickly killing the deer. Miss the heart shot by a few inches rearward, and you may clip the liver, which lies behind and above the heart. Chances are that if you hit the liver, you will also hit the lung, as the lungs partially cover the liver. A lung and liver shot is also a killing shot.
An old trick to help you mentally compute your aiming spot is visually dividing the deer's body into three equal horizontal segments. Visualize the top of the bottom horizontal segment (the top of the lower third). Place your bow sight or crosshairs on that line and move 3 or 4 inches back from the deer's shoulder crease. Remember, aim small, miss small. Pick a tiny target area to aim at. This method should place you squarely in the vitals and enable you to strike both lungs and heart.
Pass-Through Shots on Deer
If possible, you also want your bullet or arrow to pass through the animal. This is why shoulder shots are less than ideal. Shooting through the rib cage rather than a shoulder is a better bet for a clean pass-through for both rifle and bow. While a bullet will likely shatter the first shoulder before hitting the vitals, I've had instances where that was enough to prevent it from going ultimately through a deer's body.
You ideally want a pass-through because there is a better chance of having a healthy blood trail should the shot not drop the deer in its tracks. An entry hole and an exit wound are two places for blood to exit the body, making your tracking job much more manageable.
Quartering Away Shots
A broadside deer gives you the most consistent view of the vital area. But a quartering away shot may be preferable if the deer is not quartering away too sharply. That is if it is more broadside than quartered away. A slight quartering away position opens things up a bit, moves the shoulder blade out of the way, and could enable you to hit the liver, lungs, and heart.
Imagine that you are on a clock face when looking at your deer. You're at the six o'clock position, and the deer is standing broadside with its nose at three o'clock and its tail at the nine o'clock position. That would be ideal if the deer quarters away no more than the two or ten o'clock position. That quartering-away shot makes for a better angle to strike the vitals. At steeper angles, you start to have the cons outweigh the pros, in my opinion.
Don't Take Straight On or Quartering Toward Shots
In my opinion, these shots are inadvisable for most hunters. I realize that they can be made and, in the right circumstances, may even arguably be necessary. But I think the drawbacks far outweigh the benefits of straight-on shots. If you're an archer, these shots provide too much bone and fatty tissue to pass through before you get to the vitals. The vital area is also smaller, and it is unlikely that you will hit both lungs.
In addition, it is highly improbable that you will get a pass-through with either a bullet or an arrow. The chances of puncturing intestines and damaging more meat are significantly greater. It is, in my opinion, best to wait for a better shot.
This article was originally published on December 16, 2020.