What is the best place to shoot a deer?

From Deer & Deer Hunting

About this time of year, we all get to talking about a list of “bests.” What’s the best deer caliber? What’s the best broadhead? What’s the best. . . I remember once having a fellow get on AllOutdoors.com (that’s dating me) and ask what was the best camo for squirrel hunting. He had gotten an invite and he had never been before and figured he better buy a new wardrobe. I remember there was a lively discussion that came out of that question. The best?

So where is the best place to aim to kill a deer? I know I can give you my preference. I know when other pro-staffers check in, they’ll have theirs. I have reasons. They’ll have reasons. I know of some really bum places to hit a deer, but the best?

To start off this discussion, let me throw in a little personal experience on the not-so-good places. I shot my first deer just about 2 O’clock and a couple of inches north of the anus– a Texas Heart Shot. It was a mistake. The doe crossed in front of me as I was taking aim on a buck. However, the doe went down and died quickly. I had minimal meat loss, and no involvement of the intestines. I was extremely lucky. A quarter century later, I watched my son shoot a small buck with his M1 Garand. The first round hit just behind the near shoulder. The deer did nothing. I encouraged him to take another shot. He was excited and took the second shot a little further back and it emptied out both the chest and abdominal cavities– again, no serious involvement of the stomach or intestines– they were laying intact on the ground. When we got to the carcass there was nothing left to clean. My son was extremely lucky. These two instances are fliers. My reason for including them is to show that, in the former, the worst possible situation may not yield bad results, and in the latter the best intentions can sometimes go awry.

IMG_4097.JPG I taught my kids that the vitals in the deer can be thought of as a soccer ball sitting in the middle of the rib cage. If you shoot the soccer ball, the animal dies, usually right there in front of you. How you reach that soccer ball is more a matter of taste.

My preference has been to leverage my bow hunting experience as much as possible and shoot for the chest. With a bow, you have a very narrow window of what is going to be an optimum shot. The idea is to get the animal quartering away from you and angle the arrow through the ribs, through both lungs and out the other side. When I became primarily a rifle hunter, I didn’t change a whole lot except the optimal quartering-away angle now became more of a straight broadside affair. Most of my shots take out both lungs as well as the top of the heart. With the deer standing broadside, I point my crosshairs where the foreleg meets the body and then rise up about 4 inches up and 4 inches to the rear.

The advantages that I have found to taking this shot are several. In the vast majority of the cases, the animal goes down right there or I can stand where they were shot and see the carcass. The only meat loss is in the thin rib region. The exit wounds can be large if the bullet hits a rib on the way out. The blood trail is significant and short.

The disadvantages to aiming for the lungs and heart? Well, I caught my processor one day when he was having a hard time of it, and asked him if there was a chance he could give me a pack of ribs. Jake looked at me and snapped, “If you wouldn’t keep bringing them in with their chests all shot up, I might be able to!” There was truth there. Honestly, I have never been all that attached to venison ribs anyway.

My preference is to stay away from the shoulder. That may be a bias based on my years as a bow hunter. Breaking a shoulder blade and taking out a foreleg, has been largely an unnecessary exercise. The few times I have managed to hit a shoulder blade, the animal went down right there. I suppose you could argue for a preference of meat: do you prefer ribs or shoulder roast? I have the shoulder roasts ground anyway so I get a bit more burger out of each deer. It is a matter of taste.

The advantage as I see to the shoulder shot is that it can preclude running. The disadvantage is that more meat gets torn up. Done right, the shoulder shot does essentially the same thing as chest shot. The lungs and the heart are involved. The animal goes down. Maybe the best thing that can be said for the shoulder shot is that it is farther away from the abdominal cavity than the classic boiler room shot that is my preference.

The Brisket shot: This is my least favorite way to reach the soccer ball, but I’ve done it. You’re reaching the heart and lungs from the front. It’s harder to get both lungs and the heart all at once. You also run a good chance of getting into the abdominal cavity. That’s always a good spot to avoid. A shot through the front door will bring them down quickly. If they are in close and that is the only shot available, I will take it.

Now let’s look at the shots that do not rely on the “Soccer Ball ” model:

Gut shots: Ick. If you’ve ever blown up a stomach or seriously involved the intestines, you know this is not a good idea. The deer dies. How soon is the problem. A got shot deer may last 6 hours and cover a lot of ground in the interim. This is not a good place to aim. I have had two sincere gut shots to deal with in my career. In one case, my son shanked one on a doe, and the animal bedded right there. I finished her when we found her. The second was on a follow-up shot on a buck that I took in 2006. For some reason, the animal took one in the chest and was still alive when I got to him. Hint: deer with their legs drawn up underneath them are not dead. I walked up on him a little too close. The buck jumped up and started to run, and I threw an anchoring shot into him. It anchored him all right– hit the chest and lungs by way of the stomach. I still retch when I think of cleaning that one out.

The Head Shot: A lot of guys who read military magazines think this one is great. A large number of guys who think they are great shots think this one is great. The problem that I see is as follows: for they guys who read military magazines, this is not the military and the target is not human. The anatomy is different. The motivation is different. Deer generally do not take hostages. I have never seen a deer put a knife to another deer’s neck. Deer do not radio your position to artillery. You do not have to worry about return fire. If you take a chest shot at a human, it is hard to take out both lungs and the heart with one round. Front on, the organs don’t line up. From the side, you have the arms in the way. Deer also do not wear body armor. The head of a human is also on a much shorter neck and it does not move as much in relation to the body. Yes, done right, the head shot is an instantaneous kill, but if it is slightly off, the deer can have its snout or lower jaw shot off and the wound causes a long lingering death by starvation.

The Neck Shot: Look, no one is going to argue that disruption of the Central Nervous System leads to instant incapacitation. The only arguments I can make against shooting for the neck are similar to head shots. Necks move around a lot. The target is smaller– we’re talking aiming at broomsticks vs. soccer balls. Clipping the esophagus instead of the spinal cord is bummer.

All the others: Having successfully pulled off one accidental Texas Heart Shot in my life, I can tell you that deer can die quickly no matter how bad you screw Wup. Deer shot in the femoral artery can bleed to death very quickly. Deer shot in the spine behind the shoulder blades can drop instantly. Finding the heart and lungs by way of the anus will work if you rifle and stomach are up to punching through all that intervenes. My answer to all these : don’t do it.

If you get through thirty seasons and raising two sons into the sport with as few runners and as few lost deer as we have had, we can talk sometime around the campfire about the best place to aim. Until then, I wish you all the best with whatever you pick.

Update: I put up a poll. 88% of the respondents picked the boiler room. 2 picked the shoulder. One said “close to an access road”
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