Proper Shot Placement for Humane Hunting

Understanding the anatomy of an animal will help to ensure that it does not experience unnecessary suffering from a misplaced shot.

Large buck

Proper shot placement basically means hitting your prey hard in a vital area in a way that creates a wound that will kill it as quickly as possible.

Photo by Fotolia/mbridger68

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Wild meat, hunted in a responsible way, is one of the most healthful, sustainable foods possible. Depending on how it is done, hunting can be as local, intimate and humane as it gets. And aside from this, it demands the hunter enter a world of awareness, wildness, life and death that we have lost connection to as a culture.

The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook (New Society Publishers, 2014) by Miles Olson is a guide for those that come to the act of hunting with pure intentions, motivated by a desire for healthy food that comes directly from the land where they live. This practical manual suggests that hunting is not a "sport" and the animals whose lives are taken are not "game." It combines a deep, philosophical exploration of the ethics of killing with detailed instructions on every step of the process. The following excerpt is from Chapter 6, "The Shot, and After."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: 

The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook.

Making the kill

Taking a shot at a living creature is a big deal. A poorly placed shot can result in serious suffering for your prey, and should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. You should honor the seriousness of taking a shot by preparing yourself and knowing your limits. Even extremely well-seasoned hunters will sometimes be overwhelmed by what is usually called “buck fever”: a surge of emotion that can make taking a steady shot difficult to impossible. There is a fine line between pushing yourself, which is something often necessary in order to accomplish any hunting, and knowing when to back down and wait. Navigating that fine line is a big part of hunting responsibly. To hunt successfully you need to be decisive, need to take the shot, but you also need to know when to pass, when to simply let things be.

Preparing yourself psychologically and emotionally

One of the things I emphasize whenever I am speaking to people about taking a life for food is the incredible importance of having a clear mind and clear energy before even thinking about trying to go out hunting. If you are filled with conflict, whether it be from the argument you and your partner are having, stress about bills or guilt about that awful thing you just did to someone, leave the gun or bow at home. Go out to the woods and clear your mind. If you are trying to hunt filled with turmoil and conflict, you run an elevated risk of harvesting turmoil and conflict. I speak from experience on this, but the stories are too personal and strange to share here. Suffice it to say that if your life is a mess, sometimes the laws of physics will actually bend in order to make your hunt a disaster. But even on a common sense level, heading into a hunt when you are upset can lead to bad decision-making. You’re more likely to forget to click the safety on, to swing your gun or razor-sharp broadhead around carelessly, so on and so forth. Heading into a hunt when you are off center is bad news.

So try to purify yourself.

Purify yourself before the hunt. Enter into it with a clear mind. If your life is a mess, try to practice some housekeeping. Don’t come into a hunt with a storm going on inside of you. Traditionally, some indigenous hunters would abstain from sex for some time before a hunt as well as staying alone, away from the village and fasting. Such a practice touches the same principle of purification. By doing those things, they could enter into a state of clarity and focus before heading into the hunt, disconnect from drama. Those specific practices aren’t for everybody, but the resultant state of focus and clarity sure is. You might think of them as a metaphor for simply getting clear.

Easing into killing

If you haven’t hunted before and want to ease yourself into the raw, carnal reality of it, I suggest starting small. Go fishing, if that’s possible, and experience killing a fish. This can be a very good introduction to the reality of taking a life. The next step would be small mammals like rabbits or squirrels. Picking up a roadkill and skinning and butchering it is also an excellent way to become acquainted with the raw, carnal reality of hunting, and will give you confidence in your ability to deal with your harvest.

Once you are acquainted with this reality, you’ll feel more comfortable and sane approaching larger animals.

Shot placement

Beyond finding the right place to hunt, deciding on a strategy for hunting there, honing one’s aim and putting time in on the ground, one of course needs to have a solid grasp of where to shoot one’s prey when an opportunity arises.

Proper shot placement basically means hitting your prey hard in a vital area in a way that creates a wound that will kill it, either from the initial trauma of the shot itself or by bleeding to death. To kill your prey in the most humane way possible, you need to place a shot properly.

Make wise shooting decisions

This can’t really be overemphasized. If there is anything questionable about a shot, pass on it. Don’t be afraid of passing on a lot of shots. As the saying goes, you can’t have what you want unless you are willing to say "No" to what you don’t want. If the safety of other people is ever even remotely going to be compromised or if the shot isn’t clear and truly responsible, don’t mess with it. This is particularly important to keep in mind when hunting on a small property or near any roads or homes. Know the limitations of your hunting tool, whether it’s a compound bow or a rifle, and your own personal limitations as a shooter. Keep things simple for yourself and have integrity when it counts. And when you are about to shoot something, it counts.

Bullets versus arrows and shot placement

Bullets kill an animal by inflicting major trauma, tissue damage and bleeding. They have much more force behind them than arrows, and if shot from an appropriate firearm for the animal being hunted, can effectively penetrate thick bone to get at vital organs. Slugs work in much the same way within their range. Arrows generally work by cutting or slicing. A razor-sharp modern broadhead or a more traditional arrowhead is effective in slicing through skin, flesh, vital organs and soft bone (ribs) and will cause fatal bleeding or organ collapse, but will not penetrate thick bone or cause the same kind of extensive trauma and damage that bullets do. What this means is that many shots that are fine and effective from a rifle or shotgun are out of the question for a bow or crossbow.

Where to shoot

Before taking a shot at anything, the hunter should have a solid understanding of their prey’s anatomy, so they know exactly where to shoot to hit a vital area.

Anatomy

When the hunter looks at their prey, they should have a general sense of the placement of the animal’s internal organs. These, after all, are what you will really be aiming at. Always keep in mind that not only are you aiming at internal organs, but that they are three-dimensional targets. When shooting at an angle, always be mindful of this and make sure to compensate for it.

The different vital area shots

Heart and lungs (chest)

This is the hunter’s ideal kill zone. If an animal is standing broadside, the ideal target is about half way up the body in line with the back of the foreleg. Shooting a bit lower will strike the heart directly. A well placed lung or heart shot will result in one of the cleanest kills. This vital zone presents by far the largest vital target, providing a larger margin of error than other vital zones. This fact alone makes it the overall best shot placement.

The cons of heart/lung shots include: a lung that is just clipped will sometimes not be lethal, simply wounding a deer. Also, such shots do not always result in an animal dropping dead on the spot. Even with a perfectly placed shot, a common response to a chest shot is that your prey will make a short gallop before laying down and dying, making some tracking necessary. Still, the “boiler room” of the heart/lungs is the choice target for most hunters. For hunters using a bow or crossbow with larger animals, it is the only vital zone an arrow will reliably penetrate.

By aiming slightly forward and upward, one can shoot for the upper shoulder blade, an equally humane shot that will cause your prey to drop on the spot. This shoulder shot is reserved for a powerful firearm up to the task of shattering or penetrating dense bone (it is not a bow shot).

Head/brain

A head shot, in which the skull is penetrated and the brain is struck, will kill any animal almost instantly. The brain is a very small target though, which makes this shot a poor choice under most circumstances. Because of the hard skull that must be penetrated, when hunting animals of any size, this is not a viable shot with a bow; only a high-powered firearm is up to the task of penetrating such bone.

The pros to this shot are that it will drop your prey instantly without any loss of meat. The cons are again that the brain is a small target, and missing it will mean either missing your target entirely (not the worst thing) or, in the worst case, shooting low and breaking its jaw apart. This will result in a slow, painful death of starvation for your wounded prey. The head is also the most animated part of a creature’s body, constantly shifting and moving, a fact that alone is enough to keep many hunters away from head shots and consider them ethically questionable.

Neck

A neck shot is another option that, properly executed, will drop your prey instantly. By aiming for the upper vertebrae in the neck, one can sever the spinal cord, break the neck and cause instant paralysis. Here again, however, the vital target it very small, making it a poor shot under most conditions. As with the head, this is a shot that shouldn’t be attempted with a bow of any kind, because of the dense bone that must be penetrated.

The pros here again are that if this shot is executed properly, one’s prey will drop instantly with little loss of meat. The cons are that this vital area is again so small that shooting slightly off can wound a deer non-fatally. In some instances neck shots will only paralyze your prey, necessitating a follow-up shot. For these reasons, this is another shot that should only be considered by very competent shooters.

Different angles

When deciding to take a shot or not, remember that what you are aiming at is a three-dimensional target that lies inside of your prey. Because of this, the angle of your prey relative to you might render an otherwise great shot totally out of the question.

Broadside

The broadside angle provides an excellent shot for the bowhunter. The heart–lung vital zone is presented in full, which is exactly what the bowhunter is looking for. For a heart shot, aim directly behind the front shoulder and about one third up the body. If you aim a little higher you’ll make a double lung shot.

Broadside is likewise an ideal shot when hunting with a firearm. In addition to shooting for the heart-lungs as specified above, you can also shoot through the upper shoulder if you are using an appropriate firearm, creating more shock and severing the spine, which will drop an animal instantly.

Quartering away

This can be a good shot for the bowhunter. The vitals are exposed here without bone protecting them, although in a less open way than broadside, and at an angle that must be compensated for. Remember, your target is a three-dimensional one inside the prey’s body. To compensate for the angle in this type of shot, your point of aim should be through the body to the opposite shoulder. If your prey is facing away at too steep an angle and your shot might initially pass through the stomach in order to reach the opposite shoulder, wait for a better shot.

This is likewise a good shot when hunting with a gun. As with a bow, aim through your prey’s body to the opposite shoulder, and if it is facing away at too much of an angle, wait for a better shot.

Quartering toward

This shot is pretty much a pass for the bowhunter. At this angle the heart/lung area is mostly protected by the front shoulder, and picking a spot just behind it will likely result in the vitals being missed and the stomach behind them being struck instead. Best to wait for another shot.

This is a fine shot for gun hunters, presenting numerous targets. One can aim for the head, neck or front of the shoulder.

Head on

This shot is a pass for the bowhunter, as from this angle the vital area is completely protected by bone.

For the gun hunter, however, this is an okay shot that presents a few targets. The head, neck and the center of the chest are all possible targets from this vantage, provided one is shooting a sufficiently powerful firearm/cartridge to penetrate thick bone.

Facing away

No responsible hunter, using either a gun or a bow of any kind, will take this shot.

Waiting for a better shot

Don’t be impatient when deciding if a shot is worth taking or not. If your prey isn’t aware of your presence and is hanging around the area, give it some time to move around and present a good shot. If it’s passing through but not presenting a shot that feels good, wait for another opportunity. Hunting is all about patience, so give in, embrace it and wait. If you don’t make room and wait for good shots, they won’t show up.

Shooting through dense brush

It is best to avoid shooting through dense brush. It can deflect your bullet or arrow. This effect is greater with arrows, and it is also amplified in the distance between the brush and your target. What this means is that if you are shooting at a deer that has some brush around it, but you yourself and the majority of the shot’s path is in the clear, the shot may be barely affected. If you yourself are shooting directly through a patch of thick vegetation, however, the deflection may greatly alter your shot’s trajectory by the time it reaches its target. Keep this in mind when choosing whether or not to take a shot in dense brush.

A deer that’s on the move

One should avoid taking shots at moving deer. A walking deer can often be stopped or stalled, however, simply by making a grunt sound, or even talking to it. For instance, a casual “Hey” or a kind “Stop” will in many cases cause a deer to pause momentarily, giving you a chance to shoot. Try and not be too alarming, but get heard and give your prey a reason to take pause and decipher what it just heard.

The follow-up shot

Every effort should be taken to make your initial shot as precise and well placed as possible. However, as soon as you get off a first shot you will want to rapidly reload if possible and, if an opportunity is presented, get off a well-placed follow-up shot. In some cases this will make the difference between bringing down your prey or not. In others it will not be called for.

If you are hunting with a gun, you should practice rapidly getting off follow-up shots when target shooting. With bows, the same applies — make it a part of your archery practice to develop a technique of quick reload and follow-up shooting. Crossbows are ill suited to fast reloading, so make your first shot count.

Try not to relax and admire your shot after taking it. Instead stay sharp and reload, ready to strike again if the opportunity arises, because it can take a creature a moment to respond, or it may pause for an instant as it retreats.

After the shot

Once you have taken your shot, unless your prey drops in its tracks, the real work begins. In many cases, especially if you are hunting with a bow or crossbow and are hunting a larger animal, there will be some tracking required after the shot. If you drop your prey on the spot no tracking will be necessary, but even a perfectly placed heart or double lung shot can still require tracking.

Waiting

If your prey flees after you take your shot, the last thing you want to do is pursue it right away. When a creature senses it is being chased, its adrenals will kick in and it will go into serious flight mode, heading as far away as possible. If you sit back and wait, however, your prey will feel more secure in settling down nearby, where, if it has been shot well, it will lose strength and blood until it dies.

So wait. A half hour is the general rule of thumb. Just stay put right where you took your shot for thirty minutes, keeping the exact spot your prey was standing in when you shot it emblazoned in your mind. Try also to clearly remember where it ran and where it left your view. This will all be very helpful when that thirty minutes is over and you get up to track your prey.

Tracking

After thirty minutes have passed, it is time to go and investigate the spot where your prey was standing when you shot it. Look for any sign that was left by the shot. Blood and hair are the main clues to search for here. Once you find any blood or hair on the ground or vegetation around the shot site, you’ve determined that you made a hit and you’ve got a start.

The color of this blood will give an indication of where your prey was hit:

• Frothy, pinkish blood indicates a lung shot.

• Rich red blood without a frothy quality indicates bleeding from a major vein or artery.

• Dark blood mixed with what appears to be stomach contents indicates a stomach shot. A stomach shot will usually be fatal eventually, but one should wait four to five hours before beginning tracking. If dark blood is mixed with intestinal contents, indicating a gut shot, wait ten hours before commencing your search.

Following the blood trail one’s prey has left is one of the main tactics used in tracking it down after the shot. This can sometimes require a good deal of patience and discipline. Follow any spatter of blood you see. If you come to a spot where this trail appears to end, mark it. A piece of toilet paper or bright flagging tape are ideal, as they stand out as a beacon. Toilet paper has the advantage of decomposing quickly, so it can be left where you place it in good conscience.

With the last splatter of blood marked, go forth methodically, investigating a swath in one direction, then another, then another, until you find the next blood sign. Being methodical in your search is key, otherwise you will waste energy and be less likely to follow a sparse trail successfully. If the blood trail is heavy and easy to follow, this might not be necessary at all, but always be prepared to do some real detective work.

The amount of blood on the ground where your prey was shot doesn’t necessarily tell you how well the shot was placed or whether or not it was fatal. An animal can bleed very little on the outside and still die from internal bleeding, so an absence of blood isn’t a clear indication that you missed. A chunk of tissue will sometimes move to block up a wound, causing the blood trail to lighten or trail off.

If you can’t find any blood, look for other forms of sign. Tracks, overturned leaves, disturbed vegetation and disturbed ground are the clearest sign in some circumstances. The tracks left by a running deer look quite different from the tracks it leaves during a casual wander. They will often look more like hoof-sized disturbances made roughly into the ground than clean, gently pressed tracks. This can be helpful, as the increased force means heavier footprints which might register on ground where they normally wouldn’t.

Also, don’t just look on the ground. Search vegetation, fallen logs, branches and tree trunks for blood, and be open to unconventional signs. I once heard a hunter describe a scenario in which he tracked down a deer he had shot in late summer by listening for flies! He had lost the blood trail and was having no luck in his search for sign when it dawned on him that the faint buzzing he was hearing might be worth checking out. He faithfully followed his ears and, to his relief, found a cloud of flies buzzing around the deer he had shot!

It should be stressed that you really should follow up every shot you take thoroughly, with the attention to detail described here. Even if there is just the faintest spatter of blood, a few hairs, or no sign other than some vague tracks, carefully follow it. Mark where you lose the trail, find the next sign and carry on like this. Even if you don’t see any sign initially at the shot site, look harder, exhausting the area for any indication of a hit. If there is no blood or hair, look for disturbed ground and vegetation. Follow whatever sign there is and be incredibly thorough; it is unethical to do anything less.

A few other tracking considerations worth noting are:

• Wounded animals will sometimes run toward water.

• Keep in mind that your prey might make sudden changes in direction; try not to let this catch you off guard.

• Two people can track together quite well. One person can work the blood trail while the other circles the area watching for any sign of a sudden change in direction.

• If a rain- or snowstorm is fast approaching, you may need to start tracking more promptly than normal, as the looming weather will likely wash away or cover the very sign you are counting on.

• While tracking after a shot, be aware that you might find your prey wounded, still alive. With this in mind, move slowly and stealthily so as to not spook it, and be prepared to dispatch it if necessary.

Of course, the more work you have put into practicing your shot, knowing your own limitations as a shooter and staying within them, the more likely you will be on target and any necessary tracking will be a short affair. This is the goal, but things do go wrong sometimes, so be prepared.

Is it dead?

Whether the animal you shot dropped where you struck it, bolted 30 yards into the bush and collapsed, made it a couple hundred yards from where you hit it before collapsing or any other possible scenario, when you come upon it, you will want to approach it carefully and make doubly sure it is dead before assuming this is the case. Have your gun or bow at the ready in case you need to dispatch the animal. First stand back at a safe distance and observe for any sign of life. If there is such sign, but you have the sense that it is part of the creature’s final moment and that it is passing away already, you might want to just give it some space to die peacefully. If you took the shot an hour earlier, however, the animal is probably agonizing and you should end its pain.

If there is no movement, look for more signs that it is dead. A dead deer will often have its tongue sagging out of its mouth and its eyes wide open. When all indications are that an animal is dead, you can make double sure by finding a long stick and, from a safe distance (well clear of any antlers or hooves), prod and poke. Sensitive spots like the belly, mouth or eyeball are good for this. Getting up close to an alive and wounded wild animal can be very dangerous and even potentially fatal, so do be cautious and thorough with this.

Read more:

Tracking Techniques for Ethical Hunting

The Compassionate Hunter


Reprinted with permission from The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook by Miles Olson and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Compassionate Hunter's Guidebook.