Hunt long enough and you'll see some weird things. My own list of odd occurrences seems endless. I've seen an arrow pass square through the center of a bear's chest with the bruin collapsing immediately. Then, not 20 minutes later, that same bear leapt to his feet and scampered away, never to be seen again. On another occasion I witnessed a fellow shoot a moose that collapsed on the spot. Upon close inspection, there wasn't a bullet hole to be found anywhere on the moose - not even the head. Then there was the time I saw an arrow pass clean through the body of a Canada goose. As though nothing had happened the goose flew off into the horizon and just kept on flying. Then there's whitetails. I've seen countless trophy-class deer suck up bullets like they were shot with a pellet gun. Once I even saw a 350-pound whitetail shot four times with a .338 at close range (under 50 yards), the best shot was square through the chest … as the hunter and I approached, the deer tried to get up and needed yet another shot to close the deal. The last one I'll share with you is a grizzly bear that I shot with a 7 mm Rem. Mag. a few years ago; talk about a will to live! Shot at 75 yards, I hit him a few inches high in the chest, but he collapsed instantly. Assuming the bear was dead, I approached. As I walked toward the bear, it stood up. Confused, I free-handed a second round into the base of his skull as he stood facing away from me. Again the grizz collapsed. Opting to wait a half hour, I figured better safe than sorry. When I finally did walk up to the bear, I couldn't believe what I saw - he was still breathing! The moral of these tales is that perfect shot placement is imperative, but that despite best efforts, sometimes our well-placed shots can turn into a rodeo.
On the flip side, I've taken lots of game instantly. Some never knew what hit them. On a goat hunt in British Columbia, I queried my guide about his opinions on shot placement. I'd heard several opinions. Some suggested taking out the shoulders so they don't run to an unreachable crag. Others recommended taking them through the chest. I figured half-way between the two would probably be best, so that's where I aimed. Again using my Ruger 7mm Rem. Mag. One well-placed bullet (a 165 grain Swift A-frame) put the billy down instantly. At contact, his neck folded and my goat collapsed, sliding only 40 yards down a chute and piling up in the snow.
I share these unique shooting tales not to sensationalize, but to illustrate that shot placement can make all the difference in the world. Even still, seldom are two chest shots the same. Some animals just react differently, particularly those shot with an arrow. Tracking wounded game can be easy or it can be hard. How fast a deer or other game animal expires is dependent upon several things, but the two most important are shot placement and the bullet or broadhead we're using (along with the firepower behind it).
We all have our bad habits. Sometimes they have to do with our lack of skill with the gun or bow we use and others can be traced to a lack of understanding about the anatomy of the game we're after. As hunters we have an ethical obligation to do our best to put game down quickly. We know that human error is inevitable and that hunting has an infinite combination of variables that can affect shot placement. Recognizing this, it's up to us to maximize our accuracy and minimize the variables including human error.
Hunting is an imperfect activity. No two shots are the same. Despite best efforts, a myriad of factors dictate whether an animal goes down quickly or requires a labor-intensive tracking job. From target zones on the animal to maintaining equipment and executing the shot, several factors affect how fast an animal dies. Following are a few tips for better shot placement.
Tip #1 - Target Vital Organs Only
Many experienced hunters will argue that neck or even head shots are most lethal. While they can certain bring game down quickly, I disagree. Although there are unique circumstances when I might agree with a neck shot, for the most part I discourage these low percentage shots. These are both small targets and the odds of making a poor shot are simply too high putting the animal at an unnecessary risk. Biology is biology and you can't change the laws of nature. Know that if you take out the heart, lungs, major arteries or liver your chances of retrieving the game increase exponentially. A double lung shot is almost always best.
Tip #2 - Consider the Position of the Animal
A double lung shot will almost always result in a quick kill. This is usually best accomplished by shooting the animal from a broadside or quartering away position. Elk and moose can be an exception but a double-lung hit is certainly most ideal. Head on, quartering toward, the proverbial Texas heart shot, or most other positions are discouraged. Now before you get your hackles up, I will concede - game can be killed efficiently at these other angles, but with these the odds of a perfect hit go down exponentially.
Tip #3 - Know the Anatomy of the Game You Are Hunting
As far as shot placement is concerned, this is one of the most important considerations. The anatomy of different game species is variable. Yes, they all have vital organs and each can die quickly if hit properly, but God didn't make them all the same. For instance, the vitals in a bear are different from those of a deer. Likewise, the shoulder bone of a moose or elk is much heavier than that of a deer.
Here are a few online resources I've found that help illustrate the vitals of deer, black bear and elk:
Another worthwhile resource I recently discovered while searching the internet was written by a fellow named Chuck Hawks. His article is titled Where to Shoot Big Game and it can be found at http://www.chuckhawks.com/where_to_shoot.htm .
Tip #4 - Wait until the Animal is Stationary
Recognizing the right time to shoot comes with experience. Plenty of us have taken game while it was walking or on a full-out run. In most instances, running shots aren't necessary. Its good practice to wait until game is stopped and in a relaxed demeanor. In a lot of situations, game like deer for instance will recognize that something isn't right. With ears perked upright, they'll stand erect and stomp their feet. For a tree stand bow hunter this is a particularly precarious situation. As a rule, keep your sights trained on the kill zone until the animal is stopped and ideally focused on something other than you, e.g. feeding.
Tip #4 - Maintain Your Equipment
No matter how skilled you are as an archer or rifleman, you can only be as good as your equipment. You can aim for perfect shot placement, but if your equipment isn't up to snuff, it'll take a miracle to hit your mark. Bows and guns should always be sighted in before hunting. Likewise, bows and guns should be kept clean, with all parts gone over to ensure that everything is in working order, e.g., limb bolts, arrow rests, actions, barrels, etc.
Tip #5 - Practice
Making the perfect shot when the opportunity presents itself - that's what it's all about. The most common variables causing a bad shot are lack of familiarity with equipment and encounter itself. The only way we can improve our skill in the off-season is by practicing. This involves several things.
Familiarity with your bow or gun can make or break your shooting ability when the pressure of shooting at a live game animal presents itself. Few other forms of practice compare to shooting a .22 rimfire rifle. Most of us cut their teeth shooting gophers or plinking tin cans with a rimfire. The nice thing about varmints with a .22 is that they offer plenty of shooting and ammunition is cheap. By repeating the process of aiming and shooting at variable distances we have the opportunity to modify and correct for obvious errors. A .22 has virtually no recoil and therefore eliminates one variable that can affect accuracy with larger calibers.
Finally, one of the most beneficial things we can do is practice shooting under simulated field conditions. This may be done by shooting silhouettes or 3D targets in the off-season. Likewise, new video shooting units like the DART System allow shooters to practice realistic field shooting scenarios on a video screen. The system scores them based on proximity to the kill zone.
Tip #6 - Take Your Time
Poor shot placement (inaccuracy) can often be traced to overconfidence and is the result of a rushed shot. It's important to remember that all shooting sports demand precision. In turn, concentration is paramount. Confidence founded in familiarity with your equipment and proven ability to place a shot is important but there's a fine line between overconfidence and touching off at the right instant.
As you prepare to take your shot, control your breathing. Breathing involves inhaling and exhaling which in turn moves your body. This makes it almost impossible to get a precise lock on your target. Hold your breath momentarily to steady for the shot.
Whenever possible use a shooting rest to stabilize your gun. Whether it's a bench rest or a daypack, tree branch, log or rock, always take advantage of a rest. By bracing for the shot, the shooter effectively minimizes the unavoidable aspect of human error. Using a bench rest is particularly important when sighting in. By doing so, you effectively eliminate most of the human error and thereby determine the accuracy of your equipment.
When it comes to the shot itself, trigger control is imperative - much the same as it is with activating the shutter on a camera. Interestingly, most archers are shooting compound bows with trigger releases today, so this concept applies somewhat to archery as well. With rifles, trigger weight varies. Most are set somewhere between two and four pounds. Some shooters prefer a light trigger, but for most a three- or four- pound trigger weight is practical. When it comes to hitting the switch, "pull" the trigger and you'll surely move the muzzle off target. Gently and fluidly squeeze the trigger on the other hand, and you're more apt to maintain your aiming point. Be sure to use the tip of your finger and not the body of it.
Follow through is equally important when shooting bows and firearms. In reality, by the time your body reacts to any recoil, the arrow or bullet is long gone. The challenge for most bowhunters is fighting the urge to peak, in other words rush to see where the arrow will hit. With rifles, many shooters anticipate the recoil during the lock time and end up flinching. Follow through is critical to maintaining shooting form and resulting accuracy. By keeping your eye on the target through a scope or iron sight, you force your body to stay in proper position which in turn reinforces accuracy. This can be especially important when shooting blackpowder guns in which muzzle velocity is far slower.
To sum up, with familiarity comes confidence. Knowing precisely where your gun is zeroed or bow is shooting is imperative if you want to be successful in the field. Remember, we owe it to the game we're hunting to place our shots in a manner that will result in a quick kill.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.