The time to think about where to aim when shooting a deer isn't right before you drop the hammer. The time is now, well before the season starts. When you take the shot, you want it to be second nature. You want to know where to aim almost instantly for a quick and humane kill. You also need the skills to hit where you aim. The following lessons not only teach you the one perfect place to shoot a deer but also how to practice this shot all summer long-even from your couch.
The Perfect Place
Contrary to what many hunters think, the most humane place to shoot a deer with gun or bow isn't the heart itself but the area just above the heart. This is the epicenter of the circulatory system, surrounded by the lungs and containing several major blood vessels. A bullet or broadhead cutting through this hand-size area causes blood pressure to drop so rapidly that a deer either drops or collapses in midstride after a few seconds. Hunting mule deer last fall, I hit the epicenter with a 180-grain bullet from a .30/40 Krag. The deer took off like Secretariat until it ran into a tree a few yards away, dead on its feet.
Trying to hit this precise spot ensures that you really are taking a smart shot. Many hunters assume any shot in the ribs will hit the heart, but a bullet placed more than a hand's width behind the shoulder only punctures lungs. The farther from the heart, the less "air pressure" there is in the lungs, because the air passages and the blood vessels are quite tiny. A deer can survive a lung shot placed too far back, especially just under the spine. You must aim precisely.
On broadside shots, don't aim "behind the shoulder" but on a line drawn directly up from the back of the front leg, between one-third and one-half of the way up the body. The bullet should enter the ribs inside the angle formed by the shoulder blade and the upper leg bone. It should also hit the center of the biggest part of both lungs and cut the large blood vessels at the top of the heart. How quickly the deer goes down depends on the amount of tissue cut or torn, but deer rarely run more than 100 yards after such a shot, even from a broadhead. With a quick-expanding deer bullet, they almost always collapse within 25 to 50 yards.
Few hunters shoot enough deer to perfect this shot, and most of us don't get to the range as often as we should. But you don't need a range to practice shooting deer. In many towns, it's legal to shoot air- or carbon dioxideÂ¿Â¿Â¿powered rifles indoors. When my wife first started hunting, we set photos of deer in the garage, and she shot them with a CO2 rifle. A few weeks later her first deer dropped to a precisely placed frontal shot from her .257 Roberts.
If you can't shoot indoors, dry-fire at deer photos. Despite what older hunters say, any modern bolt-action rifle can be safely clicked on an empty chamber. (Make sure the chamber and magazine are empty. Open the action and run your little finger inside the chamber, as sometimes a round won't eject.) If you hunt with another action type, contact the manufacturer to determine if it can be dry-fired without damage-or if the rifle's a common caliber, buy a snap cap at a local sporting-goods store. Aim the rifle as you would in the woods, and pull the trigger, watching where the crosshairs point as the gun goes click. Scopes of 3X or less are necessary to be able to focus on a deer photo across the room.
You can even use the technique on moving images. Turn on a deer hunting show or video. Don't shoot at moving deer, but do try to shoot the moment the deer stops. After a few sessions of shooting video deer, you'll be both more accurate and much quicker in the woods.
A Good Miss
The glorious thing about shooting for the epicenter is the room for error. Nobody places the bullet precisely every time, but you can miss the epicenter by a few inches iin any direction and still put a deer down quickly. Placed farther forward, the bullet breaks one or both shoulders, blowing bone into the deer's chest along with the bullet. A shot a few inches farther back still deflates both lungs. A little lower and the bullet finds the top half of the heart itself; a little higher and the bullet breaks the spine, dropping the deer instantly.
Angling shots are trickier. Bowhunters should attempt to shoot slightly from the rear so that the arrow avoids shoulder bones, allowing the broadhead to penetrate the chest cavity. Whether you're hunting with bow or gun, rear-quartering shots aimed for the front of the far shoulder will cross the epicenter.
Bowhunters should avoid frontal shots at any angle, because both shoulders and the sternum protect the heart-lung area. Even some slugs and bullets won't reliably penetrate the front end of a deer. Try yours first on 6 inches of dry newspaper, stacked upright in a box at 50 yards. If the projectile won't penetrate that far, it might not puncture a deer's sternum or shoulder. I've seen 150-grain bullets from both the .30/30 and .30/06 disintegrate on the shoulder bones of 120-pound deer.
Given enough bullet, on facing shots you hit the epicenter by aiming at the big dimple where a deer's throat enters the body. This shot often severs the spine along with major blood vessels, dropping the deer right there.
A bonus of the epicenter shot is better-tasting venison. Clipping the major blood vessels allows blood to pump out of the muscles and into the chest cavity. Meat with a high blood content tends to sour more quickly. Properly bled-out venison is sweeter and can be aged longer, resulting in tender steaks. After all, you'll want to savor your success after practicing all summer long.