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The hunting world revolves around respect. As hunters, we respect game laws, land owners and our fellow hunters. But above all, we respect and honor the game we chase. That’s why we focus on quick, clean, humane kills. We owe them that much.
Before we discuss where to shoot a deer, a quick anatomy lesson will help you understand why shot placement is so important.
Table of Contents
- 1 Deer Vitals
- 2 Best Shot Placement
- 3 Deer Shot Angles
- 4 Unethical Shots To Avoid When Hunting Deer
- 5 Final Thoughts On The Best Place to Shoot A Deer
When hunting deer, there are basically six different vital organs hunters can target when lining up a shot: the brain, the spinal column, the jugular vein running through the neck, the lungs, the heart, and the liver. A direct hit to any one of these vital organs from a bullet, slug, or broadhead will result in a downed deer and a successful hunt.
But when it comes to shot placement, not all vitals are created equal. Some are much more difficult to hit accurately and that can lead to a world of problems.
Best Shot Placement
Before we discuss shot placement, know this—every deer acts differently when shot. Some will jump straight up, kick their back legs out and sprint off in the direction they were facing when hit. Others will instantly drop to the ground. It all depends on the type of ammunition you’re using, the distance you are to the animal, and the spot of the impact.
Here’s where to shoot a deer with a rifle or shotgun:
Behind the Shoulder Shot Placement
This is, without question, the best place to shoot a deer if the opportunity presents itself. It presents the largest target area giving you direct access to the heart and lungs. Follow the back of the front leg up and aim just below the halfway point on its chest. Pick a specific spot just behind the leg, take a deep breath and gently squeeze the trigger.
An accurate shot here with the appropriate caliber will crush one lung, maybe both and could even hit the heart as well. This will immediately lead to massive blood loss and a quick death.
High Shoulder Shot Placement
Another proven spot. Aim two-thirds up the body and a bit forward of the shoulder’s center. A well-placed round here will penetrate both lungs and can even perforate the spine. Your deer may run a few yards but he won’t run far.
Front Chest Shot Placement
There’s more than one way to get to the lungs and heart. If you find yourself staring directly at a deer, slowly place your crosshairs directly on the middle of his chest and pull that trigger. Your round will enter the deer’s chest cavity and explode both lungs and the heart in quick order.
Deer Shot Angles
The problem with deer? They’re unpredictable. Yes, trail cameras, rubs and scrapes can help you establish a general idea of where they live and when they move. But none of that will tell you which direction the deer will approach your blind or tree stand. They may walk out of the tree line directly in front of your blind or literally walk under your tree stand. That’s why a quick lesson on the appropriate angles to shoot a deer from is vital to your next hunt.
Remember, we’re looking for the best shot angle to harvest that deer quickly and ethically:
Broadside Shot At Eye Level
While there’s nothing easy about a real deer hunt, having a broadside deer present itself at eye level comes close. You’ll have an unobstructed, straight shot to the heart and both lungs. This deer shot also gives you the widest margin of error. If your shot is an inch high off the mark, you’ll still hit both lungs and could possibly clip the top of the heart. Even if it’s a little off to the left or right, you’ll still wreck the lungs.
This is the shot we dream of at night.
Quartering Away Shot At Eye Level
Another good angle. In fact, a lot of experienced rifle hunters actually prefer this one to the broadside deer shot. Why? Because the deer is literally looking in another direction and is less likely to see you shoulder your rifle or shotgun. And you’re looking directly at a straight shot to its vitals.
Keep in mind our angle has changed from the broadside approach. Here you want your aiming point further back from the deer’s front shoulder. What you’re really doing is aiming at the opposite-side shoulder, which is where your bullet or slug will exit.
If your aiming point is too far forward on the shoulder, you’ll destroy the leg but miss the heart and lungs. Too far back and you’ll likely hit the liver and nick a lung. Yes, that would still be a fatal wound but it usually takes much longer for the deer to expire. In fact, it can take 3-5 hours for a liver-shot deer to die. Effective? Yes. Ethical? Questionable.
In other words, don’t miss the lungs on this angle.
Quartering Toward Shot At Eye Level
A more challenging angle for sure. It may look like an attractive shot to take but there’s risk involved. You’re almost guaranteed to damage the front shoulder meat (that’s great for making burgers, roast, sausage or jerky). Depending on the trajectory, there’s also a very good chance you’ll do substantial damage to the intestines.
Deer intestines are a reservoir of bacteria; perforating it with a bullet or slug will release that bacteria into the gut which can spoil a large amount of meat in a short amount of time.
But again, deer are unreliable. If this is the only shot you have, aim at the front side of the closest shoulder and send it. You’re hoping the bullet or slug exits the middle or back of the opposite ribcage. This path should puncture both lungs (and maybe even the heart) while missing the intestines.
Broadside Shot At Elevation
The game changes when you’re hunting deer from above. Whether you’re using a ladder stand, treestand, or relaxing in an elevated blind, your shooting angles will change slightly but your targets won’t. You’re aiming point is still the heart and lungs.
The elevated broadside deer shot is the one we all hope for. Aiming just behind the high shoulder is the shot to smash the lungs and drop the deer quickly. That’s the goal, right?
Quartering Away Shot At Elevation
Take a deep breath and calm down if a deer walks directly in front of your blind or walks under your treestand (trust us, it’s harder to do than you think). He’s offered you a fantastic chance to fill the freezer. Because he’s walking away from you at an angle, you want to set your crosshairs on the opposite shoulder. The vitals will be exposed and one well-placed shot just behind the front shoulder will destroy them in short order.
Quartering Toward Shot At Elevation
Honestly, this isn’t the best situation to be in. Because the shoulders of a deer’s body guard the heart and lung, one quartering towards you requires an almost perfect shot. There’s a lot of bone between you and those vitals, and at that angle there’s a good chance you’ll miss one lung and the heart altogether. That’s why it’s usually best to pass up this shot and wait for a better one.
Unethical Shots To Avoid When Hunting Deer
It happens to the best of us. Regardless of how much time you spend at the range before the season starts, you may still make a bad shot in the field. You might miss a little high and shoot above the lungs requiring a follow-up shot. Or you may hit too far off the shoulder and impact the guts. Not ideal shot placements at all, but your intentions were good and you tried to do the right thing the right way.
But making a bad shot and taking a bad shot are two totally different things. While it’s good to know the best place to shoot a deer, it’s just as important to know what shots to avoid.
Taking a bad shot can have devastating consequences. While it will severely wound the animal, it usually won’t kill it quickly. In fact, the deer may live for days (even weeks) long after you’ve left the field. And there’s nothing ethical about that.
The Running Shot
Is it possible to shoot a deer trotting across your treestand or blind? Yes. Is it easy to hit a moving target running 10 to 12 mph with a bullet or slug? No. Lead him too far ahead and you’ll hit the neck. Pull the trigger late and you’ll hit his hind quarter. Only keyboard hunters think this is a good shot to take.
Possibly the worst shot you can take. Why? Because the only way a deer will drop from a head shot is by hitting the deer’s brain. A brain shot is equivalent to hitting a target the size of a human fist at distance. Miss by an inch either way and that deer (that’s now your responsibility) will suffer unnecessarily. All because of you.
Another shot that leaves little room for error. There are hunters who actually prefer the neck shot because hitting the spine will drop the deer in its tracks. It’ll also preserve a large amount of meat on the animal. The problem, again, with this shot is its difficulty. Missing the spine means you may nick the windpipe or esophagus. That won’t down the deer and THAT means you could be tracking it for hours.
This one makes no sense because there are no vital organs in the paunch (or back-end of the deer’s body). Sure, hitting the liver will eventually kill the gut shot deer but that’s tucked between the lungs and stomach. Destroying the stomach or intestine behind it will result in a deer that runs and doesn’t leave much of a blood trail. This is the shot that only uneducated hunters attempt.
If the head shot is possibly the worst shot a hunter can take, the straight-away shot is arguably the dumbest. This is when an amateur hunter shoots his deer directly in the ass hoping to sever the spine or hit the vitals. That rarely happens and you’re usually left with a severely wounded deer that will run into the next county. All because you took a bad shot. Also known as “The Texas Heart Shot” in reference to these novice hunters acting like reckless cowboys in the field.
Most rifle hunters aren’t fans of this one, either. It’s extremely hard (if not downright impossible) to hit both lungs when the deer is directly below your tree stand. Chance are you’ll miss the vitals altogether and hit farther back on the animal than you intend. Just wait a few seconds, calm yourself, let the animal pass by and wait for that quartering-away or broadside shot.
A fairly controversial shot. Some argue it signifies the peak of hunting prowess; being able to sneak up on a deer bedded down is definitely a sign of skill and woodsmanship. There’s also something to be said for harvesting an animal while it sleeps—it literally won’t know what hit it. However, others claim this is a clear violation of the Fair Chase doctrine. The animal must have a decent chance of escaping and shooting it while asleep is anything but fair. At the end of the day, it’s your call. If it feels wrong, don’t do it.
Without question, this is the most hotly debated shot online, in the media, and around the campfire. A majority of deer are shot at a distance of less than 200 yards but there are videos online that capture mule deer being dropped at 1,135 yards (over 10 football fields in length). At distance, the hunter has almost zero margin for error; at best you’ll miss the deer’s body entirely, and at worst you’ll just cripple him. Sure, you may be using the right rifle, caliber, and scope but at that range, you’ll need to factor in additional elements like wind speed, wind direction, elevation, temperature, and even humidity. If you don’t know why, don’t even think about pulling that trigger on a distant deer.
Final Thoughts On The Best Place to Shoot A Deer
If you are new to hunting, on behalf of the estimated 15.2 million hunters in the United States, welcome to the family.
Hunting deer can be one of the most challenging, exciting, and rewarding ways to spend time in the field. Whether hunting with friends or by yourself, it can change the way you see the world and your place in it.
So keep reading. Keep learning. Find out what the game laws are in your state. Whatever you do, don’t get paralyzed by the never-ending debate on what caliber is best for hunting deer. Just get your hands on a good rifle or shotgun, become familiar with it at the range, and find a spot to chase deer.
When the time comes to pull the trigger on your first buck or doe, you may recall the old adage that says you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, but more importantly, you must know when it’s best not to take a shot at all.