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An effective, clean shot combines skill with the properly chosen equipment.

By Vin T. Sparano

he most important factor in killing big game quickly and cleanly is bullet placement. Even a .375 Magnum won’t knock down a small whitetail for keeps unless the deer is hit in a vital organ. Caliber means little if a hunter doesn’t put the bullet where it will be most effective. You’ll minimize chances of losing wounded game if you take the time to study the animals you hunt and learn the location of vital organs.

Click on an image to enlarge.
Here are the vital organs of a deer. Heart and lungs are the best targets since they offer the largest vital area.
 
If a buck walks under your tree stand, aim between the shoulder blades to put your bullet into the heart and lungs.
 
If a bear is unaware of your presence, try a heart or shoulder shot. Shoulder may be best, as it’s likely to drop the bruin.
 
A brain shot should be taken only when a bear is charging. The shoulder is a better and larger target area.
 
Aiming points for vital organs on frontal shot: try for upper part of heart so bullet will also hit lungs.
 
Game quartering toward you presents similar situation to an animal quartering away. Note aiming points.
 
When an animal is quartering away, aim farther back and drive bullet at an angle.
 

The accompanying drawings show the anatomy of popular big game and the aiming points that are important. The information should also benefit the bowhunter, whose arrow kills by hemorrhage. He should especially note the location of main arteries.

Though the most vital organ in any animal is the brain, you should rule out a brain shot 98 percent of the time. The brain is a small target and easy to miss. A brain shot is also a poor choice for a trophy hunter. A brain shot on a deer, for example, will shatter the base of the skull, making a head mount nearly impossible. Bears are scored by skull dimensions, and any head shot on a bruin will smash the skull and make scoring impossible. When is a brain shot justified? Only on dangerous game when it is charging. In North America, this means bears. Aim to hit two inches above the center of the eyes of a bear and you should hit the brain.

Neck shots involve some risk of wounding antlered game because the spinal column in the neck is only about two inches in diameter. If you hit neck muscles and arteries but miss the spine, your deer may run a fair distance before dropping. A neck shot is a fair choice only at close range, where you can be reasonably sure of putting your bullet into the spinal column.

What is the best shot? Let’s talk in terms of vital areas as opposed to vital organs. The forward one-third of a deer is a vital area since it houses the heart, lungs, several major arteries, spine and shoulder. Any bullet hitting these organs will bring down a big-game animal.

The best shot, then, is at a vital organ in a vital area---specifically the heart. Though a heart shot frequently will not drop an animal in its tracks, it is always a fatal shot, and tracking a heart-shot animal is not difficult. One big advantage of aiming for the heart is that a miss will generally still hit some other vital organ.

A shot at the heart, for example, will likely also put a bullet into the lungs. A hit in the lungs may knock a deer down through shock. If the lung shot doesn’t drop the deer quickly, the animal will still eventually die through hemorrhaging.

No animal can survive a bullet through the lungs, but it may sometimes travel a good distance. If you spot blood on brush a few feet off the ground and to the side of the tracks, blood is coming from the sides of the deer—a good indication of a lung hit. The deer will be bleeding freely and tracking should not be difficult. Frothy blood is another sign of a lung hit.

Recognizing blood and hair signs can also be useful to a hunter. Bright red blood generally means a heart or lung shot. A deer shot in the heart, however, may not start to bleed immediately, so follow the tracks until you can confirm a miss or hit. If you spot brown-yellow blood, particularly if bits of white hair are in it, you can be reasonably sure that the animal is gut shot. This is unfortunate since a gut-shot animal can travel a great distance before dying. If you’ve gut shot an animal, stick with the track. You’ll get it eventually, but it won’t be easy.

The track itself can be a tip-off to the location of the wound. A broken leg will show as drag marks in snow or mud. Blood in or right next to the tracks may also mean a leg wound.

If your initial shot is high, missing both heart and lungs, your bullet may still hit a vital spot. Such a shot may shatter the shoulder, breaking the animal down and rendering it helpless.

The only time a hunter should intentionally aim for the shoulder is on dangerous game. A bear hunter, for example, wants to knock down and immobilize a bruin quickly, especially if it’s charging. A shoulder shot will do it (if a brain shot is considered too risky), and the hunter can then put in a killing shot with little danger.

Once you know where the vital organs are, you must also know where to put your rifle sights in relation to the animal’s position.

To hit the heart when an antlered animal is broadside, put your sights just above where the foreleg joins the body. Aim a bit high, so that if you miss the top portion of the heart, you will still hit the lungs.

If a buck is facing you, put your sights just below dead center on its chest. If your shot is a good one, you will hit the top of the heart as well as the lungs.

If you are in a tree stand and a buck walks under you, a somewhat different problem arises. Since less heart and lung area is available, the best aim is right between the shoulder blades for a hit in the heart and lungs. Remember that you are shooting from above and various angles must be taken into account.

Quartering animals present some problems. Excited hunters frequently assume that a quartering animal presents the same target as a broadside. But on a deer quartering away, your points of aim should be farther back on the body.

Study these drawings and never forget that bullet placement, and not caliber, is the key to quick clean kills.

Reprinted from the Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia, by Vin T. Sparano. To order an autographed copy of this 830-page comprehensive volume contact: vsparano

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