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Last Updated: Aug 6, 2010 - 1:11:39 PM
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Shot Placement on Whitetail Deer
By Darrin Bradley - IMB Outfitters
Mar 12, 2009 - 5:06:12 AM


All whitetail deer hunters whether novice or professional need to educate themselves with vital shot placement on trophy whitetail deer. This ensures or increases the whitetail deer hunters odds at completing an ethical and quick harvest of the deer. Also a correct shot placement will aid in the successful recovery of your trophy whitetail deer. This begins with the understanding of the anatomy of the whitetail deer. Different whitetail deer hunters prefer different shot placement. Most hunters prefer a heart or double lung shot placement, however there is some debate regarding just how high quality of a shot the heart really presents. Of course itís the fastest way to put a whitetail deer on the ground, aside from a spine shot and leaves a blood trail that a blind man could follow, but the heart shot presents it difficulties for the archery whitetail deer hunter especially. The location of the heart in the whitetail deer is a tad difficult to deliver a blow to. The heart lies low and is protected by the front leg and shoulder blade. Protection by the deerís leg and shoulder blade depends upon the way the deer is walking, standing, moving, and yardage. The whitetail deerís heart is only about the size of a baseball or tennis ball. Thus at increased yardage the heart presents less and less opportunity. The heart also becomes even more difficult for the bowhunter who has not rifle support or rest to stabilize the weapon movement prior to and during the shot opportunity. Just this past September I made a heart shot with a bow and arrow on a Pope and Young Whitetail Buck. While it was flattering and produced a blood trail out of this world I realized it was probably more luck than skill as the heart is so small and so very well protected. When bow hunting for whitetail deer I normally aim for the heart and if Iím off a few inches, as Iím caught up in the excitement of it all I normally get into vital areas surrounding the heart which results in a harvest. Thus I always aim for the heart but often times hit vital organs surrounding it that result in a harvest because of good shot placement on whitetail deer.

Of course heart shots with scoped rifles are much easier to complete the task on as a high powered rifle will demolish legs and shoulder blades. Thus with rifle hunting for whitetail deer my shot placement on whitetail deer as well as archery deer are always focused on the heart. Like any hunter I miss from time to time but anything close to the heart area usually results in one happy hunter and one fine shot placement on a whitetail deer. For high powered rifle hunters the best shot placement is without doubt the heart by aiming in the middle of the front shoulder just an inch high of center. With that type shot placement on whitetail deer they will pile up in a heap on the forest floor.

Again let us think about the hunter that aims for the heart. Even a slight error will still result in the hunter penetrating and destroying the vital organs needed to put a whitetail deer on his ďbehindĒ. The heart is so close to the neck, spine, esophagus, and all the major arteries surrounding those areas. The spine is 7 inches above the heart of the whitetail deer. Then you have the lungs and liver, which are almost as big as a dinner plate. Thus the entire area is about a minimum of 14 inches in height by about 20 inches in length. Now of course when we are shooting at the range and practicing we can all hit this size area unless we have a weapons problem, however put the majority of whitetail deer hunters in a treestand with a 180 inch deer under them often times the hunter misses. In fact several years ago I performed a study over the course of 1792 hunts with 34 hunters. Only 16% of those hunters that got a shot at a trophy whitetail buck killed the animal. As hunters some of us will just miss once in a while. The majority of the time most novice hunters will miss, especially with a bow until they perfect their ability to control buck fever.

Buck fever is one thing I am definitely a victim of. Literally if I would have harvested every Pope and Young Deer I have shot at less than 30 yards I would be leaps and bounds ahead of Myles Keller. Thus while one can be a great hunter, one must perfect shot abilities and recognize shot placement on whitetail deer. I have implemented many tricks over the years to control buck fever. Here are few things I have tried:

a. Counting backwards from 100 as soon as I see the buck.

b. Consciously breathing slower to attempt to reduce respiratory rates of my body to reduce shaking.

c. Once I verify I am looking at a trophy whitetail I never look at the rack of the whitetail buck again.

There are many things one can do to try and control buck fever however the greatest aid was simply experience and confidence along with much practice.
For example, this past summer I spent $350 on broadheads and purchased every brand of broadhead at the local archery shop. I came home and shot for hours to determine which broadhead flew the truest. It was the Rage 2 bladed broadhead without question. Days later I heart shot a Pope and Young drop tine buck. Also experience and confidence is simply something you earn. I used to think when a Pope and Young Deer was coming to within range that ďI wasnít possibly going to be taking him home.Ē Now when a record book deer comes into range I expect to be taking him home. Remember the buck fever is all mental with the exception of practice. With a rifle the quickest way to cure buck fever is with a rest. I always use a pair of shooting sticks when hunting whitetail deer. Donít try shooting off handed. Iíve missed a ton of deer trying to do this, even at short distances. So here is the question you need to ask yourself throughout the season, ďCan I make the shot? Of course you can.Ē

When archery hunting shot placement on whitetail deer is different. While I always aim for the heart I would prefer to have the double lung shot. I want to take two organs out at once, with it being the two organs that will literally prevent him from breathing. A one lung shot deer can live. A double lung shot deer is going down and going down fast. Also by shooting lungs your target increases to the size of a dinner plate. Now donít get over confident and take unethical shots. I will never forget in 2008 while guiding a hunter he took a 78 yard shot at a Boone and Crockett Buck simply because it was a Boone and Crockett Buck. How very dumb. All animals are to be respected and only ethical shots should be taken on any whitetail deer or for that matter any animal at all. With many outfitters if you draw blood your hunt is over. While that is not the case with IMB Outfitters we certainly donít promote unethical shots at whitetail deer. Personally I donít shoot at deer over 35 yards away. Know your limitations and abide by them at all times. Donít make exceptions.

With that said there is another breed of hunter that is totally off base. Again while I respect the Outdoor Channel they have tainted the difficulty of taking a trophy whitetail and make it look much easier than it is. Many videos have been produced about shot placement on whitetail deer, with the majority of them stressing that the archery hunter should only take the quartering away or broadside shot. Three years ago in Pike County, Illinois I retrieved a hunter I was guiding at dark. I ask him what he saw. He told me he had a 150 inch plus whitetail buck under his stand for over an hour but just couldnít get an ethical shot. Although I didnít preach to him I wanted to. This buck was literally 5 yards away from him for an hour. The problem was not that branches were in the way. The problem was he was waiting for a broadside shot or a quartering away shot which never presented itself. I say, ďShoot the damn thing.Ē In the woods things donít always happen like they do on television. The successful whitetail deer hunter will make his shots happen. You literally have to make it happen and turn opportunities into wall mounts. If youíre the hunter that waits for the perfect shot you are gonna get much less experience and take a lot less deer. For Godís sakes, shoot, shoot, shoot.

Now let me give you the practice speech. Both for gun hunters and bow hunters of whitetail deer. First off for bowhunter just go buy a Morrell 3D whitetail deer that shows vitals and get to shooting. Practice weekly at least. There are a ton of bowhunters that site into a specific weight or grain of field tip. Then they screw their broadheads on think the broadheads will shoot the same as the fieldtips. This is not true. If you know anything about the laws of physics regarding the flight of objects you know that different shapes fly differently through the air. While broadheads are very expensive I think and recommend you buy double the broadheads. Throw the fieldtips in the trash. Site into broadheads. The same broadheads you will shoot during season. Then after you are sited in take the dull practice broadheads off and screw on the new ones. Many times broadhead companies provide a practice tip. Trust from my experience and tons of experiments that often times that practice broadhead provided with the broadheads fly totally different. Donít leave your shot of a lifetime open to chance. Shoot the same exact broadheads while practicing that youíll shoot afield. You can try and achieve proper shot placement for whitetail deer hunting but without experimenting with your equipment your simply guessing. Iíve lost a ton of deer due to being too tight to shoot brand new broadheads into a target knowing I was ruining them for hunting, but making sure my arrows were going to land where I aimed. The only thing the field tips are good for is to practice during the Spring and Summer months to develop your form as an archer.

Visit your local hunt shop and make sure your draw length is correct, your bow is tuned, your string is healthy, and stay abreast of the latest equipment offered as the hunt industry advances. You are still going to miss from time to time but you can significantly reduce your failure and create successful harvest of trophy whitetail bucks.

Now back to practicing. Without practice at any sport you will begin to dull your senses no matter your experience or age. You must practice and not take your abilities and skills for granted. Very few hunters are naturals and just flat out donít miss. I remember a childhood friend named Kevin Stone who could play the piano by ear. It was amazing to see Kevin who knew nothing of pianos be able to hear a tune and then walk over the piano and play the song without any prior piano lessons. Archers are never ďplaying by earĒ but rather are people who develop and continue to enhance their skills with practice. If you donít practice, you simply donít need to be archery hunting. I know itís a hard thing to say but itís true.

Now lets discuss the archer that is simply too hard on themselves. Just two years ago I had a hunter that bought an annual pass with IMB Outfitters. He paid $12,500.00 to hunt all 5 States that IMB Outfitters is in on an unlimited basis. He promptly reported to Pike County, Illinois and wounded a 160 inch deer. This hunter got so upset he quit bowhunting on the spot. That is just flat wrong. Donít ever give up. For every deer you miss or opportunity you mess up your one hunt closer to a breakthrough. I promise you will see that breakthrough if you donít give up. It is almost a suicidal mentality of ďIll show you, Iíll kill me.Ē

If you a hunter you know that when it comes to whitetail deer shot placement must be reviewed time and time again. Shot placement is everything when it comes to retrieving the whitetail deer or not. If you are gonna consistently harvest whitetail deer your gonna have to do your homework on shot placement on whitetail deer. Remember the right spot to hit is a flexible spot and much larger than what you may think. Much of your success will depend upon the angle of the deer as viewed by the hunter, the distance of the deer from the hunter, what weapon you are using, along with many other variables surrounding shot placement like windage, rests, the state of the deer, the size of the deer, etc. Again the traditional kill zone is still the hunter's best bet. This zone includes the shoulder area, and behind it the heart and lungs. Viewed broadside, it is roughly centered on the rear of the shoulder. This gives the hunter the best chance at hitting vital organs and/or the shoulder. Depending on the size of the whitetail deer, you're shooting at a zone that's approximately the size of a supper plate. Hit the lungs, and the deer will run a few yards and collapse. Hit the heart and you will likely also hit the lungs, and the deer usually won't go far. Hit the shoulder bones, and you break the deer down as well as probably hitting vitals - it usually falls on the spot, if shot with a firearm, and if it keeps kicking it's just where you want it, and you can easily deliver a finishing shot.

There are several things to look for after the shot to determine what type of hit you have placed on the deer. If the deer kicks his legs up like a rodeo bronco then youíve hit heart most times. If the deer runs hard and fast without thought to direction thatís commonly called a ďdeath run.Ē If the deer hunches up and acts lethargic heís probably gut shot. If he mindlessly bounds off without a care and looks back heís probably not hit, but deserving of your tracing abilities. The ethical whitetail deerhunter will always look for any deer he has shot at unless the arrow is retrieved thus proving a hit was not made.

When archery hunting whitetail deer you have the advantage of examining the arrow after the shot if you have a pass through shot. If the arrow has tiny bubbles on it your into the lungs. If you have dark purple blood your into the liver. If the arrow smells like deer droppings and has undigested materials on it you are into gut shot deer as well. If you have white hair on the arrow itís a low hit. The arrow most often times tells the story on archery shot whitetail deer. Pay special attention to the arrow.

Iíve heard hunters say they donít like the shoulder shot with a gun as it will waste meat. The truth is I'd rather lose a pound or two of meat than to lose the entire deer because of a marginally-placed shot.

Proper shot placement is vital if you expect to take your trophy home.

Donít take head shots. While the majority of whitetail hunters know not to do this it bears mention. Itís a good way to injure a deer and a greater way to flat out miss a whitetail deer. Shot placement on whitetail deer is vital and deserves much study. Stick with your high percentage heart target shots. This way if you do make a slight error youíll still very likely to hit whatever you need to take home the whitetail deer of a lifetime or even just that big doe to put in the freezer to make some great chili, or a vast array of other venison recipes. Always take your time on a shot. Still to this day my biggest mistake is hurrying the shot and being paranoid about the deer moving outside of kill range in the blink of an eye. Hurried shots on whitetail deer are a hunterís worst enemy. You can miss the deer or shoot a deer you donít want to harvest. Remember though there is a happy medium. You donít want to wait too long. In 2008 in Iowa I was guiding a doctor that had a million dollar deer come to within 45 yards of him. The deer was 6 inches outside of each ear. The hunter wanted to look at the deer in his binoculars. By the time he was through looking at the deer and reached for his gun the deer was not in a shooting lane to deliver a shot into. Once you determine itís an animal you want to harvest you need not study it with optics any longer. Let the arrow or bullet fly.

Here are some tips on possible shot placement for whitetail deer that may present themselves to you on occasion.

  • Walking Away (steep angle): About 45 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed. The tendency is to shoot too far forward: aim along an imaginary line exiting between the deer's front legs
  • Quartering Toward (steep angle): About 55 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed, but is protected by the shoulder bone. The deer would probably see you move to prepare for the shot.
  • Quartering Away (steep angle): About 55 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed. Aim along an imaginary line exiting low on the far shoulder. In this position the deer is not likely to see your movement.
  • Broadside (ground shot): With 100 percent of the heart-lung area exposed, you have a target roughly the size of an 8 inch paper plate with room for error. By far the best shot to hope for.
  • Quartering Toward (ground shot): About 65 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed. Aim for the near shoulder. Don't try this shot with a bow; you'll hit the shoulder bone.
  • Quartering Away (ground shot): About 60 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed. Aim along an imaginary line through the deer's far shoulder.
  • Head On (ground shot): Only 35 percent of the heart-lung area is exposed, this shot is too risky for archers. Gun hunters should also avoid this shot. You risk the bullet deflecting off the shoulder bone and only wounding the deer. Wait for a better shot!
For the best in whitetail hunts go to: IMB Monster Bucks

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