Bowhunting Shots on Game: Part 1

When and where to shoot an animal is tricky business. How do we know when the ideal moment is to take a shot? The answer is we don’t until that moment has passed.

What about shooting distances, angles, and where exactly on that animal to slip in that arrow? Some of the most seemingly easy shots too often go wrong. Sometimes what looks like a big mistake can get the job done in seconds. It is an intriguing subject, shots on game. It is also one of the most controversial.

There are many writers who take an ivory tower stance, presumptuous that bowhunters will take their advice to take nothing other than a 20-yard broadside, standing shot. There also are a few who advocate some practices that are dubious at best. My attitude is that real world bowhunting sometimes calls for the bowhunter to make a shot in a difficult situation. It is plain and simple human nature, and it is the essence of a robust approach to bowhunting, the way bowhunting should be. My philosophy is to pass up the low-odds shot. Always shoot for the ideal, perfect shot, and when presented with something less than perfect, use your best judgment in whether to take the shot, and how to take the shot, always with responsible shooting and reverence for the game as your guide.

Achieve Penetration
Start with the objective of achieving full penetration — using a bow, arrow and razor-sharp broadhead designed to exit, creating two surface wounds, which will provide at least twice as much of a blood trail. If you are shooting from a tree stand, exiting at the bottom of the chest cavity will leave an easy to follow blood trail; if it doesn’t exit, the same shot may not leave any blood at all. The idea that it is better for the broadhead to remain inside the deer, creating more damage to the deer as it runs, is bogus.

Make A Heart/Double-Lung Shot
Always strive for a heart/double-lung shot, which is best achieved with a deer standing broadside at the same level or from a reasonable elevation, or tree stand height. As the angle of the animal varies from purely perpendicular to the arrow, the size of the heart/double lung target area shrinks. Heart shots may be a smaller target than the double lung area but are often a good choice, especially for accomplished archers in certain situations.

Choose your bowhunting shots on game with great care.

The Angling Away Scenario
The next best shooting position is with the target animal angled away at up to 45 degrees or so. This presents a smaller double-lung target, but easy access to all of the entire heart and lung vital areas. Some bowhunters believe that the angling away scenario is better than the broadside shot, but the heart and lung area is smaller from that angle, and the chance of encountering a leg bone on the exit side of the animal and thus beginning an exit wound is increased. One pitfall of this shot is that it is easy to forget that your aiming spot needs to change with the animal angled away. If you aim for the backside of the shoulder muscle as you would on a broadside shot, you are likely to catch only part of one lung or in severe angles, miss the chest cavity entirely. The rule of thumb on angling-away shots is to always imagine a line going to the opposite leg and aim for that point.

Aim Low, Forward
Aim low and forward. The vital area of deer and other big game is often misunderstood. That is partly due to erroneous vital zones depicted on diagrams and 3-D targets. The actual vital zone — meaning not necessarily all of the lungs, but the area where the shot will be lethal — is lower and farther forward than most bowhunters realize. On deer, aim at the back edge of the shoulder muscle, one-fourth of the way up the chest cavity. This gives a margin of error from about the midline to the very bottom of the chest cavity. Shots above the midline are going to be marginal, even when they catch the top of the lungs. Elk are especially notorious for that.

On the other hand, it is almost impossible to penetrate the chest cavity too low. I butchered a bull elk shot by a friend and noticed that the arrowhead scraped along the inside of the breastbone. It would have totally missed penetrating the chest cavity had it been a quarter inch lower. But the shot as it was killed the bull within seconds.

Keep in mind that the leg bone does not go straight up, as some people think, but angles sharply forward at the elbow, giving you virtually the entire shoulder muscle as a margin of error. On a whitetail, your margin of error going toward the rear of the animal extends perhaps 6 inches or so back of the shoulder crease where you will find the edge of the liver, on some animals with notable exceptions. Pigs and African animals have their vital zones tucked even farther forward and lower and any shots higher than a third of the way up the body or back of the shoulder crease are likely to result in long and fruitless blood trail.

There are several other considerations in judging bow shots, of course. I will discuss severe angles, moving shots, and string jumping in Part 2.

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One Response to “Bowhunting Shots on Game: Part 1”

  1. Thomas kelley

    Great information!