Anatomy of a Shot

Here's where to hold on big game and how to overcome odd shooting angles to guarantee success.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Whenever the topic of bullet placement is raised, a line from Shakespeare's Richard II comes to mind. "Let us sit upon the ground," it goes, "and tell sad stories." Rare is the hunter who has not likewise sat upon the ground before a campfire and told or listened to sad stories of shots gone astray and of well-hit animals that refused to fall.

I have a long list of such tales to tell, and two of the strangest are intertwined, beginning with a hunt a while back for elk and mule deer in the Teton Wilderness just south of Yellowstone Park. We'd hunted hard for a week without seeing anything worth shooting, and my guide Leo and I were making our way back to camp late in the day. Now and then we'd climb off our tired horses to glass the steep, boulder-strewn meadows in hopes of spotting elk that had come to graze. Low clouds were blowing out of Yellowstone and the first flakes of what was to become a blizzard were hitting my face when Leo suddenly wheeled his horse and came charging back down the narrow trail, frantically motioning for me to follow. A hundred yards up he stopped and slid out of his saddle, signaling for me to do the same and pointing at my rifle scabbard.

"There's a deer up there," he whispered, pointing through trees on the uphill side of the trail. "I didn't take time for more than a peek, but he seemed big. Let's get closer and have a better look."

Already I was working the bolt of my rifle and feeding a .338 Win. Mag. round into the chamber. The ammo was handloaded with 250-grain Nosler Partition bullets, a load that had performed perfectly on several big bull elk and was certainly more than good for even the biggest mule deer.

The buck was big and peacefully grazing about 125 yards above us in a narrow, steeply sloping meadow. When I crawled to a good shooting position the buck was facing downhill, angled at about 45 degrees. Aiming a bit low to account for the upward angle of the shot, I put the crosshairs on his chest just behind his left foreleg. From that position I figured the bullet would angle upward through the heart and traverse the chest cavity diagonally from bottom to top and front to back. A more effective bullet path is hard to imagine and I expected him to be dead before he hit the ground. But at the crack of the rifle the buck only raised his head, took a few casual steps forward and turned as if to see where the noise was coming from. Not believing what I was seeing, but thinking the shot must have been a clean miss, I rammed the bolt home on a fresh round and again put the crosshairs low on the deer's chest. Only this time his position was reversed, with his right shoulder exposed so that the bullet would follow an upward path angling right to left. With the second shot the deer took a couple of steps, stumbled and fell dead.

I don't remember exactly what was said -- something like, "Thank goodness for second shots," because every indication was that only the second shot had been on target. But when we climbed to where the buck lay in the gathering snow and rolled him over there were entrance holes on both sides! The first shot had hit exactly where I had wanted and the second bullet had followed, crossing paths through the lungs. When we field-dressed the animal Leo and I both remarked that the heart and lung damage was the most extensive either of us had ever seen. There simply wasn't anything there.

The morals of this story are many. Had I not previously seen that cartridge and bullet perform well on a number of elk, I could have come to any of several conclusions: 1) The .338 Magnum isn't enough gun for mule deer; 2) Nosler Partition bullets don't work; or, most likely, 3) the heart-lung area is a lousy place to shoot a deer. Of such conclusions as these are bitter opinions formed, thus becoming the stuff, like Shakespeare's Richard II, of sad stories. [pagebreak]

Cape Buffalo
The secondhapter of this tale came about a couple of years later when I was hunting giant eland in the parched, brushy wilderness of a country then known as the Central African Empire. The giant eland is one of Africa's most magnificent trophies and one of the most exasperating to hunt. My guide and I, with two African trackers, had spent several hot and thirsty hours hunkered in the shade of some crinkly-leafed thornbushes scanning game trails that crisscrossed the shimmering landscape. It was late in the afternoon. Still to come was a long trek over blistering hot sand back to the Land Cruiser, then a long hour back to camp and a cool drink that didn't taste like the gritty sludge we'd been sipping from a hemp bag. I was beginning to calculate how many fine guns I'd trade for a tall glass of ice water when one of the trackers, then the other, began making a soft, tongue-clicking sound that was their way of signaling game was in sight.

Following the direction of their eyes, I spotted the dusty black forms of two Cape buffalo angling toward us. One was ahead of the other and both were walking slowly, almost painfully, choosing their steps in the hot sand like two arthritic old men.

"That's a really big bull in front," I whispered.

"Jim," the guide hissed back, "he's one of the biggest bulls I've ever seen, high record book for sure. Can you take him?"

My general license allowed for two buffalo, but since I hadn't planned to hunt buffalo that day I hadn't brought a heavy-caliber rifle. All I had was a .338 Win. Mag. and handloads that were identical to those I used to kill the mule deer mentioned earlier. On previous safaris I'd taken buffalo with a .458 Win. Mag. loaded with 500-grain steel-jacketed solids. The idea of using solids on mean-tempered beasts such as Cape buffalo is not just for deep penetration, but also for busting big bones and breaking the animal down so he can't get at you. This is why many African guides favor hitting buffs high in the shoulder where there's a superstructure of shoulder and leg bones. The Nosler Partition isn't meant for this type of heavy-duty work, but rather for good expansion and deep penetration in softer tissue. Compounding the problem, the front sight on the guide's .375 had dropped off a couple days before, making him all but useless as my backup except at very close range. Of course, I could have passed on the buffalo, but that was a scarcely considered option. Record-book heads don't come plodding by every day and I was determined to get this one. In my favor was the direction in which the buffalo were headed, which would give me a broadside shot inside 100 yards, plus the fact that they had no clue of our presence. [pagebreak]

Show Time
My plan was simple; I'd put the first bullet square into the big bull's chest for a classic lung shot, then keep working the bolt as fast as I could with more of the 250-grain Partitions aimed into the heart-and-lung area. The drop-box magazine of my David Miller rifle held four rounds, plus one in the pipe, and I figured I'd need them all.

Slowly the bulls plodded closer, and when the big lead bull was broadside I quartered his dusty chest with the crosshairs and let fly with the first shot. Without even looking for effect I slapped the bolt and brought the crosshairs again to bear. But there was nothing but empty air!

In the instant it took to work the bolt the bull had crashed to earth with his hind leg outstretched and trembling, the way animals do when swiftly overtaken by death. The other bull was fast disappearing in a cloud of dust and the two trackers were joining their voices in a wailing sound of awe, feeling themselves to be in the presence of powerful magic. Even the guide had a stunned, unbelieving expression on his face and I probably did, too.

Had that been my only experience with Cape buffalo I would have come to at least three unyielding opinions:

1) The .338 Win. Mag. is more than enough gun for buffalo and heavier calibers are wasted effort;
2) buffalo are easy to kill; and, of course,
3) the center chest area is the perfect place to put a bullet on any game, which, again, is the stuff of campfire debates.

The goal of any hunter is to kill instantly, dropping the animal in its tracks, stone dead, as if the world has been jerked from under it. There is no disagreement here, but the debate over the best ways to go about it has probably been going on ever since the first caveman chucked a spear at a woolly mammoth, and there's no end in sight. All too often, though, hard-held opinions -- pro and con -- are based on isolated incidents. Some, perhaps, not too different from my above-related episodes with deer and buffalo, either of which, as a single experience, would yield totally opposing opinions of the worst and best places to place a bullet. [pagebreak]

Neck Shots
Talk to an old-time hunter who still hunts for whitetails in the Eastern timberlands and he'll let you know that if you aim anywhere except at a deer's neck you're wasting time and good venison. Nothing goes anywhere with its spinal cord snapped or paralyzed, so it would seem that the neck shot is the end-all solution to bullet placement. But there's the rub (apologies again to Shakespeare): The neck shot calls for a combination of favorable conditions to be successful. If you're a neck-shot devotee I won't try to talk you out of it, but you'll have to agree that the theory of the neck shot has to be tempered with the realities of the field, in which target position and marksmanship are major factors. I'm not being critical of the neck shot, I'm just using it to illustrate these realities.

The neck shot is at its best at short range, where the animal can be seen clearly, bullet placement is precise and bullet velocity is sufficient to deliver a paralyzing shock effect to the spinal cord even if the neck vertebrae are not hit. As the range increases, each of these plus factors diminishes progressively, meaning a neck shot that's easy at 50 yards isn't just four times more difficult at four times that distance. It's more like 8 or 10 times more difficult. So, logically, we have to probe elsewhere for a more suitable place to aim our bullets at longer ranges, where marksmanship becomes an increasingly important -- and finally overwhelming -- factor. That's why any theory of the best place to hit an animal is just that -- theory. Next time you're out West during hunting season, stop by some game-processing plants, as I often do, and take a look at the deer, antelope and elk hanging in the coolers. There you'll see the realities of bullet placement under real hunting conditions and fully understand that the "surgical bullet placement" we've read about is oee unyielding opinions:

1) The .338 Win. Mag. is more than enough gun for buffalo and heavier calibers are wasted effort;
2) buffalo are easy to kill; and, of course,
3) the center chest area is the perfect place to put a bullet on any game, which, again, is the stuff of campfire debates.

The goal of any hunter is to kill instantly, dropping the animal in its tracks, stone dead, as if the world has been jerked from under it. There is no disagreement here, but the debate over the best ways to go about it has probably been going on ever since the first caveman chucked a spear at a woolly mammoth, and there's no end in sight. All too often, though, hard-held opinions -- pro and con -- are based on isolated incidents. Some, perhaps, not too different from my above-related episodes with deer and buffalo, either of which, as a single experience, would yield totally opposing opinions of the worst and best places to place a bullet. [pagebreak]

Neck Shots
Talk to an old-time hunter who still hunts for whitetails in the Eastern timberlands and he'll let you know that if you aim anywhere except at a deer's neck you're wasting time and good venison. Nothing goes anywhere with its spinal cord snapped or paralyzed, so it would seem that the neck shot is the end-all solution to bullet placement. But there's the rub (apologies again to Shakespeare): The neck shot calls for a combination of favorable conditions to be successful. If you're a neck-shot devotee I won't try to talk you out of it, but you'll have to agree that the theory of the neck shot has to be tempered with the realities of the field, in which target position and marksmanship are major factors. I'm not being critical of the neck shot, I'm just using it to illustrate these realities.

The neck shot is at its best at short range, where the animal can be seen clearly, bullet placement is precise and bullet velocity is sufficient to deliver a paralyzing shock effect to the spinal cord even if the neck vertebrae are not hit. As the range increases, each of these plus factors diminishes progressively, meaning a neck shot that's easy at 50 yards isn't just four times more difficult at four times that distance. It's more like 8 or 10 times more difficult. So, logically, we have to probe elsewhere for a more suitable place to aim our bullets at longer ranges, where marksmanship becomes an increasingly important -- and finally overwhelming -- factor. That's why any theory of the best place to hit an animal is just that -- theory. Next time you're out West during hunting season, stop by some game-processing plants, as I often do, and take a look at the deer, antelope and elk hanging in the coolers. There you'll see the realities of bullet placement under real hunting conditions and fully understand that the "surgical bullet placement" we've read about is o