To kill an animal with a single shot is the goal of every responsible hunter. Most of us were taught to put a bullet in the “boiler room,” the heart and lungs. But should we be aiming elsewhere? We asked a number of deer cullers, those sharpshooters whose job requires them to kill deer quickly, for their perspectives on bullet placement. Their advice, detailed below, is: “It depends.” On distance, bullet type, shooting ability, and even meat retention.
When you sharpshoot deer for a living, as Grant Woods did for 21 years, “you can’t afford misses or wounded deer running around,” he says. Both cost you time and money–especially a wounded, bleeding deer, running for its life and spooking other deer.
How do you guarantee a drop-it-where-it-stands shot? For Anthony DeNicola, owner of White Buffalo, a top deer-control operation, it’s all about the brain.
“Draw a line from tear duct to tear duct, then go 2.5 to 2.75 inches above that line, centered,” says DeNicola. “That’s where you want to place your bullet–first and best option.”
A bullet in the brain instantly incapacitates the animal; death follows in seconds. Of course, DeNicola and his team have an advantage over hunters: They shoot at night with infrared optics, from raised, mobile platforms, over bait, at known distances (usually 50 to 60 yards), and (where legal) with suppressed rifles.
DeNicola uses .223-caliber rifles, firing 50- to 55-grain frangible varmint projectiles that expend all their energy into the brainpan. In the urban and suburban environments in which he works, DeNicola can’t afford to have a round exiting an animal.
Second option: A brain shot from the side. Third: A shot just below the back of the skull in the first four cervical vertebrae of the spine.
“The deer drop immediately,” DeNicola says of the vertebrae shot. “Heart and lung functions will cease. They lose consciousness and die in eight to 12 seconds.”
If he’s only got a shot lower down on the neck, DeNicola will usually wait for a better option. In his business, body shots are way too risky.
The Double-Shoulder Shot
Woods, a noted whitetail biologist, did much of his deer-control work on golf courses. There, shots usually ranged between 200 and 300 yards. His first choice was the double-shoulder shot, with a .308 round entering a shoulder blade on one side, slamming through the body and into the far shoulder blade.
“If you watch slow-motion video of a deer being shot this way, its whole body flexes when the bullet hits,” says Woods. “That snaps the spine. That deer’s never going to move again.”
What does all this mean for hunters? Well, forget the head shot, advises Chad Stewart, a deer biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources who worked for two deer-control operations and sees plenty of hunter-killed deer in his job.
“If a deer is facing you and you’re on the ground and aiming for the brain cavity,” says Stewart, “a half inch too low and you’re going to hit the nose. A half inch too high will be over its head.”
Stewart recommends the placement most of us grew up learning, the boiler-room shot, through the heart-lung area with the deer standing broadside. Even if you’re a couple of inches off, you still hit vital organs. But even with a solid hit, a decent percentage of deer will run off, requiring that hunters follow a blood trail to recover the animal.
For his own recreational deer hunting, Woods still likes the double-shoulder shot and the larger target it provides. It can damage more meat than the heart-lung approach, “but you’re much more likely to recover your deer with that double-shoulder shot,” Woods says. “You’re not saving any meat if you lose the deer.”
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Where to Shoot
High Shoulder Pros: The ultimate shock-and-awe shot. A big, fast-moving bullet will snap the spine, short-circuit the nervous system, break ribs, and anchor a deer with authority. Cons: The volatile, upsetting bullets best suited for this shot damage a lot of meat, from the shoulder through the neck and upper backstrap. Plus, it’s easy to miss high when aiming here.
Heart-Lung Pros: An ample target provides some forgiveness, meaning you don’t have to be pinpoint accurate to kill a deer. This shot creates massive hemorrhaging, so the blood trail is typically easy to find and follow. Cons: If you clip only part of a single lung, the deer may recover. Plus, deer don’t always go down immediately with this shot, meaning that you often have to follow a blood trail. Light bullets that careen off a rib or shoulder bone aren’t always lethal.
Brain Pros: A deer dies instantly when its brain takes a direct hit. Plus, there is very little meat lost to a head shot. Cons: The brain is a tiny target, and it’s easy to miss the deer entirely or, worse, to wound it through the jaw.
Neck Pros: A correctly placed bullet will kill with massive shock to the spinal cord and vertebrae while damaging very little meat. Cons: The vital area on a neck shot is quite small. Hit low, and you will wound a deer with very little chance of recovery. Plus, this shot often merely paralyzes a deer, requiring a second shot or throat slit to finish the job.