Right or Wrong, It’s Bowhunting’s Most Controversial Shot

Would you take this shot — the controversial Texas heart shot — on this or any other deer if this was the only option? It’s a question that’s debated and has no clear-cut answer because each hunter’s ethics are different.

There has been much debate about taking a rear-end bowshot on a whitetail. First off, is it effective? Second, is it even ethical?

Editor’s note: Deer & Deer Hunting has presented numerous articles on the controversies surrounding shot placement and wounded deer over the past 40 years. We present this article not as an endorsement but rather a starting point for conversations in your deer camp. For even more on this specific topic, refer to Dr. Phillip Bishop’s “The Femoral Artery” physiology article in our Blood-Trailing Whitetails CD at www.ShopDeerHunting.com.

After years of hunting with gun and archery gear, Norman Johnson is confident with his shooting skills to be able to take the controversial “Texas heart shot” but only in certain circumstances.

Things appeared right about this late-October bowhunt. We had set up a 16-foot ladder stand a month earlier where a cropland corner borders a large woods. Deer like to feed here on the late alfalfa or cut corn and enter the field through a sort of funnel. The corn had been picked a week earlier and my plan was to make that late after- noon my first hunt of the season.

During the first hour, several antlerless deer filtered into the recently picked cornfield and remained there the entire time I was on stand. I had doe tags, which I may have filled had the opportunity presented itself. Then, much to my surprise, with about 20 minutes of legal hunting light remaining, a huge buck appeared like a ghost in the field. It quickly scent-checked two of the does and then left the field — using the trail that leads directly toward my stand!

As the stand was set up, any deer continuing in on this trail would make a gradual turn, presenting a perfect 18- to 20-yard broadside shot. But it wasn’t to be. The buck stopped at about 20 yards directly facing me, staring in my direction in a sort of stand-off posture. My heart sank as it turned abruptly and departed back the upward sloping trail. Bucks don’t get that big and old by not trusting their instincts.

As the buck reached a point 30 yards from my position, it turned and stopped, presenting a quartering- away angle, with its entire chest and abdomen totally obscured by brush, leaving only its semi-broadside hindquarters clearly exposed. Seasoned bowhunters must come to trust their instincts, too, and go into action as quickly as their quarry, but it’s no time for impetuous moves.

Scarcely more than a few seconds lapsed before I was at full readiness. I had contemplated just such a shot in my mind many times before and placed full trust in my ability to make the critical shot being momentarily presented to me. My crossbow was spot-on, and I had earlier ranged the near level shot at about 30 yards. But before I proceed with the suspenseful details of this unusual situation, I want to further support or vindicate the decision I made in making the shot.

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In the pages of the November 2007 issue of Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, I covered the spine and aorta shots in bowhunting in much detail. Such shots are highly elusive but deadly, most frequently the result of a misdirected arrow and seldom intentionally attempted. For this discussion I will be dealing with the terminal part of the aorta as well.

In defining the probabilities of making the rear-end (ham) shot, here are a few important things the bowhunter should know and consider before attempting the shot.

Deer don’t always give you a broadside or quartering shot. Whatever shot you decide to take, you have to be confident in your skills before making it. If in doubt, don’t.

Anatomically, the aorta originates at the top of the heart and curves upward and rearward, supplying blood to the entire body. It continues on immediately beneath the spine leading posteriorly to the pelvis, hips and hams, or buttocks, and lower hind legs.

The upper hindquarters of a deer are a highly blood-rich region, just below where the aorta bifurcates (branches) to a network of other arteries, deep femoral and common femoral arteries, terminating in the lower legs. The vascularity (blood supply) to the entire rear end, including the hams, presents a very effective killing shot for a sharp, well-placed broadhead.

The ideal, and larger, easier target is a shot to the mid-ham, either from behind or laterally at about mid-height of the lowered tail. The quartering-away shot can present an even better opportunity, as was being presented to me, directing the broadhead toward a secondary target involving the larger blood vessels originating at the aortic bifurcation via the forward part of the deer’s ham as the primary target.

This quartering-away shot from a more horizontal position, a bit forward and higher, gets closer to the source of these great vessels, creating more massive hemorrhaging. Such a shot poses somewhat more risk of hitting the iliac (pelvic bone) and should not be attempted from an elevated position. The position of the deer’s hind leg, forward or back, plays a part, too, particularly with the lower ham region.

Choosing the right broadhead you have confidence in is a critical element in creating your best setup for bowhunting.

As the extremity moves, the lower blood supply comprising part of the primary target moves with it. The higher an arrow is launched from a treestand, the more difficult it will be to make a good rear end shot, too. It’s largely about angles, and while making the critical shot covered in this text, I would have the advantage of a near level angle to my target, posed semi-broadside.

While working 25 years in the field of radiology directly performing angiography on all parts of the human body, we clearly demonstrated the highly vascular blood supply to this entire region. Man and animal share a direct resemblance in anatomical and physiological makeup, as blood is pumped to all regions of the body. Main arteries resemble the roots of a tree comprised of divisions that branch and re-branch, finally forming smaller vessels. A large enough, razor-sharp broadhead is imperative as an anti-prothrombin (coagulation) measure.

As bowhunters, we have a responsibility to learn as much as we possibly can about the vascular anatomy and skeletal protection afforded all regions of the deer’s body before we even think of attempting a shot. We owe the animals we hunt this moral and ethical responsibility. I like to visualize a deer as a highly complex arrangement of blood vessels protected by a network of bones as I seek a place to direct my razor-sharp broadhead. This phase of archery hunting has continued to intrigue me.

Back in 1991, Deer & Deer Hunting offered an illustrated “Hunter’s Guide” with detailed overlays of a deer’s entire skeletal, muscular and circulatory systems. Studying such a resource leaves less guesswork for the bowhunter. They also offer further such resources at www.ShopDeerHunting.com.



Here I shall briefly provide the thoughts of a few bowhunters, including those of my own long-time hunting partner, on this somewhat controversial issue, prior to providing my own mentation on the subject following the drama of my big buck.

Both the late John Trout Jr. and Chuck Adams coined the phrase, “The deer (should be) (is) in a big heap of trouble” referring to the rear-end shot. Adams wrote this in his book, “The Complete Book of Bowhunting” (1978): “I’ve personally shot over a dozen deer in the rear-end and none went over 100 yards before keeling over.”

Trout, widely considered one of the foremost experts on blood-trailing whitetails, was more reserved. He said he had recovered many whitetails shot through the hips, even when the femoral artery was missed. He concluded: “Nonetheless, a hip shot is not a shot that any hunter should take intentionally.”

A few other bowhunters echo this feeling, including my brother and close bowhunting partner of 34 years. Although he has severed the spinal canal on 11 whitetails, all of which were tagged, as an experienced bowhunter he knows each of these successfully killed deer were as close to a wounding shot and possibly lost deer as he could get.

In the October 2014 issue of D&DH, Patrick Meitin referred to the straight-away ham shot as, “The Texas Heart Shot.” He contends that this shot should not be purposely taken unless you are a cool enough shot within your comfortable range, and only with a bow with enough energy. I guess that makes good sense. My devoted bowhunting son, and holder of Wisconsin’s highest scoring 8-point whitetail record (166 inches) since 1992, tends to share my views on this controversial issue.

I would hasten to say our responsibility as bowhunters is to remain objective as we try to learn as much as we can. An effective and responsible shot for one might be totally inhumane and quite unethical for another. I would further argue that the rear-end shot poses far less risk of only wounding by a good bowhunter than shots taken by bowhunters who head out with questionable shooting ability, dull broadheads, poorly sighted bows or inadequate knowledge of deer anatomy.

Am I suggesting these bowhunters should not be out there? Absolutely not, provided they are willing to make a good effort to learn and improve — then they belong there.

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So, here I was at 30 yards, looking at the quartering-away rear-end of a magnificent buck with its chest and abdomen now totally obscured by brush. I had instinctively calculated where my broadhead would hit from point-of-aim with the arrow leaving the bow at very near the same level as the deer up on the slope. The instinctive thought process took perhaps three seconds and the arrow was on its way. If one fails to have things clearly thought out before the moment of truth, it might be too late.

As a former U.S. Marine rifleman, followed by many years of hunting, I have become quite good at calling my shots with gun or bow. Things looked right-on as I released the arrow. At the shot, the buck turned sharply and quickly departed in the direction it had appeared, disappearing into the woods about 80 yards across the corner of the picked cornfield. Light was fading fast, so I immediately got down from the stand and headed directly to the hit site for any meaningful post-shot analysis. I was well below the level of the rise in the field so my flashlight would not disturb the departed buck.

I found neither blood nor hair, or my arrow, at the grass and weed covered hit site. All but the most conspicuous sign is difficult to see in this type light or cover. My immediate plan switched to a search in the known direction the buck departed or as closely as I could. No discernible blood, hair or arrow was found out as far as 70 yards, just about 10 yards immediately before the wood’s edge. As aimed, I felt the arrow might have been true to its mark and passed through the ham and cut a major internal artery, thus preventing significant external blood loss because I had chosen to aim a little higher and more forward than the usual ham shot. And yes, the dreadful thought of a poorly placed arrow also raced through my mind.

While well-made crossbows are very accurate, they all are also very, very noisy. An alert deer can react to this. Basic math shows us if an arrow is traveling 300 fps, it would require .3 seconds to cover the 90 feet to my buck. The underlying problem is that sound travels about 1,100 fps, allowing this alert, old fellow more than .2 seconds to react. That’s plenty of time for these wild, wound-up animals.

These can be troublesome times for bowhunters, particularly with such an animal as I had just shot at, and I really wanted this buck! Then some pretty fair bleeding ensued. I would carefully follow it only a very short distance into the woods and sneak out of there for a morning return with my brother. But then, while still on the blood trail, the beam of my flashlight cast upon the largest whitetailed buck I had ever arrowed! The huge animal was piled up against a tree. As I walked down to it I looked up and said, “What a buck. Thank you, Lord.”

Practice makes perfect for learning about your crossbow and becoming comfortable and proficient with it.

A careful post mortem of the animal clearly revealed the cutting path of my broadhead. It had entered the buck’s right ham at an angle close to where I had aimed, a bit high and forward at a point midway to its lowered tail as considered optimal height. It then passed at an angle through the anterior, blood-rich ham, angling directly to the bifurcation (division) of the aorta and common iliac artery, a shot quite impossible from a steeply elevated treestand.

The arrow, while still in the deer, almost fell out as I pulled on it. Extensive internal bleeding had ensued — the obvious reason I didn’t find early blood in the cornfield. The broadhead never touched bone. I had estimated if the buck departed at 20 mph at roughly 10 yards per second, it died within about 12 seconds, ending at the 125-yard stretch.

As John Trout quoted Tim Hillsmeyer in John’s book, “Finding Wounded Deer,” “Big bucks die hard.” But a sharp, well-directed broadhead to this big buck’s rear-end ended its life as quickly as you will see on an animal of this size. I had used a very sharp, much modified 180-grain Thunderhead broadhead with the chisel point much shortened and rounded, all three ferrules milled out and the web at the back of the blade thinned down, resulting in a modified version at 124 grains with a 1.35-inch cutting diameter. It’s a true killer and is extremely durable, too. I would not use mechanical-style broadheads for this particular shot.

The field-dressed weight of this buck was 251 pounds, and antler tip to rear hoof measured 8 feet, 6 inches. Though not a pretty 12-point rack, it green scored 141 inches — the right antler base at 8 inches and the left base at 6 inches. The buck was tooth-aged at well over 6 1⁄2 years. It had evaded hunters for years, and was dubbed the ugly, unkillable buck. One ear had a shotgun slug hole through it.

As this old bowhunter adds his 69th whitetail to the tagged list, standing on the threshold of four-score and five years of a very eventful life, should the question surface as to whether I would take this shot again or advise anyone else to try it under the same circumstances? I wouldn’t hesitate a moment in taking this shot. There would be a number of other situations where I would pass on it, and I would urge all but a few bowhunters of my acquaintance to pass it up.

— Norman Johnson has been active in firearms testing and ballistics research since 1959, inclusive of archery. His work has appeared in more than 950 articles, books and digests.