Can You Avoid Taking Deer Hunting’s Riskiest Shot?

A scientific look at the shot angle that leaves hunters with almost no room for error.

By Dr. Phillip Bishop

blood-trailing whitetailsI recall clearly that big buck. It was a long time ago, and I carried a recurve bow in those days. I was hunting one of my all-time favorite patches of Maryland woods surrounded by cultivated fields. I was easing along a small trail through thick woods, loving every minute, not just hunting but also scouting for the coming gun season.

And there he came.

He was a big buck with a heavy, even rack. What made it better was he was slipping quietly toward me. Big bucks don’t get big by being stupid, but I had this big boy just right … except he was headed straight at me, offering only a shot at his front neck and chest. At that point in my deer hunting experience, it was not a shot I wanted to take.

If you have ever shot a recurve, you know accuracy is a lot tougher than in modern high-speed compounds. I wanted the deer either broadside or quartering-away, and no hunter disagrees with that, even with a rifle.

So I was on the antlers of a dilemma, take a shot at the brisket of the best buck I had ever seen standing at about 20 yards, or hope for something better.

What would you do?

A lot of D&DH readers have firm opinions about what to do. A recent forum post at deerandeerhunting.com was chock full of strongly-expressed opinions on the virtues and faults of a shot at a front-on whitetail. Let’s take a look at the factors that go in to the decisions of whether to take the shot or wait for a better one.

The Good of the Brisket Shot
When a hunter takes a shot with deer facing head-on, I call that a brisket shot. One argument is the brisket shot — for gun-hunters — offers some good anatomy for killing a deer. When we are looking at the front of an on-coming deer a lot of vital area is exposed. The neck has been a favorite and popular meat-preserving shot for many hunters.

The neck contains the spine, and the jugular veins and carotid arteries. The carotid arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain. These arteries are under less pressure than the arteries lower in the deer’s body, but severing the carotid with a bullet or arrow will certainly kill the deer. When deer are frightened heart rate and blood pressure increase, and these increases will help pump the blood needed to track the deer and to mercifully take its life.shot placement poster

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When some hunters, and I am happy it is a dwindling number, feel compelled to “bleed a deer out,” what they are trying to do is not cut the throat, but rather cut the carotid arteries.

The problem in shooting a head-on deer is that these arteries are a very small right-to-left target. The good news is that they run the length of the neck and, hence, produce a very long, albeit very skinny, kill zone.

Also in the neck is the jugular vein. This vein drains oxygen poor-blood from the brain. It is under very low pressure (among the lowest pressure in the whitetail), but will cause the deer to bleed out fairly quickly if severed. Again, this vein is not very wide, but it does run the entire length of the neck. It is thinner-walled than the arteries because the pressure is lower. So, if a bullet or arrow misses the carotid arteries, it might still clip one or more of the jugular veins.

The cervical spine is the largest vital structure in the neck. For many years now, the spine, anywhere along the length of the deer’s body, has been my favorite firearm target. A shot to the cervical spine will anchor the deer in its tracks and deliver the most merciful and quickest death. Any major trauma to the deer’s spine will produce neurogenic shock to the central nervous system, and kill the deer much faster than a shot to the heart.

The spine offers the largest target in the neck, but it’s still only 4 to 5 inches side-to-side. The cervical spine does not have the large side-to-side and vertical projections (called spinal processes) of the rear parts of the spine. Like the neck arteries and veins, the spine is narrow but runs all the way to the skull, so it offers a long, yet narrow, target.

The anatomy, right behind the spot where the neck joins the body also has some desirable targets. The lungs lie directly behind the brisket and together with the heart fill the deer’s chest cavity. A shot to this spot will get one or both lungs. A shot to this area might also hit the heart or the largest diameter artery in the body, the aorta. A shot to the aorta or the major veins and arteries entering and leaving the heart will most certainly prove fatal.

Depending on penetration, an arrow that hits this sweet spot where the neck joins the chest, will not only get the lung(s) and possibly heart, but the arrow can continue rearward on the brisket shot and might then penetrate the diaphragm and the liver. The liver has a very good blood supply, so a hit here will cause the deer to lose a lot of blood. The combination of lung and liver damage will most likely kill the deer. If the heart or major blood vessels are damaged, then the shot is almost certainly fatal.

A bullet or an arrow under the right circumstances will continue traveling rearward. Behind the liver lie the stomach (paunch) and intestines. Damage here might be fatal, but it might take hours to kill the deer, depending on what else was damaged. The abdominal aorta runs through the stomach cavity right beneath the spine. Substantial damage to this large vessel will also quickly cause the deer to bleed out, although bleeding here will not leave a blood trail unless the wall of the abdomen is punctured in the bottom two thirds.

Behind the intestines, the only vital structures remaining are the femoral arteries. Like other large arteries, major damage to these vessels results in a bleed out. The pressure and rate of blood flow in these vessels will be very high in a running a deer. High blood pressure and flow means fast blood loss and shorter blood trails.

The Bad News
About five years back, I was easing through the woods in what has become one of my favorite spots in West Alabama. I heard deer coming and soon a doe appeared with a buck hot in pursuit. It was a brisket shot, and I didn’t shoot.

Here’s why:
I wouldn’t risk taking a brisket shot because of what I know about whitetail anatomy. This is, in part, because one of my academic areas of expertise is measurement and evaluation. One of the first things I teach my university students is that every measurement has some degree of error. The error might be small, too small to be important, but it is always present. If you think that your measurement has no error, you believe that simply because you aren’t measuring precisely enough.

Every shot, with bow or gun, is a measurement by the shooter. And, every shot has error. Very good shooters have less error. The smaller our error is, the longer our effective range becomes. Even good shots can miss, because there are many things that can go wrong. The wind, the angle, our measurement (whether from a guess or a range-finder) of the distance to the animal, our elevated pulse, or our cold muscles, can all contribute to the total error of every shot we take. And that’s why I dislike the brisket shot. There is such a tiny margin for error that it just isn’t worth it.

Physiology Explained
I was recently discussing the brisket shot with one of my most experienced deer hunting friends. “I do not really have a problem with the head-on shot when I know I can absolutely smack that ‘magical’ spot where the neck meets the scapula (shoulder blades),” he said. “The deer actually has to be slightly quartering toward me for this spot to open up, but it does allow for a deadly lung shot. The entrance wound winds up being what is normally the exit area for a quartering-away shot.”

I agree that the anatomy for the brisket shot is the same as for the quartering-away shot, but this would only hold true for shots at ground level (blinds, etc.). It definitely does not ring true when shooting from an elevated position.

The next time you have a chance to study a deer carcass with the ribs intact, look at the chest. It won’t take you but a minute to realize that the shape of a deer’s chest is somewhat like a funnel. The brisket is the narrow end of the funnel, and the rear ribs are more like the large end of the funnel.

Now, regarding a shot at a deer’s chest, ask yourself, at which end of the funnel would you want to shoot?

The rib cage of the whitetail is funnel-shaped for a reason. Deer can breathe two ways, by flattening the diaphragm which usually happens when the deer is standing or walking, and  when running by using the respiratory muscles to pull the ribs forward and increasing the lungs’ volume to lower the pressure inside the chest to inhale.

The more important reason the rib cage is funnel-shaped is to protect those vital organs. Look again at that deer carcass. The brisket is composed of a thick bone (sternum). The sternum is where the front of the ribs connect. It is thick to protect the heart and lungs. There is only a very small opening in this end of the funnel where the esophagus (carries food) and the trachea (carries air) and the jugular veins, and the carotid arteries enter and leave the chest.

A shotgun slug can break the sternum and the ribs. With an arrow, it is possible to break the sternum and the ribs, but look again at the carcass. The sternum slopes downward. The shape could allow the sternum to change the direction of a fast, heavy arrow with a sharp broadhead, especially on a downward angling arrow coming from a tree stand.

Now look at the ribs. They form the conical shape of the chest and also could channel an arrow away from the vitals. So, God did a great job in making the brisket and ribs shaped in a way to protect their vital cargo from hazards when the animal is moving forward or facing forward. An arrow that deflects off the sternum or ribs might appear to be a “pass-through” when it really did only minimum damage to the skin, or possibly the muscle between the shoulder blade and the ribs.

Fortunately, this shape works to our advantage when shooting at a quartering-away deer. If we get an arrow inside the rib cage, the shape of the ribs will channel the arrow into the heart and lungs. The sternum might stop our arrow, but the lethal damage has already been done before the blade strikes the sternum.

When it Gets Ugly
This is not to say that some hunters can’t kill a deer with a straight front, or front-quartering shot, because they can and do. If you read the D&DH forum on head-on shots, you can see that a lot of bow-hunters report success with the shot. Of course, successful hunters are more inclined to write about it than unsuccessful ones, so keep that in mind when making your own decision.

There is another problem with the brisket shot, especially when bow-hunting. An arrow straight into the small spot at the top of the chest and base of the neck will kill the deer, but it might not produce an exit wound. Even a bullet, depending on the angle of its path, might lodge in a ham, or some other part, preventing an exit wound. The absence of an exit wound means a poor, or perhaps no, blood trail. If the deer goes right down, then we don’t need a blood trail, but if it doesn’t, then we now have a huge problem.

A deer I killed, in late January 2011, was in a cutover so thick with briars and brush that even the big buck had trouble running through it. If I had to trail a deer through that, I would want a big, wide, and very short blood trail.

A bullet or arrow that errs to the right or left might severely damage one of the front shoulders. A front shoulder hit might not kill the deer for several days. Front-shoulder damage doesn’t seem to reduce a deer’s ability to travel a long way. This is the worst way to go wrong.

Conclusion
The story I related at the start of this article had a happy ending. I let that big deer walk, waiting contentedly for a better encounter on another day. That day came a few weeks later.

One of the great things about hunting whitetails is that every hunter gets to make his or her own decisions. Hunters have different shooting skills, different motivations and different expectations. But, remember Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong, will go wrong.

This brings us back to error. Every arrow I loose, every time I pull the trigger, I have error in the shot. If I hit the bull’s-eye, there is skill involved, but most likely two or more small errors canceled each other. If that were not so, I would hit the target dead center with every shot and ruin a lot of nocks. Even if my errors were constant, I might miss the target, but always hit the same spot, and I could adjust my sight for the error.

Because I know I have error, I want the shot that is most tolerant of error. Quartering away is the shot most tolerant because it offers a big target that funnels my arrow. Next in line is the broadside shot. Again, this aspect of the deer’s anatomy allows for a pretty large error and still results in a lethal shot. Any other shot is much less tolerant of error.

With a firearm, and the right deer, I might change my mind and take the head-on shot, but I doubt I’d ever take a brisket shot with my bow. But I am a hypocrite, so we’ll see.

In the end, some of our most important decisions are the shots we determine not to take.

— D&DH Contributing Editor Dr. Phillip Bishop is a university professor and former NASA scientist from Alabama.

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