LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
I can still remember the first time I loosed an arrow at an actual living, breathing whitetail. The smallish doe looked larger than life as I nervously drew back my multi-laminated riser, solid-glass limbed, Browning bow. Yeah, it’s been awhile. However, I will never forget the utter disbelief I felt when my arrow struck the young deer and penetrated just enough to keep the heavy aluminum arrow from falling harmlessly to the ground. In my youthful excitement I pulled the shot, striking the hard bone of the shoulder. The bewildered animal quickly lunged away; leaving very little blood on the ground but a lasting impression on my inexperienced young mind. It was a hard lesson for me to learn; although, I’m certain it was much harder on the deer.
Nevertheless, the cold hard truth was I quickly learned that an arrow, unlike a bullet, causes death in a completely different manner. A bullet kills by inflicting a tremendous amount of static-shock and trauma on the animal; destroying tissue, disrupting the function of the central nervous system and interrupting vital organ behavior. The kinetic energy levels are unreal when compared to that of an arrow. Even when the shot is less than perfect, a bullet can most often still get the job done.
The manner in which they cause death is as different as their appearance to one another. Also, arrows carry far less kinetic energy than that of even the lightest bullets, so correct arrow placement is vital if a quick, humane kill is the goal; and it should be.
An arrow, on the other hand, kills only from the direct damage caused by a razor sharp broadhead. By piercing vital organs, and slicing precious arteries and veins, massive hemorrhaging begins and a quick, humane death shortly follows. Consequently, shot placement is extremely vital when the time comes to dump the bowstring on a whitetail with the intent of taking its life in a respectable manner. The following is a compilation of shots most likely to end with a lost blood trail and why I believe they should be avoided at all costs.
When facing a whitetail head-on it may be tempting to take the shot. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. Here’s why. When viewing the whitetail from the front, there actually is an opening that leads directly to the heart and if an arrow passes through this opening, it will indeed kill the deer quickly. Although, pulling this shot off successfully is not as easy as it sounds. The opening, which is located right at the base of the neck (at the “V” where the neck joins the rib cage), is very small, probably not much larger than your fist. Consider that if you decide to chance it, and take the shot, missing the small opening a “little to the left” or a “little to the right” only means your problems have just begun. If your arrow isn’t deflected away by the rib-cage, causing a nasty flesh wound, it will likely only penetrate one lung.
I have spoken to wildlife biologists who have seen evidence of past lung injury in recently harvested whitetails. However, it was uncertain whether the previous harm was inflicted by a broadhead or not, or, how long the injury had existed. In any case, most single lung hits, while not immediately fatal, usually do bring about death. The only problem is…. finding the animal. Many can still run long distances and survive for an unknown amount of time. Certainly, that scenario presents numerous problems; enough so to render this shot unacceptable in my book.
Another point to mull over is that if you blow the shot and your arrow impacts below the small opening at the base of the neck, you will be relying on it to punch through the heavy tissue in the brisket area. Is your current set-up packing enough punch to drive through this extremely tough region and still have ample kinetic energy to reach vital organs? Certainly, it’s a lot to ask of both you and your equipment.
Specialized targets, such as this McKenzie Carbon Buck, not only provides a suitable practice medium, it also presents valuable lessons regarding entry and exit paths. Before removing your arrows, simply check to see if the shot would have resulted in a clean kill or wounded animal. Even veteran hunters can learn from this target.
For the treestand hunter, this shot is likely to present itself multiply times over the course of a good season. Yet, it is a poor choice. True, if you do manage to strike the spinal cord you will most likely watch as the deer drops straight to the ground; only to see it try to regain its footing without the use of its hind legs. It is a nauseating sight; one that usually requires a follow up shot to bring to an end. Intentionally taking this shot, knowing the paralyzing effects it will have on the animal, seems insensible to me. In my opinion it is not an honorable way to purposely try to harvest a whitetail; or any animal for that matter.
Also, be aware that if you decide to take a spine shot and miss your mark, you can almost certainly expect a single lung hit. Hopefully though, for the deer’s sake, you will slice the dorsal aorta in the process. If the angle isn’t straight down, you could get lucky and hit this artery which is located beneath the backbone; resulting in a quick death. However, it should never be an option to take a shot with the hopes of actually hitting this vital blood carrier on purpose. On top of all this, take into account that if your arrow fails to exit the bottom of the chest cavity there will be little to no blood on the ground due to the high entry hole. Any blood loss will likely stay inside the animal until the chest cavity fills up and the blood finally leaks out; but who knows how long that could take. Wait for a better shot.
Hard Quartering Toward
The tricky thing about a hard “quartering to” shot is being able to recognize when the degree of angle is too severe. Here is what I believe is the key point when considering this shot: Visualize the exit hole. If your arrow will exit no further than “behind the last rib” you will be fine. If the exit path will be beyond the last rib, you stand a pretty good chance of impacting the intestines, and perhaps the liver. A liver shot will indeed take down a whitetail. Although, in order to do so, your broadhead must sever the Venicava vein; a large, significant vein that runs through the liver and is located next to the diaphragm. Cut that vein in the process of striking the liver and the deer will quickly bleed out. Obviously, the liver should not be a primary target of choice though.
So far we have taken into consideration that the deer is standing close to the shooter. However, stretch the distance, and the potential for catastrophe only increases. Given the extended range, the margin of error that normally accompanies all shots on live game, and the fact that in order to get the desired exit hole you must aim tight behind the front shoulder, the odds of an arrow impacting the front leg are pretty substantial; particularly if your aim is just “a little off”. Also, if the animal is quartering to, there is a good chance it has spotted you already or most certainly will as you draw to anchor; especially if you are at ground level. Getting busted before the shot even happens only complicates matters and ultimately lowers your chances of a quick, humane kill. Practice this shot in the backyard in order to get a feel for the maximum degree in which the animal can be turned and still enable you to make a lethal shot. Remember, the key is the “exit hole”. Nothing should go beyond the last rib.
As you can see in the following photos, there is much to consider each time we loose an arrow at a whitetail deer. They may be thin skinned and small when compared to larger big-game like elk, but don’t underestimate their ability to survive; especially if the shot is sub-par.
It’s true, there is an artery (femoral) that runs deep inside the large thigh muscle of a whitetail, and if severed, will result in massive blood loss and eventual death. Nonetheless, trying to determine exactly where this artery is located, on an animal standing some distance away, and then attempting to accurately hit it, is both senseless efforts. Your odds of getting struck by lightening are probably higher than actually slicing the artery on purpose. A botched attempt will simply result in injuring the large ham muscles of the hind leg. A deer may actually have a good chance at surviving such a pointless attempt; that is, if infection doesn’t set in.
Texas Heart Shot
I am not sure who coined this phrase. What I do know, is that this shot most often doesn’t work as easily as many would have you believe, and in my humble opinion, should not be attempted. Basically, this shot calls on the archer to shoot at a deer that is standing straight away; aiming at the soft rump in an attempt to drive the arrow up through the intestines and into the vital area of the heart and lungs.
I was once called out in the late hours of the evening to aid in blood trailing a monster buck that had been shot using this method. Initially the blood trail was good, expectations ran high. But it didn’t take long before reality set in. Not far into the search we found part of the arrow and what was left of the broadhead. It was obvious that it had impacted something of substantial strength. The shank was somewhat twisted and one blade was almost completely sheared off. My guess was that the arrow had impacted the large and resilient pelvic bone and was stopped dead in its tracks. There wasn’t a great deal of blood on the section of arrow that we found; leading me to believe that penetration was also minimal. After several hours, the search was called off until daybreak. Unfortunately, the magnificent buck was never found.
Remember, it is a long way from the hind quarters to the heart and lungs of a whitetail deer. Even if you somehow do manage to miss the ominous pelvic bone, getting to the vital organs is still going to be a chore. Remember, if your arrow doesn’t make it to the boiler room….a gut shot animal will be the result. Forget about taking this shot; ever.
I have watched several television hosts pull this shot off at very close range. And that is the key. Shot range and pace. I believe distance and speed are the two major factors that contribute to either a successful harvest or a botched attempt at a moving target. As long as the animal (deer) is walking within close proximity, say 15 yards (maybe less), I don’t have a problem loosing an arrow; but only if the angle is good. The speed of the deer mustn’t be more than a normal stride for me to even consider taking a moving shot. Any quicker and the odds of an ethical outcome start to plummet. When faced with a similar situation, take the moving shot if the deer is in close range and walking at a normal pace. If it is too far away to attempt a walking shot, take a chance and try to stop it with a quick “uurrrpp” from your mouth before launching your arrow.
For the guy who routinely hunts in the open prairies of the west, high wind is just another fact of life that must be dealt with. Unlike Eastern treestand hunters who usually only consider the direction the wind is blowing and how it will affect their stand location, the Western guys must also factor wind direction and speed into their shot execution.
High winds that gust without warning, changing velocity and direction at the drop of a dime, make it nearly impossible to pull off a praiseworthy shot. No matter how much practice you’ve had, it makes no sense to release the string when your sight pin is jumping around like a fish out of water. On the other hand, a steady, constant wind can sometimes be a different matter; especially if you’ve put in the time at the range under similar conditions and know exactly how your arrow is going to react.
When taking shots from a treestand there are many points to consider. Perhaps the most important is shot angle. Not just the angle of the deer, but the angle from the shooter to the deer must also be pondered. Experiment with different shooting scenarios during the off-season to weed out the ethical from the unethical. It is time well spent.
Entry and Exit Paths
Much time and consideration is given to the entry location when discussing bow shots on whitetails; and rightfully so. Nothing tells you better about what is going to happen than knowing where your arrow is heading. However, perhaps even more important than that…. is knowing where your arrow has been. Ideally, you want to not only strive for a great entry path, but a great exit path as well; equally considering both. Doing so will insure that your arrow has a better chance of passing through vital organs; instead of intestines or less critical muscle tissue.
The only way to familiarize yourself with exit holes and how to achieve a desirable one is by carefully observing your practice shots at home; noting the entire path of the arrow. Eventually, over time, you will start to see the exit location in your mind before you even dump the bow string; which will ultimately result in proper arrow placement. Consider the entrance hole carefully, but more importantly, strive for a good exit as well.
The longer the search goes, the higher the odds are that you will not find your animal; it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to hit a major organ or artery in order to “bleed the deer out”. Otherwise, you’re fighting a losing battle”.
Given all of the resources available to today’s bowhunter, there really is no excuse for ignorance when it comes to deer anatomy and proper shot placement. Countless volumes of information covering either subject can easily be attained either by contacting the National Bowhunter Education Foundation (NBEF), or by searching quality websites such as Bowhunting.com. All you have to do is be eager and willing to learn more about the game you pursue in order to make each shot the absolute best it can be. After all, we owe our quarry that much. Don’t we?
For a complete guide to whitetail anatomy and shot placement, contact the NBEF at www.nbef.org or PO Box 180757, Fort Smith, AR 72908. Marilyn Bentz, Executive Director, is very friendly and most eager to help in any way possible.