Surgical Deer Shooting

I could see the big cow elk clearly through my scope, gliding slowly among the aspens on a snowy mountainside 402 yards away by laser measurement.

Taking a shooting breath then letting out half, I startled then the trigger sear broke like a glass rod on the military-grade sniper rifle I had been provided by my host. Seconds later, joy, relief and pride flooded my mind; the animal was obviously down for good.

That shot a few years ago was my longest in a hunting situation but it went as expected. After all, I was shooting a rifle so technologically advanced that you can’t sell it in certain countries and it was topped by a telescopic sight that cost more than a good-sized mortgage payment. Coupled with hundreds of hours of professional training and years of practice, I was fairly confident my own meager talents could help fill the freezer.

Contrast that memorable hunt to the pending Indiana deer season. A four-hundred yard shot would be tantamount to artillery practice but just because we hunt at shorter distances doesn’t mean Hoosiers can take shortcuts to a quick, clean humane kill.

I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the lousy state of marksmanship among deer hunters. Seeing deer at the butcher shop that have been shot six or eight time simply makes me crazy. While I realize there are many good hunters who subscribe to the “one shot, one kill” ethos, many others really need to embrace the idea of sniper-style “surgical” shooting.

As a start, discussion of specific loads and terminal ballistics isn’t important here because shot placement is the key. Any legal firearm in Indiana will kill a deer deader than youthful idealism if you do your job and place the bullet or slug in an important spot. For example, a high-technology 546-grain 12-gauge slug that strikes the lower leg of a buck will do nothing other than wound a magnificent animal but many a well-placed .22 long rifle bullet has brought down trophy deer, albeit illegally. It’s all about placement.

First, before even taking the shot, get closer to the animal. As most hunting in Indiana takes place from a stand, this means that you should have the patience to make sure the deer gets within bad-breath range in order to ensure a clean kill rather than take a chance that things “might” work out for the best.

Remember that patience is supposed to be one of the key virtues of the skillful hunter.

On deer, the best target is the lungs. These fill the chest cavity and offer a great target from any direction except the rear. If you punch through both lungs with your bullet, the deer will shortly be dead even if it collapses at the door of the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine operating suite.

The lungs basically fill the front half of the deer but many hunters shoot too high, aiming at the vertical center of the animal. This isn’t a bad shot but I’ve seen many such deer run for miles when the bullet passed above the spine and went through the meaty support structure.

My own aiming point is just about where the “elbow” of the deer points to our target, about 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the chest. A shot here will puncture both lungs, likely do rude things to the heart and/or major blood vessels and insure that you will not have to walk more than 100 yards to find your deer.

If the deer is quartering away, the best rule of thumb is to aim for the opposing shoulder. This should place you squarely in line of the heart and lungs of the deer but many hunters shoot too far rearward in these situations. The heart lies essentially between and a little rearward of the front legs so place your shot accordingly.

Rear shots are dicey and I’ve let several deer pass when they only offered a rearward shot. Simply put, I don’t take such “Texas neck shots.”

The neck does make a decent target though I’ve only shot a few in this region. The white throat patch of a deer makes is good point of aim and rarely results in anything but a kill. Better though when the deer is facing you, is placing a bullet between the front legs about 1/3 of the way from the bottom. This is one of the most lethal wounds you can inflict.

Don’t take running shots. Having said that, I’ve done it a few times and scored, but this scenario is when some hunters just blaze away willy-nilly in hopes of connecting. If you aren’t utterly sure of your weapon, skills, surroundings and the backstop of your target, just wait. Lots of bad things can happen yet the chances of success are slim.

One final tip: if the tail drops, the deer is probably finished. If not, a quick follow-up shot isn’t a bad idea if the opportunity presents itself but better yet, make sure the first shot is the only shot.

In the end, our recurring plea is that more deer hunters focus on ending the hunt with only one or maybe two bullets. This is more humane for the animal, better for your psyche and helps the image of hunting as a whole.

Be patient, know your skills and try to be a successful “surgeon” this November.