“Aim small, miss small,” is one of the most oft-repeated phrases in archery — and for good reason. While there are many pieces to the accuracy puzzle, there’s no doubt one of the most important is maintaining a laser-like focus on the exact spot where you want your arrow to hit. If you are shooting paper targets, that’s the bull’s-eye. If you are shooting 3-D targets, it is the 12-ring. But if you are shooting a live animal while bowhunting, there is no obvious, pre-marked aiming reference. That’s why it is so critical to know your target’s anatomy beforehand and have the ability to confidently pick a spot and focus on it from the time you hit full draw until the time your arrow hits home.
In this article, we’ll take a look at whitetail deer — America’s No. 1 big-game animal — and focus on the best shot placement for bowhunters. We’ll also discuss a few shots you shouldn’t take and explain why. Before we dive in, it’s also worth mentioning that while these illustrations feature whitetails, the same advice can also be applied to similar species such as mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope and moose.
Anyone who has taken a basic hunter education course has probably been schooled in the desirability of a broadside shot. This is the classic shooting opportunity most bowhunters look for, as a well-placed arrow on a broadside deer is going to prove fatal nearly 100 percent of the time.
As you can see in the accompany illustration, a deer standing broadside to a bowhunter exposes its entire vital area (heart, lungs and liver) and presents them as a target. What’s more, the only thing between the hunter’s arrow and these organs in this orientation are hide, a thin layer of muscle and ribs. The ribs on a deer are not overly heavy, and just about any broadhead-tipped arrow with average velocity/energy is capable of breaking through and penetrating the chest cavity. In fact, with most modern bowhunting equipment, there is sufficient energy for the arrow to pass completely through the animal. This not only maximizes damage but creates an exit wound for an increased blood trail, making the tracking and recovery process easier.
When taking a broadside shot, it is generally best to aim about five inches behind the deer’s shoulder and about halfway up the deer’s body. Although many bowhunters like to aim for the heart, aiming low and up against the shoulder/leg can set you up for heartbreak if you hit square on the shoulder joint and don’t get adequate penetration. Aiming a bit higher, and further behind the shoulder, gives you a much greater margin for error. If you hit exactly where you are aiming, you will take out both lungs. If your arrow drifts closer to the shoulder, you will still hit the lungs and/or heart. And if your arrow drifts a bit further back toward the deer’s mid-section, you are likely to take out the liver. And a couple inches higher or lower will still keep you within the vital area. In any of those scenarios, the deer will be mortally wounded and unlikely to go very far.
One other consideration for broadside shots is the position of the deer’s front leg. If possible, wait to shoot until the leg closest to you is moves forward, as this takes the shoulder blade out of the way and exposes even more of the vital area to your shot.
Although the broadside shot gets more attention, the quartering-away shot is arguably best for bowhunters. The reason for this is simple: the angle offers a lot of forgiveness, and even if your aim is off a bit to the left or right, your arrow is likely to continue through the deer’s body cavity up into the chest, where it will take out a combination of liver, lung(s) and/or heart. Regardless, a well-placed quartering away shot has devastating effects, typically resulting in a quick recovery.
When aiming on quartering-away shots, you want to use the opposite leg as your horizontal aiming reference, again centering your shot roughly halfway up the deer’s body vertically. The quartering-away shot can be highly effective even as the quartering angle increases. Just remember that as the deer moves further away from broadside and more toward a straight away angle, your arrow is going to enter the deer further back on the near side as you aim at the opposite leg.
One potential drawback to a quartering-away shot is that your arrow may become lodged against the opposite shoulder or buried inside the chest cavity. In such instances, you are unlikely to have an exit wound. This will reduce the amount of external bleeding that occurs and can potentially making tracking more difficult. However, that is largely offset by the fact that a deer hit in this manner rarely goes very far.
Quartering-to shots can be tempting, especially at close range, but they ought to be avoided. As you can see in the accompanying illustration, a deer quartering toward a bowhunter allows the near-side shoulder blade to act as a shield for the vital area, easily stopping your arrow from penetrating the chest cavity or deflecting it into a non-vital portion of the body. Ribs often cause deflections at this angle too, forcing your arrow to slide between the hide and outer side of the rib cage rather than penetrating the chest cavity.
If you aim further forward, you are likely to hit the sternum, again resulting in poor penetration, or hit low in the brisket, which is usually a non-lethal shot. And if you aim further back, you have a very small window to hit the back of the lungs and/or liver, with a much greater chance of making a gut shot. Although deer shot through the stomach and/or intestines typically die from their wounds, they can travel great distances before expiring and often leave little or no sign to aid in tracking.
For all these reasons, a quartering-to shot is one that should be passed.
A shot on a deer facing straight away from you is a poor opportunity for a bowhunter and should not be tried. Rifle hunters often refer to this angle as a “Texas heart shot,” as the bullet can easily enter the rear of the animal and pass through the body cavity up into the chest.
However, there is a huge difference between the size and energy of a bullet versus a broadhead-tipped arrow. Simply put, there are heavy leg and hip bones to contend with here, and even if your arrow does manage to find a soft spot upon entry, you are much more likely to make a gut shot from this angle than a quickly mortal wound. And when shooting from an elevated stand, the angle makes it even more challenging to find vitals.
For these reasons, straight away shots should not be taken. Instead, remain patient and wait for a better opportunity.
Head-on shots can be highly effective when rifle hunting for deer, but, as with straight away shots, ought to be avoided while bowhunting. Although it is possible to kill a deer with a head-on arrow shot, this is a situation that brings to mind the old adage, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”
If you shoot a deer in the neck and take out the jugular vein, that animal will expire within seconds. Similarly, if your aim is precise enough, or you get lucky enough, to find the soft spot below the spine and above the sternum, you are likely to penetrate the chest cavity and take out one or more vital organs. However, that’s a pretty small target, and finding it when shooting from an elevated stand is even more difficult.
All in all, a head-on shot with a bow is far more likely to result in a lost and wounded deer than a successful recovery. Because of that, don’t shoot. Be patient and hope for a better opportunity.