Here’s a myth that many hunters fall for when it comes to western big game: Critters are bigger, stronger, and more resilient than eastern game. In addition, western game has a slightly different anatomy, which makes the placement of the shot a real challenge.
Obviously, some animals in the West are big – Alaskan moose and brown bears come to mind – but a fully grown whitetail deer from Ohio does more than resist the larger mule deer. from Colorado. Specifically, your bullet is designed to penetrate these animals and cause fatal damage to vital organs – not to knock them down. Size is not really a factor.
As for the anatomy, it’s no different either. The heart, lungs, liver, and spine of a mule deer are found in the same places as those of a white-tailed deer. Ditto for elk and moose.
So why are western animals so infamous for their durability? Why are they allegedly so difficult to drop with well-placed balls?
The point is, they are not. I suspect the reason many hunters think they are is because of a bad shot. Uncle Theodore goes to Wyoming for his longed-for elk hunt, buys a new magnum to tackle those huge mule and elk deer, flinches and makes a marginal hit. To save face, he tells everyone how these mule deer soak up bullets and just run away.
Meanwhile, the Westerners, weaned from moose shooting with .30-30 and .243 and sometimes even .22-250 Winchesters, inflict lethal 100 grain blows on everything from pronghorns to moose with precise shots into the heart and lungs. Low and tight behind the shoulder for the heart, a little higher hits the lungs.
Let’s be realistic about the placement of the shots
There are arrogant hunters who talk about neck or brain shots, but that’s not a good idea either. If part of a deer or elk has to move suddenly and quickly, it’s the head followed by the neck. A feeding animal can raise its head from ground level to fully erect in a fraction of a second while the chest remains still. Brain hits at the base of the ear can all too easily turn into broken jaw hits. Neck and spine shots can stun the bigger buck or bull jumping and running while you pat your back. This is unacceptable.
Having captured or participated in the capture of hundreds of big game, my shot placement advice is “front half and center”. Run an imaginary line from the rear edge of the animal’s front paw vertically across its torso, chest to back. Perform another from where the chest starts to turn around to where the back line begins to go through the neck. Now find the center of this box. The top of the heart is a little below the center. Aim there.
If that sounds too simplistic, well, maybe it is. But it will work. This framed area houses the heart, aorta, lungs, spine, shoulder and leg bones. Hitting any of the first four will do a very quick kill. If you shoot the shot and end up breaking the other two, you’ll probably slow it down enough for a quick follow-up shot. If you use the right bullet, however, it should go from rupturing the shoulder to puncturing the lungs and heart. An animal so struck will generally remain conscious for about 10 seconds, during which time it could run for about 100 meters. Its good. Tracking and blood trail are also hunter skills. Expecting each blow to flatten each animal where it is is unrealistic.
Hunt long enough or listen to enough tales and you will understand that there are no guarantees. Nonetheless, hundreds of years of shooting to the chest with spears, arrows, round bullets, and modern bullets have proven the rule: a hit to the chest is your safest bet for a clean and safe kill. .
Understanding the angle of view
However, the position of the animal in relation to the trajectory line of your ball is very important.
The classic “tight behind the shoulder” shot on a bordered animal, especially when that shoulder is positioned slightly forward, puts the ball through or over the heart and into the lungs. If it sails a little high, it is the lungs or the spine. If slightly forward, it is the shoulder / leg bones and more lungs. So forward and higher (the high shoulder kick), his lungs and spine.
But, if the deer is far away from you, a tight aim behind the shoulder can put the ball between the shoulder and the ribs. If this angle is steep enough, the ribs could deflect the slug to slide along them rather than hammering inside. The result is a non-fatal blow.
If the animal is quartered, a shot behind the shoulder goes straight to the rumen. The degree of these “quarter” angles determines the degree to which the bullet misses vital signs. This is why it is important to visualize the vital chest cavity as if you were using x-ray vision. Think of the rib cage as an upside down canoe with a bow in the front, but the ribs curl up. and close along the chest. The shoulders “float” down the sides of these ribs without a bony connection or to the spine above the head. The heart floats in the middle between the lungs but low in the chest and sandwiched between the shoulders, slightly back. The top of the heart with its massive plumbing is the most vulnerable.
This “x-ray” visualization helps you understand how a gunshot enters and possibly again for maximum contact and destruction of vital organs. The more you tilt the bow towards or away from the line of flight of the ball, the less risk you have of impacting the lungs and shoulders. Many animals can survive hits in a single lung. Too stiff an approach to the chest often results in the ball deflecting through the rib bones.
This illustrates why premium balls can be worth their cost. Same big caliber, heavier bullets. When shooting angles are far from perfect – but you don’t have time to wait for perfection – a heavy bullet that stays in one piece can go through enough muscle, stomach, or bone to hit and destroy vital organs. Many of us discovered this while trying to anchor an injured male or bull that was running away. The ‘Texas crush’ with a cup-and-core-shaped softball blows a piece of rump roast. The same shot with a monolithic or septate glued core bullet stays in one piece and cuts through muscles, breaks bones, and sometimes passes through the rumen to reach the liver and lungs. This is not to argue for tee shots (don’t), but illustrates how the right balls can save the day. And they certainly do the job for a variety of inclines for which more frangible balls are not suitable.
Once you have fixed the “canoe” area of the chest cavity in your mind, you will be ready to imagine a line of flight crossing the vital center of this area at any angle. You may need to stand well behind the shoulder on a quartered buck. You may need to hold a quartered or dead bull on the neck above the chest in front of the shoulder to hit the heart. And keep in mind how the position of the legs – forward or backward – can drastically alter its relationship to the heart / lung position.
Ideally, you will have the time and patience to wait for a perfect body position, but if time is of the essence and your hunt is about to end, the right bullet at the right angle will succeed. Know your anatomy, know your bullet, know your shooting skills. And most importantly, know when to take the plunge.