So you’ve been hitting the range, maybe even shooting one of those fake deer targets. Now you’re ready to take on the real thing. Unfortunately, unlike targets at the shooting range, deer move, twist and stand at less than ideal angles.
To understand where to shoot a deer when bowhunting, you first have to understand deer anatomy and which vital organs you should hit to kill the animal quickly and painlessly. Then, you have to learn shot placement or where to aim your arrow to hit these organs based on the position and angle of the deer.
Lastly, it’s worth knowing where you shouldn’t hit a deer and the types of shots you shouldn’t make as a bowhunter. This way, you avoid disheartening, unsuccessful hunts as well as shots that could painfully injure an animal without killing it. Let’s dive in.
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What Organs Should You Hit to Kill a Deer?
When bowhunting deer, the ideal shot is one which kills the animal instantly, downing it where it stands so it’s easy to retrieve. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but there are still better organs to hit than others.
The distance the deer is able to run after it’s hit depends on the organ you hit. This will also determine how long it takes the deer to die and therefore how long you should wait before going after it. If you’re not sure after you take the shot, you can usually get a good idea of where you hit the deer based on its reaction and the blood trail the wound leaves.
A shot through the heart is the most ideal. This is almost always an instant kill in which the animal can’t even escape eyesight. Destroying major blood vessels near the heart like the aorta accomplishes the same thing.
- Deer’s reaction: if true to the heart, little movement besides initial jump
- Running distance: 20 yards
- Blood trail: bright red
- Wait time: 2 hours
Through the lungs is arguably the second best place to shoot a deer. Since it prevents the animal from breathing, it’s often a quick kill, though your quarry may still run 20-100 yards. That shouldn’t be much problem to find even without a blood trail.
The only time a lung shot is a problem is when for whatever reason you only puncture one of the lungs. Although a single-lung shot is normally a lethal shot, deer can occasionally still survive with one lung. Even when they do die, they may run for up to a day before bedding down, making them difficult to track.
For this reason, lung shots should be as straight as possible to hit both lungs.
- Deer’s reaction: an initial jump followed by noticeable lethargy
- Running distance: 20-100 yards
- Blood trail: bright red
- Wait time: 2 hours
A liver shot is a lethal hit but not nearly as ideal as the heart or lungs. You shouldn’t aim for the liver, but it’s good to know about this shot in case you accidentally hit it. The blood trail from a liver shot is usually scarce and hard to find, but your quarry most likely won’t go more than 200 yards or so before bedding down.
- Deer’s reaction: labored and awkward movements that quickly slow down
- Running distance: 200 yards
- Blood trail: dark red but scarce
- Wait time: 2-4 hours
Shooting a deer in any of its digestive organs—stomach or intestines—is not ideal. Of course, an animal cannot survive without these organs and will eventually die, but it will take a lot of time. The biggest issue is that deer can continue running for some time even after a gut shot, especially if you push them by giving chase.
As a result, you should wait a long time before going after a gut-shot deer. Even if it’s bedded down, startling it could make it run again. It’s best to wait until the animal is completely dead. Some hunters even go home and return the next day to find their quarry.
It’s easy to tell if you’ve gut shot a deer because digestive matter like fecal matter or chewed up food will be visible in the blood trail. It’ll usually smell pretty bad too.
- Deer’s reaction: slow, pained movements
- Running distance: 100-200 yards (if you don’t push it)
- Blood trail: brown, possibly with green streaks or bits of food
- Wait time: 6-12 hours
The 4 Best Bowhunting Shots to Make
When the deer is turned at a 90-degree angle so you can see its entire flank, this is a broadside shot. This is usually the easiest and best for beginners because it provides the biggest target.
To hit the heart or lungs with a broadside deer, you should aim just below the point of the shoulder bone about one-third up the deer’s flank. Even if you don’t hit this aiming point exactly, any point just behind the shoulder should hit the lungs. An even more inaccurate shot is still likely to at least hit the liver or vital digestive organs.
Many hunters simply wait until the deer is situated broadside to take a shot. Most targets are oriented this way, and it’s how most people feel the most comfortable. If you’re a beginner, this is probably a good idea. However, as your accuracy improves, there are several other shots you can make that still allow you to hit vital organs.
If a deer is “quartering away,” this means that it’s oriented at a 45-degree angle from broadside with its head facing away from you. In other words, it’s positioned diagonally to you. It may be moving or standing still.
In these positions, you will need to make a quartering away shot. You can still see the flank of your quarry, but the “kill zone” around the heart and lungs will be smaller since it’s at an angle. Like with a broadside shot, you’ll aim behind the shoulder about a third of the way up.
Just be careful. If the angle of a deer quartering is too sharp, you’re quartering-to shot will certainly miss the kill zone and hit the deer behind the rib cage instead. This will end up being a gut shot, and your quarry will be difficult to retrieve.
When a whitetail deer is quartering towards you, it’s at the same 45-degree angle as quartering away, but it’s facing you. Despite being very similar to quartering away, the approach to this shot is completely different. In fact, quartering toward is arguably the most difficult shot to make as a bowhunter.
Instead of aiming behind the shoulder blade, you should aim for the deer’s sternum. This is the best way to hit the heart and lungs. Just realize that the sternum will be a rather small target, so you should only take this shot if your accuracy is up to snuff.
Also make sure not to confuse this shot with quartering away. If you do aim behind the shoulder, you won’t hit the heart at all. At best, you’ll puncture a single lung, allowing the animal to run a long distance or possibly even survive. At worst, you’ll make a high chest shot just below the spine, injuring the animal but not killing it.
As the name suggests, a head on shot is when the deer is facing you. It’s often the most intimidating shot that many bowhunters shirk from unless they’ve really honed their accuracy. In reality, it’s a very straightforward shot that gives you a good chance of a quick and easy kill. It’s arguably easier than both quartering away and quartering toward.
The most important thing to be aware of is that you have to aim higher than you’d probably expect. Specifically, you should aim at the deer’s chest where the neck meets the body. This gives you the best chance of striking the heart. A lower shot is less likely to be lethal.
The main problem is the position of the deer’s head. It’s best to take the shot when the deer’s neck is totally extended and it’s looking up or forward. This can be intimidating because you worry the animal will notice you. Nevertheless, if the animal is eating or drinking with its head down, have the discipline to wait until it’s raised its head.
The 5 Worst Bowhunting Shots to Make
The straight away shot is when the deer is facing away from you. In other words, its butt is in your face. Hunters with high-caliber rifles can actually take this shot, as the bullet will travel through the deer’s body and still reach the heart or lungs.
As a bowhunter, though, forget about it. Even the most powerful crossbow will likely not penetrate far enough to drop the deer. At best, you’ll have a long way to track your kill, and it might escape altogether. It’s best to wait for a better orientation.
It might seem like a no-brainer that a headshot is the easiest way to kill an animal. Indeed, you may hear riflemen talking about taking headshots. If you aren’t trophy hunting, destroying the brain is an instant, painless kill that drops your quarry on the spot and saves all the meat.
The problem is that most bows don’t have enough power to penetrate a deer’s skull, at least not consistently or accurately. It will most likely glance off and end up severely injuring the animal without killing it. Rangers regularly find deer with arrows stuck in their heads.
Plus, deer have much smaller brains relative to their bodies than humans, so it makes an incredibly small target. Few bowhunters have this kind of accuracy. It’s best to stick to the heart and lungs.
The neck is a very similar shot to the head. Because the neck is made up of several vital organs including the spinal cord, windpipe and major arteries, it seems like this would be a great approach. For bowhunters, though, that isn’t necessarily the case.
For starters, the neck is still quite a small target. You risk missing altogether. More importantly, deer necks aren’t as fragile as human necks. In the lower part of the neck, there is actually quite a bit of muscle, and with the low power of a bow, it’s likely that you merely injure the animal if your aim isn’t perfect.
Even if your shot is true, a damaging shot to a quarry’s spinal column may only paralyze it. You would need to use a knife or side arm to finish the kill, something many hunters may not enjoy.
A high chest shot is a kind of broadside shot that goes too high to hit vital organs like the heart and lungs. In other words, the arrow lodges in the muscle in between the spine and the lungs.
This is a serious injury for the animal but rarely lethal. It will most likely run away as if nothing has happened, though it may bed down once out of sight. If you go after it, it will simply run again.
You’ll know you made a high chest shot that missed the heart and lungs because the blood will be vibrant and bright, but there won’t be much of it. You may even find your arrow having passed through the deer with bits of meat stuck to it.
If the arrow doesn’t pass through, it can be hard to know whether you made a high chest shot or accurately hit the kill zone. If you’re worried you made a high chest shot, give it a couple extra hours before trailing the quarry. Make sure to have another arrow nocked just in case.
A thigh is a broadside shot that, for whatever reason, you missed pretty severely. A deer’s rear leg is hardly a vital organ, and unless you hit a major artery, the animal will almost surely survive.
Many bowhunters make the mistake of immediately going after a deer hit in the thigh. That’s because it will probably have a lot of trouble running. Nevertheless, it will still have plenty of energy, and if you push it, it will run a long way. Give it several hours, then carefully go after the deer with a nocked arrow to make a kill shot.