Good Shot Placement
(by Woody Sanford)
Probably the most common guideline you hear about in regards to shot placement is the “Rule of Thirds” to describe the center of the thoracic cavity. I think it’s a good starting reference, so I’ll give it a shot at explaining how I look at it and what has been working well for me.
The upper third of an animal is mostly spine and muscle and the lower third line is actually the middle of the thoracic cavity. The second popular guideline would be the vertical “shoulder” line. In reality, that reference isn’t the line of the shoulder. It’s a vertical line in the center of the animal that, when broadside, the shoulder line lines up with it. You could say the same for the lower third line. It’s in the center, not on the outside.
The issue some have with shot placement is they tend to think of it two dimensionally rather than three dimensionally and use these lines as aiming points on the side of the animal. They are a target of intersection in the center of the animal for the broadhead to pass through based on the greatest margin for error. Not a bad idea considering you are likely to get some sort of movement out of the animal before the arrow arrives.
I say “point of intersection” because you have to consider angles into it. The tree stand angle is easy for most to visualize but also needs to be taken into consideration with quartering shots. Somewhere in the midst of viewing video, a lot of people started taking the impact point of what some consider the “perfect” shot, usually behind the shoulder, and using it as an aiming point without considering the angle of the shot. From that we now have the popular “perfect shot,” which isn’t so perfect the majority of the time. Some think in terms of “pick a spot” or “pick a hair” and aim for it. I’d rather determine an aiming point in the center of the animal. It may seem trickier to learn but has been of more benefit to me. It just takes a bit more knowledge of anatomy to be accurate with.
There are lots of different shot categories such as the broadside, quartering, frontal, and so on, but I don’t really look at it that way. I have my point of intersection I want to cross in the center of the animal and I simply look for an angle that has no barriers such as bone or gut. I personally don’t want to shoot through gut anymore. In most cases it doesn’t hinder killing the animal, but all the debris/stomach matter in the thoracic cavity gets in my way while doing wound tract surveys and makes for a stinky job. So I avoid it just as I do heavy bone.
A good shot to me is simply a shot through an area that creates multiple mechanisms of incapacitation that bring down an animal as quickly as possible. Everybody has their own comfort level. Some people take shots that others wouldn’t, and that’s fine. Doesn’t mean it’s a bad shot, just not one that everybody can pull off.
Sometimes these different experiences and skill levels clash in a pool of ethics. As far as ethics are concerned, it’s pretty simple in my view. There are a lot of different shots and angles you can take that will effectively kill an animal. Learning and employing the information to do your best is what an ethical shot is all about, and that can differ greatly from one person to the next. So I don’t use ethics to establish the value of a shot.
The heart of a deer is mostly forward of the shoulder line when broadside. The area behind the heart, in the lower third, doesn’t really have a great source of blood. The closest greater
vein comes from the top of the heart going straight back. The diaphragm also moves forward and back, doming in the middle as the animal breaths. Its most forward costal attachment is in the area of the seventh rib, and the most rearward of the heart is at the sixth rib. So the majority of the lower third behind the shoulder line doesn’t have a great source of blood, and the major mass behind the diaphragm in this area is the reticulum, the second stomach.
Shots from tree stands work out better behind the shoulder line with a higher entrance. The diaphragm angles rearward as it ascends to the spine and its attachment in the area of the last rib. You will take more lung behind the shoulder line if the entrance is elevated as it is from tree stand shots. One thing you have to remember, though, is an animal has a maximum and a minimum vital space when it comes to the lungs. If they are expanded during inspiration, you will take more lung in this area. Exits lower in this area tend to produce less venting and hemorrhaging when the head passes below the lower third line and during expiration. Just a short distance from the shoulder line can actually be more gut than lung as the diaphragm domes forward.
Personally I like to shoot for a vertical line about 1.5-2” forward of the shoulder line on deer. Remember, these lines are in the center of the deer, not on the outside. This puts me in a greater area of the lungs all the time and in the area where the aorta ascends from the heart and the greater veins from the heart go into the lungs. It is also where you find the trachea branches to each lung, giving the best of venting air. The only downside to this shot is that if your exit is through the shoulder it can block and slow blood from escaping as the shoulder moves forward and back and forth and tissue begins to swell. This does move the shot closer to bones of the shoulder on a broadside shot, but I find it works out better for me than moving my shot closer to gut, and my animals, regardless of size, are usually down in short order. This is something you’ll have to work out within your effective range and choices you make on shots.
I’m not much of a fan of liver shots. The majority of the liver’s mass is on the right side. From tree stands, low exits on the left produce little blood as they are usually through gut, and low exits on the right are in an area of liver that doesn’t produce as much blood as being higher, closer to the greater veins. The liver is sort of structured like the lungs, but the network within them carries blood instead of air. And, just like the lungs, peripheral trauma to the organ is less valuable.
Although my idea of good shot placement for deer works well for me, it isn’t good at all for bears. Carnivore anatomy is slightly different. The fore limb is slightly more forward in its location to the thoracic skeleton. This puts the entire heart rearward of the shoulder line when broadside and also what you would consider to be the center of the vitals. The area I shoot for on deer is actually around 2-2.5” behind the vertical shoulder line on a bear, if you are viewing it broadside.
So, on bears I move my vertical line back but still maintain the lower third. Some say there is roughly six inches of hair below a bear’s belly, but most of my bear hunting has been done in Interior Alaska and Canada and I didn’t find that to be the case there. I’ll see if I can run into a couple here in North Carolina and measure them, but so far I haven’t seen it enough to warrant coming off the lower third line for height.
You can see the difference in the position of the heart and the available vital space forward of the shoulder line between the two quite easily.
So there is a method to the madness of good shot placement. It’s partly about knowledge of an animal’s anatomy, which changes according to species, but it also depends on experience. I can give you my opinion as to best place to put the broadhead, but only you know your limitations and how you will get it there.