Shot Placement on Deer and Other Large Game

The circles show where to shoot this whitetail buck to make a clean kill when broadside (left), quartering towards you (top right), and quartering away (bottom right)
The circles show where to shoot this whitetail buck to make a clean kill. Russ Chastain

If you read much about hunting deer, including whitetail deer and other big game, shot placement is something you will see stressed again and again. There's a very good reason for this: shot placement is very important. It is not always everything to a deer hunter, but it's mighty close. The bottom line is, you'd better hit a deer in the right spot if you want it to go down and stay there.

The Spot

So where is that spot? Well, "the right spot" is a flexible concept. It depends on the angle of the deer as viewed by the hunter, how far the deer is from the hunter, whether or not the deer is calm, how solid a gun rest the hunter has available, and many other variables.

The hunter's best bet is still the traditional kill zone—the shoulder area, and behind it the heart and lungs. Viewed broadside, it is roughly centered on the rear of the shoulder. This gives the hunter the best chance at hitting vital organs and/or the shoulder. Depending on the size of the animal, you're shooting at a zone that's approximately the size of a supper plate.

It's important to remember that the kill zone is not two-dimensional, like a flat paper target. If a deer is broadside to the shooter, a shoulder or right-behind-the-shoulder shot is great. But if the animal is quartering towards or away from you very much, you should adjust your aim. Picture your bullet's destination in the center of the animal, and aim for that. Doing so may require the bullet to impact far back in the ribcage or in the neck/brisket area in order to penetrate to the heart/lung zone and effectively kill the deer.

In other words, "the spot" is not found on the deer's skin, but is inside the game animal. Remember that, and aim accordingly.

If you hit the lungs, the deer may run some distance before dying. Hit the heart, though, and you will likely also hit the lungs; the deer usually won't go far. Hit the shoulder bones, and you break the deer down as well as probably hitting vitals—it usually falls on the spot, and even if it doesn't die, you can easily deliver a finishing shot.

Some Hunters Disagree

Not all hunters agree that it's best to aim for "the boilerworks," but those hunters with long experience respect for game animals generally agree that this shot gives the greatest margin of error—and errors are easy to make. However, some hunters go out of their way to try to place the bullet through the ribcage on a broadside deer for a lung-only shot (avoiding the shoulder), in an attempt to minimize meat damage. Still, others shoot for the neck. Some others aim for the head. Any of these are killing shots if everything comes together, but they don't offer as much "room to miss" as a heart/lung/shoulder shot.

Obviously, the ideal shot is one that drops the animal dead as quickly as possible, minimizing suffering for the animal and inconvenience for the hunter. Personally, where I place the shot—or try to place it—depends on many factors. If I have a nice, calm deer standing not too far from me and I have a nice solid rest, a neck shot is a good one to take. But on a moving deer and/or one that's far away, a neck shot a low-percentage shot and I don't like it. In such situations, there's a much smaller chance of hitting vitals in those conditions, making a shot at the "sweet spot" a much better choice. It is generally better to lose a pound or two of meat with a shoulder shot than risk losing the entire deer. 

Head Shots?

In my opinion, head shots are to be avoided in most situations. The head is the most animated portion of a deer's anatomy, and when a deer moves, its head is the first thing to do so. Even when standing still, a deer will often move its head without warning.

I have taken a couple head shots on whitetail does—but at very close range, with a very solid rest and a very accurate scoped rifle, and each time the deer was standing perfectly still and un-spooked and I was calm enough to take a deliberate, steady shot. But I still don't recommend taking a head shot, and I'm not sure I'll do it again.

Some hunters argue that missing a head shot means they have missed the deer entirely, but that's not necessarily true. Years ago, a friend aimed to shoot a buck in the head—that's all he had to shoot at—and he hit it in the jaw. He severed a major blood vessel and the deer lost a lot of blood—but it also kept going for a long, long way. They tracked that deer for more than a mile before finally recovering it. 


Choose your shots with care, and go for high-percentage shots. It's a method that works, and you will be a much happier, more humane hunter. When you have to shoot quickly, remember Dad's words: Take your time but hurry up. Too often, we forget the first part of that, and only hurry up. I've been guilty of it myself.