In part one of Effective game killing, we studied how bullets kill. We observed the materials Norma employ for bullet making and we studied how these materials behave in flesh. We observed both the strengths and limitations of these bullet designs as dictated by physics. In this article, we will take a close look at the subject of shot placement in order to fully exploit cartridge performance.
As a reminder, the primary factor we need to focus on is fast killing. We focus on this for two reasons:
- Compassion for game
- Fast and easy retrieval of the carcass
We can achieve a fast kill via:
- Fast bleeding (destroying large, fast bleeding organs)
- CNS shots such as the brain (tend to be more difficult targets)
Shot placement and vital zones
Deer vitals courtesy of my wife and life-long research partner Steph.
All of a mammal’s blood must pass through the lungs where it can be released of carbon dioxide and enriched with oxygen to fuel the body. Blood leaves the heart (situated below the lungs) via the pulmonary artery which becomes a network of arteries feeding into the blood capillaries of the lungs. Once enriched with oxygen, the blood then travels back to the heart, then out through the Aorta artery to be pumped throughout the body. Although associated with the respiratory system, destruction of the lungs is one of the fastest ways to bleed out the circulatory system ensuring a quick clean kill. On top of this the lungs present the largest, fast bleeding target for the hunter.
As viewed broadside, a deer’s lungs begin at the intersection of the scapular and humerus bones of the foreleg. In height, the heaviest portions of the lungs are situated at the centre of the chest, in line with the lower foreleg. The lungs reach to within about 25mm of the spine, which is not to be confused with the top of the fur line because above the spine, the dorsal vertebrae may extend upwards by up to and more than 75mm. At their lowest point, the lungs are again around 75mm above the line of the brisket and are thinner at their extremities to accommodate the heart. Behind the foreleg the bottom of the lungs extend little more than 50mm before tapering upwards sharply, running out to thin edges just short of the last few ribs.
Please note that the following information will be based on a Fallow or White Tail sized deer in order to maintain modest proportions (target area) and therefore realistic expectations of ourselves (shot placement vs target area).
Viewed broadside, head to the right and using the straight lower leg as a centre line, a shot to the centre of the chest will destroy the heaviest portion of the lungs ensuring a fast bleed and therefore a fast kill. A shot 75mm above centre at 12 o’clock will destroy the upper lungs, an equally fast kill. However, if using a very stout bullet, it is possible to strike too high, either hitting between the lungs and spine or the dorsal vertebrae above causing instant collapse (hydrostatic shock) followed by recovery after a few seconds leading to escape and a slow kill.
Approximately 50 to 75mm (3”) forward of dead centre (foreleg) at 3 o’clock is the ball joint intersection of the scapular and humerus bones. From the front line of the front leg through to the ball joint intersection lies the autonomic plexus. This is a major network of nerves which when hit soundly, causes instant collapse and death. A shot in this area has the potential to destroy the autonomic plexus along with the forward portions of the lungs and locomotive muscles and bones. The autonomic plexus (sometimes called hilar zone) is the most useful aiming point for fast killing. This shot placement is also particularly useful when using cartridges that have enough bullet weight to penetrate bone but not enough velocity to initiate hydrostatic shock or any great measure of hydraulic force. The 6.5x55 is a good example of this.
Although slightly quartering, this photo shows the point of aim for an autonomic plexus (forwards shoulder) broad side (and slightly quartering) shot. Note that the crosshair is aligned with the front line of the leg- not the centre line. Many hunters lack the confidence to aim in this manner.
A shot striking a deer around 75mm (3”) low at 6 o’clock, strikes the bottom of the lungs and may also destroy the heart or the arteries feeding into the heart, a reasonably fast killing shot. But if the shot is slightly too low, it may only severe the brisket, a slow killing shot.
A shot striking 75mm to 130mm (3 – 5”) to the rear of the chest at 9 o’clock from dead centre may or may not be a fast killing shot. The rear of the lungs can be classed as somewhat slower bleeding than the main area of the organ, therefore, a greater portion of the rear lungs must be destroyed in order to cause a fast kill. If a cartridge boasts high power or a projectile has high weight shedding action, it may completely destroy the rear portions of the lungs. The Norma .270 110 grain V-MAX load can achieve such performance on Roe and Fallow deer. As a contrast to this, a stout, non -expanding bullet may only produce limited wounding, resulting in a very slow kill.
When a bullet strikes the rear of the lungs, regardless of internal destruction, game animals will generally run for some distance, much the same as a heart shot. Even at close ranges a hydrostatic shock reaction may be absent due to the low energy transmission through lighter ribs and the distance to the brain. Those who wish to encourage hydrostatic shock should aim further forwards (centre shoulder or slightly in front). But as always, understand that factors such as velocity, bullet weight versus game weight and the nervous condition of game will affect outcomes. It is far better to rely on fast bleeding.
A true rear lung shot or ‘meat saver’ should be taken with the foresight or crosshair aimed snugly behind the foreleg. If the aim is taken any further back (as is common with hunters these days), the shot will strike the tapered region of the lungs, risking a very slow kill. The cross body meat saver shot is especially effective for .22 centrefire user as it allows the projectile to deliver more energy to the lungs, avoiding bullet failure on the shoulder. But again, shot placement is everything and shots must be kept tight!
In pigs, the layout of the lungs can be very deceptive; the curvature of the spine at the shoulder is very low with the top third of the chest, as viewed from the side, consisting of dorsal vertebrae, cartilage and muscle to power the head. For this reason, it is important to consider the lower two thirds of the pigs shoulder as the vital zone. The lungs are well protected by the shoulder, tapering up almost vertically close behind the line of the foreleg. That said, a shot placed flush behind the shoulder using a fast expanding bullet will strike the rear lungs and can be a good killer. Bear also have a ‘low profile’ and again, it is important to avoid making the mistake of aiming too high, striking fat, dorsal vertebrae (or just fur) while missing vitals. A high hit boar (pig or bear) can be a nightmare in that the animal will be knocked unconscious via hydrostatic shock, but may soon regain consciousness. Then suddenly all hell breaks loose and we seemingly become instant experts at highland dancing. This is also why I carry a good long knife!
Steph's pig anatomy 101.
At the bottom of the chest, starting in line with the foreleg and ending about 75mm (3”) behind lies the heart. The heart is responsible for pumping oxygen and nutrient rich blood to all parts of the body. Despite popular belief, the heart is not a good target for a fast killing shot. A heart shot that does not completely destroy the heart can allow oxygen rich blood to be locked in the brain and locomotive muscles, allowing an animal to run long distances before collapsing. Shots falling low into the heart may allow some species of deer to run several hundred metres often making tracking difficult.
When the heart is completely destroyed, death is normally relatively fast. One may notice the animal raise its left leg as the animal first breaks into a run. Such kills can be described as a ‘clean but delayed’. That is to say, death is assured within 20 to 30 seconds. In this way, the kill is relatively clean. But within that time, it is possible to lose an animal in dense forest. If the wound through the heart is narrow, the animal may escape to a great distance.
The liver and kidneys
Viewed broadside the liver appears roughly in the middle of an animal. The liver hangs from the spine descending roughly halfway down, between the paunch and the diaphragm. The liver is responsible for metabolizing fats, proteins and carbohydrates into the blood. It also detoxifies the blood as well as performing many other functions. The Hepatic artery and vein pass through the liver although most of the liver can be considered a fast bleeding area.
The liver is a very small target and difficult to hit deliberately and for this reason the liver should not be regarded as a primary point of aim. However, the liver is often hit when game step forwards as the hunter takes the shot or as a result of running shots or angling shots. If the liver is destroyed, an animal may run someway (usually quite bunched up) but will succumb relatively quickly (10 to 15 seconds). Sometimes, uneducated hunters will simply divide an animal into four portions with their scope crosshair and pull the trigger, the result is either a fluke hit to the liver or else a wounding gut shot. Long range hunters can make use of the liver as a secondary target however this is a subject I will not delve into here. These specialized topics are covered within my Long Range book series. Directly behind the liver and attached to the spine are the kidneys, responsible for filtering waste from the blood. The kidneys are slow bleeding organs and if wounded result in a slow death.
From the lungs forward, the arteries, veins and nerves of the chest cavity taper into the neck. The vital systems of the neck include the spine and spinal nerves, the carotid artery transporting blood to the brain and the jugular vein transporting blood back to the heart. Destruction of any of these targets will result in a fast kill. High speed (over 2600fps) fast expanding projectiles will often send a concussion wave to the spine causing instant collapse. That said, during the roar or rut, the neck of a male deer can become very swollen and neck shots may not always go to plan. The arteries and veins of the neck are small targets and can be incredibly elastic; sometimes remaining intact after the bullet has passed through the neck. Fast expanding weight shedding bullets generally produce the best results when taking neck shots. Having said this, tougher bullets moving at very high speeds can produce adequate wounding as a result of hydraulic force.
The neck shot should be limited to ranges for which a high level of accuracy can be guaranteed. Broadside shots are best placed to strike just below the centre line spine. This helps to reduce human error (dorsal vertebrae shots). When neck shooting, it is up to the hunter whether he or she aims toward the head / neck junction, centre neck, or at the intersection of the neck and chest. Those with more experience may wish to aim close to the skull in order to salvage tender neck chop meat. Generally speaking, a shot taken at the intersection of the neck and chest will ensure maximum destruction with an allowance for elevation and wind drift error. There autonomic plexus nerve ganglia also extends through this region. In most cases, a neck / chest junction shot will cause instant death. It is worth noting that in an accident where a human breaks their neck, the human may live on. In contrast to this, a rifle shot will generally completely destroy the spine, circulatory system, nerve ganglia and surrounding tissues. The damage is so severe that regardless of variations to this description and mechanisms, life simply cannot be sustained.
The head (brain)
There are two aspects of the nervous system. The Peripheral system refers to all of the branches of nerves throughout the body acting as sensory organs monitoring internal and external environments, responding to stimuli and conducting impulses. The central nervous system (CNS) refers to the brain and the highway of all information, the spinal cord. The destruction of the brain or spinal cord as far back as the shoulder causes instant death by simply shutting down the vital systems of the body (apart from the self-regulating heart). Head shots may produce instant kills however the brain is a rather difficult target. Suitable points of aim include the ear or between the ear and eye as viewed broadside. From the front aim between the eyes if the rifle is sighted to shoot high or slightly above the eyes if the rifle is sighted dead on. Pigs are one of the toughest animals to head shoot front on because of both the shape and density of the skull. As an example, a .308 bullet of any weight and style of construction may simply bounce of the skull depending on the angle of the shot. This may result in a cut and mild bruising or it can cause instant collapse with severe internal haemorrhage. It is always difficult to predict exact results. If one shoots a pig in the head front on and the animal collapses, be sure to check the wound quickly to make sure the bullet has actually penetrated the skull. The pig may only be rendered unconscious and if this is the case, you need to bleed the animal quickly to ensure a fast and humane kill (and to bleed out the meat). This also helps prevent any impromptu incidents of highland dancing. If head shooting game at very close ranges (inside 15 metres / yards), you must understand that your bullet will be traveling at least 38mm (1.5”) below the centre of the crosshair if you are using a scoped rifle. If this is not taken into consideration, there is a severe risk of a low strike, resulting is an immensely cruel, slow killing wound. Although scopes have given us superior accuracy over open sights their added height can cause confusion for close range head shots. A simple method for close range or coup de grace shots out to 15 paces using a scoped rifle is to place the horizontal crosshair flat across the top of the head.
While certainly a fast killing shot, a lot can and does often go wrong with head shots. Jaw shots are the most common mistake and game do run long and hard with a jaw shot which can make tracking extremely difficult. Generally speaking, weight shedding bullets tend to work best for head shots due to the fact that should the hunter misplace his shot, there is still a high chance that bullet fragments will reach out to the brain. Having said this, when hunting heavy dangerous game, it is wise to adopt a tough bullet design.
The abdominal cavity
The gut is a slow killing zone. Gut shots may take hours or days to kill depending on the extent of wounding. Death may be caused by infection as well as general ‘blood poisoning’ as a result of digestive acids passing into the blood stream. Other factors may include severe pain trauma which then eventually leads to coma after several hours. Following this, the animal may remain in a coma until its eventual death.
Visible indicators of a gut shot include a deep audible ‘whock’ sound as the bullet strikes. Some game animals will show no sign of a hit while others might rear up onto their hind legs, come down and then run away. Potent cartridges loaded with very soft fast expanding projectiles can sometimes anchor game through the destruction of such a large amount of the gut that the animal is forced to take rest or shut down. Beyond these rare exceptions, most gut shots allow game to escape leaving no blood or gut fibre trail, causing the animal to endure a slow painful death.
Putting the information to use
Firstly, it is important to understand that methods of chest shot placement are in many instances heavily influenced by culture and traditions. For example, some cultures (particularly USA hunters) prefer a meat saver shot, striking the lungs behind the foreleg in an attempt to save meat. In Europe, the traditional method (although now perhaps somewhat faded) has been to aim at the centre of the shoulder and although this does cause meat destruction, this shot placement helps ensure rapid killing. The following paragraphs will deal with the goal of achieving a fast kill (fast bleeding) via the largest and easiest target area – the lungs. Those who wish to employ head or neck shots should by now have found sufficient information within the previous paragraphs.
Of the many years that I have been guiding and teaching hunters, one factor has become apparent – many hunters lack the confidence to aim at the forward region of the chest. Instead, when placed under pressure, such as when guided to the ‘trophy of a lifetime’, nervousness overtakes the hunter. Taking the easier option, he aims behind the shoulder and even then, he fails to keep the shot tight behind the leg. The shot is taken, the animal runs and should it be a dangerous critter, it falls to the guide to finish the job while the client sits on twiddling his thumbs wondering how it will all turn out. If you wish to obtain a fast and humane kill on a broadside animal, aim at the middle of the chest, using the front line of the front leg as your reference point. Or at the very least, use the centre line of the front leg. Either shot will provide room for error both left and right. If you feel that there is not enough room for error, then perhaps you need more range time. If the shot is kept forwards (front line of foreleg), the bullet will not only destroy vitals, but also major muscle groups and might also break the leg bones, halting locomotion while also creating secondary missile effects. This area of the body also offers good resistance for tough bullet designs. A shot to the forward shoulder may also cause the destruction the autonomic nerve ganglia. Further to these factors, should the bullet arrive at an impact velocity above 2600fps or should the bullet shed a vast amount of weight, it may produce a nervous shut down reaction (hydrostatic shock). As you can see, there are many good reasons to adopt this point of aim.
If you are shooting an older and slower cartridge design such as the 6.5 Carcano, aiming for the major muscles and bones will help maximize trauma. The Norma Alaska can perform very favourably in this role.
Larger game such as Oryx, Nilgai, Asiatic and African Buffalo can each be taken in style, using the front line of the front leg as the point of aim. But in order to achieve success, the bullet must be suitably constructed for use on heavy bone. In order to study this, those of you who utilize low or mild velocity cartridges such as the .30-30 or 6.5x55 can replicate my results via field experimentation on lesser game species. If you normally employ a meat saver shot, try now to utilize the autonomic plexus shot and see what happens. Note how quickly the animal drops when using the front line of the front leg as your point of aim.
A somewhat younger me, with my 6.5x55 Carl Gustaff M96 rifle and a load of pork. The 6.5 gives best results when a suitably constructed projectile is driven into the forward shoulder.
If you are insistent on utilizing the meat saver shot, be sure to keep your shot tight behind the leg (rear line of the foreleg). In some instances, the hunter may witness hydrostatic shock but often, game will run some distance after being hit. The meat saver shot can be put to use in order to fill one’s freezer, but when hunting larger animals and especially for the sake of guides, a forward shoulder shot is often the better choice.
I will begin this section with a warning - from the front, even at close ranges, shots placed squarely in the middle of the chest can sometimes pass between and fail to destroy the lungs or nerve ganglia. A large wound channel produced by a fast expanding conventional projectile (e.g. Tipstrike) can prevent such failure. However, as an example of the negative, the .270 or 7x64 loaded with tough premium bullets may not cause sufficient damage on Fallow / Sika / White Tail deer to anchor game on the spot. Due to this ever-present problem, a more reliable result can be obtained by either aiming slightly off centre or aiming higher towards the neck and spine. This is doubly important when chest shooting heavy game using either non-expanding solids or tough premium bullets as a means to achieve maximum destruction. Regardless of whether you are using a suitable load (e.g. Tipstrike for deer), it is good to build the habit of aiming off centre (or high) when taking front on shots.
Game at varying angles
The quartering away shot describes a shot taken at an animal facing partially away from the hunter. In order to destroy the lungs for a fast kill the shot may have to be placed to pass through the paunch or rear ribs. Solidly packed gut fibre or in-line ribs may be encountered as the bullet makes its journey to the lungs therefore a suitable bullet weight and or construction are vital factors. Long for calibre bullets can afford to shed some weight while light for calibre bullets need to be of sound construction. Try to visualize and then aim at the location of the centre or front of the lungs. Taking note of the position of the offside foreleg can also help you better understand the position of the animal. Ideally, the shot should rake through toward the forward section of the lungs, causing fast bleeding along with destruction of the nerve ganglia.
An old favourite, the 8x57 196 grain Vulkan. This bullet replaced the 165 grain Vulkan several decades ago simply because it offered more uniform performance across a wider range of game body weights. This is a good bullet for angling shots on wild boar and similar sized game, reaching its limit on Moose for which it was originally designed. Nowadays, Norma furnish a bonded bullet for this latter role. I have used the 196 grain Vulkan on cattle, but experience has taught me that heavier calibres combined with tougher bullets work better in this role.
A quartering on shot describes a shot taken at an animal partially facing the hunter. When angling shots through the front quarter into the lungs, the point of the shoulder (ball joint) is often the best place to aim. However, if the animal is facing slightly more toward the hunter the point of aim can be placed on the crease between the brisket and the shoulder muscle. This shot if true will strike the autonomic plexus as well as the lungs, pole axing the animal for sure. Any minor change in angle may have a great effect on results. It is for example, possible to aim for the crease in the shoulder, but for the bullet to pass along rather than through the ribs (with or without bullet deflection). Again, it helps a great deal if the hunter tries to visualize the centre and forward portion of the lungs. If in doubt, focus on the root of the neck rather than thinking of or about the shoulder.
Try always to visualize the front of the lungs.
Tail on shots
Also known as the Texas heart shot, the tail on shot refers to the common occurrence when deerstalking, of finding an animal facing directly away from the hunter but usually looking back towards the hunter, poised for flight. This shot is for all intents and purposes to be considered unethical. But for the sake of the realities of hunting and the possible need to end the suffering of already wounded and possibly dangerous game, I will include some information. There are two distinct methods of applying the tail on shot relative to cartridge power. With lighter cartridges, one method is to angle the shot to destroy the spine and follow through quickly with another finishing shot. Another method is to use a cartridge of great power with wide wounding projectiles to completely destroy one ham, causing the femoral artery to bleed out, again followed by a finishing shot to the neck or head.
Using potent magnum cartridges loaded with bullets of sound construction, it is possible to achieve full length penetration on medium game. A premium bullet may destroy the liver, lungs and may also sometimes destroy the autonomic plexus, resulting in instant collapse. Bullet construction is much more important than sectional density for this shot and many projectiles fail under these circumstances. On large heavy game, a non-expanding bullet will produce deep penetration but most of the hydraulic wounding potential is expended pointlessly in the gut. A solid bullet will however generally render somewhat adequate wounding through the liver before diminishing to a calibre sized wound through the lungs. Again, this is an unethical shot and might only be taken to end the suffering of wounded and potentially dangerous animal that is set to escape.
It should also be noted that tail on shots will in most cases render the meat un-edible after it has been fouled from end to end with gut contents. It is hoped that the reader never has cause to take such a shot.
I will not delve too far into this subject due the immensely broad range of parameters and potential outcomes. While it is possible to practice running shots at a range, a running shot on game can occur at a variety of ranges, speeds and angles. As a general rule, one can apply 10cm lead for every 10 metres or roughly 4” per yard on a running boar or deer. This lead is applied forward of the chest (line of the leg) and not forward of the entire animal. Swing the sights through the animal from tail to chest, apply the lead and shoot. It almost sounds easy when I say it like this. But of course it takes a great deal of practice to become proficient at running shots and most of us will experience many errors.
By now, the reader should understand that the lungs are the largest fast bleeding target and therefore present a natural point of aim. Running shots may invariably strike any one of the vital centres. On a running boar, the bullet may strike the head, neck, lungs or liver, any of which may produce a desirable result. If the shot strikes forwards, the kill will be fast. If the shot strikes behind the shoulder into the rear lungs or liver, the animal will keep running and depending on the power of the cartridge and the exact location of the shot, it may cover several hundred metres before expiring. It is generally unwise to use a high weight retaining bullet for this type of hunting, unless one is hunting large bodied game. The Vulkan and Tipstrike excel in this role. For those who feel that a Vulkan or Tipstrike might not offer adequate penetration for such shots on medium game species, it is the power of the cartridge and the selected bullet weight that needs to be called into question – not the bullet design. To increase success, use a softer bullet design and increase bullet weight. As mentioned in part one of Effective Game killing, if you do not know where to start (light to medium sized deer and boar), a 7mm or .30 caliber cartridge firing the 160 or 170 grain Tipstrike is a good middle starting point. Should the shot fall too far back and strike the gut, the animal will no doubt make good its escape and follow up shots will need to be taken. The only means to enhance results is to increase velocity and bullet weight while selecting soft bullets. Having said this, one must take care not to adopt so much power that one cannot actually take a running shot. If the shot strikes the hindquarters, the animal will most likely go down. A quick shot to the head or neck is the best way to finish such game in order to avoid destroying the entire four quarters of the animal for the sake of meat retrieval.
Hopefully, this article has helped the reader understand the finer aspects of shot placement. Rather than simply aiming at the chest in general, you might now want to hone in on more specific target zones. Two major aspects of effective killing that I have not covered in these articles are rifle accuracy (including sight settings and trajectories) and shooting methods. There is much to learn as a hunter, enough to fulfil the life of any man or woman. For my own part, I have written a five book series on these subjects. Although these books discuss the subject of long range shooting, the Practical Guide book series is applicable to all hunters shooting at all ranges.
As a final word, try always to remember that success is dependent upon what you bring to the table. Your rifle may have many wonderful features and a company like Norma can furnish you with extremely potent ammunition. Yet to gain a deep and full sense of satisfaction, you must bring something to the fore. Be prepared to try and to fail. Norma will provide you with the tools and through articles such as this, the knowledge of how to use these tools. But it is up to you to develop your skills. After raising expectations of yourself and by pushing through the challenges presented, the feeling of success and accomplishment you will experience when you place your hand on the fur of your downed quarry will be pure bliss. For those who love to hunt, there is no other feeling that can compare to this.
A Roe Deer taken with a 7x64 loaded with Norma’s homogenous copper ammunition. The range of he shot was such that the copper bullet could not be expected to produce hydrostatic shock or any great measure of hydraulic force. One simply cannot alter physics. Yet by keeping the shot well forward, the hunter achieved a fast kill.
Text and photo: Nathan Foster
Terminal Ballistics Research