Take a lesson from bowhunters and choose a precise aiming point on big game.
The larger the animal the more important it becomes to pick a very precise aiming point because while big critters have big vital areas, they also have big non-vital areas.
Photo by Ivan Carter.
We all know that shot placement is the most critical part in shooting at game, right? Well, depending on the circumstances, putting a bullet where it needs to go can be easier said than done. There are great references out there that show in great detail exactly where a given beast should be shot in order to reach the vitals, and today there's really good stuff that shows an X-ray view of where those vitals lie within the body.
These materials will show, usually in bright colors, the exact spot one should aim for various angles and shot presentations. This is good stuff to study, especially if you're going after an animal you have little or no experience hunting.
Unfortunately, out there in the field there are no bright red aiming points on game animals, and you can't see the heart and lungs through the skin. You must pick a spot on the animal to aim at, and it must be the right spot.
Although this may seem counterintuitive, in my experience the larger the animal is the more difficult it becomes to pick that spot correctly. Vital organs remain more or less in the same scale to body size, so an elk's heart and lungs are much larger than those of a deer.
If the vital zone you must hit is larger, it should be much simpler to hit that vital zone, right? In theory, yes. In practice maybe not because, guess what? the non-vital zone is also much larger. Generally speaking, the non-vital areas surrounding the good stuff "expand" much more than the cartridges and bullets we use.
Let me explain. A .270 Winchester, for example, is really a pretty big gun for deer-size game. Realistically, you can probably slip your shot a bit high or a wee bit back and the results will still be rapidly fatal.
We might use the same .270 to hunt elk, but it's no longer a big gun at all. If we hit the vitals perfectly, no problem--but there isn't much margin for error. Let's say we choose instead a .338 Winchester Magnum. That's a great elk cartridge, but look at it in real terms: The average bull elk is perhaps four times the size of an average whitetail buck. The .338 is not four times as powerful as a .270. By any system we have for measuring such things, it isn't even twice as powerful.
Now let's look at the largest game on Earth. An elephant bull is as much as 15 times larger than a bull elk. There are some monstrous cartridges that, in terms of energy, are twice as powerful as a .338, but there are no handheld cartridges that are even three times as powerful, much less 15 times.
So while larger animals do have larger vital zones, the larger the animal the more critical it becomes to precisely hit that vital zone. It sounds easy, but add excitement and inexperience, and it can be doggone difficult. Again, game animals don't have targets superimposed over their vitals. Instead they present a uniform color or pattern (think of a leopard's spots or a zebra's stripes) that tends to blend in with their surroundings.
You must pick the correct spot from that mass. Now think about a bit of brush that allows you to see only windows in that mass, and then add in some shadows. Poor light makes it worse as all colors fade to black and blend in with the gathering gloom. Dark animals are perhaps the most difficult, black bears and black buffalo being good examples.
I believe the most common error is to aim too high. You can clearly see the area that is the chest, and you know that's where you must hit. So you center it, ignoring the rise of your trajectory as well as the simple fact that the real vital zone is almost always in the bottom third of the chest. The size of the animal greatly compounds this fundamental error.
For darn sure aiming a bit high is my own most common error. I've taken quite a few deer and sheep that were dropped cleanly by a shot that was a bit high. You can get away with it on deer-size game, but if you move on up to elk the risks are greatly increased if you hit above the horizontal halfway point.
If you are very precise (or very lucky) you can hit the spine where, on most ungulates, it dips between the top of the shoulders. This will drop an animal in its tracks. But if you hit below the spine the best you can hope for is the very top of the lungs, and you will track for a while. If you hit above the spine you will track but you probably won't recover the animal.
I've spent quite a lot of time in buffalo camps lately, and I've heard the stories. It seems as many as one in 10 buffalo are lost, and the culprit is usually reported as a chest hit a bit too high. Black animals seem to confound the eye, making it extra difficult to pick the right place.
The only answer, on any big game animal of any size, to ignore the entire mass of chest area and pick an imaginary spot to shoot at. With a broadside presentation, if you come up the center of the foreleg one-third up into the chest you will break the shoulder and wreck the top of the heart, and you won't track very far. On any four-footed animal in the world, if you follow the rear line of the on-foreleg one-third to one-half into the chest you will make a fatal lung shot.
Again, on any four-footed animal in the world, if you slip above the horizontal halfway point you are shooting too high. You may get away with it, but the larger the animal the greater the risk.
Knowing this, I simply cannot explain why so many of us, me included, are so prone to shoot a bit too high. I suspect it's a matter of naturally trying to center the chest, while the best shot is almost always a bit lower than center. Even without field experience there are good references that will show you the correct aiming points for almost any animal in the world.
Doing your homework is good, but in the field you can't get flustered. You need to visualize where the vitals lie, then establish an imaginary aiming point that will get your bullet to them. If we can ignore the whole animal and pick a spot we'll do a lot less tracking, whether we're hunting deer or elephant.