Cartridge controversy is fun, but where you place the bullet is always first priority!
There are several options for a good, clean shot; which one you take depends on the game, the cartridge, and the bullet. But, how steady you are and how much confidence you have may be the most important of all.
Sometimes my hunting buddy, Joe Bishop, really ticks me off. He has a room full of great guns, but he does all his hunting with a pair of battered Sako's, one in 7mm Remington, the other in .375 H&H. He has a super reloading room and the knowledge to use it--but he doesn't do much reloading anymore because he tends to use the same loads in those two rifles. He has access to great places to shoot--at all ranges--within minutes of his house, but he doesn't practice all that much.
What upsets me about all this is that Bishop is one of the best natural marksmen I have ever seen. He knows his two Sako rifles intimately, he knows what loads they like, and I can't even say he should practice more because, in all of our hunts together on several continents, I have personally never seen Bishop miss or wound an animal! Sure, it has happened. It happens to everybody now and again--but I've never seen Joe perform any less than brilliantly.
Unfortunately Joe can't say the same about me. This is especially unnerving because I spend vast amounts of time at the range, not only sighting in and practicing, but making sure I have exactly the right load. It is true that I switch rifles far too much, partly because using different rifles is part of what I do, and partly because I'm a "gun guy" rather than a pure hunter; part of the fun is selecting and setting up exactly the right tool for the job at hand.
I practice hard and I generally shoot well. But, in my heart of hearts, I know that I am not as good a natural marksman as Joe Bishop. I've demonstrated that fact in front of him, and like the good hunting buddy he is, he isn't about to let me forget it. So every time I get ready to go on a hunt Bishop gets on the phone and says, "Remember, Boddington, 'shot placement!'"
This doesn't gall me in the least, because it's darned good advice that, all said and done, means more than everything else put together. A fair portion of my livelihood is derived from extolling the virtues of one cartridge or another, or talking about cartridges, bullets and different types of rifles for various game and hunting situations. That's okay, because there are significant differences in rifles, cartridges and bullets that make them more suitable for some situations than others. You could say these concepts are all interrelated, because the rifle, cartridge, and bullet you're using have some bearing on the shots you can accept and where you should place your shot. But in the field nothing, but nothing, is as important as shot placement.
Heart and lung shots are easy to visualize and vary little with all four-legged game animals. The lung shot is the largest target and offers the most room for error, so under most circumstances it is the author's preference.
By placing their shots properly skilled marksmen can take game successfully throughout their careers while using fairly light cartridges that conventional wisdom suggests are marginal or even inadequate for the game hunted. By the same token, every fall way too many thousands of sportsmen miss and wound game with cartridges that are absolutely adequate, if not overly powerful. I am a strong believer in adequate cartridges and appropriate bullets for the game to be hunted, and if anything I lean toward the heavy side of the equation. But if you don't put your bullet in the right place it doesn't matter how much power you have available; you will wound your game, and you may not be able to recover it. Game animals vary tremendously in size and build, but the ultimate destination of the bullet varies but little. The goal when shooting at game is always to take the animal down as cleanly and quickly as possible; this is an ethical and moral responsibility as well as pure common sense. It seems to me that, throughout the animal kingdom, there are just four anatomical options to accomplish this: Brain, spine, heart, lungs. Let's examine each of these, and then we'll turn to some special circumstances.
BRAIN AND NECK SHOTS
Although these two shots are quite different, I lump them together because, collectively, these are not only the very best but also the only certain--sure ways to absolutely, positively drop an animal in its tracks. That said, I don't like either shot, and for a couple of reasons. One reason I generally avoid head and neck shots is because I'm usually at least somewhat of a trophy hunter. A head shot on any horned or antlered animal is likely to break the skull cap and separate the horns, which makes for rotten photographs and, on a really good specimen, will preclude entry into the record books. A neck shot is also likely to cause a lot of damage to the cape. A taxidermist can usually fix even extreme damage--but, again, the photographs are likely to be a bit messy.
First and foremost, however, I tend to avoid head and neck shots because they are extremely tricky, with very little margin for error. If you slip up just slightly you will usually create a wound that is not immediately fatal, and may do so little damage that there is a very high likelihood of losing the animal. I've heard hunters describe brain shots as "hit or miss" propositions, implying that they're extremely sporting because it's either a clean miss or a clean kill. This is simply not true. A brain shot that goes too high is probably going to be a miss, depending on the size of the animal--but it just might clip off a horn or antler. A brain shot that is too low is likely to do horrible damage to the animal's nasal passages or jaw. The animal will likely die a lingering death, and circumstances alone--terrain, vegetation, tracking conditions--dictate whether or not recovery is possible.
So I avoid head and neck shots if anything simpler and equally sure is available. But there are times and places. Hunters whose primary goal is meat in the freezer often concentrate on these shots, because, when done right, they do cause the most instantaneous and humane death--and they damage the least edible meat. The requirements are a basic knowledge of the anatomy of the game you're hunting, a rifle accurate enough to get the bullet into a relatively small target, and a steady enough shooting position so that you absolutely know you can pull it off. All three vary with the animal and the situation!
There are few hunting situations where brain shots are considered common. One is with elephant. The older literature talks almost exclusively about the effectiveness of the brain shot on these huge animals.
So much so that almost every first-time elephant hunter insists on trying the brain shot, and almost every experienced African professional hunter goes to great lengths to talk their clients out of trying it! The brain shot is always tricky, and it's especially tricky on elephant because a brain the size of a loaf of bread is concealed deep within a skull larger than a 55-gallon drum.
It sounds easy; from broadside just draw a line from eye to earhole and shoot about a hand's breadth in front of the ear on that line. Except that few shots are perfectly broadside, and shooting distance and slope of the ground radically affect the proper angle. I have done the brain shot perfectly, and its effects are awesome. I've also misread the angle and done it wrong. When you do this even a very large bullet has almost no immediate effect--but things happen very, very fast.
I've never lost an elephant when I messed up a brain shot--but this is pure luck, because if vegetation or other elephants prevent a very fast followup shot you will lose an elephant if you attempt the brain shot and fail. Unless the country is fairly open and you know exactly what you're doing it is much safer and far more sure to use the equally fatal but not so dramatic heart and/or lung shot. Elephant, the largest game on Earth, offers a fine example of the difficulty of the brain shot, but I feel much the same about it on game.
The neck shot is a bit easier because, on most animals, it is much easier to visualize. It remains very risky because a shot that's too high may only stun the animal for a minute or two if you hit near the spine, or create nothing more than a messy muscle wound if you miss the spine altogether. Most experienced hunters have stories about animals that dropped to the shot, then bounced up a couple of minutes later or were simply gone by the time you got to them. This is almost always caused by a near-miss to the spine. A neck shot that is too low is far worse, because it is likely to penetrate the esophagus and cause a lingering death. So the neck shot is also very tricky and must be sure.
Animals vary widely as to how low the spine dips into the neck at the point where it enters the body. So unless you absolutely know the anatomy of the game you're hunting, there are really just two neck shots that are absolutely safe. From any angle--and on any animal--you can shoot into the center of the neck for about the first third of the neck behind the ears, and you will hit the spine. Lower down, as the neck thickens, the exact placement of the spine varies considerably; the target is larger, but unless you really know the animal you're hunting the vital area within that target may not be where you think it is.
With dangerous animals like the big bears the heart shot is the best approach, because in most situations you must also take out one or both shoulders to reach the heart. This bear was taken with one 250-gr. Nosler Partition from a .340 Wby Mag.
The other sure option is on a frontal presentation. The spine will be in the center of the neck, which is extremely easy to visualize, but the target isn't large. On such a shot you are often faced with a tough decision: Take the small target, or wait until the animal turns. This means an instantaneous judgement call, because the animal may cut and run at any moment, and things will get worse rather than better! I usually wait if I think I have time, because I always prefer a large target to a small one. But if the rifle's accuracy, the range, and my shooting position all work together I'll take the frontal shot, and I'll also take a side-on neck shot.
Many hunters actually seek these shots and take pride in their ability to make them. Like anything else, the more you do something the better you get it at--so many of you are probably far more adept at these shots than I am. Me, I only take them if it doesn't look like there's going to be a better opportunity--and I'm very sure. Last year I had the chance of a lifetime at a really good mountain nyala, possibly the most difficult among all of Africa's major trophies. The bull jumped at fairly close range, but as he ran through the tall heather all I could see was horns and flashes of brown. He stopped three times, showing only head and horns, and then he stopped showing head, horns, and neck. I was shooting over shooting sticks with my wonderfully accurate 8mm Remington Magnum. The range was no longer close and the target was plenty small--but things weren't going to get better. So I held on the center of the neck about six inches back from the ear, and my very best African trophy dropped into the heather.
There's another thing about head and neck shots. The very largest game--which includes not only elephant and rhino but also walrus--must be taken with non-expanding "solid" bullets to ensure penetration. But in most cases with most game animals, neither cartridge nor bullet selection matter much on head and neck shots--but, as we shall see, both matter a lot with other shot presentations. So if you insist on using either light calibers for the game you're hunting or fairly frangible bullets, then neck and brain shots may be very sound options.
I like the spine shot even less than neck and brain shots. On most ungulates the spine drops fairly far down between the shoulders at the front of the body, as much as a third down from the back line. So a lung or heart shot that goes too high may well hit the spine. This shot will drop the animal in spectacular fashion, and will usually be almost instantaneously fatal.
Farther back the spine runs just under the backline, and if you hit it you will immobilize the animal--but these shots are usually lucky accidents that didn't go exactly where they were intended! I simply can't imagine trying to spine-shoot an unwounded animal any farther back than the shoulders. The target is small, and if you miss your mark a wounded animal is a certain result.
Now, shooting for the spine where the neck joins the body, or taking a fairly high shoulder shot with the intent of hitting the spine can be a sound option. But the exact placement of the spine between the shoulders varies tremendously among the varieties of game, so unless you know exactly what you're doing this is actually a very risky shot. Sable antelope, for instance, appear to have massive shoulders. This is because the spine dips very far down in the body and, at the shoulders, has big dorsal projections that form sort of a hump at the shoulders. Shoot into that hump and you may knock a sable down for a short time--but he'll be back up before you get to him, and if you don't shoot again quickly you will almost certainly lose him.
Under most circumstances I don't consider a spine shot into the body as a shot at all. There is one exception, and that's in the fairly rare situation where you're above an animal and shooting down with the animal facing either straight toward or straight away from you. Obviously the spine lies centered between the shoulders, and you can angle your shot so it will pass through the spine and on down into the chest cavity. This is not an easy shot, but it is exceptionally deadly and easy to visualize--and
in steep country it might well be a better shot than you're going to get if you wait until the animal turns.
THE HEART SHOT
The classic, standard killing shots that most hunters seek, me included, are the lung shot and the heart shot. Most of us have our preferences, but either--if properly placed with a bullet that penetrates--is absolutely 100 percent fatal in short order, and on all animals. The lung shot offers the largest target; the heart shot, except on unusual angles, has the advantage of requiring heavy bone to be broken enroute to the heart. Let's look at the heart shot first.
On all four-legged game in the world the heart lies low in the center of the chest between the front legs. The mistake that most people make is shooting a bit too high, but this isn't all bad. A heart shot that is too high will wreck the major blood vessels leading to the heart and will also hit the lungs and be just as fatal as if you'd centered the heart. The risks with a heart shot are shooting too low (you may break a front leg), too far forward (all you'll hit is brisket), or too far back (maybe catching the bottom of the lungs).
The author took this Colorado bull with a .30-06, plenty of gun for elk but not necessarily for all acceptable shots. Size of game, distance, shot angle and bullet selection will dictate which shots are too risky.
To do it right, from a broadside presentation divide the animal into horizontal thirds. Now, find the front foreleg. Just come straight up the centerline of that foreleg into the middle of the bottom horizontal third and you will hit the heart--or close enough to it that the animal won't know the difference. You will also break the near shoulder on the way in, and if your bullet is tough enough you may break the opposite shoulder on the way out.
A heart shot alone will usually not knock an animal down; a last frantic run of 50 to as much as 100 yards isn't unusual--especially if the angle is such that one or both shoulders isn't broken. I like the heart shot on tough game, especially game that is potentially dangerous like bears and the big bovines. But the shoulder must be penetrated, so as the game gets bigger bullet selection becomes ever more important. You simply cannot take a shoulder/heart shot unless you are absolutely certain that your cartridge has sufficient power and your bullet is of tough enough construction to absolutely guarantee penetration.
THE LUNG SHOT
Many hunters prefer the lung shot to the heart shot, and under many circumstances I'm one of them. The lung shot is a larger target with a greater margin for error, and as angles change it can be much easier to visualize. It also destroys much less edible meat, which is important to me. The lung shot is not less deadly than the heart shot, and in fact it can drop the animal even more quickly--but this depends on luck. If the animal has just exhaled, then a shot with an expanding bullet that really messes up both lungs may well drop an animal in its tracks. If the animal has just inhaled and is full of oxygen, then a final run of 50 or 60 yards is very normal.
For the lung shot divide a broadside animal's body into horizontal thirds once more. Now find the backline of the foreleg. Follow this line up into the bottom half of the middle third. This will more or less center the lungs on almost all game animals, and usually offers the greatest margin for error. Depending on the animal, you can hit a bit high, a bit low, a bit forward, or even a bit rear and you still have a fatal lung shot.
There are a couple of exceptions. With bears and especially pigs the lungs lie a bit farther forward than with most horned and antlered game. You can, and you should, use exactly the same shot placement--but don't slip much farther to the rear or you'll be too far back. A perfectly fatal broadside lung shot on a deer will be a shot just behind the diaphragm on a wild pig. The lung shot isn't nearly as demanding of a bullet because there is relatively little resistance; the most you are likely to encounter is a rib, and if you aren't shooting a bullet that will break and penetrate a rib and stay straight you don't have enough bullet for the game you're hunting
Elmer Keith used to write about "raking shots" with great glee. What he meant was shooting from fairly acute angles away from the classic broadside presentation. This, of course, is reality; the true broadside presentation isn't all that common. As angles change you must be able to visualize where your target--whether heart or lungs--lies within the animal. Especially on angling shots from the rear, you must also have a tough enough bullet to ensure that you're able to get through a fair amount of tissue enroute to the chest cavity.
This is really the great dilemma in bullet selection; we want a bullet that will open up so that it does tremendous damage to the vitals, yet we also want a bullet tough enough so it can penetrate from any sensible shot angle. In this forum I certainly can't give you a menu that will work for all game with all cartridges. I can suggest this: If you're shooting a bullet that does not exit on classic broadside shots on deer-sized game, either heart shots or lung shots, but especially the latter, then you don't have a bullet that's tough enough for either significantly larger game, or that will be absolutely reliable for game of similar size if you need to take one of old Elmer's "raking shots."
"TEXAS HEART SHOT"
Okay, here we go. The "Texas heart shot" is a shot at the northern end of a south-bound animal, and it is extremely controversial. If I endorse it I'll get a flood of hate mail saying it isn't a sporting or ethical shot; if I say it can't be done I'll get the same flood from folks who have used this shot to take a great trophy they otherwise wouldn't have tagged.
Although controversial, this shot can be extremely deadly. A shot to the spine at the base of the tail will absolutely immobilize an animal; a bullet carefully placed between the hams can penetrate forward into the chest cavity; if either opportunity is slightly missed, the pelvis or thigh bone can be broken and/or the femoral artery can be cut.
The problem is that all of these situations are chancy. From a rearward angle the spine presents a very small target. The rear end in general is not a small target, but you're banking heavily on bullet performance--in my opinion, far too much.
The caribou on the right is broadside. Divide the animal's body into horizontal thirds. For a lung shot, follow the rear line of the foreleg into the bottom half of the middle third. For a heart shot, follow the centerline of the foreleg into the bottom third.
For the record, I do not believe a rear-end shot is a proper
or ethical shot at an unwounded animal. If the animal is wounded, that implies that the first shot either didn't go where it was supposed to go, or the bullet didn't do what it was supposed to do. At that point all bets are off. Shot placement counts just as heavily on follow-up shots, but is no longer quite as important. If a wounded animal is escaping, the ethics of the situation dictate that you finish the job as quickly as possible. That means getting another bullet into him if you can--anywhere that you can.
Also for the record, I can recall making just two "Texas heart shots" on purpose on unwounded game. One was a nilgai in south Texas; the other a very large eland in Tanzania's Selous Reserve. Both animals are much too large to attempt this kind of shot . . . except. In the former case, the "except" was that I was shooting a .411 KDF; in the latter case I was shooting a .450 Rigby Rimless Magnum with good 500-grain Woodleigh bullets. Both shots worked perfectly, but the reason they worked is that I was dramatically overgunned. I knew that, and knowing that, I thought I could get away with it. There have been other circumstances where I have stopped wounded game with this shot, and a couple of instances where I thought I had a raking shot, but I either did it wrong or the animal moved, and a rear-end shot resulted. I have not lost an animal to this shot--but the risks are high, and under normal circumstances such a shot shouldn't be attempted.
I suppose I've passed such a shot dozens of times. Sometimes I've gotten a better opportunity and sometimes not, but two incidents stick in my mind. Also in south Texas, the only typical 12-point whitetail I've ever had a shot at burst from cover. He went straight away across a small opening, but I had time to get the rifle up. It was a .280 Remington, and I can still remember the crosshairs on his bum as I waited for him to swerve slightly and offer me a bit of flank. He never did, I never fired, and I never saw him again! Another time, on the last evening of a hunt along the South African side of the Limpopo River, we tracked a very big kudu, getting just enough glimpses to know he was a whopper--to this day somewhat larger than any kudu I have ever taken. With dark gathering we jumped him at very close range, and he headed straight away. I got the .30-06 up, but he went straight out and never gave me any flank to shoot at. So I never fired, and that was the end of the safari. Those two incidents haunt me, but under the circumstances I did the right thing; with the rifles I was carrying, I didn't really have a shot either time.
This doesn't suggest that we should carry cannons, nor am I suggesting that a rear-end shot is ever a particularly great idea. But the cartridge and bullet you're shooting influence the shots you can take. Like my buddy Bishop says, "Remember, shot placement." This simply means getting the bullet into the vitals where it can do its work. Nothing is more important--but the vital targets can be visualized from any angle. Whether you should attempt to reach them or not--to shoot or not to shoot--depends on your knowledge, skill and confidence--and the cartridge and bullet you're trying to reach them with.