In Their Tracks

In Their Tracks

Dropping game to the shot looks good, but it's risky.

We had been following the tracks of a single bull for several hours with a steady breeze in our faces. When we finally closed, the buffalo was simply meandering along, minding its own business. The mopane was fairly thick, so we crept in a bit closer, maybe 50 yards, and as soon as it looked clear I dropped to one knee. When the animal turned to its left I centered the front sight on the shoulder and squeezed the front trigger. This was early in my African hunting career, and it was the first buffalo I'd taken with a big double, an old Wilkes .470. The big animal dropped to the shot, collapsing on its legs in an upright position with no further movement. Wow, I had a real buffalo rifle now!


The author used a high shoulder/spine shot to drop this late-season Colorado bull, shown with guide John Papierski. He used a Savage 110 in .30-06 with a 180-grain Barnes Triple-Shock bullet. There is considerable risk to this shot, so you must be very sure and absolutely steady.

That was more than 25 years ago, and I didn't have nearly as much experience as I thought I did. I should have smelled a rat right away, but as we examined the buffalo--which was very dead--it quickly became apparent that things weren't quite as they seemed. The shoulder that I'd aimed at so precisely was unmarked. The buffalo had been hit squarely in the neck, at least two feet to the left.


Even then, while still in my 20s, I had enough smarts to simply nod and accept the accolades for a great shot. But I couldn't do that because the entrance wound showed the exact profile of a 500-grain .470 solid. The bullet had hit a small, unseen branch a dozen yards back--we found the fresh scar--and had keyholed into the buffalo's neck. I'd been very lucky because there are a lot of other places on a buffalo where that errant bullet might have hit.

I get some mail and, at shows, talk to a few hunters who prefer neck and head shots. Done right, the results are spectacular and instantaneous and meat loss is nil. Some of these guys hunt in situations where they can be sure and confident of such shots--for instance, from rigid stands in relatively close cover. Others, undoubtedly, are steadier than I am and shoot better.


Me, I'm neither a neck shooter nor a head shooter. One excuse is that most of the animals I take have antlers or horns, often capes, that I'd like to save. The risk of irreparable damage is obvious. But even on pure, non-trophy meat animals I tend to avoid such shots.

Partly, I suppose, since I try to avoid them, I don't have nearly as much confidence as the guys who try to specialize in such shots. But they also offer the smallest target and thus entail a great deal of risk. If you center the brain or cut the spinal column anywhere in the neck, the results are instantaneous, spectacular and final. But the margin for error is very narrow. If you fluff a neck shot just a wee bit, shock to the spine will almost certainly drop the animal like a rock--but he'll be up again in a few moments.

Murphy's Law applies: This will usually happen while you're working your way to him, out of sight for a few moments. Once an animal gets back up from a near-miss spine shot, chances of recovery are very slim.

I suppose the good news is that an animal will probably recover from a neck shot that goes too high; all you've really done is crease him. A low neck shot or a head shot that misses the brain will leave a horrible wound that will almost certainly cause a lingering death, but since the animal's locomotion remains intact, recovery will be very difficult.

So I tend to avoid head and neck shots as far too risky. I'll only take one if the range is close, the animal is stationary and I'm very steady with a rifle of known and dependable accuracy--and, for whatever reason, that's the only shot I have. Far the best options, to me, are the heart shot, low through the shoulder on the centerline of the foreleg, or the lung shot, a bit higher and on the rear line of the foreleg. Both shots are absolutely fatal and are easy to visualize on any four-legged game animal in the world.

The tricky part about the high shoulder/spine shot is that spine placement varies a bit from animal to animal. The kudu's hump atop the shoulders is misleading, caused by dorsal projections. Between the shoulders, the actual spine lies about a third down.

Angles complicate things, of course, and as game gets larger it's important to match the caliber, cartridge and bullet to the game. But plain old chest shots work every time. They also offer the solid advantage of the largest target and the greatest margin for error.

The heart shot is actually quite low in the chest. Trying to work with the greatest margin, my "heart shots" often wind up over the top of the heart, about a third up from the brisket. This destroys the major vessels, creating instantaneous and catastrophic loss of blood pressure--just as effective as centering the heart muscle itself. The central lung shot is a little farther back and about halfway between backbone and brisket. This is the largest target area, with the greatest margin for error. It is the safest shot by far.

Unfortunately, there are two things in common about all the permutations of chest shots into the heart and/or lungs. First, as stated, they are absolutely fatal. Second, it's most unusual for the animal to actually drop to the shot from a "pure" heart or lung shot.

It can happen. If the animal has just exhaled and his body is low on oxygen, he may well drop to a central lung shot, especially with a rapidly expanding bullet that does a lot of damage. A through-the-shoulder, dead broadside heart shot with a bullet that penetrates well enough to break both shoulders may also drop an animal and keep him down, but it's shoulder damage that did that, not the heart shot itself.

No two animals react exactly alike upon receiving a bullet, but with any heart or lung shot it is absolutely normal for an animal to run perhaps an average of 50 yards before succumbing to loss of blood, oxygen or both. If the final run is 20 or 30 yards and you see the animal go down, you were fortunate.

Considerably farther isn't unusual, but if the trail leads much more than 100 yards it's time to reevaluate the shot: Either you didn't hit the animal exactly where you think you did or your bullet didn't do what you expected it to do. (These days, hunting bullets are so darned good that the former is far more likely.) After 150 yards

there remains some chance of finding the animal dead; you may have slipped behind the lungs into the liver, or you may have slipped a bit high and caught the top of the lungs. There are, unfortunately, lots of other options, but you most definitely did not achieve a clean heart or lung shot.

There is another shot, rarely discussed, that offers a fairly large target and will absolutely anchor an animal on the spot. Sometimes called the spine shot, I prefer the more descriptive "high shoulder" shot. With most horned and antlered ungulates, the spine drops considerably down as it enters the chest, actually lying between the upper portion of the shoulder blades. This is where the vertebra are the thickest and heaviest, but you must ignore the actual backline. Hit there and, just like a shot over the top of the neck, you may hit dorsal spines above the actual vertebra and knock down the animal, but you cannot keep him down.

The proper placement varies a bit from animal to animal but is generally as much as one-third down from the backline, centered on the shoulder. Properly done, this shot shatters the spine where it is the heaviest, and results are instantaneous. The actual target, by the way, is larger than the heart and larger than the brain or the spine as it passes through the neck. In actuality, this shot, spectacular as it is, is often a happy accident. The intent was a heart or lung shot but you slipped high and got lucky, centering the spine at the top of the shoulder. Most of us have made this mistake, and if there are witnesses you smile and nod as if you intended it that way all along.

A high shoulder/spine shot caused an instantaneous one-shot kill on this Kentucky whitetail, taken with a T/C Encore in .280 Remington from a rested position in this stand (inset). I don't think the high shoulder/spine shot is as risky as the neck or brain shot because the target area is larger, but you must be absolutely steady as well as confident of the proper placement.

Done accidentally, the risks are very high. Hitting the top of the lungs below the spine is a very bad deal. Deer-size game will probably be recovered, but this is an almost certain way to lose a big animal like an elk or buffalo. Above the spine, well, there's nothing vital there at all. You have almost no chance of recovery, but the animal will probably survive.

Taking this shot on purpose entails the same risks, so it must not be done unless you're steady and certain of the shot placement. But if you've studied it a bit, then I consider it far less risky than a neck or head shot and equally spectacular in results.

Lately, I've been doing a lot of TV work for a couple of hunting shows. This creates a huge dilemma. You sure don't want to mess up in front of the camera, so you must take only shots that you are absolutely certain of. This generally means standard heart/lung shots, but you know up front that unless you're just plain lucky, the animal won't go down immediately.

This creates its own set of problems because you want things on camera to be as clean as possible. This past year I've sort of rediscovered the high shoulder shot. It isn't always suitable because you must be steady and you'd better know the animal you're shooting at really well. Screw it up and you've got a real mess on your hands, but do it right and it sorts things out instantly.

Back in the fall of 2005 I used it on a whitetail in Kentucky and an elk in Colorado, both with the accursed camera running over my shoulder. Earlier that year in Africa I used it on a big kudu and several smaller antelope.

Mind you, it's not a shot that you can always use. It is not as safe as heart- or lung-shot placement, so you must be very steady, very calm and certain of both the proper aiming point and the accuracy of your rifle. On the other hand, I think it's a lot safer shot than the neck and head shots I try to steer clear of. The best way to learn it is by studying actual anatomy, so next time you field dress an animal, follow the spinal column down and figure out exactly where it lies between the shoulders. You'll probably be surprised at how low it is. Armed with this knowledge, you can add the high shoulder shot to your repertoire--but use it with extreme care.

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