Fact checked by Steven Lines, lifelong Hunter, and Outdoorsman.
Hunters will need to know where to hit their prey. Hit the wrong area, and you won’t get a kill. Even worse, you will end up wounding the animal, leaving it in pain. Because of this, it’s often recommended that you try to avoid a headshot. But should you stay away from this type of shot?
A headshot is very difficult to execute correctly. In most species, the target area will be very small. For this shot to work, you will need to be at close quarters with a good angle. Even then, there is a high risk of failure. Most hunters prefer to stick to a more reliable target area.
While a headshot might not be a good choice, a few other target areas will kill the prey instantly. Read on to learn more about optimizing your shot placement for hunting elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, and other big game.
Why Headshots Aren’t Recommended
There are a few reasons why hunters shouldn’t aim for a headshot. One of the biggest downsides is the size of the target. Species like deer will have a small brain. It will require a highly accurate shot to hit such a small target. In all likelihood, you are going to miss it.
Another significant problem is the density of the bone around the brain. This will offer some protection from a bullet. There are a few possibilities that can happen if you hit these strong bones. They might stop the force of the bullet before it hits the brain. Or they might deflect it.
Even though the bullet will likely miss the brain, it can do a lot of damage to the deer. If you hit the jaw, they might not be able to eat correctly. The bone could splinter, damaging the eye, impacting its vision. These wounds often won’t get better with time and leave the animal in pain for the rest of its life.
Lastly, the noise of the gun or bow will be enough to spook the deer. Because of this, they will flee from the area before you can take another shot.
All of these factors combine to make a headshot one of the riskiest shots that you can take. Because of this, most hunters will choose to focus on a shot that has a bigger target area and a higher probability of success.
Upsides of a Headshot
While the chances of getting it are small, there are some instances where hunters have been able to get a successful headshot. There are some reasons why they might attempt to make this shot. These include:
- Less damage to the meat or hide.
- Instant death. When the bullet passes through both hemispheres of the brain, the animal can’t continue to function. As a result, it will die instantly. This is painless.
- The prestige of landing a difficult shot.
When Can a Headshot be Attempted
There are a very slim set of circumstances where a headshot can be attempted. First, you’ll need to be using the right weapon. Hunting with a bow and arrow is popular. But it will make a headshot near impossible. An arrow won’t be able to travel fast enough. A deer can move its head in a split second, making the arrow bounce off the thick bone around the skull.
Next, you need to be at close range. The shorter distance the bullet has to travel, the better the chance of getting a headshot. However, you don’t want to be close enough to risk startling the animal.
Third, you’ll need to wait until you are given a clear shot. Often, this will mean that they will need to be grazing, bending their head at an angle, exposing their brain. You might need to wait a while before this opportunity presents itself. Remember, if you are off by a small degree, the bullet will land in the thick bone around the brain.
As you can see, the odds of this set of circumstances occurring are slim. Even if they do happen, the shot is far from a guaranteed success. Everything can line up perfectly by the prey can move its head at the last minute. Or you might get the angle slightly off and hit the bone. Because of the high consequences to the animal when this happens, most hunters won’t even attempt the shot. We’ll discuss some shots that have a better chance of success a little later.
Other Types of Shots to Avoid
A key part of being a successful hunter is learning when to take a shot and when it’s best to wait it out. There are a few circumstances where it won’t be a good idea to take the shot. These won’t have a high chance of working out. Plus, there is a good chance that they will hurt the animal leaving it in a lot of pain. These include:
- When the prey is running, even skilled shooters will struggle to keep up with a moving target. This makes it almost impossible to hit the right area. More than likely, you will end up wounding the animal rather than delivering a quick kill.
- Neck shots. These fall into a similar category as a headshot. When done right, they will be lethal and deliver a quick death. However, the target area for a successful neck shot is small, and you will need to hit it precisely. If you don’t, there is a chance that the animal won’t die but will be left in a lot of pain.
- Paunch/ gut shot. There are multiple problems with this type of shot. First, there won’t be much of a blood trail. Without this, it won’t be easy to track and retrieve the animal. It will also do a lot of damage to the animal. Sometimes, it can take them 11 hours to die from an injury like this. Plus, you won’t be able to eat the meat around the gut. Contamination with bacteria from its gastrointestinal content could lead to significant meat loss.
- Long shots. Whether or not you should take this shot will depend on the conditions. Generally, though, it’s best to wait until they move closer. There is a chance that you will miss and end up wounding the animal. There is also the potential that an arrow will lose momentum, making it unable to pierce through the skin.
- Consider background animals. Before you take the shot, look at what’s in the background. You don’t want to risk hitting multiple animals.
What to Do if the Animal Doesn’t Die Instantly
Every hunter wants to be able to kill the animal on their first shot instantly. However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you will hit the animal, but it won’t go down. Instead, it will run away, wounded.
Ethical hunting practices will require you to follow the animal and make sure that you put it out of its misery. After all, some shots might not kill an animal for hours or days, though they will be in pain during this time.
To do this, you will need to track the animal. The best way of doing this is by following the blood trail. There are a few tips that you can use to do this. These are:
- Look around the area thoroughly. Don’t be expecting a spray of blood. Often, you will only have a few small drops to guide your search. Sometimes these can be as small as pinheads.
- Take compass measurements. When you are following a blood trail, you don’t want to wander off track. Taking compass bearings can be a good way of doing this. You can also use landmarks to navigate.
- Don’t assume behavior. If you are hunting for animals like deer and elk, it can be tempting to think about how the animal would typically act. This can mean thinking that they won’t go across an open field. However, it’s unlikely that they will be acting rationally. Be prepared to investigate these leads.
- Look for more than blood. There are other signs of a trail of a wounded animal. For example, you might need to look for things like broken branches or tracks. Sometimes, you will see pieces of hair.
- Stay patient. Finding and following a blood trail can be frustrating. You will need to look for the smallest piece of evidence. But if you stay persistent, you will often be rewarded.
Once you’ve found it, you will be able to take another shot, hitting it in a critical area. This will kill it instantly and end the pain. By the time you have found and followed a blood trail, it might already be dead. All you need to do is retrieve your prize.
Alternatively, sometimes an animal will go down but won’t die instantly. Instead of letting it bleed out, it’s recommended that you take a knife and slice the throat. This will sever the spinal cord, killing it instantly. While this can be tough for some people, it’s a lot kinder than the alternative.
Best Places For Hunters to Target for a Quick and Humane Kill
The best kill shot will come from targeting the heart and lungs. When you hit this target, the animal will die quickly. Even if you miss it, there is a large blood trail to follow, making it easy to track. Some hunters prefer to aim for the shoulder; this shot can also kill an animal instantly.
Chest Shot (Heart and Lungs)
One of the best places to target will be the heart and lungs in the chest cavity. This is a larger target area than the head or neck. As a result, it will be easier for hunters to hit. This is a critical zone. Once you hit it, the animal will die quickly and without any pain.
Even if you miss it, there are positives. The bullet might splinter the bone. If this pokes into the heart or lung, it will lead to a quick death. If you hit a part of this zone, it will cause a lot of bleeding. This will leave an obvious blood trail. As a result, it will be easy for you to track down the animal.
If you are using a bow and arrow, you can increase the size of the blood trail by using a mechanical broadhead. When this arrow pierces an animal, the tip will expand, causing more damage.
Sometimes, you will need to stop an animal in its tracks quickly. For example, it might be spooked and running for a cliff. This procedure is known as anchoring. One of the benefits of this shot is that the target area is large, so it will be an easy shot to make. Once you hit the shoulder, the target will be immediately immobilized.
This area will have a lot of bone. When the bullet hits this, it will splinter. These shards can pierce the heart or lung, killing the animal. Sometimes, to make this shot, the bullet will need to go through the lungs. This will result in a quick death.
The only downside with this shot is that it can make harvesting the animal more difficult. Due to the number of bone shards, you won’t eat the meat from the shoulders. However, this won’t be a big deal. At most, you could lose 15 pounds of meat.
How to Know When to Take a Shot
When you are hunting, you will spend a lot of time researching the best places to find prey. Then, you’ll need to hike to the ideal spot. Sometimes, you might even need to stalk your target to get into a better position. Because of this, the urge to start shooting once you have a good target is understandable. But before you pull the trigger, there are a few things that you should consider. These can include:
- Distance from the target. As we mentioned, the farther away you are, the harder it will be to hit the target. This can mean that you will be better off waiting until you get a better position.
- The stance of the animal. The way that your target is standing will determine where you will need to aim. For example, if facing you head-on, you will need to aim for the upper neck. Generally, you will get the best shot when the animal is standing side-on. This gives you the biggest target area to aim at.
- Type of game. Different types of games will have slightly different areas to target. Regardless of what you are facing, it’s best to aim for a heart shot. This will be easier than a headshot.
- Type of weapon. Finally, consider what you are shooting. The techniques you will need to use will vary depending on whether you use a bow or a rifle.
Hunting will often rely on patience. If you are willing to wait for a better shot, you will usually be rewarded.
The movies make headshots appear like a common and straightforward type of shot. But, in hunting, they are scarce. Most hunters won’t even attempt them. There is little chance that you will be able to hit one. It’s more likely that you will end up causing unnecessary pain to the animal. Instead, it’s best to try to stick to heart and liver shots. This is a much bigger target area, making it easier to hit. Plus, hitting the vital organs will kill the animal instantly.
Steven Lines is a hunter and outdoorsman from Safford, Arizona, USA. Since he was a child, he has been hunting and fishing and has over 20 years of outdoor experience. Steven works as a hunting guide in Arizona during his spare time and runs a Youtube channel dedicated to sharing his outdoor adventures with others.