Any good hunter respects their prey, and a key part of that respect is to try and kill it humanely. Ideally you will take it with a single bullet or arrow. You should know where to shoot a deer regardless if you are hunting with a rifle or a bow. If you can’t reliably achieve one-shot kills you should practice until perfect and it’s as simple as that.
Careless shooting that lets wounded animals escape gives anti-hunting groups ammunition to use against responsible hunters. Much worse, it leaves animals to suffer needlessly. To help you hit the mark in the most humane possible way, we’ve broken down all the details as well as put together a helpful infographic below.
- A Deer Kill Zone Infographic
- Why You want the Single Shot Kill if it’s Possible
- Deer Hunting Basics: Rifles or Bow?
- The Brain Shot: Where to Shoot a Deer When There’s No Other Option
- The Neck Shot: A Pretty Slim Chance of a Clean Kill
- The Heart Shot: One of the Best Options for Hunting Deer with Bows & Rifles
- The Lung Shot: Hit a Double Lung Shot for an Extremely Clean Kill
- The Shoulder Shot: Recommended for High Powered Rifles Only
- Wrapping Up & Parting Thoughts
A Deer Kill Zone Infographic
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We will dive into the details below. But before we do, we’ve also put this information into an infographic for you to see where to shoot a deer & their recommended kill zones.
Why You want the Single Shot Kill if it’s Possible
The favorite quarry of American hunters is deer. This can make clean kills a challenge both with a rifle or with a bow. Deer is a good-sized animal. It takes a careful shot to bring it down regardless of what rifle or bow you’re using. One badly placed bullet will result in a wounded animal that will give you fits as you try to track it. It’s also inhumane as it may vanish into the wilderness dying a lingering death. Look at the average deer from the viewpoint of a responsible hunter and a big animal will quickly shrink to a few small target areas.
Where it gets tricky is that experts often give conflicting advice on which shots to go for. Some say a brain shot is the only guarantee of a clean kill. Others insist on going for the heart. One thing you need to bear in mind is that many of the most experienced hunters are professionals. They might harvest hundreds of deer in a year, often using specialized equipment and methods. What works for them might not work for you.
Deer Hunting Basics: Rifles or Bow?
Our walk through help you understand where to shoot a deer and kill it with one shot. But the distances you need to be at for the hunt will vary greatly depending on your type of hunting. If you are hunting with a recurve bow, compound bow or crossbow (crossbow hunting is legal in some states, check yours for the regulations), ideally you will never be outside of 30 yards. If you are hunting with a rifle and a scope, you obviously have a lot more distance that you can plan for. If you are hunting with a rifle, you’ll need to make sure that you have a proper caliber, like a .308. Make sure you aren’t sticking with a small caliber like a .22 rifle.
It’s also worth noting that there are other technological advances in hunting that can help you drop a deer cleanly. Consider using a trail camera to track deer in specific areas, or a laser rangefinder that can help you accurately judge the right distance of your prey. A pair of hunting binoculars can help as well if you are hunting from a tree stand.
Let’s Jump in and look at the 5 primary targets that people use to take down deer.
The Brain Shot: Where to Shoot a Deer When There’s No Other Option
Well executed, this will drop a deer instantly. A bullet through the brain disrupts all life functions – it won’t go anywhere, it will lose consciousness right away and it won’t experience any pain. A solid hit in the brain is conclusive; there’s no room for doubt. This is a favored shot among many professionals, who often use light, frangible bullets to achieve instant and total disruption. A brain shot has another advantage, too – there’s little to no wastage of meat.
On the other hand a deer’s brain is a small target. A heavy bullet that just misses can punch right through and leave the deer capable of escaping – but probably not surviving. Brain shots shouldn’t be attempted by bow hunters.
The thickness of the bone in the head makes hitting it perfectly a very tricky measure, especially because the head is much smaller than the body. With regards to rifle hunting, a poor shot with a might glance off the skull. Worst of all is a shot in the jaw. That won’t kill the deer, but will leave it to starve to death.
The Neck Shot: A Pretty Slim Chance of a Clean Kill
If you can cut the deer’s spinal cord with your first shot it will drop. Almost every time it will also lose consciousness right away and die very quickly. You’ll also cause relatively little damage to the meat but the shot placement is tricky. If you’re shooting from above and behind the neck shot is particularly effective, especially if you hit just below the base of the skull.
Neck shots are an acceptable choice for rifle hunters but still a poor choice for bow hunters. If you are hunting with a bow you need to make sure you are well equipped with proper broadhead arrows and that you have a bow with enough draw weight.
If you hit the deer in the upper portion of the neck, you will run the risk that the deer will run off and live. The problem with the neck is that if you don’t get the spinal cord the deer will take off. If you manage to sever the big arteries it won’t get far and should leave a dramatic blood trail. A hit lower in the neck will cause a wound that the animal is unlikely to recover from. Again that condemns it to a slow death.
While it’s acceptable for rifle hunters, this is still a high risk shot and it not the preferable choice when hunting deer.
The Heart Shot: One of the Best Options for Hunting Deer with Bows & Rifles
Hit a deer in the heart and you’re usually going to put your bullet through both lungs too. This makes this a massively damaging and rapidly lethal shot. The downside is that it’s not as instantly lethal as the others. There’s a good chance of having to follow up for a short distance. Although the quarry will usually go down in a matter of seconds, and the profuse blood trail makes it easy to track even in thick brush.
The up side is that the heart is a relatively large target compared to the brain or spine. This shot is a little more forgiving if your aim slightly off. You might get more runners, but there’s much less risk of a wounded animal actually escaping to die in the woods later. This goes for both bow hunting and rifle hunting. Aiming at the chest cavity is the largest part of the deer. This should be the number one spot you aim for regardless of if you are hunting with a bow or a rifle.
The problem is that a shot that’s more than slightly off can clip a single lung. The animal could cover a long distance like that and even evade you completely. Light bullets can be deflected by a rib or shoulder blade and cause a painful wound that’s not rapidly fatal. If you’re going for the heart a .308 firing a heavy bullet is a good starting point and should ensure clean kills. Obviously the larger and more destructive your bullet, the more meat you’ll lose at the entry and exit points.
If you are hunting with a bow, the chest cavity and heart is a prime place to hit your prey.
The Lung Shot: Hit a Double Lung Shot for an Extremely Clean Kill
The lungs are a prime area to aim for if you are hunting with a bow. While bullets can enter and exit the animal, a bow sticks in place making it incredibly hard for the deer to breathe, and will save you tracking headaches.
A deer that cannot breathe isn’t going to run anywhere for long. Lung shots with a bow are almost as effective as heart shots, and the lungs are the largest targeted area that you can aim to hit when you hunt deer.
You should aim for the middle of the lungs, which is slightly higher than the 10 ring (you’ll hear the 10 ring as a 10 inch space that’s the best spot for taking down a deer in most hunting circles). Hitting the deer with a double lung shot clear of the heart will cause the lungs to collapse and the deer will suffocate to death. This is usually a much quicker death.
The Shoulder Shot: Recommended for High Powered Rifles Only
Tricky, and reliant on a punchy rifle, the shoulder shot is also spectacularly effective but only if you do it right. If you are a bow hunter, don’t try the shoulder – stick with the lungs. The aim is to put your bullet through one shoulder blade. It will then traverse the chest cavity then hit the inside of the other shoulder blade. Get it right and the effects are catastrophic. The shock of the strike will paralyze the nervous system and break the spine. It will then disable the front legs, ensuring instant immobilization and a quick death. A deer shot neatly through both shoulders isn’t going anywhere.
On the down side this shot needs a bullet that’s heavy enough to blow through a substantial bone before expanding. This tends to damage a lot of prime meat around the shoulders and upper backstrap. The shoulder is NOT the best place to shoot a deer if you are hunting with a bow. The thicker parts of the shoulder blade make it almost impossible to penetrate unless you are hunting with a bow that has the right draw weight for legal hunting in your state. Even then, there are no guarantees. It’s also one of the top spots that hunters claim to hit and still have the deer run off, turning into a tracking nightmare. It’s angle-dependent – a 90° flank shot is best. At shallow angles there’s a risk of the bullet not making it through the shoulder blade. That can leave you with a crippled, but still mobile, deer and a difficult follow-up shot. It’s also easy to miss high.
If you have the right rifle and ammunition, this is a very reliable way to put a deer down with a single bullet. If you are hunting with a bow, stick with a chest cavity shot and aim for the heart or the lungs to walk away cleanly.
Wrapping Up & Parting Thoughts
So there are a few options for achieving the clean kills you need, and they all have their plus and minus points. There will never be a completely true consensus on which one is best. They all have their devotees – but all of them are capable of humanely dispatching a deer. Work out which one suits your own gear and techniques. Then, put the bullet or an arrow in the right place and you’ll get the result you want.