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 perfection to prevent condemning any animal to a slow and painful death.
What’s more, careless shooting that lets wounded animals escape gives anti-hunting activists fresh ammunition to use against responsible hunters. Much worse, it condemns animals to needless suffering.
To help you always hit the mark in the most humane way possible, we’ve broken down all the details on how to shoot a deer with one shot and assembled a helpful infographic below.
A Deer Kill Zone Infographic
Why You Want the Single Shot Kill
The favorite quarry of American hunters is deer. But deer are large game animals which can make clean kills a challenge both with a rifle or with a bow.
Deer are 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 to die in lingering pain. 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 and lungs, the so-called “boiler room.”.
One thing you need to bear in mind when listening to such experts is that many of them are not only experienced hunters but also professionals. They might harvest hundreds of deer in a year, often using specialized equipment and methods.
So, what works for them might not work for you.
We will dive into more details below. We’ve also put this information into a video for you to see where to shoot a deer along with the recommended kill zones.
Deer Hunting Basics: Rifles or Bow?
Our walkthrough should help you understand where to shoot a deer and kill it with one shot. But the distance you need to be at for the hunt will vary greatly depending on the weapon of choice.
Plus, there are some major downsides of going out for a hunt with a bow. There are lethal shots on big game that can only be achieved with a rifle.
For instance, the head shot is a big no-no for most archery hunters, and so is aiming for the vitals when the animal is quartering to the hunter, as the bones or muscles standing in the way of hitting a vital organ will likely make most one-shot kill attempts unsuccessful.
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 also need to make sure that you have a proper caliber, like a .308.
Keep in mind that some shots, such as the neck or the shoulder shots, require high-powered hunting rifles for guaranteed success.
So, make sure you aren’t taking any chances with a small caliber like a .22 rifle. A .22 LR rifle, though, is a great choice for small game due to its versatility and greater accuracy – here’s our favorite .22 LR rifles for hunting so far.
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 (Here’s a collection of the best laser rangefinders currently on the U.S. market.)
A pair of hunting binoculars can help as well if you are hunting from a tree stand (click here for an updated list of the best hunting binoculars).
In addition, a strategically placed deer attractant might become your go-to tool of the trade if game gets stubborn. Our editors have handpicked 10 fail-proof deer attractants and shared their findings with us in Best Deer Attractants: 10 Different Bait Options To Lure Bucks.
But now, let’s jump in and look at the 5 primary targets hunters should aim at to take down deer lightning fast.
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 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 hit the deer in the upper portion of the neck, you 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. 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.
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 aiming point if you are a bowhunter. 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 for 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 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
There are a few options for achieving the clean kills you need, and they all have their pros and cons. 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.
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