As an avid hunter, having a solid understanding of big game anatomy is absolutely crucial for ethical and effective hunting. Knowing where to place your shot for a quick, clean kill should be every hunter’s top priority. I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago when I was still a novice hunter. Eager to bag my first buck, I took a risky shot that ended up only injuring the deer. That deer suffered an agonizing death, and the memory still haunts me today. After that experience, I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about deer anatomy and shot placement.
Now, after years of experience in the field, I want to share what I’ve learned so that other hunters can avoid making the same mistakes I did. In this complete guide, I’ll cover big game anatomy, shot placement scenarios for different animals, equipment considerations, safety tips, and proper field care. My goal is to give every hunter the knowledge they need for an effective, ethical harvest.
- Understand the anatomy of vitals like heart, lungs, liver for proper shot placement
- Consider shot angles and bullet trajectory when aiming at big game
- Choose appropriate ammunition and equipment for the game you’re hunting
- Follow regulations and prioritize safety, including shot distances and restraints
- Learn proper field care and transportation of harvested animals
The first step to effective shot placement is understanding the anatomy of the game you’ll be hunting. While there are anatomical differences between species, most big game share some common features you’ll want to be familiar with.
The major structures to focus on are the heart, lungs, and liver. These are the vital organs, and a shot placed here will most often result in a quick, humane kill. The heart and lungs sit low in the front chest cavity, protected by the shoulder bones. The liver is also centrally located, above the stomach.
Other major structures include the spine, stomach, and intestines. Shots to the spine can be effective at dropping an animal, but aim too far back and you risk only wounding it. The stomach and intestines sit lower in the abdomen. Shots here can cause suffering and are not recommended.
Pay close attention to the shoulder blades and leg bones. The shoulders are dense and can easily deflect bullets or arrows if hit at the wrong angle. Be sure to visualize and aim behind them. Legs have thick femurs that you’ll also want to avoid shooting directly into.
For reference, the heart is about 6-8 inches long in most big game. Lungs are 8-10 inches, liver 12-14 inches. Shoulder height can reach up to 5 feet on large animals like elk or moose!
Understanding animal anatomy is only the first step. You also need to think about anatomical targeting in relation to the deer’s position and the angle at which you’ll be shooting.
Here are some of the common scenarios you may encounter:
The classic broadside shot angle gives you the best chance to hit the vital organs. With the deer perpendicular to you, aim right behind the shoulder for the heart/lung area. Be very cautious of shot depth however, as a bullet can easily pass too far back.
For bowhunters, a double-lung shot is preferred here as it allows some leeway on shot angle. Wait until the near leg is forward to open up the chest cavity.
With the deer at an angle facing away from you, the vital area is a bit more exposed. Aim just behind the shoulder and into the chest area. Again, be very careful with shot depth.
For bowhunters, aim a few inches higher than the backline halfway between the shoulder and mid rib-cage. This compensates for the angle and hits the lungs as the body turns.
A deer facing partially towards you makes the heart/lung area much harder to hit. You have to go through thick shoulder bones and aim precisely. Generally its recommended avoiding this high-risk shot. But if taken, aim right above the facing leg to enter the vitals.
Frontal shots are very risky and should usually be avoided. But in some cases, like if the deer is stationary, it may be your only option. Aim at the center of the chest to hopefully hit the vitals. Again, shot depth is critical to avoid a gut or neck shot.
Hitting a deer that’s facing away or running from you is an easy way to cripple it but not get a kill. Never take this shot unless you absolutely have to. If needed, aim at the crease behind the hind legs angling toward the vitals. This is for experts only.
As you can see, there are many variables that come into play. Before taking a shot, carefully analyze the angle, visibility of vitals, and if you can confidently make a clean killing hit. If not, wait for a better opportunity.
The equipment you choose will also factor into your shot placement strategy and success.
For firearms, use a caliber large enough for the game you’re after. The minimum for deer is typically .243, for elk .270, and moose/bear .30-06 or above. Be very confident you can accurately place a killing shot at the ranges you expect to encounter.
Consider bullets designed for penetration, like bonded soft points, for optimal depth into vitals without over-penetration. Practice regularly to understand your firearm’s ballistics and trajectory at varying distances.
For bowhunting, use a draw weight sufficient for penetration. A minimum of 40 lbs is recommended for deer and closer to 60+ lbs for larger game like elk. Focus on shot distance—shots over 40 yards are not advisable.
Use a cut-on-contact broadhead and aim for the double-lung shot when possible. Be proficient at shooting from elevated stands as this can drastically change arrow trajectory.
Quality optics are a vital tool for identifying anatomy and achieving accurate shot placement. Use a minimum 3-9x magnification for deer hunting, up to 12x or more for western big game.
Take time to properly sight-in your scope for your expected shooting distances. This will give you the utmost confidence when aiming at vitals in the field.
Before getting out in the field, be sure to thoroughly review hunting regulations for your weapon, seasons, and tags. Stick to areas open for public hunting and avoid private property without permission.
When scouting and setting stands, opt for blaze orange clothing and gear. Be cautious of long shooting distances—just because you can see an animal doesn’t mean you should take the shot. Be patient and wait for good opportunities within your effective range.
Identify what’s behind your target in case you miss or have a pass-through. Never take a risky shot with buildings, roads, livestock or people in the background. If something feels off, don’t take the shot! The animal will give you other chances.
Hunting with a buddy is also a great safety measure and can provide a second set of eyes to help identify game. Just be sure to stick together and constantly communicate so you know each other’s locations.
After successfully harvesting an animal, properly caring for the meat should be your top priority. Here are some tips for essential field care:
- Tag animal immediately and document kill location as required by law
- Bleed animal by severing arteries if still alive
- Remove entrails/internal organs as soon as possible
- Keep carcass cooled to avoid spoilage. Use a tarp to provide shade.
- For large animals, quarter the meat for easier transportation
- Pack meat out carefully to avoid bruising/damaging meat
- Use cheesecloth bags to protect exposed meat from dirt/debris
- Monitor meat temperature and watch for signs of spoilage
Depending on the size and weight of your harvest, you’ll need a plan to safely and legally transport the carcass. Here are some options:
For large animals: Quarter the meat and pack it home in several trips if hiking out. Use an ATV or UTV to make transporting quarters easier. Or hire a professional packing service to take meat to a butcher.
For mid-size animals: Use a deer sled or cart to drag the whole carcass out by hand. A dirt bike, ATV, or truck can also work if roads allow close access.
For small animals: Throw the carcass over your shoulder, strap to a backpack frame, or place in a game bag to hike out. A bike or motorcycle works too if close by.
Follow all regulations related to evidence of sex/species and be prepared to show your tag. Note transportation laws for public roads and highways. And finally, take pride in putting delicious free-range meat on your dinner table!
Troubleshooting: Lessons from the Field
Inevitably, things don’t always go as planned when hunting. Here are some common issues I’ve run into and tips to overcome them:
Difficulty identifying anatomy – Bring binoculars and take your time glassing. Pass up any iffy shots. Study guides can help train your eye over time.
Misjudging shot distance – Use a rangefinder and know your effective range with practice. Refrain from long shots, even if you think you can make them. Wait for a closer ethical shot.
Deer moved at last second – Stay calm and hold your aim until the deer settles again. If adrenaline kicked in and you missed, regroup before attempting another shot.
Bad hit/wounded deer – Mark the location and give the deer time if missed vitals. Grid search the area after a few hours looking for signs. A blood tracking dog can also help recover it.
Spoiling meat – Keep the cavity open, skin deer ASAP, and get it cooled down. If weather is warm, get the meat processed immediately.
Lost orientation hiking out – Carry a GPS and/or compass and survival kit in case you become turned around in the backcountry. My old fart dad has had to extract me from the woods more times than I can count!
If all this information seems overwhelming as a beginner hunter, don’t worry! The most important principles to remember are:
- Slow down and be patient—never rush into taking a marginal shot
- Vitals like heart and lungs are your primary target areas for a clean kill
- Analyze angle and shot placement carefully before shooting
- Use adequate equipment you are confident with
- Prioritize safety and ethics over bagging an animal
- Learn from your experiences and accept that mistakes happen to all hunters
Mastering big game anatomy and shot placement takes years of practice. But going slow, hunting safely and humanely, and continuing to learn with each experience will set you well on the right path. Soon enough, you’ll have confidence in your shot placement abilities and a freezer full of the finest organic meat around. Happy (ethical) hunting my friends!
Captain Hunter is a seasoned hunting mentor with over 20 years of experience in the field. His passion began as a young man on trips with his father and grandfather in the Colorado mountains. Today, he shares his unmatched skills in survival, tracking, and marksmanship through his website CaptainHunter.com. When he's not volunteering with youth hunting programs, you can find Captain Hunter providing expert hunting tips, gear reviews, and answers to your most pressing questions. His decades of experience make him the trusted guide to help any outdoorsman master the sport.