Bow Hunters: Shot Placement

Or….Your Arrow’s Journey Through the Deer

By John Trout

Where your arrow hits the deer is less important
than what it hits inside.

“One inch can turn a great day into a nightmare.” That’s what a well-respected and experienced outfitter once told me. “If your arrow’s entry point is barely off, it could turn an easy five-minute recovery into an all-day tracking endeavor.”

buck-rut-angled-300x448Before going on, let me emphasize that bowhunters are a highly ethical group. A quick kill is top priority, so they don’t compromise on razor sharp broadheads and shooting within their effective range. Nevertheless, understanding the anatomy of a deer – what’s inside – is critical to selecting the perfect entry point for the arrow.

Shot Angle
Archers agree that the vital heart and lungs provide the best aiming point. It’s important, though, that we fully understand how a deer’s angle can prevent an arrow from reaching the vitals.

Consider quartering-into shots where a deer is angling toward you. Although the arrow could reach the chest cavity, it won’t necessarily pass through both lungs. Even if the arrow enters up front just behind the shoulder and even if you get extreme penetration, it might hit only the back of one lung, and miss the other. A deer hit through one lung is difficult to recover if the heart and arteries are spared. Thus, we can assume the quartering-into shot often results in a wound to one lung and possibly the liver and/or stomach.

Broadside shots are ideal, since it’s just a matter of achieving proper penetration to take out both lungs.

Quartering-away shots could be even better, since the arrow is always headed toward the boiler room. An arrow that enters near the center of the deer will still take out the vital lungs and heart. On the flip-side though, a deer that quarters away too sharply could make it difficult for your arrow to reach the heart or both lungs.

buck-rut-walking-448x300Heart vs. Lungs
Although both heart and lung shots are deadly, the heart should not be the primary choice for an aiming point. First, consider that the heart offers a smaller target. The heart of an adult deer is about 6 x 4 inches and lies at the bottom of the chest cavity just behind the front leg. The vital lungs, with a diameter of about 9 inches when inflated, lies just behind the shoulder and is centered from the deer’s back to the bottom of its chest. If your aiming point is slightly off when targeting the center of the lungs, you have more room for error than you would if you aimed at the heart.

Second, consider that a deer hit through both lungs seldom runs far and is typically down in seconds. That’s not always the case with a heart-shot deer. For instance, a broadhead that nicks or slices only the edge of the heart, instead of passing through the organ, usually results in a deer traveling farther before succumbing. Several cases of heart wounds where the arrow did not pass completely through or failed to sever the arteries that sit atop the heart have been documented. In many situations, these deer were jumped and pushed before they finally piled up.

Behind the Diaphragm
We’ve often heard the term “gut shot”. A bowhunter doesn’t want to hear those words, particularly when it’s time to track a deer. However, it is important to fully understand the organs of the abdomen and what occurs when the arrow passes through.

trout-jr-examining-blood-trail-300x448The liver is large and lies vertically just behind the diaphragm and vital lungs. It should never be selected as an aiming point, and is usually hit when a deer angles into, or away from the shooter. Most liver-hit deer will succumb within two hours of being hit.

Heading south behind the liver are the stomach, intestines and kidneys, collectively called the paunch. The large stomach is often hit when an arrow passes through the center of the deer. The intestines are located from two-thirds back on the deer and extend up to the hips.

It should be noted that any abdominal wound is deadly, be it liver, stomach, or intestines. With proper tracking techniques and patience, the animal can be recovered. The farther back the arrow enters, the longer you should let the animal go before tracking. Whenever possible, consider letting a paunch-shot deer go for several hours.

The kidneys lie just in front of the hips, high in the deer and near the spine. However, unlike other abdominal wounds previously mentioned, a hit to one or both of the kidneys results in a quick death. Of course, never consider these small organs as an aiming point.

Regardless of how accurately we shoot and how well we know a whitetail’s anatomy, the worst can still occur. We can make a bad shot, or experience a deflection. However, knowing a deer’s anatomy is sure to make you a better archer, a better hunter and a better teacher when you have the opportunity assist another hunter.


john-trout-jr-236x235About John Trout, Jr.

Southern Indiana hunter John Trout, Jr. is a full-time freelance writer and photographer specializing in whitetail deer, wild turkey and black bear. He has authored eight books and his work has appeared in nearly every hunting publication in North America. Visit his website at

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