Pick a Hair: How to Practice for Perfect Deer Shots

Most hunters shoot better at targets than at deer. The right practice can solve that problem.

Pick a Hair: How to Practice for Perfect Deer Shots

Photo courtesy of Howard Communications

One ofthe most frequent complaints I hear from outfitters all over the world is how often clients gut-shoot animals. I’ve long wondered if there is a specific reason for this problem; it seems too common to be coincidence. A whitetail deer cull-hunt in Texas gave me the opportunity to conduct an experiment and find the cause.

Under the auspices of a scored contest, eight experienced hunters fired five shots at a 12-inch circular target with scoring rings, which was placed on top of a life-size cardboard deer target. Then they fired five shots at just the deer target. Unbeknownst to the hunters, on the back side of the deer target I’d placed another 12-inch circular target with scoring rings. Its center was positioned directly over the kill zone. All shots were fired at 100 yards from the seated position, and every shot was timed.

Out of a possible 50, the average score on the circle target facing the hunters was 36. The average score on the circle target placed on the back side of the deer target was 31. On average, the hunters were 16 percent more accurate when shooting at the circle target. The average time for a shot fired at the deer target was 3.29 seconds. The average time for a shot fired at the circle target was 4.36 seconds. The hunters took 32 percent longer to fire a shot at the circle target.

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Aside from most hunters not being as good a shot as they think—few of us are—there are a variety of pragmatic conclusions that can be drawn from the results. It appears that hunters shoot better at circles than at deer. It also seems that shooting fast leads to less precision. But the experiment revealed another trend that, in a way, ties back to this propensity to gut-shoot big-game animals. I drew a vertical line down the deer target that bisected the proper aiming point and discovered that 63 percent of the shots landed on the center-mass side of that line. Seven (23 percent) of those shots were solid gut shots. Conversely, only one out of the 40 shots on the cardboard deer target strayed too far in the other direction. Why?


Let’s look at the real-world results from the cull hunt. Of the 75 deer killed by the same hunters, the initial shot on 18 of those deer hit guts. This means 24 percent of those first shots landed near center mass. Why the correlation between shooting real deer and cardboard deer? I suspect two reasons. The first is that the hunters shot too fast on the real deer, much like they did on the cardboard deer. I also suspect that many of them were aiming at the wrong spot when they pulled the trigger.


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Without a small, defined aiming point, like the center of a circular target, hunters tend to shoot at an area instead of a spot. This naturally leads to a faster shot because holding a scope’s reticle on a larger area is easier than holding it on a smaller spot. Also, when most hunters practice, they shoot at targets made up of circles, squares or diamonds—objects that allow them to easily quarter the target with the reticle for a center hold. I believe that when we’re under the pressure of shooting at a real or even fake deer, our brains revert to our training and tell us our best opportunity for a hit is to quarter the target with the reticle. This could explain why hunters, as my experiment shows, gut-shoot animals about one-fourth of the time; they’re simply aiming at the wrong spot—center mass—when they pull the trigger.

What can hunters do to fix this problem? First, we can practice on life-like targets. Bowhunters do this almost exclusively; rifle hunters seem too obsessed with shooting little groups. The other thing we can do is pick a spot. Don’t just shoot at the animal or the animal’s vital zone in general. Instead, “pick a hair,” as my grandpa used to say. Conduct practical practice. This should make you shoot better in the field and give outfitters less to complain about.

Kimber Hunter

Realistic practice before the season helps when it comes time to shoot the real thing, but having the right rifle can make a difference, too. Consider the Kimber Hunter, which at about 5 1/2 pounds is easy to carry and maneuver into a shooting position. Its rigid composite stock follows the ergonomic lines of Kimber’s more expensive rifles. Other shared features include the controlled-round-feed Model 84 action, pillar bedding and a stainless steel barrel. Things that set it apart from the company’s other offerings are a detachable box magazine and a relatively low MSRP of $891, kimberamerica.com

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