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Shot Placement Tips for Hunting Whitetails

Making the shot count isn't easy, especially during the rut, but with the right information it's much more likely to happen.

Shot Placement Tips for Hunting Whitetails

What’s your shot here? Learn how to hone in on an accurate (and ethical) shot when a big buck comes calling. (Shutterstock image)

Deer hunting has many different facets of knowledge, and each of these is very important to achieving overall success. But understanding deer shot placement—and knowing where to shoot a deer—might just be the most important of all. Because without that key piece of information, you won’t be prepared to make a well-placed shot and get a clean kill.

Deer Anatomy Explained

The vital discussion begins with internal whitetail anatomy. Knowing where the major aiming organs are located, such as the heart and lungs, is crucial. Knowing where other non-aiming organs, including the liver, paunch (stomach), intestines, etc., is important, too. As is understanding spinal alignment, circulatory system placement and the location of other things that can lead to a lethal shot but aren’t targeted when settling the sights.

While most hunters have baseline knowledge of whitetail anatomy, the heart is further forward than commonly believed. It isn’t right behind the leg. Rather, it’s mostly behind the front leg and that’s a great place to aim at a deer.

Also contrary to popular belief, the shoulder does not get in the way like most hunters think. The shoulder isn’t a straight line up the leg to the deer’s back. Rather, once it gets to the top of the leg, it makes a vertical boomerang shape that opens toward the rear of the deer. If you hit bone, you’ve hit too high, low or forward to strike the heart or lungs anyway.

A third common misconception is that there is dead space between the top of the lungs and the spine, resulting in a non-lethal hit. This isn’t true. Rather, the top of the lungs extends to the top of the internal body cavity. Directly above that is the aortic artery, which is also lethal. Directly above that is the spinal column, which renders the deer immobile and requires a follow-up shot.

Another little-known fact is that internal anatomy size, shape and position can vary slightly from deer to deer. We aren’t talking huge differences, but it can be enough to cause a marginal shot to miss an organ that would otherwise be struck. Still, that’s the exception and not the rule, and it shouldn’t impact how you proceed with shot placement.

deer with target
Bowhunters (or gun hunters) who aim for the heart on a broadside deer should aim for this spot. You’ll hit the lungs, too. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)

Of course, timespan between time of shot impact and when you begin blood trailing is another factor to consider. While a heart- or lung-shot deer can expire as quickly as a few seconds or minutes, when slower, less lethal organs are hit, it’s good to know how deer react. Their body language, the arrow and the blood trail itself reveal clues on what organs were hit.

If you still aren’t comfortable with organ placement and where to aim, perhaps use 3D targets that are anatomically correct, such as the Rinehart Anatomy Shot Placement Model or the Rinehart Anatomy Deer 3D Foam.

Understanding Shot Placement Ethics vs. Shot Opportunity Ethics

There are many avenues of shot placement to consider, two of which are shot placement and shot opportunity ethics. Shot placement ethics don’t change from one person to the next. An ethical shot placement is completely controlled by the deer’s anatomy. It isn’t, however, influenced by the hunter himself (or herself).




Shot opportunity ethics, on the other hand, can change from one person to the next. This is influenced by the weapon a hunter is holding, as well as their weapon’s capabilities. For example, an ethical shot opportunity for a proficient rifle hunter is much different than that of a seasoned bowhunter. Furthermore, shot opportunity ethics can vary between two experienced bowhunters, too. One might be comfortable shooting deer out to 40 yards, while the other might only be so out to 30.

These examples and more express why it’s so important to never waver in shot placement ethics, and to have a firm grip on the shot opportunity ethics that apply to you, your weapon and your skills.

deer hunting targets
The Rinehart Anatomy Deer 3D Foam and Target provide a great teaching tool. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)
Weapon Use Can Impact Shot Placement (Sometimes)

As alluded to, where you aim is completely dictated by the positioning of the vitals inside of a deer. That said, the use of a rifle can open a couple more shot opportunities that aren’t advisable for bowhunters.

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For example, while inexperienced hunters should never take these shots (even with a gun), those with the skill to do so oftentimes consider frontal and neck shots. That said, these are low-odds shots with very small targets and large margins of error.

closeup of deer
Headshots are off the table. It doesn’t matter how close the deer is, or how good you think you are. It can lead to a painful, non-lethal injury, such as a broken jaw, damaged sinus cavity, or worse. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)

Those who take straight frontal shots are aiming for the heart. Miss that and you’re hitting one lung, liver and/or intestinal vitals at best. Taking a neck shot is much the same. Fail to sever the spinal cord or jugular vein and it could lead to a long, slow death, or no death at all.

young deer with target
Frontal shots are off limits to bowhunters, but with a rifle in hand, this is the spot to aim. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)

While some hunters will consider the frontal and neck shots, especially with a rifle, there are certain shots to never purposely take. These include head shots, rear shots, intestinal shots, leg shots and straight down shots from elevated positions.

Best Whitetail Deer Shot Placements

Regardless of what weapon you use, there are certain shot placements that reign supreme. And no matter the situation, there is no better place to aim than the heart and lung region. This is true for multiple reasons. First, it kills the animal quickly. Secondly, it’s a larger area with more room for error. So, then, when are the best times to send it?

broadside of a deer
Regardless of the weapon you use, a perfectly broadside deer is the best shot opportunity. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)
  • Broadside: There is no better shot than the broadside opportunity. Some will argue that quartering away is better, but it’s not. First, the kill zone is the largest with a broadside deer. As the angle of a deer increases—whether due to your elevated position or its orientation left and right—the kill zone decreases. Secondly, the more a deer is turned, the less likelihood of hitting both lungs, and a one-lung hit can result in a long, perhaps empty-handed, tracking job. So, where do you aim at a broadside deer? If you’re aiming for the heart, follow the leg upward and settle the pin, sights, or crosshairs several inches above where the horizontal belly line intersects with the vertical line running up the middle of the front leg. Do that and it’s a heart-shot all day with a little bit of frontal lung to boot. If aiming solely for the lungs, which offers a greater margin of error, it’s better to aim just behind the front leg about 1/3 to ½ of the way up the deer’s body. That is an excellent spot to aim, especially for shooters with less experience who need a larger target.
whitetail buck
The quartering-away shot is an excellent option. The rule is to aim for the off-side shoulder. That said, make sure the legs are in the straight-down position, or you’ll aim too far forward or backward. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)
  • Quartering Away: Quartering away is the second-best option. While too severe an angle shouldn’t be taken, a slight to moderate quartering opportunity is an ethical one. It also decreases the odds of hitting bone, even though that’s less of an issue than most hunters think. That said, when taking this shot, if the legs are straight down, it’s good rule of thumb to aim for the opposite front leg. Doing this will increase the likelihood of deflating both lungs, effectively maximizing the lethality of the shot. This shot opportunity is also great for heart shots and even allows for a greater chance of severing important arteries in the front of the body cavity, as well as damaging the off-side shoulder, which can reduce the distance it can run before expiring.
whitetail deer
A quartering-to shot opportunity is OK for gun hunters. And if it’s slight enough, can be cleared for bowhunters, too. However, this angle is too severe for a bowhunter to take. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)
  • Quartering To: The third best option is one that’s frowned upon for bowhunters. The kill zone is greatly reduced due to the leg and shoulder bone that can get in the way when oriented in this manner. That said, if the angle isn’t too severe, it’s still possible to take an ethical shot, so long as you can slip an arrow through both lungs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with gun hunters taking this shot, however. This holds true with more severe quartering-to angles, too. Just put in on the ball of the shoulder and let it rip.
  • Elevated Shots: Regardless of whether the deer is broadside, quartering to, or quartering away, those who hunt from an elevated position should consider the height differential. The greater the shot angle (up and down), the higher you should aim on the deer. Failing to do so can lead to a single lung hit or missing the vitals altogether.
Blood-trailing deer can be a difficult task, especially if you aren’t equipped with the right knowledge. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative
After the Shot: Blood Trailing 101

The job isn’t over when you take the shot. Finding the deer you’ve just killed isn’t always easy. Even seemingly good shots can lead to long, winding, perplexing blood trails. That said, there are processes to follow, and these vary based on which vital you’ve struck within the body cavity.

  • Heart Shot: You should have an arrow with bright-red blood, and it might have a few small bubbles in it, too. Wait about 30-45 minutes and start blood trailing. That deer should be no more than 100 yards away, as it died within seconds.
  • Lung Shot: The arrow should be covered in pinkish-red blood, and it should have plenty of bubbles. Wait approximately 45 minutes to a couple hours and begin trailing. If both lungs are hit well, the deer should be within 150 yards of the impact site, as it died within seconds or minutes.
  • Liver Shot: The arrow will likely be covered with dark-red blood, and won’t have bubbles unless a lung was hit. Wait approximately five hours before beginning the search, as it can take that long for liver-hit deer to die. The trail might start out good but will likely fade to droplets. Keep looking, though. It’s a dead deer. A tracking dog might be needed.
  • Paunch (Gut) Shot: The arrow will have little to no blood on it. Instead, it might have brown or green stomach matter on it and will have a distinct odor. Wait approximately 10-12 hours before blood trailing, as it takes more time for deer to expire from this wound. Grid searching the area, or calling a tracking dog, might be necessary to recover the dead deer.
man with hunted deer in winter woods
The author poses with his 2021-22 season Ohio buck. The deer was standing at 34 yards, was slightly alert and so the author aimed only a couple inches above the belly line to account for the string jump. After reviewing the footage, he confirmed the deer dropped about 5-6 inches from the time the arrow was released until it made impact. If he hadn’t aimed low, the arrow would have struck the spine, backstrap or sailed over the buck’s back. (Photo by Honeycutt Creative)
Making the Shot

All things considered, understanding deer shot placement, and where to shoot a deer, is simple. It’s making the shot that’s difficult. Adrenaline from the hunt, potential for deer to move (jumping the string), pulling the shot, faulty equipment, and other environmental factors can influence whether you hit where you’re aiming, or not. That said, with plenty of practice, and by implementing the knowledge outlined above, you’ll almost certainly increase success rates this season.

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