Bowhunting How-To: Where to Aim on a Whitetail Deer
We always had a 3-D deer target in our backyard when I was growing up. Dad worked long hours during summer, but a few nights each week he rolled in behind the wheel of his old pickup with just enough daylight to shoot a few arrows into that foam-plastic deer.
He used that practice time to prepare for deer season while also teaching me where to shoot a whitetail. Between his stern advice and the well-worn foam behind the deer target’s shoulder, I got the message.
When I got a bit older I learned the specifics of whitetail anatomy. And during the two seasons before my first hunting season, I also helped recover every deer my dad and uncles harvested. I learned the lungs were the deer’s largest vital organ, which made them the intended target of most bowhunters. They’re behind and rearward of a deer’s shoulder, while the heart sits below them in the chest cavity and the liver behind them, just past the diaphragm. Those three organs are commonly called “the vitals,” because they’re the deer’s most vital organs. They can be seen in the image below.
Cleaving a deer’s vitals with a razor-sharp broadhead delivers a quick, humane kill. Broadheads kill by inflicting massive hemorrhaging, so shot placement is critical. A hit too far forward will penetrate thick muscle and possibly heavy bone, while a shot too far rearward can make a recovery difficult because it usually causes slower deaths.
Those are good reasons to practice on a 3-D deer target. Unlike a bull’s-eye target, where the aiming point is easily identified, the aiming point on a whitetail varies. The deer’s position relative to the hunter changes, so the aiming point for a lethal shot varies, too. Let’s look at some common scenarios and the most lethal shooting angles preferred by bowhunters.
Broadside shots occur when either side of a deer is perpendicular to the bowhunter. This angle exposes the vitals and provides a large target for a lethal hit. The broadside angle is considered one of bowhunting’s best shot options. Therefore, it provides the baseline for all the shot angles we’ll cover.
When aiming at a broadside deer at ground level, visually divide its body into three equal horizontal segments. The top section of the bottom third is the vertical hold-on reference. Aim at that height and 3 inches behind the crease where the deer’s shoulder meets its midsection. The red dot on the photo shows where those two hold-on points intersect, creating the aiming point.
Let’s also discuss the arrow’s path on a broadside shot at ground level. If the arrow strikes the red dot, it will usually pass through the deer and exit at roughly the same spot on the deer’s opposite side. However, as shot angles change with the deer’s position and the bowhunter’s elevation, the aiming point and exit wound’s locations change, too. For example, when aiming from a treestand at a broadside deer, you must aim slightly below the deer’s mid-line to ensure the arrow strikes it there.
The quartering-away angle is favorable, even most-preferred, for bowhunting. It exposes the vital area and presents a large target when the angle is slight to moderate. However, when a deer is more sharply angled away, the arrow might pass through only one lung. Deer hit through one lung can be difficult or even impossible to recover. To choose an aiming point, visualize the arrow’s path to the exit point on the deer’s far side. Then, aim at the spot on the deer’s near side that lines up with the exit point. With a quartering-away shot, this can mean aiming closer to the deer’s middle, near the liver, instead of behind the front shoulder.
This shot angle occurs when a deer slightly faces the bowhunter but is not head-on. If the angle is extremely slight, an ethical shot is possible. However, as the angle becomes more severe, the vital area grows measurably smaller, leaving only the deer’s brisket, shoulder and rear exposed. Arrows striking the bones and thick muscles of the brisket or shoulder can fail to penetrate the chest cavity, and lead to a lost deer.
Head-on or straight-away shots are not ethical options for bowhunters. The deer’s brisket and lower neck contain thick muscles and lots of bones that protect the vitals. They can be difficult to penetrate with an arrow. Wait for another shot opportunity when faced with either of these options.
When bowhunting from a treestand or in terrain with significant inclines, you might need to adjust your aiming point. When bowhunting from a treestand that’s roughly 20 feet high and shooting at deer 15 yards or more away, bowhunters might need to aim slightly lower than they would when shooting from ground level. Or they might aim for the same spot where they normally shoot, depending on the drop and distance. Proper aiming points are best determined by practicing from elevated positions.
Shot opportunities at severely steep angles can be tricky, because they can inflict one-lung wounds. They’re especially difficult with deer directly beneath the stand. Although the range is short, the angle is severe, which means lower odds of success.
Pass-through Shots are Best
No matter the angle, bowhunters must strive to send their broadhead through the whitetail’s center. Further, tracking jobs are usually easier if the arrow passes through the deer to create an exit wound.
Why? Two-wound hits typically create more visible blood trails, and fatally shot deer typically run for the thickest, nearest cover. Unless the animal falls within sight, bowhunters must follow the animal’s blood trail to find their prize. A deer with entry and exit wounds in its hide spills more blood onto the ground as they run, making them easier to follow. Keep that in mind when deciding when to shoot and where to aim.
Aiming Low is Usually Best
Earlier we recommended aiming for the top of the lower-third of the deer’s chest cavity. Why aim so low when there’s plenty of vitals above that line? Here’s why:
An arrow’s release generates noise as the bow releases its stored energy into the shaft and launches it from the bowstring. Unfortunately, those sounds reach the deer milliseconds before the arrow arrives, because the speed of sound travels far faster than any arrow. Deer usually respond instinctively to this startling, unfamiliar sound by coiling itself to jump and run. Yes, sometimes they simply look toward the noise, and sometimes they don’t react at all, but those reactions aren’t common.
When deer prepare to run, they load power into their legs for that first bound by coiling downward like a basketball player preparing to leap for the rim. Unfortunately, that sudden dip can cause the arrow to go over the deer or hit it above the aiming point. This is called “jumping the string,” and it’s a good reason to aim a bit low to ensure a lethal hit.
Making the Shot
Other factors in the deer woods also play a role in a bowhunter’s aiming and shooting decisions. Be wary of leaves, branches, tall grass and other vegetation between you and a deer. Always wait for a clear shot when seeing obstacles in your arrow’s projected flight path. Even small obstacles can deflect the arrow and cause misses or bad hits.
Likewise, if more than one deer is present, make sure you account for them before aiming and shooting at your intended animal. If your arrow passes through your deer, will it hit another deer beyond? Wait until your deer is clear of other animals before releasing your arrow.
Many of the shooting decisions we’ve covered require patience and discipline to wait for a better angle. For instance, with broadside or quartering-away deer, wait for the front leg facing you to step ahead, which pulls its shoulder blade forward to expose more of its vitals and enlarge the target.
To ensure you can visualize all these shot angles, practice often with a 3-D target. Whether it’s in your backyard or the nearest archery range, shooting 3-D targets helps prepare you for bowhunting. Plus, 3-D archery is tons of fun, Think of it as disc-golf but with a bow and arrow.
If you’ve yet to arrow your first deer or just need a little guidance for making a better shot the next time you reach full-draw, make shot-placement ethics your focus. Patience and ethical shots are virtues you must embrace!