Deer Anatomy: What Makes a Lethal Shot?
Every bowhunter knows to aim for a whitetail’s vital organs, aka the heart and lungs, but they might not know why chest shots are so lethal.
Mickey Hellickson, a wildlife biologist and owner of Orion Wildlife Management Services, discussed the deer’s heart and lungs with us, and explained why arrowing one or both of them delivers a quick, humane harvest. He also explains what happens to a deer if the arrow hits elsewhere. Spoiler alert: Most shots are lethal. Hellickson also details how to ensure well-placed shots.
Vital Chest Shots (Lethal)
Heart: The heart is located above the deer’s front legs in the center of the body. It pumps oxygenated blood through arteries. Deoxygenated blood returns to the heart through veins. If a broadhead punctures the heart (or a nearby vein or artery), it inflicts massive blood loss and quick death.
Lungs: The lungs are located front and center in the deer’s chest behind the shoulders. By breathing, the deer’s lungs bring oxygen into the body and send carbon dioxide out. The alveoli inside the lungs reoxygenate blood that pumped through arteries from the heart. Puncturing a deer’s lungs results in massive blood loss and quick death.
When trailing a deer you arrowed, if you find blood droplets sprayed in clusters, it’s likely a heart shot. Blood containing small bubbles indicates a lung shot. Severed arteries produce bright red blood because it’s oxygenated, whereas severed veins produce dark red blood that’s deoxygenated. Deer hit in the vitals usually fall within 50 to 200 yards.
Other Shots (Lethal and Nonlethal)
Bowhunters always aim at the vitals and only take clear shots within their effective range. Unfortunately, mistakes happen. Arrows sometimes hit where you didn’t aim. If you hit a twig, branch or vegetation; or if you rushed the shot, used the wrong sight-pin, jerked the release trigger, or misjudged the distance, your arrow might have missed the vitals. Even so, you likely made a lethal shot. You might need to give the deer more time before tracking it, depending on the shot’s location. Let’s review some possibilities.
Liver: The liver is located between the lungs and stomach, right behind the chest’s diaphragm. Its primary function is to filter blood. It also makes proteins that help blood clot. A liver shot is fatal, but requires a longer wait time (usually about two hours) because blood loss is slower from the liver than from the heart or lungs. Liver shots produce dark red or maroon blood with a watery consistency.
Stomach/intestines (aka a gut shot): The deer’s four-chambered stomach is located behind the liver and diaphragm in the middle-lower section of the deer’s body. These four chambers churn food to start digestion. The intestines are above the stomach in the back half of the body cavity. They absorb nutrients from food and water. The stomach and intestines lack major blood vessels, so internal bleeding is slow. Stomach and intestinal wounds kill the deer, but you must wait several hours before trailing it. If you find green bile or digested plant matter, it’s probably a gut hit. The arrow smells unpleasant. Wait at least four to six hours before trailing gut-shot deer, and proceed patiently. Intestines often plug entry and exit wounds, reducing blood sign.
Kidney: The kidneys are located above the intestines in the deer’s upper interior beneath its back. Kidneys remove waste and fluid through urination. They maintain nerve, muscle and tissue function by absorbing salt, water and minerals. Kidney shots are lethal, and cause rapid blood loss. Kidney blood is dark red. Wait two to four hours before tracking.
Spine: The spine runs down the center of a whitetail’s back. It provides structural support and balance while protecting the spinal cord, which sends messages from throughout the deer’s body to its brain. Hitting the spine and spinal cord immobilizes a deer if the broadhead severs nerves and causes paralysis. Spinal hits require a second shot to the vitals.
Arteries: The deer’s three main arteries are the carotid (neck), femoral (hindquarters) and aortic (under the spine). Severed arteries cause significant blood loss and quick death. Wait 30 minutes before tracking.
Muscle wounds: Muscles enable everything from rapid propulsion to subtle movements, including posture and body position. Big and small muscles cover the body. Piercing a leg, the neck, shoulder blade or rump muscles causes bleeding, but it often won’t kill the animal unless the broadhead punctures the body cavity. You might find sliced flesh on your arrow or broadhead. The blood clots, and the wound will heal, especially if it was a sharp, clean cut. Even if you’re confident you hit muscle, follow the blood trail until it stops, and then scan the area thoroughly to ensure the wound closed.
Superficial wounds: Superficial wounds are small cuts in the animal’s hide, usually on the back or belly from a grazing arrow. You’ll often find lots of white or brown hair at the impact site. Your broadhead might smell “meaty,” but don’t be surprised if you find no blood on the arrow or around the shaved hair. Check for blood while walking at least 50 to 100 yards in the deer’s flight path. Such wounds usually heal quickly.
You must evaluate every shot you release, and look for clues that explain your hit or miss. If you hit a deer anywhere, you have an ethical obligation to search for the animal to finish the job and ensure the meat isn’t wasted. Be smart, patient and dutiful, and remain optimistic.
Ensuring Well-Placed Shots
A full understanding of deer anatomy — including its skeleton and the location of all organs — helps bowhunters place lethal shots that ensure quick, humane kills. Use these final tips to increase your odds of success:
– Learn your maximum shooting distance, and don’t shoot at deer beyond that comfort zone.
– Don’t take risks, including shots through brush, at long range, or in low light.
– Understand shot placement and where the arrow will exit the deer’s body.
Also, be patient and watchful. Hellickson said the more you hunt, the better you’ll get at judging and making lethal shots.
“You get better with experience,” Hellickson said. “You don’t start with experience; you gain it from heartache and trial-and-error. Learn from your mistakes. The more you succeed, the more confidence you’ll gain. It will get easier.”