Hunting: The Elusive Kill Zone

The Elusive Kill Zone: A look at the fine line between a killing shot and lost game.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me squirm every time I hear about “the one that got away.” No one likes to admit it, and, frankly it happens to hunters more often than it should, but every year lots of animals are shot and not retrieved. There, I said it. But before you go pointing fingers or shaking your head in disgust, let’s consider the facts. To kill an animal requires proper shot placement and follow up.

Hunt long enough and in variable conditions, and you will lose an animal — this is a fact few can avoid. I might even go so far as to suggest that if you think you’ve never lost an animal then you may have unwittingly done so. By this I’m referring to the countless animals that are lost each year by folks who don’t follow up on their shot, or perhaps do so incorrectly. Very few shots will collapse an animal where it stood. Certainly some do and seasoned hunters know what those shots are; but most don’t.

Placing the bullet or broadhead in the elusive kill zone is vital, pardon the pun. Even still, seldom are two chest shots the same. Some animals react differently, particularly those shot with an arrow. Tracking wounded game can be easy or it can be hard. How fast a deer or other game animal expires is dependent upon several things, but the two most important are shot placement and the type of bullet or broadhead we’re using, along with the firepower or energy behind it.

We all have bad habits. Sometimes they can be attributed to lack of skill with the gun or bow we use and at other times, they can be traced to a lack of understanding about the anatomy of the game we’re after. As hunters we have an ethical obligation to do our best to put game down quickly. We know that human error is inevitable and that an infinite combination of variables can affect shot placement. Knowing this, it’s our responsibility to maximize mechanical accuracy and minimize the potential for human error.

Killing Shots

Some experienced hunters argue that neck or even head shots are most lethal. While they can certainly bring game down quickly, I generally disagree. Although there are unique circumstances when I might support taking a neck shot, as a rule I strongly discourage these low-percentage shots. Both are small targets and the odds of making a poor shot are too high putting the animal at unnecessary risk. Biology is what it is and you can’t change the laws of nature. Know that if you take out the heart, lungs, major arteries, central nervous system, or liver your chances of retrieving shot game increase exponentially. For archers, a double lung shot is always best because you’re relying on hemorrhaging. For gun hunters, a well-placed broadside shot through shoulder taking out the vital central nervous system can collapse most North American game instantly.

Animal Position

A double lung shot will almost always result in a quick kill. This is usually best accomplished by shooting the animal from a broadside or quartering-away position. Elk and moose can be an exception but a double-lung hit is commonly considered the safest option. Head on, quartering toward, the proverbial Texas heart shot, or most other positions are discouraged; there are simply too many variables that can create unnecessary complications. Now before you get your hackles up, I will concede — game can be killed efficiently at these angles as well, but the odds of a perfect hit decrease substantially.


As far as shot placement is concerned, this is one of the most important considerations. The anatomy of different game species is variable. Yes, they all have vital organs and each can die quickly if hit properly, but God didn’t make them all the same. For instance, the vitals in a bear are different from those of a deer. Likewise, the shoulder bone of a moose or elk is much heavier than that of a deer. Bone up on your anatomy to better understand proper shot placement.

Timing Your Shot

Recognizing the right time to shoot comes with experience. Plenty of us have taken game while it was walking or on a full-out run. In most instances, running shots aren’t necessary. Its good practice to wait until game is stopped and in a relaxed demeanor. In a lot of situations, game like deer for instance will recognize that something isn’t right. With ears perked upright, they’ll stand erect and stomp their feet. For a tree stand bow hunter this is a particularly precarious situation. As a rule, keep your sights trained on the kill zone until the animal is stopped and ideally focused on something other than you — such as feeding.

Variables We Can Control

No matter how skilled you are as an archer or rifleman, you can only be as good as your equipment. You can aim for perfect shot placement, but if your equipment isn’t up to snuff, it’ll take a miracle to hit your mark. Bows and guns should always be sighted in before hunting. Likewise, bows and guns should be kept clean, with all parts gone over to ensure that everything is in working order, such as limb bolts, arrow rests, actions, barrels, etc.

Making the perfect shot when the opportunity presents itself — that’s what it’s all about. The most common variables causing a bad shot are lack of familiarity with equipment and the encounter itself. The only way we can improve our skill in the off-season is by practicing. This involves several things.

Familiarity with your bow or gun can make or break your shooting ability when the pressure of shooting at a live game animal presents itself. Few other forms of practice compare to shooting a rimfire rifle. Most of us cut our teeth shooting gophers or plinking tin cans with a rimfire. The nice thing about varmints with a .22 Long Rifle or .17 HMR, for instance, is that they offer plenty of shooting and ammunition is relatively inexpensive. By repeating the process of aiming and shooting at variable distances we have the opportunity to modify and correct for obvious errors. Small calibre rifles have virtually no recoil and therefore eliminate one variable that can affect accuracy with larger calibers.

One of the most beneficial things we can do is practice shooting under simulated field conditions. This may be done by shooting silhouettes or 3D targets in the off-season. Likewise, new video shooting units like the DART System allow us to practice realistic field shooting scenarios on a video screen. The system scores them based on proximity to the kill zone.

Poor shot placement (inaccuracy) can often be traced to overconfidence and is the result of a rushed shot. It’s important to remember that all shooting sports demand precision. In turn, concentration is paramount. Confidence founded in familiarity with your equipment and proven ability to place a shot is important but there’s a fine line between overconfidence and touching off at the right instant.

As you prepare to take your shot, control your breathing. Breathing involves inhaling and exhaling which in turn moves your body. This makes it almost impossible to get a precise lock on your target. Hold your breath momentarily to steady for the shot.

Whenever possible use a shooting rest to stabilize your gun. Whether it’s a bench rest or a daypack, tree branch, log or rock, always take advantage of a rest. By bracing for the shot, the shooter effectively minimizes the unavoidable aspect of human error. Using a bench rest is particularly important when sighting in. By doing so, you effectively eliminate most of the human error and thereby determine the accuracy of your equipment.

When it comes to the shot itself, trigger control is imperative — much the same as it is with activating the shutter on a camera. Interestingly, today most archers are shooting compound bows with trigger releases, so this concept applies to archery as well. With rifles, trigger weight varies. Most are set somewhere between two and four pounds. Some shooters prefer a light trigger, but for most a three- or four- pound trigger weight is practical. When it comes to hitting the switch, “pull” the trigger and you’ll surely move the muzzle off target. Gently and fluidly squeeze the trigger on the other hand, and you’re more apt to maintain your aiming point. Be sure to use the tip of your finger and not the body of it.

Follow through is equally important when shooting bows and firearms. In reality, by the time your body reacts to any recoil, the arrow or bullet is long gone. The challenge for most bowhunters is fighting the urge to peak, in other words rush to see where the arrow will hit. With rifles, many shooters anticipate the recoil during the lock time and end up flinching. Follow through is critical to maintaining shooting form and resulting accuracy. By keeping your eye on the target through a scope or iron sight, you force your body to stay in proper position which in turn reinforces accuracy. This can be especially important when shooting blackpowder guns in which muzzle velocity is far slower.

To sum up, with familiarity comes confidence. Knowing precisely where your gun is zeroed or bow is shooting is imperative if you want to be successful in the field. Remember, we owe it to the game we’re hunting to place our shots in a manner that will result in a quick kill.

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