Hit the Vitals

By John Mogle

Through the years one of the most frequently asked questions that I have encountered is, “what is the best caliber for big game hunting”? So many hunters today want to go into the field with more firepower than Rambo had during his recon rescue missions.  Hunters want to shoot faster and further. With that mentality being commonplace today you are seeing a record number of hot rod calibers from the Ultra Magnums to the La Pua family being used in the hunting field. Many hunters are under the belief that with such fire power at their fingertips that all they need to do is draw blood and the game is over.

Now back to that frequently asked question, which caliber is best for big game hunting? In my conversation I will list several popular calibers usually in the .30 caliber and 7MM families. I will then tell the person that no matter what caliber they use there is nothing that can replace a well placed shot.  If you really want to “bag” your game shot placement is every thing.  It is more important than the caliber, your bullet weight, velocity and yes even more important than your bullets Ballistic Coefficient. If you want one shot kills focus on your shot placement.

Over the years it seems like I have taken about every possible shot on game animals and as I think back for the most part I have been very successful in collecting what I was after. Some of these were very low percentage shots as far as my kill zone was concerned but others were not. I have did the head shot, the “Texas Heart shot” the frontal shot and had success with most of them but believe me success in most of those cases is the exception and not the norm.

hi58-sh-jmogle04On my Alaskan Brown Bear hunt my guide advised me to bring a .375 or bigger for the hunt. I knew that the hard recoiling rifles that he suggested were harder to shoot accurately for me and after a few conversations he agreed that it would be fine to bring up a .30 Caliber. One well placed shot through a quartering away bear was all it took for that hunt to come to an end. 

When you go into the field and that trophy of your dreams is in your sights here are six tips to consider assuring you make a well-placed shot.

Tip #1: Know your angles

Broadside Shot

The best shot any hunter can have is a standing still broadside shot.  As you can see from figure #1 (opposite page) with an animal broadside all of the vitals are exposed. This increases your percentages of hitting something vital that will lead to a quick dispatchment of your game. This angle also gives you the oh so lethal double lung shot that no animal can survive. On a deer the kill zone is roughly 10” in size. If you know your weapon and practice this is a large target and does give you room for error. If you are use to shooting six-inch metal gongs at 500 yards then you still have a few inches of wiggle room with a 10” kill zone. This is the shot you should look for before pulling the trigger. This angle gives you the greatest opportunity for success. 

Frontal Shot

hi58-sh-jmogle01Now look at figure #2.  This angle is referred to as the frontal shot. A frontal shot decreases you kill zone by more than a third compared to the broadside shot. To make a precise shot on a deer that is staring you straight in the face is very difficult. You better be on your game if you are going to attempt this shot because in most instances your kill zone is just 3-4”. I have seen this shoot attempted several times and in most cases the animal is wounded. Once again as you can see from figure #2 with such a small kill zone in this position you are better off to wait for the animal to turn broadside before you take the shot.

Quartering Away Shot

This is my favorite angle to take big game. The quartering away shot (figure #3 - next page) leaves all of the vitals naked and gives your bullet the best opportunity to cut through the good stuff and usually will also break the opposite shoulder. The broadside shot gives you a bigger kill zone but in many cases depending on what species you are hunting the shoulder can cover some of the best vitals. To get to them you have to break through bone. 


This means you better be using a bullet up to the task of breaking through that bone to get to those vitals. On the quartering away shot all of the vitals are exposed with out any bone to pass through. If you don’t have to break through bone your bullet will have less chances to fail no matter what brand you use. On a deer your kill zone is cut nearly in half from ten inches to about six inches on a true quartered shot. If your target is just slightly quartering, “Green Light”, you loose nearly nothing in the kill zone and the vitals are on the perfect angle for you to blow them up.

Quartering towards you

This shot is difficult and one that should be avoided. When an animal quarters towards you he is exposing more of his shoulder. This gives you a nice ricochet effect. I have seen more animals lost to this shot than any other. If he is slightly quartered towards you make sure you use good judgment before taking the shot. I would still advise to wait for your target to turn broadside before shooting.

Rear Shot “Texas Heart Shot”

Many people say this is one of the most lethal shots out there and advise taking it. Many feel that the objective in this shot is to break the spinal cord, break the large bones in the hip or cut the femoral artery. I will say I have shot a few animals at this angle and some it made quick work of the animal while others required a follow up shot. Your kill zone at this angle is totally a guess.  Your bullet has to travel so far to truly get to the vitals. Your target is small and if you do hit below the tail you may hit the femoral artery or break the spine but the chances of you making a lethal blow are slim. In most cases a follow up shot is necessary if you even get that opportunity. 

Tip #2: Understand where the vitals are 

If you are going to make the perfect shot you need to know where that is. For the North American whitetail and mule deer the vitals are behind the front shoulder. If you are making the trip to Africa you will find that Plains game animals are quit different. In many species such as the Kudu their vitals sit directly behind the front shoulder and higher up.  Before you go into the field quickly “Google” the kill zone for the animal you are hunting so you know where your shot needs to be to do the greatest damage.

Tip #3 - Manage your adrenaline

So many hunters see a trophy animal and race to get off a shot.  As if getting off just one shot at the animal before he disappears is bragging rights at the campfire. I know about “buck fever”. Most all of us get it but not managing it leads to taking bad shots. When we hunt with a partner, a guide, or family in many instances the hunter will have some one there to give him good advice. To talk him down if you will. How many times on hunting shows do you hear the guide say, “Wait, Wait, Wait” to the hunter?  This helps the hunter calm down and get his senses about him to take a good shot but what about when you are alone? By educating your self about proper shot placement and more about the anatomy of the animal hopefully will help you think about what you need to do to make a good shot instead of focusing on the size of the trophy. Think about situations where your adrenaline gets high, it maybe sports, it maybe when you get angry but the same way you control your adrenaline in those situations should be how you manage your “buck fever” when you are by yourself.

#4: Verify your Rifle set up

Hunters today are going into the field more than ever with confidence in their ability to shoot long range. Many of these hunters have a good rifle and a great scope that is capable of making long-range shots but the hunter is not. Just by having the right equipment does not qualify you to take long-range shots at game. You must practice and know you equipment’s capabilities. If you are going to take a 600 yard shot on trophy buck and your crosshair in your scopes has a 600 yard hash mark that does not make it ethical for you to take that shot. If you have practiced and verified that the 600-yard hash mark is indeed 600 yards and not 640 yards then it is ethical to take that shot. Practice, practice, practice, and verify, verify, verify. Test your equipment constantly.

#5: Know your bullet

If you are hunting with a target bullet that is tailored for your long range shooting and you have an animal slightly quartered towards you and your hope is to break both shoulders at 250 yards you may want to reconsider. The chances of your target bullet staying together to get that job done are slim.  Your target bullet will not only fragment when it hits bone but it will most likely magnify the ricochet effect. Controlled expansion hunting bullets will perform differently than long range hunting bullets at certain angles. Do your own research on bullet performance.  By knowing your bullet it will help you make wise decisions on angles shots especially on big game.

#6: Get a solid rest

No matter what the angle your game is standing in front of you at or how well your rifle shoots, if you don’t have a good rest don’t take the shot. I feel the best way for me to shoot is prone. I love to take my backpack off, lie on the ground and shoot off of it. In many instances this is not possible because of brush or just the lay of the land. I always carry shooting sticks with me in my pack for back up.  This gives me what I need to get steady to take a shoot. I know most of us have seen it and it seems funny when you think about it but what about the time you shot off a buddies shoulder for a rest? Isn’t that crazy how could you possibly be steady?  When you see your crosshair dancing like a mosquito inside a light bulb don’t shoot.  Be prepared with the right equipment to give you a solid rest. This will assure you take an ethical shot.

If you will take the time to learn the anatomy of the game you are hunting it will help you make the perfect shot next time you go into the field. Take the time to know your equipment and your bullets so no matter what angle your trophy is at you will be able to make the ethical decision of shoot or don’t shoot.