Shot Placement Guide for North American Game Animals


Feature: Jason Matzinger | Into the High Country

One of the most frustrating things a bow hunter will ever encounter in their days spent chasing and hunting game is the feeling of making a perfect shot on an animal, only to have it run out of sight never to be seen again. So what went wrong? Well, there technically could be a variety of factors that affect an effective kill shot – anything from choosing the right broadhead, arrow, and poundage of your bow. But more commonly, missing the animal’s vitals is the culprit. And if you have been bow hunting long enough chances are this has unfortunately been at least one of your experiences. This scenario can be avoided with practice, choosing the correct broadhead for the game being hunted, and knowledge of vital shot placement.

When referring to a game animal’s vital organs, here we are referring to the heart or lungs for bow hunting purposes…essentially the best place to aim and put a shot. These vital organs give the greatest chance for a quick and devastating blow, since a game animal cannot live with trauma to these organs for very long. While either of these vital organs makes a great target, double lunging the animal should produce the best blood trail and therefore the best chance to recover the game. Nothing fancy here, when bow hunting you cannot see the vitals with x-ray vision, knowing might even cause you to aim at a worse area of the body. What you need to know is where to settle that pin!

In the information below. It is important to consider the anatomy of the shot. Where to settle that pin is important, but angle, elevation, body position, and environmental factors can all effect the outcome of recovery. The “Anatomy of the shot” series from G5 will help you imagine why these factors determine the outcome of the hunt after the shot. These are what need to be considered to determine exactly where to settle that pin.

Bow Hunting Shot Placement for Commonly Hunted North American Game Animals

North America truly is heaven on earth for bow hunters- as well as hunters of any kind. We are fortunate to have game animals available to us from the top of the continent to the bottom, and everywhere in between. Not only that, there is a hunting season virtually always open throughout the year, especially for bow hunters.

There is also an opportunity available to take once in a lifetime game animals such as caribou and elk, to a more plentiful game like whitetail deer and turkeys. With so much opportunity to hunt new game animals and terrain at our fingertips, it makes sense to want to take advantage of what we have in our metaphorical backyard.

Something For Every Bow Hunter

For bow hunters, planning to hunt different North American game animals can be a welcome change of scenery and a challenge to work toward improving on archery and bow hunting skills. Most states and regions have different hunting season dates and different species that thrive in the area, making it necessary for hunters to travel to hunt that particular game animal. This is where all of the practicing plays a major role in a successful bow hunt or heading home with a tag sandwich.

There are numerous game animals to go after in North America, but some are more commonly pursued than others. Knowing the vital shot placement for these North American game animals can drastically increase your bow hunting success and give you the confidence to venture out after other game animals.

Where to Shoot an Elk

Elk, also known as Wapiti, are one of the largest land mammals in North America and usually at the top of most bow hunter’s wish list – for obvious reasons. These trophy quality members of the deer family carry towering antlers and provide an abundant amount of meat, not to mention heart-stopping hunting encounters. Found mainly in the western portion of North America, bow hunting these big game animals requires physical fitness and proper preparation.

Bow hunting elk is typically a spot and stalk game covering varying distances and terrain in high elevations.

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Broadheads for Elk: Elk have dense muscles and a thicker hide than their smaller deer relatives so consider choosing a broadhead that allows for better penetration and accuracy. In this instance, the best broadhead for elk would be cut on contact mechanical broadhead.

Elk Vitals: The best vital shot placement on an elk with a bow is a double lung shot with the animal standing broadside. Training yourself to follow the back of the elk’s front leg about ⅓ of the way up the chest will give you a perfect spot to aim for a double lung shot.

Where to Shoot a Deer

In North America, whitetail deer are the most widely hunted game animal and deer species. Most bow hunters hunting deer will spend their hunts high in a tree stand or ground blind, unlike a spot and stalk for elk and other species. Because of this, a hunter should be familiar with the anatomy of a deer to be able to compensate for straight on placement shots or tree stand elevation not to mention quartering shots with elevation. There are two main positions that give you a higher chance of hitting the deer’s “boiler room” vital organs – broadside and slightly quartering away.

Broadheads for Deer: The best broadhead for deer is among the most heated battles when it comes to archery gear. Fixed vs. Mechanical is entirely up to the user. Read this article for more information.

Deer Vitals: When the deer is standing broadside, this is the best opportunity to take a heart shot by aiming a few inches higher than the armpit area below the lungs. Although the heart shot is extremely deadly if penetrated, the safest shot is to follow the back of the deer’s front leg up into the chest cavity a few inches higher than the heart to pass through both of the deer’s lungs. If hunting from an elevated tree stand, keep in mind your exit point where your broadhead will pass through.

The quartering away position is another position favored by bow hunters for vital organ shot placement. For this shot, aim through and for the arrow to exit the off front leg shoulder. By aiming for your arrow to pass through this cavity of the deer, you will hit the deer’s vital organs such as lungs and the heart if low enough.

Where to Shoot a Bear

Bow hunting bears, and more specifically black bears takes some careful planning and precision. Bears are much tougher to put down than other North American game species and knowing where their vital shot placement should be is critical.

Broadheads for Bear: Bears have thick bones and skin and can usually survive to run a long ways if both lungs aren’t pierced. Absolute destruction is preferred on a bear to make the recovery an absolute certainty. Giant cutting diameter on a mechanical broadhead is usually best for the quickest harvest and recovery.

Bear Vitals: The ideal double lung vital shot to take is when a bear is broadside with his closest foreleg moved forward so you can follow the back of that leg up and aim between ⅓ and ⅔ of the chest cavity, slightly behind the line of the leg.

Where to Shoot a Moose

The great thing about bow hunting moose is that the vital organs and more specifically the lungs are much larger than other deer relatives. Just like other North American game animals, the heart and the lungs are the best targets to take down these big animals with a bow.

Broadheads for Moose: Throwing a stick (arrow) through a moose is no easy task. For this a broadhead offering superior penetration that is extremely durable is key. A sharp, durable, and dependable fixed blade broadhead such as the Montec should be a bow hunter’s first choice.

Moose Vitals: A broadside or slightly quartered away Moose offers up a hunter the best chance at a double lung shot or even heart shot. The heart in a Moose is slightly lower, and to get a good vital shot placement on a moose trace the closest front leg up about ⅓ of the height of his body and aim through both lungs.

Where to Shoot a Caribou

Caribou live in the Northern most parts of North America, usually in large herds and in some of the harshest environments for bow hunters to venture too. Hunting these game animals typically includes spot and stalk to put yourself in bow range.

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Broadheads for Caribou: Like elk, caribou have dense muscles and a thick hide so the best broadhead for Caribou must be accurate, but needs to punch through with a significant cutting diameter. Like elk hunting, bow hunting caribou requires a very accurate shot as the shot often occurs outside of the normal comfort zone of range. For this a cut on contact mechanical broadhead like the havoc is ideal.

Caribou Vitals: The vital area of caribou is similar in size to that of an elk, about 14”- 16” in diameter. When the caribou is broadside, aim slightly behind the shoulder about ⅓ of the way between his belly and back to pass through both lungs and a little lower for the heart.

Where to Shoot a Turkey

Usually thought of as being hunted by shotgun, turkeys are quickly becoming (and have been in some regions) popular game animals to target among bow hunters. Turkeys are a challenging target for bow hunters with razor sharp eyesight and smaller vital organs for shot placement. Although their vitals are small in size compared to larger North American game, turkeys have multiple angles in which their vitals can be reached.

Broadheads for Turkey: When you’re aiming for a small target behind a wall of tough feathers it helps to go into the field confident in your choice of broadheads. The best broadhead for turkey is up to the archer behind the hunt and what they feel most comfortable with. Accuracy is a must

Turkey Vitals: When a turkey is broadside, he will either be in strut or non-strutting positions and this can affect your shot placement. A turkey’s vital organs are higher up in his body and taking a shot when the bird is at rest is preferable. You want to keep as much breast meat as possible so aim at the turkey’s heart and lungs, a little further back where his wing joint connects to his body. When he is in strut, find the top crease in the wing and the line straight above his legs and aim where they intersect. A strutting turkey facing away offers a great opportunity for a chest cavity shot that can do a lot of damage and reach the turkey’s vitals. Use a strong broadhead and aim at the turkey’s “bulls-eye” and you will likely even destroy his spinal column.

Where to Shoot a Pronghorn

When envisioning game animals in the western portion of North America, pronghorn is as native as it gets. Pronghorn are also known as antelope or American antelope. Though they are known by both names, pronghorn are technically not an antelope at all, but are more closely related to giraffes. Another moniker the pronghorn has come to be known by is the “speed goat”, and they earn that name by being the fastest land mammal in not only North America, but the western hemisphere.

Broadheads for Pronghorn: Being similar to deer, the best broadhead for pronghorn is as you can guess, pretty similar in the debate of fixed versus mechanical broadheads. However, due to the nature of the hunt and far distance shots, your broadhead choice should favor a very accurate broadhead.

Pronghorn Vitals: Bow hunting pronghorn requires stealth and patience since these plains animals spend most of their time in open fields. Finding water to set up on or spot and stalk are the prime methods of taking pronghorn. Typical pronghorn shots will be at further distances than most whitetail hunters are accustomed too, so practicing for this beforehand will up your odds of a successful shot. Vital shot placement for pronghorn is similar to that of a whitetail deer. To penetrate the pronghorn’s lungs (and/or heart) try to wait for the pronghorn to present you with a broadside shot or one that is slightly quartering away. Once he is steady, follow the back of his front leg closest to you a third of the way up between his back and bottom of the belly and that is where you want to take your shot.

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Bow Hunting Shot Placement Preparation

Knowing the vital shot placement for North American game animals is crucial to your bow hunting success. A good place to start working to ensure that you’re prepared for the hunt is on the archery range with consistent practicing. Instead of shooting at the same 2D circle over and over again, get as close to the real deal animal and look for 3D targets or a 3D course. 3D targets offer the most advantages to prepare for real hunting situations. Find a target that includes the vitals of the North American game you plan to hunt and practice shots from different angles to challenge yourself and ensure your broadhead will actually pass through the correct vital to take down the animal as quickly as possible. Since wild game animals often move sporadically and don’t always give a perfect broadside shot, practicing at different positions and angles with targets that accurately portray quartering shots will better prepare you for real life hunting scenarios.

If getting to a 3D course or springing for a life size target is out of your reach, you can still practice vital shot placement with paper targets or 2D targets. There are multiple styles of targets that show the vital shot placement available online and in most hunting good stores around the country. This makes it possible to quickly switch from practicing your shot on large game such as elk or bear to smaller game animals like deer or turkeys. Since the vital shot placement can alter from animal to animal, being able to change out these targets and even check your grouping on paper targets allows you to fine tune your shot placement and make adjustments as necessary.

Get Higher

This is also a great time to practice from an elevated position if you plan on hunting out of a tree stand or box blind, most commonly used for deer and bear hunting. Most of the time the vital shot placement changes when elevated, so it is important to practice not only from a seated or standing position but from different elevations as well. When you only have seconds to mentally adjust your vital shot placement when that buck of a lifetime appears in front of you, your adrenaline will be pumping and remembering to compensate for elevation isn’t something you want to forget at that moment.

Practicing with Broadheads

When you’re dialing in your bow at the range, practicing with your broadheads is a must. Since the difference in a few centimeters can mean a lung shot that will quickly cause the animal to expire, or a devastating and frustrating experience of non-recovery mentioned above. Most 3D targets are designed now to allow easier removal of broadheads or practice expandable broadheads.

Since there is such a wide variety of North American game with different hide and muscle structures, they can require different broadheads for hunting. When practicing vital shot placement on North American game animals with your broadheads, it’s important to note the differences in shot placement and wound channel size between a fixed blade and a mechanical broadhead. Your arrow’s flight pattern may change when switching between these types of broadheads, so you should know which broadhead is best designed for the game animal being hunted and practice with that specific broadhead beforehand. If you’re worried about messing up your broadheads you intend to hunt with, there are practice blades available such as the G5 Outdoors T3 practice blades that do not expand and fly identical to the actual sharp blades you would hunt with.

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Having confidence in your broadheads flying true can make or break the mental game of bowhunting. While it’s certainly easier to shoot and remove field points from a target, it makes sense that you want to make sure that your broadheads are flying accurate and grouping as well. Shooting your broadheads can bring to light any issues in your bow or form that you can fine tune before you head out on your hunt and give you the confidence you need to make the shot.