Hunting larger game requires a bit more forethought and planning than hunting small or medium-sized game, and it requires more skill from the hunter as well to master the perfect shot.
And the most important thing of all is shot placement.
Let’s take a look at the preferred rifle shot for big game animals and how to use our knowledge of ballistics and anatomy to put more meat in the freezer more reliably this season.
What are the Two Primary Angles of Shot Placement for Larger Game Animals?
When going after particularly large and dangerous game, shot placement becomes extremely important for a few different reasons. First, we aim (pun intended) to be responsible and ethical hunters that don’t cause undo suffering in the animals we harvest.
We also don’t want to put ourselves or our fellow hunters and loved ones in danger, which means when we take a shot, it needs to eliminate an animal’s ability to charge us and potentially do us harm. No one wants an angry, wounded moose, or grizzly bear coming after them.
We do all this by taking most of our shots when animals are in one of the two primary positions: broadside or quartering away.
When we say an animal is broadside, all that means is that it is turned perpendicular to you so that the side of the animal is facing you. This is generally the most preferred Hunters love this angle because it gives us a shot that has the greatest chance of passing through both of the animal’s lungs and quite possibly the heart as well. The animal’s musculature is also often working in our favor here and will make the location of the shoulder bones visible in most cases.
If the animal’s shoulder is facing us squarely, we know that we have a shot through both lungs and potentially the heart or spine. Placing a shot directly behind the shoulder also preserves the most meat, while presenting the easiest shot for the cleanest kill. This is the shot most hunters learn early.
We also have the option, with a more powerful rifle and better-penetrating ammunition, to place a shot directly through the shoulder, which is generally the preferred fatal shot when we have an animal in a position where we absolutely can’t allow it to run.
This can be when we’re close to a property line that we can’t cross, when it is near terrain that could make retrieval difficult (a ravine, swamp, river, etc.), or when we’re dealing with a sufficiently dangerous animal in relatively close quarters and we’re confident in our rifle and ammunition’s power and ability to penetrate thick shoulder bones.
This shot is less preferred because it places more material, particularly heavy shoulder muscle and bone, between the point of impact and the animal’s vital organs. On especially large game like moose, brown bear, buffalo (American or water varieties), eland, and even some feral hogs it can be difficult for some rounds to penetrate adequately.
The other issue with a shot like this is that if we have a round that is powerful enough to destroy the shoulder bone, it is also powerful enough that is likely to destroy much of the shoulder meat, and therefore waste it.
Something like .300 Winchester Magnum is great for larger game, but it can also be very damaging to the meat we’re trying to harvest if we aren’t careful.
Quartering Away Shots
The next most often-preferred shot is when the animal is “quartering away”. This is when an animal is almost perpendicular to us but has its head pointed between 15 and 45 degrees away from us.
This still allows us to place a shot behind the near-side shoulder and be confident that we’re going to hit both lungs, assuming we place the shot properly and have a sufficiently powerful bullet. The animal’s natural musculature is going to help us again here and gives us a clear target to aim for as well.
The problem here is that the shot is a bit narrower and hitting too far to the left or right from the perspective of the shooter taking the shot means that you could hit too far back or too far forward and end up with a gut-shot animal, or one that has a destroyed shoulder but no immediately life-ending wound.
As ethical hunters, we want that animal down and out as quickly as possible, so only attempt a quartering-away shot if you’re sure of your aim, and your rifle’s ability to place the round where it needs to go.
Best Shots for Large Game: Which Shot is Your Preferred Rifle Shot?
Head and Neck Shots
Head and neck shots can be the most effective, but some of the most difficult as well. On large, dangerous game like cape buffalo, moose, and others you’ll need a very large bullet moving very quickly as well.
The other thing is that a “headshot” isn’t really what we’re looking for. It’s very easy to hit an animal in the face or jaw and doom it to a slow death of starvation if you aren’t very precise with your shot placement.
A shot through the eye box is a very small target on any animal, and an animal’s head is the most likely part of them to be moving as they look around and scan for threats (like you).
Only take a headshot if you are very, very confident in your aim and there’s no chance of a broadside shot.
Neck shots can also be viable, especially if you’re shooting a large, powerful bullet that will carry enough energy to reliably disrupt the spinal column of whatever game animal you’re after. That said, the spine of most medium-size North American game is a relatively narrow target too, so be sure of your aim.
Hitting the spinal cord is a shot for more experienced hunters for sure, but if you have an animal that has its lower body obscured, it can be the best option. Whitetail deer and other smaller, thin-skinned game
Similarly, if an animal is facing you, a shot through the heart can often be viable if you are confident in your aim. This is especially true if you’re talking about something like a moose where the point of the breastbone is easily identifiable so you can hit the heart behind it.
If you’re confident in your aim and your understanding of the anatomy of the animal you’re hunting, then a heart shot can be incredibly effective.
Lastly, we have the most popular option, a lung, or double lung shot. This is the classic shot that most hunters prefer, and with good reason. A shot through the lungs causes immense bleeding, and robs the animal of oxygen, leading to death in a few short minutes at the very most.
Combine that with the possibility of damaging the shoulders, heart, or spinal cord as well, and you’ve got a very effective way of bringing down anything that walks the earth. The lungs are also very large targets to hit, making them a very forgiving target.
So, Which is the Preferred Rifle Shot for Larger Game Animals?
At the end of the day, the ideal shot is going to be the one you have, the one that is most likely to put the animal down quickly and efficiently with your preferred rifle and caliber, and when your aim is on target.
In most situations, that’s going to be a broadside double lung shot. This robs the animal of blood and oxygen and possibly damages the shoulders (the classic “running gear”) as well.
It’s also the easiest shot to take, especially when you’re maybe a little nervous about that trophy buck that just walked out.
Finding the Best Bullet for Your Next Hunt
Of course, adequate shot placement is only half the battle; the other half is having a bullet that can handle the job at hand. For North American big game animals, .30-06 Springfield, .300 Winchester Magnum, and 7mm Remington Magnum are all great, do-it-all options, especially in the United States.
These rounds also won’t completely destroy smaller animals like whitetail deer, although they are a
little more than you need at close ranges. And don’t shoot something tiny like a snowshoe hare with it unless you’re removing pests that you aren’t planning to eat anyway.
For moose and brown bear, we recommend Grizzly Ammo bonded projectiles that stay together and penetrate deep, whichever caliber you go with.
For very large and dangerous game, big-bore rifles firing solid copper projectiles are preferred. If you’re going after safari game, .375 H&H is the bare minimum we recommend. If you’re going on Safari, .338 Winchester Magnum.
Lastly, if you’re interested in target shooting too, 6.5mm cartridges have become the long-range weapon of choice for folks looking to ring steel or punch paper and have an effective range on deer-sized game of 400 yards+.