What’s the best rifle caliber for deer? Hunters argue about that question at sporting goods counters, on Facebook, at shooting ranges, on discussion forums, at hunting camps, and anywhere else they gather. And somewhere in the course of those friendly debates, someone always says, “It’s all about shot placement.”
True. The bullet that hits a deer in the wrong spot — say, a leg or the belly — can go a country mile no matter the caliber, or the weight, or the construction of the bullet. Any bullet to a non-vital area probably won’t kill a deer quickly. They can be tough animals with a strong will to survive.
The story is different, and better, when you hit them in a vital organ. Big lungs help them supply oxygen to the blood when running from predators, and those lungs offer a huge target. The heart of the average deer, in proportion to body size, is bigger than the human heart. It needs to be large in order to get blood oxygenated by the lungs to the legs and the brain while in flight from threats. Any expanding bullet to the heart or the lungs results in a dead deer, usually quickly.
I’ve shot deer with bullets as light as a 50-grain spitzer from a .222 to a 175-grain partition from a 7mm Magnum. They all kill deer fairly quickly with a shot to the heart or lungs. That’s because a deer can’t go far no matter what bullet robs him of the vital resource of oxygen-rich blood. Whether the bullet is a small centerfire or a large magnum, a bullet to the lungs or he heart will kill a deer, but it won’t usually drop a deer in its tracks.
If you want a bang-flop shot, bullet placement needs to be a little more precise.
When I was a novice hunter my dad told me to aim for the shoulder. That was unclear because to me, the entire front end of the deer seemed to be the shoulder. Over the years I shot plenty of deer in the lungs and the heart. Regardless of the caliber I was using they all ran between 50 and 100 yards before they expired. It took me years to learn what a shoulder shot was.
High on the shoulder of a deer is a broad, thin bone called the scalpula, or the shoulder blade. It protects a dense area full of muscle, nerves and blood vessels, and it’s close to the spine. Hit a deer there and he will drop like a sack of potatoes.
Since no hunter always places the bullet perfectly, even under the best conditions, we need a forgiving shot, and the high shoulder shot is very forgiving. Miss high and you hit the spine. Miss low, and you hit his lungs. Miss a little lower and you hit his heart. Miss toward the back and you hit lungs. Miss toward the front and you hit the base of his neck. All are killing shots.
Several years ago on Thanksgiving morning I was hunting in New York and a nice buck was ready to cross into Pennsylvania. I needed to drop him in his tracks, and the high shoulder shot did it. Three times in recent years in Pennsylvania I got glimpses of nice bucks ready to disappear into thick brush. The high shoulder shot dropped all three.
If you want bang-flop bullet placement, take your .243, or your 6.5mm Creedmoor. Take your .270, or your 7mm-08. Take your .30-30, or your .308, or your .30-06. It doesn’t matter. Place the bullet high on the shoulder (about two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the chest and in line with the deer’s front leg), and he will be on the ground before the sound of the shot reaches him.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.