With Small Caliber Rifles come Big Deer Hunt Decisions

Though the army of factors that will determine the success of your deer hunt is legion, “that special moment” hinges on one thing and one thing only—shot placement.  Seasoned hunters will bark variations of this mantra until they’re blue in the face but it bears repeating: “if you want your deer to go down and stay down, well, you’d better tag him in the right spot.”

Lower caliber deer rifles do a wonderful job of emphasizing this principle and as was suggested in this article’s companion piece, there’s just something reaffirming about taking big animals with a small arm.  Without the luxury of soul eviscerating ballistics, the leeway you once had with less than ideal hits begins to slide the way of the dodo; shot placement for the small caliber hunter is not as crucial as it would be for the bow hunter but we’re certainly walking in that direction.

Heading out into the thick stuff with a smaller caliber rifle on your shoulder means you’ll also need to bring with you a slightly amended hunting philosophy as less power forces the sportsman to reexamine just what it takes to manage a clean and ethical kill.  Extrapolated, less force stresses practice, patience and above all discipline because soliciting shot opportunities means you’ll have to be quieter, smarter and more accurate if you are going to effectively take deer sized game.

As you reduce caliber, so do you reduce the list of times you’ll be able to shoot.  Think of the hungry coyote sizing up a fat doe more than a little out his weight class.  He stalks, he threatens and then realizes no good can come of this, turns tail and heads in search of food elsewhere.  He would love to be eating venison right now, but the circumstances just weren’t right and he knew it.  You’ll need to adopt this type of discretion on your small caliber whitetail hunt.

Distance

Determining an appropriate distance at which to take a shot represents one of those harmonious occasions where art and science are seen holding hands.  Relative to and regardless of the lower caliber you chose, you are going to have to pay close attention to the distance you will be shooting lest a pride becomes a shame.

Ultimately, gauging distance rests on your knowledge of your cartridges’ ballistics.  I don’t care for “kill formulas” because the physical state of the animal, the environment and the accuracy of the shot are not readily quantifiable yet nonetheless crucial.  But if you do, check out Chuck Hawk’s breakdown (Chuck’s formula? Energy at 100 yards (in ft.lbsf) x Sectional Density (taken from reloading manuals) x Bullet Frontal Area (in square inches) = Killing Power figure at 100 yards).  If your inclination is towards the exact, a range finder can also help, however keep in mind that without practice, you may find these tools uncomplimentary to your style of hunt or impractical in the area of the country you’re hunting.  Frankly, the time and movement it takes to get a reading and then glass the animal makes me shutter.

To me there is no substitute for understanding your weapon’s range capabilities than actually sending rounds down range—innate familiarity with your rifle’s subtleties and capabilities will never lead you astray. A good start here when it comes to small arms is practice on targets at increasing yardage and see where and how the bullets begin to drop.  With this data as a reference, you can begin to tweak your style (most likely getting a feel for where your vertical aim needs to be) or modify your gun to shoot flatter and harder if you feel you’ll need it.  Most importantly though, during your time at the range you’ll identify your rifles limits and in turn set limitations on yourself in terms of distance.

Angle

True woodsmen are quick to recognize what they’ve seen before and studying angles will enable you to read a game encounters like road signz.  Likewise, consider these diagrams of all too familiar scenes.

When considering angle with a smaller caliber, borrow the bow hunter’s axiom—it’s not where the projectile enters, it’s where it will exit.  Envision a line driving through where you want to hit it and imagine where that line leaves the animal.

This tactic may make you rethink your shot.  For example take the rear turning shot in the image to the left.  Your instinct may tell you to shoot mid low behind the shoulder as you would on a broadside shot.  Fact is that from this angle a shot here will enter the deer near the vitals, only grazing or piercing one lung, and exit out the brisket.  It is amazing how far a deer can run with adrenaline pumping and one lung.  Rather, shoot farther back, sailing the bullet through the tender abdomen and through the vitals.

Don’t take this to mean you should take all your cues from bow hunters.  Where a bow hunter may shy away from a frontal shot in fear of getting thwarted by the brisket’s fibrous connective tissue, a smaller caliber rifle will probably be able to pierce the armor and pinball around enough to take the animal… depending on the distance.

Vitals

Dulled ballistics may complicate the traditional “butter zone” shot, but that’s not to say this isn’t still your preferred method of dispatch and chances are you’re not going to be firing anything that isn’t capable of penetrating the sizable shoulder muscles.  Paper diagrams and targets that show the vitals are great guides but never take them as gospel—no diagram can replicate the actual anatomy of your deer including the ones provided in this article.  No amount of study can replace field knowledge.

When the moment comes, use the front leg musculature as a guide.  The heart is right behind the front leg in the lower middle of the animal.  Remember though—with less energy hitting the target, the margin of error will decrease in kind.  Breath deep, hold it and make the trigger pull smooth and a surprise to both you and the animal to ensure you tag the deer exactly where you want to.

As your bullet’s punch gets more anemic, there is the very real possibility that your bullet will not exit the animal.  If you’re worried about penetration, remember a good shot through both lungs will just as easily kill a deer as the coup de grace through the heart and lungs–a solid broadside shot will puncture both lungs and drop the animal

You can avoid the formidable shoulder bone and muscle by aiming your shot a couple of inches behind heart.  Be wary how far back you shoot though: it’s only a short jaunt to the liver, intestines and other guts and a wound here could take weeks to kill the animal and has the potential to spoil the meat.

Neck Shots

Any hunter who has witnessed a deer take a crack to the neck most likely remembers the spectacle well.  Crisp, clean, no fleeing, no tracking.  The animal just sort of keels over, legs stiff like a cockroach—a moment you’d consider a little cartoony if the occasion didn’t warrant your reverence.

The trade-off to the efficiency of a neck shot is of course the relatively meager size of your target.  There’s no way around it—neck shots can be tricky to pull off successfully and the topic seems to divide brothers.  In the scope of smaller caliber deer hunt however, because a neck shot means that you won’t need to penetrate as deeply as you would for your standard kill zone shot, they are tempting.

When attempting a neck shot, realize you are ideally aiming to sever the deer’s spinal cord entirely, not just hit the spine.  A deer’s spine runs roughly center-mass through the neck from the shoulder but tapers and curves towards the top of the neck, pushing closer to the skin, as it gets closer to the base of the skull. Though the spinal column itself is quite a bit larger, the portion of the spine that encases the vital spinal cord is about 1.38 inches in height.  That means you’ve got to bust up about a two-inch target to get that Thor’s thunderbolt effect.

But even if you’re aiming to break the animal’s spinal column, you do have a bit of insurance if you keep your shots lower—that is the jugular.  This is where predators concentrate their attacks for when taking down prey and, as a hunter, you can count yourself among their company.  A properly pierced jugular will cause the deer to bleed out quickly, resulting in a humane kill.

Note: I’ve heard on the wind before that neck shots will ruin the cape and thus your chances of getting a quality mount.  I guess.  It may.  It may not.

Headshots

Considering the small size of the projectile, shots to head seem like something worth taking a look for your strategy but in this hunter’s humble opinion, not all that glitters is gold.  It’s not that I necessarily object on ethical grounds, they just don’t make much sense.  Where do I begin?

For starters, the head is easily the most animated part of a deer’s body. Anyone who spends a little bit of time watching deer knows that their heads are always bobbing, browsing which means they also unpredictably snap to full attention whenever they get a line on some phantom sound.  If a deer gets spooked the head will be the first thing to move (something to consider when eyeing neck shots as well) and it’s my experience that most deer seem to be in a perpetual state of “spooked”.  Even when a whitetail is relaxed, he’s still alert.

The chance of a miss is great and frankly, if you do hit him, it’s going to be a scene out of a horror movie when you go to retrieve the animal.  Also, do you really want hot lead flying around his antlers?  All in all I have to concur with just about every other serious hunter I know, heard or read and advise against headshots.