Make your practice relevant
Sensible shot placement is vital, as is time spent at a range replicating the shooting you do in the field, says Steve Rawsthorne.
Last November, I had a call from a friend of mine who was out shooting reds on some east coast farmland. He took two friends out with him, both reasonably experienced stalkers, and they shot three hinds, found two but one ran on and they were looking for it. This begs the question: where should we place our bullet for the best, most consistent and immediate humane despatch of an animal: heart, head or neck?
There are three main areas of the deer which will cause instantaneous death, or a very quick loss of consciousness followed swiftly by death. What governs our choice of shot is our ability to confidently and consistently place the bullet where we want it, the size and distance of our target, backstop and safety considerations and that indiscernible feeling about a shot. I have neck-shot deer at a 150 yards with complete confidence and on other occasions, I have chest-shot them at 70 yards because a neck-shot just did not feel appropriate.
The most common and often recommended area for a shot is the chest. It presents the largest and most stable area of a deer for a shot; on a roe, a 4" circle, on fallow or reds, 6". Here at Holland & Holland, we teach the heart shot as a matter of course. We can take most inexperienced rifle shooters to a point where they have a knowledge of the anatomy of a deer and sufficient skill with a rifle, as well as being safe and able to shoot from all positions – high seat, sticks, prone etc. – in three hours. The usual recommendation for a stalker in the UK is that he or she should be able to put three shots into a 4" circle at 100 yards – good enough for a chest shot – or is it? This 4" group is made on a range, when we are nicely rested up, with all the time in the world to take the shot and there is no adrenaline flowing. When we are out stalking, perhaps having heaved uphill for some distance, worried about our deer disappearing and the excitement of the hunt is on us, our grouping is likely to open up somewhat.
As responsible stalkers, we have a duty to practise and hone our skills so that we are completely familiar with our equipment. I have had shooters turn up who were unable to zero their scope, or who did not realise that changing ammunition or bullet weight, or adding and removing a moderator, would dramatically alter their point of impact and were not aware of the effects of range on trajectory. Buy the best kit you can afford, especially optics. You spend, or should spend, more time looking through your binoculars than through your scope. Much of our stalking is done at dawn and dusk in low light. I recommend large objective lenses and sticking with one of the four major manufactures – we supply Swarovski on all our rifles.
I fire around 1,200 centrefire cartridges a year. About 250 on the deer I shoot, the rest is on the range here at work. Admittedly, I am lucky in having the use of a range whenever I want, but most of us can find somewhere to shoot our rifle at least once a month, 20 or 30 rounds. Our first objective should be to tighten up our group to say 1½", four rounds, not three, from a nicely rested position. Once we are doing this, we need to get more realistic in our practice, so shooting from a simulated high seat, off sticks, sitting, kneeling and even freehand. Look at how you have made your actual shots on deer in the last year or so, if you never shoot anything kneeling or off sticks but shoot all your deer prone, don't spend too much time on something you don't do. Practise what you do do! Try jogging 200 yards before you shoot on the range, to simulate the effects of walking and stalking and the increased heart rate due to adrenaline. Have a friend or instructor time you, give yourself 10 seconds to set up and make a shot onto a life-size deer target, then immediately reload, so that it becomes automatic and you are ready for a follow-up shot if necessary. Make your practice relevant! You may find that some ranges will not allow you to shoot anything other than prone or off a bench, find one such as ours which allows all positions and aids.
Once we have practised and honed our abilities, so that we know what we and our equipment are realistically capable of, we can consider shots other than the chest. The diagram shows the skeletal form of a deer. You can see how the spine is located along the length of the neck. Our objective is to break the spine and cause immediate incapacitation and death. The deer will drop on the spot if we get it right. We need to be aware that the target area is much smaller than a heart/lung shot and more mobile, deer are constantly looking around. The benefits of a neck shot are that the deer will not run, particularly important when shooting on the edge of cover at dusk, and a cleaner carcass with no meat wastage, especially when coupled with a suspended gralloch. It is also possible from all angles: front, rear and side.
The head shot is the riskiest shot of all and best avoided in my opinion. Target area is extremely mobile and very small, from the corner of the eye to the base of the ear. The chance of blowing a jaw off or just fracturing the skull is high and a deer so injured can go for miles and die slowly.
I am not recommending neck or head shots, you must make your own mind up based on your abilities. Practise, be confident and think.