How do you drop a deer in its tracks? is something people have been asking me since I started writing about guns and hunting around the same time that the monks at Iona Abbey finished illuminating the Book of Kells. On one hand, I don’t think the question perfectly reflects what people really want to know. On the other, it’s a lot pithier than How do you drop a deer fast enough that it won’t run over onto the a-hole neighbor’s land and force me to go begging? Or…fast enough that it won’t run over the next ridge where another hunter might shoot it a second time and claim it as his own?
So, just to be safe, I’ll answer it two ways, both how to see to it that your critter hits the ground after only a few steps, or a short sprint, or at least before it leaves your property—and how to drop a deer more or less right in its tracks. But first, a story.
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When You Need to Drop a Deer In Its Tracks
Years ago, I answered the bell to find an apologetic young man standing on our doorstep, explaining that he was extremely sorry to trouble us, but he was a bowhunter, and the buck he’d hit had run off and was now out on the ice covering the reservoir behind our house. Would it be all right if he crossed our property to get it and drag it to his truck?
“Son,” I said, “you’ve knocked on the right door.” I grabbed my coat and went with him to go get his buck, and llke thieves in the night, we hauled it to his truck.
This is all to say that very often, you want a deer to go down in its tracks, or thereabouts. If the young hunter had knocked on the wrong door in our neighborhood, he might have ended up explaining himself to the police or the game wardens, or simply been beaten to death by an outraged anti-hunter.
Of course, there’s only so much a bowhunter can do about this. But gun hunters have more say in things. If you’re hunting on a good-size piece of private land and you like to aim just behind the shoulder on a broadside deer, more power to you. That shot is as deadly as anything. But you may need to do some tracking, which is fine.
On the other hand, if your deer can quickly run to a place where headaches await, for whatever reason, there are ways to make sure the animal hits the ground faster. So, here’s what you can do to reduce or eliminate the drama, bearing in mind that there are no guarantees.
First, forget about using the controlled-expanding bullets that I have praised so often. They kill efficiently, but more often than not, they don’t kill suddenly. For quick kills, you want something that opens up a little faster. The one with which I’ve had the most experience is the Nosler Ballistic Tip. It’s a quick-expander that does a lot of damage. I would not use them on elk, which are big and tough, but they’re just fine on deer, which are not big and tough. Note that I haven’t mentioned specific cartridges. That’s because one is pretty much like another, and because your marksmanship is far more important.
Second, remember that animals stop running when the brain or the spine are damaged, or when oxygen no longer reaches the brain. Here are two shots that will do one or both, almost instantly.
1. The Face-On Chest Shot
If a deer is facing you, shoot for the center of the chest, smack in the middle. If you do this right, with a squishy bullet, you will annihilate both lungs and the heart. The animal will either go down in its tracks or it will sprint for 5 or 10 yards. Everything having to do with oxygen will have been demolished.
2. The Base-of-the-Neck Shot
Second, with the deer facing away from you, aim for the base of the neck, right in the center. Normally, I avoid neck shots like the plague, because you stand an excellent chance of hitting muscle and nothing else. You should avoid it here, too, if you are too far to be sure of your aim. If you are reasonably close and you shoot precisely, however, you are either going to sever the spine or give it such a shock that the deer will go down in its tracks and you are then obliged to shoot a second time and finish it. (For this, I favor a shot directly behind the fore-leg into the heart from as close as you can get. Very often, if a deer is shot in the heart while mobile, it will make a tremendous leap and a mad dash and then collapse, but not if it’s prone, and it will expire in seconds.)
What about a broadside shot, you say? Well, based on many decades of shooting deer, I don’t believe there is a broadside shot that is as sure a bet, in terms of a bang-flop, as the two shots above. But if you do get a broadside shot, there is a way to up the odds of your deer going down quickly. Which brings us to:
3. The Broadside High-Shoulder Shot
For this shot, you’ll want a tougher, controlled-expansion bullet for this one, as it will need to penetrate through bone and muscle. Bring the crosshairs one-half to two-thirds up the body and hold them on the center of the shoulder or a touch forward of that. This shot will definitely get the lungs, and is apt to also wreck the shoulder blade and some of the spine as well. I have taken this shot many times and can tell you that a deer that has sustained this kind of damage can manage to run a few yards, maybe, but that’s it.
Finally, just because you want a quick kill doesn’t mean it needs to be a one-shot kill. I never hesitate to send a follow-up shot. Two quick shots are no more offensive to the world at large than one shot, and very often the second one is what does the job. As I said, there are no guarantees when it comes to dropping deer in their tracks. But if you follow the advice above and do your part, the critter will likely go in only one direction—straight down.