Beginning bowhunters undoubtedly have a lot of questions about the process, but when it comes to actual hunting one query always comes up — where to aim. The boiled down, simplest answer is three or four inches behind the shoulder. This, however, assumes an awful lot about a situation as dynamic as shooting at a wild deer.
For starters, deer don’t pose up broadside as often as our targets do. When you watch a buck walk through the woods, his body position changes constantly. Even standing broadside, if he goes to look behind him, scratch his back with his antlers, or sniff some interesting scent in the leaves, he might move just enough to justify a slight alteration in your aiming point.
I think even neophyte hunters probably intuitively understand that this is going to happen, but that doesn’t matter much when it’s actually time to shoot and the adrenaline is red-lining through a rapidly unfolding encounter. This is also something that is difficult to practice for, but not impossible.
Angles Are Everything
One of my good hunting buddies picked up a bow about 10 years ago, and during one of our first trips out of state we focused on mule deer and whitetails. Somehow we managed to stalk a lone doe together, which was plenty of trophy for him, and when she stopped at 25 yards he aimed right behind the shoulder and hit her where he was aiming. His post-shot reaction was vastly different from mine, though, because while he thought he put the arrow through her boiler room, I could clearly see that she was quartered away at a pretty steep angle.
Seven hours later, we didn’t have the deer, didn’t have any hope, and didn’t have any time left. A deer that is quartered even slightly away requires a point of impact that might be three inches farther back than a broadside shot. As the body angle increases, the point of impact creeps back.
The opposite is true with quartering-to shots. This riskier angle forces you to tuck an arrow in closer and closer to the shoulder, which cuts down on the margin of error until it’s simply not worth it. Just like when a deer turns far enough away where your point of impact starts behind the ribs.
Bowhunters need to understand this and be comfortable with shot selection, which is why summer practice should involve only broadside shots.
Bulls-eyes are great, but not as great as realistic 3D targets. Not only should you get comfortable with aiming at a deer target, but you should use it to practice various angles. I like to use one rebar stake that is firmly seated in the ground to hold my target up, and then pivot it forward or away from me if my range is tight. If I’ve got the room to roam, the target can stay in place while I move to shoot from steeper angles.
This is a simple way to train yourself to think about where the pin has to go on every shot, instead of always defaulting to the behind-the-shoulder hold. Better yet, if you can figure out a way to shoot elevated at an angled 3D target, you’ll become even more lethal in the field.
This angled practice isn’t good for just vertical bowhunters, but crossbow hunters as well. And on that subject, it’s important to note that new crossbow hunters often cheat their point of impact way too far forward.
This comes from the simple reality that a lot of crossbow hunters are converts from the gun-hunting world. Not all, of course, but many of these folks don’t fully grasp that they are picking up a weapon that shoulders and shoots like a gun, but performs more like a bow.
You can’t just put the crosshairs on a buck’s shoulder and count on dumping him with a crossbow the way you can with your .308. This means that in addition to practicing various angles to allow your bolt and broadhead to do the necessary work, you’ve got to understand deer anatomy and the limitations of your chosen weapon. All of this comes from experience and a well-designed practice routine.
Bad shots are going to happen, but they don’t have to. Every shot opportunity we earn in the field has the potential to go exactly as we planned, but also can break bad in an instant. To increase the odds of things going right, consider how you practice and why it’s important to understand recognizing exact aiming points and desired point of impact so that the odds of a short, successful blood trail are much higher than a long, sleepless night and some hopeless grid searching.