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Bullet placement when deer stalking

Is the increase in use of the head/neck shot putting deer welfare at risk? asks Iain Watson

Bullet placement

Stalking trends come and go. From calibres to optics, all have their time. Fashion also influences the shots we take, and currently the head or high neck shot seems to be in vogue. Of all the decisions a stalker makes, bullet placement is surely one of the most critical. Not only does it determine the outcome but, in terms of our sporting ethic, it should always rank highly as a welfare issue. It bears heavily on the finished product in terms of the level of damage sustained, and ultimately the usable or saleable condition of the carcass.

Where is the best point of aim?

I should make it clear that I am not a fan of the head shot, and actively avoid its use. Over the years, while not using it myself, I’ve become aware that those who do will invariably find themselves following up an injured deer or, worse, failing to recognise that the deer they have shot at is, in fact, wounded.

While discussion of the best point of aim has ebbed and flowed over the years, the option of taking head shots seems to have gained credibility. Online, it often seems that many users of popular forums support it, even though many seem to be relatively new stalkers whose practical experience may be limited or even non- existent. One potential outcome of this is that they, along with other novices and followers, can all too easily be seduced by self-belief and “war stories”, resulting in an acceptance that what is, at best, thoughtless behaviour is in fact the norm.

Gamedealers encouraging head shots

But it’s not only in the world of cyberspace that bullet placement figures. Closer to earth, it seems that other forces may be encouraging head shots. In the world of the gamedealer, the placing of the bullet and the consequent issue of carcass damage is often reflected in the pounds per kilo offered. An incentive is offered for animals that are shot either in the head or high in the neck. As prices fluctuated last spring, those offered for so-called clean-shot animals were strong.

There was also a rumour circulating recently suggesting that animals shot in the chest would no longer be accepted by the industry, owing to possible issues of contamination of carcasses entering the food chain. Though it was just a rumour, it rightly caused concern among stalkers, who were worried that they were being further railroaded down the head- shooting route.

Accepted bullet placement

Traditionally, the accepted bullet placement for deer has been in front of the diaphragm, in the heart/lung area, or the “boiler room”. The heart/lung shot is, after all, what is tested on our current stalking courses. The outcome of a successful chest shot is invariably a fatal injury that causes huge trauma to major vessels. In addition, where the animal is broadside on to the shooter and the angle of impact close to 90°, the damage caused can be expected to be within acceptable limits if:

  • the calibre and bullet type are matched to the quarry,
  • the bullet behaves as predicted,
  • heavy bones are avoided, and
  • the bullet strikes at the point of aim.

As the vogue for head shots has grown in recent years, so has the willingness, often among professionals, to admit to practising it. There is no doubt that, if it is carried out correctly, the outcome is immediately fatal. Yet the margin for error is small and the consequences for the targeted animal can be gruesome.

What can affect bullet placement?

A number of variables affect bullet placement. Two of the most likely are the position of the stalker in relation to the deer, and the window of opportunity that the moment offers. Both influence the decision taken and the outcome. There is, after all, a big difference between a measured shot at a settled animal and a snatched shot at a clearly alerted one.

What can go wrong when bullet placement is incorrect?

Three very different episodes, illustrating what can go wrong, bear retelling. All had poor outcomes for the deer. The first involved an experienced deer manager who, confident in his ability, routinely used the head shot. He was working as part of a culling team in a mature mixed wood culling females and their dependants. Soon after first shooting light, the first shot of the day rang out, followed by another, then another. In all, nine shots were fired. Clearly either a cull of epic proportions was under way or there was a problem. It was the latter. It transpired that the first shot had taken the nose off a red deer calf, the next seven missed as the increasingly desperate stalker pursued the frantic calf through the wood, and the ninth ended its misery.

The second example took place beside a remote Highland track as snow and darkness closed in on a January night. Heading home after a hard day, we rounded a bend and saw a hind stagger across the track in front of us. The headstalker braked and barked an instruction for us to get out and shoot her. The hind slowly climbed a bank as a rifle was unslipped, loaded and made ready. She made for the edge of a group of ancient Scots pines. Scrambling to get into a safe shooting position, I couldn’t see what the problem was, but she kept stopping and shaking her head. A shot through her shoulders dropped her and, when I reached her, the problem was clear. Her bottom jaw and tongue had been shot off and, unable to feed or drink, she was succumbing to a slow, painful and lingering death from starvation and dehydration. When I gralloched her, all that was left in her shrivelled stomach was some black liquid.

The third episode involved a client out with a guide for a trophy buck. Having stalked in close to a settled feeding animal, the client was told to take a heart/ lung shot. He disregarded this and subsequently admitted to electing to go for a high neck shot. At the report the buck dropped like a stone as a piece of his left antler arced skyward. The stunned animal lay prostrate for a moment before getting to its feet and, without a backward glance, fleeing the scene, leaving a red-faced guest with half an antler and a significant bill to pay.

Skills for correct bullet placement

Shot placement is, ultimately, a matter for the individual, depending on the confidence they have in their equipment, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. What may be proper for one stalker to use may not suit another. All of us who stalk need to recognise that there is a gulf between the skill-set of a full-time professional and a recreational stalker, and that the latter is unlikely ever to achieve the skills of the former. What is routine to one may be exceptional to the other. Deer are not, after all, paper targets. In the hands of an experienced user and with modern optics, the correctly placed head or high neck shot has its adherents, but the margin for error is often small. Those who guide novices and hobby stalkers must be aware of the influence they bring to bear, and realise that, by talking up head and high neck shots, they are encouraging the practice among individuals who have neither the experience nor the knowledge to take such shots.

None of us ever wants to be responsible for causing our quarry any unnecessary suffering. We should always operate within the level of our ability and be influenced by neither the dictates of fashion nor the apparent demands of third parties.