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November 20, 2008

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Petzal: Very Little Drops Dead

Two weeks ago, I showed up at a South Carolina plantation to hunt whitetails. The owner, a hunter of vast experience as well as a person of the highest literary and moral worth, asked me what rifle I had brought. I said a plain-vanilla .270, and his reaction was as though I had announced I was a descendant of William Tecumseh Sherman, or that I carried a turd in my pocket for company.       

The .270, he said, was notorious for letting deer escape, even fatally shot ones, and this was not only his experience but that of the owner of a nearby plantation who had kept careful records over many years.       
As it was, I killed four deer, all lung shots, one shot each. One dropped in her tracks; the other three ran 50, 75, and 30 yards, which is about average. I've been hunting whitetails in South Carolina since 1983. In that time I've used everything from a .257 Roberts to a 7mm Weatherby magnum and a great deal in between. I have not seen any evidence that one cartridge killed any quicker than another. My experience is that most deer (probably 70 percent) go on a last mad dash before piling up. I've never seen one go more than 100 yards, and very few have gone that far. I don't believe they run with any destination in mind; they only run.     

As the late Finn Aagaard pointed out, deer will go as long as there is any oxygen in their brain; when that runs out it's all over, and they can absorb the most horrendous damage and still cover ground. The moral is, shoot good and keep looking. None of my four deer left a blood trail, but they were found almost immediately. One time, I was around when a very good hunter shot a very good Alabama buck and it took a day and a half to find the animal. It would have been easy to quit, but the hunter didn't. Neither should you.


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Interesting observations. My first buck was shot three times. He ran about 75 feet. When I cleaned him, I noted I had hit him in the heart, which is where I aimed the first shot. When we butchered the deer, I found both other wounds. The first shot was fatal. Most people in my camp aim for a front shoulder for the knockdown.

Mike in Kansas

My late grandfather was famous for neck shots. I kinda thought he was crazy for this until I tried it myself. The buck didnt move on inch....just dropped...with a 30-30. This is my first year hunting with a .270, it will be interesting to find out if this technique will work the same with a different calliber.


My experience, too. I've yet to see a deer "drop in its tracks".

Sorta makes me believe "dead on their feet and don't know it yet." is a better phrase.

Dick Mcplenty

Even simpler way of not having to track deer,is shoot them in the shoulder.Break bone and animals stay where you left them.

The best way to have an animal run all over is shoot them in the lungs.


The fact that deer run even after their heart is blown out seems to be the big justification for head and neck shots. I've never been able to condone these two shots though because I've seen animals on two different continents with lower jaws blown off in failed head shots. No telling how long those poor animals would have suffered had luck not allowed another hunter to finish them off. As for the neck shots, I've never taken them, but I know of people who have and lost the deer. They didn't hit anything immediately fatal and the deer went to the next county and was unrecoverable.

Is it just laziness and not wanting to track that makes people take these shots, or is there something I'm missing? I grew up in PA, so have always hunted relatively open woods. This is my first year hunting in coastal North Carolina, and the swamp and brush is almost inconcievabley thick. So I can understand a fear of not being able to follow a blood trail through a real jungle, but at the end of the day does it really justify risky shots?

Dick Mcplenty

I've seen plenty of deer and elk drop in their tracks.The best way to do this,is hit them where the shoulder meets the base of the neck.You have a major junction of nerves and bone in this area and the area is large and easy to hit.

Another thing to do is stop using premium bullets on deer.Deer are easy to kill and any good cup and core bullet design will usually even exit.You want expansion.

Tom Sorenson

What wrong with a good ol' lung shot? Shoot - I don't care what you hit 'em with, any critter without lungs isn't gonna live too long. I hate hittin' 'em in the shoulder because there's meat there. I like meat. I don't like shootin' 'em in the neck because there's not much room for error there. I'm not an olympic shooter. I'll keep shootin' for lungs - it's where I feel most comfortable and I've never lost a deer yet that way.


I've only shot 3 deer in the neck. I agree that it is risky and I only shot those 3 there because they were within 40 yards or so. These are the only deer I've seen that dropped in their tracks. I've had shoulder, lung, and/or heart shot deer run; but, like David said, never more than 100 yards. I don't think I could ever try for a head shot on a deer. Too much risk of harming one without killing it.

NH Philosopher

I must have magic sabots in my muzzleloader - every deer that I have taken (with the exception of one) has dropped dead in their tracks. For example: On Nov. 8th this year - a big bodied mature 8 pointer came up behind my stand, I waited, at 15 meters I plugged him right behind the front left shoulder and turned him off completely.

The only one that did not expire immediately was, ironically, my biggest rack ever - a 21 point non-typical. In flight my bullet must have struck a sapling and started to tumble - it struck the buck high in the spine above its right shoulder severing it and the deer dropped. I waited for it to bleed out and it kept struggling - so I had to plug it again.

BUT - I just recently came in from the field at dark and one of my hunting buddies gut shot a deer at last light. He called me to come back out to help him track it and it took us 3 hours to find it after we waited a few hours. Interesting thing was that it doubled back and expired no more than 20 meters from the stand. Blood trailing in the dark is not ideal or easy by any means. Thus shot placement is critical.

Of the 15 or so deer I have taken in VA and the countless deer in NH - that non-typical is the only one where my shot placement failed.


Dave, truer words were never spoken. In Wisconsin the German tradition, "Keep shooting until the animal is down," is alive and well. I once hunted with a group of guys who used semiautomatics, and on one occasion a luckless yearling doe, probably eighty pounds on the hoof, got between two of them. From a distance I heard one shot, then another, and then it sounded like WWI trench warfare had broken out. When the rest of us got to where all the shooting was, there was the little doe on the ground, blasted almost to bits. Why? "She kept on running," the two answered. The shooters were ashamed at the state of the carcass but were otherwise unrepentant; after all, she did keep on running. That little deer absorbed enough punishment to kill an elephant and didn't go down. I won't tell you how many times she was shot, or with what, because if I hadn't been there and seen it myself, even I'd call me a liar. I can tell you that with essentially no heart or lungs and with one broken shoulder (the guys were both long time hunters and good shots), she still ran. Wish I had that much heart.

I suppose this is a strong argument for using tough bullets that penetrate completely and leave a good blood trail; unless you brain or spine your deer, odds are you're going to be tracking it, whatever you shoot it with. Might as well have something on the ground to track.

Jim in Mo

What in the world did that guy want you to say you were shooting?
At first I thought he was going to say 'you can't hit 'em from here with that'.


I have yet to drop any creature where it stands. All have run.

(Wondering if a person of high literary and moral worth frowns upon the concept of a "turd as company" or the "turd in a pocket". Maybe both.)


I wonder what effect the deer's adrenaline has in their ability to travel even after being well-shot. There has to be some reason why some deer seem to pile up and others don't seem to know when they're dead.

Happy Myles

A couple of weeks ago, while glassing four female Meneliks bushbuck two hundred yards away feeding in a tiny clearing during a pouring rain, a nice male stepped into view. At my shot, he jumped back spun in a circle and disappeared. The trackers darted downhill in hot pursuit. I waited awhile, reviewing my shot, it had felt good. Th he buck's reaction made me feel it was a low heart shot. I marked my spot with a piece of toilet paper, picked up my cane, and slipped and staggered through the mud down the slope. Stopping at the bottom to rest my 70 year old legs I visually searched the area, about sixty yards from where I hit him a horn was sticking above the grass. He was dead, a low heart shot. This is a very small animal, and it still traveled 60-70 yards. Calling my embarassed trackers back, one asked how I spotted it, I replied I was looking for a dead animal, not a live one.


A 357 rifle will kill deer just fine and reliably with a "good lung shot."
Its making the "good lung shot" that isnt as reliable in my experience and observation.

I have seen .270s, 30-06s, and 308s to all be rather lethal to deer in cases on marginal shots.

On the other hand rifles like a .357 and even up to a .243 are less lethal often.

Of course some people make shots so bad that a .458 hollow point wouldnt help.


Clay Harvey once wrote that whitetail deer were at the top of list in the "will to live" department. I whole heartedly agree. When I first began hunting, my father and other local farmers would get together and conduct drives. Most of these drives took place in overgrown thickets, swamps, etc. State regulations called for shotguns and because of the thick cover, everyone of us used buckshot. I've repeatedly seen deer endure multiple loads of buckshot at ranges under 40 yards keep on running as though they were never touched. Follow them up and most gave up the ghost within 100 yards of where they were shot. When they were skinned and butchered their ribs would look like swiss cheese. Simply amazing how much punishment they can absorb.


A lung shot is lethal and in most cases will put an animal down within 30 to 50 yards, they usually bleed well, but not always. As in all things there are exceptions. In heavy cover a 100 yard trailing job, especially around water can be trouble.

The shoulder shot as described by Mr. Mc Plenty is a very practical shot for the whitetail. Pull it slightly left or right and you have a neck shot or a lung shot. Seldom have I hit a whitetail this way and had it do more than twitch. I would rather loose some of the connective tissue laden shoulder meat than all of the ham and backstrap meat!

A hunter's willingness (and ability) to track also plays a large part in hunting. While working in a gun store while in college, I sold a fellow a beautiful little Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in .308. The gun was topped with a Burris Mini scope and sighted in with the then new Federal Premium Ammo. An ideal whitetail deer rig in my mind. The customer came back in after the first week of the season and reported the rifle wouldn't kill a gnat. Eight deer had been hit and all had run off. When I asked him if he followed up he reported that there was obviously no need. He wanted a bigger gun. The Nimrod traded the .308 for a slightly used .375 H&H Model 70. The results were the same...

I'm in school right now

I shot my first buck this year with a Remington 700 rifle. I was walking down a shelterbelt in a CRP field. I saw the buck just bedded down so i shot it in the neck. It didn't even get up. It's a good gun and my dad told me that its taken around 60 deer so i think i'll just keep using that one.


WA Mtnhunter

I've dropped deer in their tracks and elk right where they stood, but not in all cases. Only one deer was a spine shot. The rest were in the heart/lung/shoulder.

I never use less than premium bullets that expand, penetrate, AND retain weight to facilitate exit.

If a hunter has never had one drop in their tracks or nearly so, then what is the sample size? Small me thinks....


I've had one mule deer drop like a rock to a double lung hit at under 200 yards, and one whitetail that just sort of layed down at a shot from about 70 yards. In the whitetail's case, he'd had a hoof blown off earlier in the day judging by the amount of nasty still leaking from below his knee. I can understand dropping at the shot there because he was already weakend. The mule deer will never make sense to me. My .270 bullet went in above his heart, but never hit it, and went out the other side. He dropped in his tracks, twitched a minute and was gone.

An article I read in a South African hunting magazine had a veterinarian suggest that based on rather limited research the animals dropping in their tracks, (but that were not struck in the spine/head area) were subjected to severe brain damage. This vet suggested that if an animal's heart was forcing out blood at the same time the bullet hit, the massive increase in blood pressure at that instant would burst the capilaries in the brain, thus causing the immediate collapse. Again, he had a small study group, but all the animals he examined showed signs of brain bleeding even though they were killed with chest shots.


You make a good point. I personally like the shoulder shot for the exact
reasons you have stated. In
most cases, any meat damage will be in the off
shoulder, depending on the
angle of the shot. Also, IMHO, nimrods such as you describe shooting deer and not making any attempt to follow up or track should be consigned to killing gnats until they work their way up to flies.

Jim in Mo

I generally go for the shoulder area to break the deer down. If the shot angle requires a lung shot I aim low. I think a high lung shot takes much longer to bleed out and more tracking.

I've had many many deer drop in their tracks...from heart and lung shots with a 7mm. Don't know what ya'll are talking about. Even had one roll over backwards.

Dr. Ralph

I have dropped about ten deer in their tracks, rolled one completely over and had one kneel down as if he were hiding but was DOA. Of all the other deer I have shot and recovered (lost two) only one made it farther than 100 yards and I have absolutely no explanation for it. This deer left a two foot wide blood trail at least 300 yards and was shot four times! Every time we would get within 50 yards of her while following the blood trail she would get up and run another 100. The crazy thing is when we finally had her down she still held her head high and looked at us as we delivered the final shot. It was extremely unnerving and the bullets in question were 30-06 Nosler Ballistic Tips the same Federal Premiums that had dropped eight or so in their tracks and rolled the one. The others that dropped were shot with .44 XTP's out of a Knight frontstuffer. Most of the deer I see shot go 50 yards. Most of the deer I shoot drop or stagger 10-25 yards. I like the NBT '06 150gr. a lot. Maybe you lose more meat but you don't lose deer. I also always shoot right behind the shoulder and from very close range.

Jim in Mo

Heres the article I have on that subject. Its a good read and makes sense to me. For those in a hurry just skip to the end.


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