Shot Placement and Killing Power
by John Barsness
WHENEVER big game hunters start “discussing” what’s generally known as killing power, one item often discounted (if not ignored) is shot placement. Most hunters aim for what they generally call “the chest,” but there are two kinds of chest shots—those hitting only ribs, and those hitting the heavier bones of the legs and, sometimes, the spinal column.
Many hunters call hitting heavier bone “shoulder” shots, regardless of exactly which portion of the leg bones get broken. Quite a few call them “front shoulder” shots, even though big game animals don’t have rear shoulders, and the same hunters never mention any sort of shoulders when discussing rear-end shots.
Various “chest” shots result in considerably different results. Rib shots can drop animals right there, but the usual reaction is to run a ways before dropping, because it takes a while for blood pressure to drop, depriving the brain of oxygen. How quickly rib shots kill depends on many factors, not just the cartridge/bullet but the size of the animal. Obviously larger animals have larger lungs and hearts, so usually won’t fall as quickly to the same shot placement, because blood pressure takes longer to drop, but whether the animal was alarmed before the shot can make a difference.
The amount of tissue damage is also a major factor, the reason many hunters believe “softer” expanding bullets kill quicker with rib shots. That’s why many hunters aim behind the shoulder when using softer bullets, which might be defined as any bullet losing at least half its weight on a typical rib shot: With most expanding bullets, the majority of tissue damage occurs within the first few inches of bullet impact, when the bullet’s traveling and expanding fastest. Soft bullets ruin less meat when placed behind the shoulder.
Obviously this damage varies somewhat with impact velocity and the particular bullet, plus other factors such as expanded bullet diameter and rifling twist. But my hunting notes from the past 50 years indicate the highest percentage of drop-right-there rib shots comes with bullets losing considerable weight. These tend to be recovered more often than bullets retaining more than half their weight, providing some hard numbers for this conclusion, despite applying to soft bullets.
Shooting shoulders tends to require harder bullets, usually the type called “controlled expanding,” here defined by the bullets always retaining over half their weight. I’ve recovered quite a few controlled-expanding bullets over the decades, including partitioned, bonded, monolithic and simply heavy-jacketed, usually but not always on shots angling through the chest. Those in my collection retain anywhere from 55% of their weight on up to 100%.
Many hunters believe more retained weight always results in deeper penetration, but just as important is the frontal area of the expanded “mushroom.” Wide-expanding bullets slow down quicker than bullet with relatively narrow “mushrooms,” not only resulting in less penetration but the likelihood of stopping under the skin on the far side of the animal. Skin’s tougher than internal organs or even muscle, and also somewhat stretchy, and a rounded mushroom from a lead-cored bullet’s more likely to stop under the hide than the smaller, sharper petals of most monolithics. That said, controlled-expanding bullets with wider mushrooms tend to kill quicker with rib shots, because like softer bullets they make a bigger hole in heart/lung tissue.
Now, it probably needs to be emphasized that these tendencies are averages, not absolutes. I’ve seen a few big game animals dropped instantly with rib shots from controlled-expanding bullets. One example was a medium-sized Texas hog taken with a 100-yard, behind-the-shoulder shot with a 115-grain Nosler Partition, started at 2900 fps from a .257 Roberts. Usually pigs run a ways with lung shots, but the boar dropped instantly, apparently dead on impact.
Those, however, are among the few exceptions to the general rule that with rib shots, controlled-expansion bullets don’t kill as quickly as softer bullets. This is exactly why many hunters who use controlled-expansion bullets place bullets through the shoulders, especially if they want to drop animals quickly.
Both Eileen and I have done this deliberately many times, especially with whitetails on the edge of heavy cover, but I also put a 150-grain Nosler Partition through the shoulders of a big mule deer buck in Alberta. The deer stood near some very steep badlands, and if he’d gone over the edge, recovering his 300-pound carcass would have been a real PITA.
One example of many animals taken with softer bullets was a feral goat in New Zealand, during an early field-test of Berger Hunting VLD’s. Goats are considered among the toughest of “deer-sized” game but we’d already dropped several with VLD’s ranging from 115-grain .25’s to 185-grain .30’s. However, all those shots hit some “shoulder” bone. We wanted a pure rib shot to see if the bullets killed quickly with that placement too.
Eileen got the first opportunity at around 200 yards on a big billy, putting a 115 from her .257 Roberts a hand’s width behind the shoulder. The goat dropped right there, rolling down the steep mountain for several yards before hanging up in some brush. That sort of instant drop from a rib shot’s not unusual with softer bullets, especially on deer-sized game, but we also saw quick rib-shot kills on red stags weighing at least 500 pounds.
I’ve heard many hunters claiming such-and-such bullet (or cartridge, often a “magnum” of some sort, or bigger-bore round) always drops whitetails right there—but the hunter doesn’t mention using shoulder shots. Well, gee, I’ve taken part in a number of whitetail culls over the years, in places as widely scattered as eastern Montana, South Texas and several southeastern states. The cartridges and bullet have varied widely, but I haven’t yet found a combination that wouldn’t drop smaller Southern whitetails right there with a shoulder shot. (Yeah, some Southern whitetails get pretty big, but in general they’re a size or two smaller than typical deer from the upper Midwest or southern Canada.)
My preferred placement for instant drops with “shoulder” shots is the classic 2/3 to ¾ of the way up the chest, directly above the leg. This normally also cracks the spinal column , and often cuts the spinal cord, along with one or both shoulders. The smallest cartridge used (and probably the softest bullet as well) has been the .243 Winchester with 100-grain Federal “blue box” factory ammo, used on a South Texas cull. The high shoulder shot dropped them all right there—and the bullets all exited.
Of course, those were relatively small deer, but the .243 will do the same thing on bigger deer with controlled-expanding bullets. Eileen took her biggest-bodied whitetail buck a few years ago in northeastern Montana, up near Saskatchewan, using her Husqvarna .243. The buck appeared along the edge of some heavy cover at dusk, looking for does, so she put a 100-grain Partition through the shoulders and spine. The buck dropped right there, and yes, the Partition exited. She’s done the same thing with the 100 Partition on other Montana whitetail bucks, so dropping whitetails with shoulder shots isn’t limited to magnum cartridges.
A common variation on the shoulder-shot theme involves an animal quartering toward the hunter. Unless there’s some reason not to, the highest-odds shot placement is aiming at the big joint of the near shoulder. The bullet continues on into the chest, traveling through both lungs and, depending on exact placement, perhaps the top of the heart. I’ve used this shot, and seen it used, hundreds of times over the decades on animals from deer-sized up to over 1000 pounds.
The one-shoulder quartering shot doesn’t usually drop big game as quickly as breaking both legs, or the shoulder-spine shot, but they do typically fall quicker than with a pure rib shot, probably because bone fragments result in more tissue destruction than just the bullet itself. I’ve found plenty of splinters and even good-sized chunks of bone throughout the chest cavities of animal shot with quartering-on shoulder shots.
The animal that might have traveled farthest was a 6×6 bull elk shot at 75 yards in thick cover, using a .300 Winchester Magnum with 200-grain Nosler Partitions handloaded to 2950 fps. At the shot the bull crashed forward through some brush, but stopped after about 35 yards. I put another bullet into the chest as the bull stood there swaying, but it wasn’t necessary, as the first Partition had smashed the shoulder joint, gone through both lungs, and exited the rear of the ribcage on the far side.
But chest-shot placement can make a difference with even larger cartridges, perhaps as much or more than the particular cartridge and bullet. On a Tanzanian safari I used a 9.3×62 with 286-grain Partitions as my “plains game” rifle, while my partner used a .300 Winchester Magnum loaded with 180-grain AccuBonds. We shot the same basic variety of animals, from impala and hartebeest to zebra and blue wildebeest, and the 9.3 put them down noticeably quicker. In fact my partner bought a 9.3×62 for himself after we got home, for that very reason.
But was the bigger bullet the reason for the quicker kills? For some reason the shots on every one of my animals involved at least one shoulder, while his all turned out to be rib shots. The two that really impressed him were Burchell’s zebra and a blue wildebeest, both considered among of the toughest animals in Africa. Both animals were quartering toward me, and the bullet broke the big shoulder joint both times. They each went less than 25 yards before falling, obviously staggering and done for from the moment of impact.
My hunting partner on an African safari was very impressed with the way the 9.3×62 dropped tough animals like this blue wildebeest, so bought own 9.3 upon returning home. However, each shot from John’s rifle broke at least one shoulder, which tends to drop animals quicker than rib shots.
But I’ve seen quite a few other blue wildebeest taken. One in South Africa, during a month-long cull hunt where several hunters took close to 200 animals, was shot deliberately as it quartered toward me, during an early field test of the Nosler E-Tip monolithic bullet from a .300 Winchester Magnum. The results were just about identical—a stumbling run of around 25 yards, ending in a spectacular dust-tumble.
Interestingly, the majority of the testimonies I’ve heard or read illustrating the great killing power of some larger cartridge have involved shoulder shooting. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect fans of certain larger cartridges (including me) tend to shoot for the shoulder more often. But I’ve seen plenty of smaller cartridges drop the same array of animals just about as quickly with various shoulder shots, using controlled-expansion bullets.
Many hunters fail to recognize more subtle reasons for an animal dropping quickly. Many animals quickly dropped by rib shots have had the bullet pass closely under the spinal column, or even strike it slightly. Either can drop an animal temporarily, and in the meantime bullet holes through both lungs complete the job.
A good example was a medium-sized cow elk Eileen shot with her New Ultra Light Arms .257 Roberts a few falls ago. We encountered the cow across a draw, quartering away at what later proved to be 123 yards. The bullet was a 100-grain Barnes TTSX at around 3150 fps, the load she’s used for close to a decade in the NULA .257. She put it in the middle of the ribs on the right side, the vertical crosshair aligned with the far leg, and at the shot I expected the elk to run maybe 50 yards before dropping.
Instead it dropped instantly, right there, flopping around briefly before lying still. During the field-dressing we discovered the bullet had knocked a half-inch chunk of bone off the bottom of the spine. This chance encounter didn’t appear to affect the path of the bullet, which we found in the meat of the far shoulder, but I have no doubt it’s why the cow dropped on impact.
I’ve seen the same sort of “spine-tick” on other animals over the years, when otherwise the shot looked like a typical rib placement. Yet how many hunters would consider the “instant kill” proof of the killing power of their cartridge? Which usually isn’t a .257 Roberts?
Due to my job, I tend to be more inquisitive when field-dressing animals than many hunters. All of these instances, and hundreds more, are why I tend to be skeptical of single examples of the supposedly superior killing power of any specific cartridge or bullet. Instead most quick kills involve the right bullet, placed correctly, even if the exact path is sometimes slightly accidental.