How to Stay Mentally Tough at Crunch Time: Taking Ethical Shots

Posted on May 29, 2013

Exclusive BOW & ARROW HUNTING Feature Series: Check out this excerpt from Joe Bell’s recent book, “TECHNICAL BOWHUNTING, The Ultimate Guide to Shooting Performance.” Learn how to stay mentally tough and deliver at the moment of truth. This segment covers how to learn when to shoot and when to draw. If you missed the first segment on the importance of practicing; part two on the pre-shot checklist; part three on gaining confidence; or part four on when to draw and shoot, be sure to check them out first!

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Sizing Up Ethical Shots

As far as I’m concerned, if you take anything other than broadside or slightly quartering-away shots on big game, you’re flirting with being unethical. There could be a few rare exceptions to this, but not many. Let’s explore the details of ethical shots, and perhaps some exceptions to this rule.


Anytime an animal is standing perfectly broadside or at a slight quartering-away position, its vital organs are unobstructed by heavy bones, allowing the best possible access and penetration for the arrow and broadhead to bisect both lungs, which expires the animal quickly. This is the goal in effective bowhunting—to hit the animal through both lungs.


The perfect aiming spot on a broadside deer is the point 4 inches up and in line with the knuckle on the leg (right where it meets the brisket).


With a slight quartering-away deer, come up the same amount from its brisket, but horizontally align your sight pin with the offside leg. Either of these shots allows for maximum margin of arrow placement to the vital organs, which includes the lungs and heart.

To be an ethical bowhunter, you must have intimate knowledge of a deer or elk’s vital organ structure, so you can deliver a killing shot accordingly. Photos courtesy of National Bowhunter Education Foundation

To be an ethical bowhunter, you must have intimate knowledge of a deer or elk’s vital organ structure, so you can deliver a killing shot accordingly. Photos courtesy of National Bowhunter Education Foundation



Beyond this, things become dicey as the vitals are covered by heavy bone and tissue, which can cause all kinds of penetration and deflection issues.


One of the most tempting shots is the quartering-to shot, but it’s a huge mistake. In this position, the animal’s shoulder and leg bones cover most of the lung/heart region, except for that rear portion of the onside lung and possibly the liver (given it’s on the animal’s right side). To catch this single lung, your arrow must hit perfectly one-third of the way up the chest cavity, barely nick the edge of the shoulder blade, where it will bisect this 3-inch portion or so of the lung, then bury itself into stomach and intestines. With this hit, the animal will eventually die, but its death will come through slow, arduous infection. This does not constitute a good shot, even if you happen to hit the animal perfectly. 

Photos courtesy of National Bowhunter Education Foundation

Photos courtesy of National Bowhunter Education Foundation

Straight-on shots become dicey as well, though some experts will take these shots under certain criteria. For example, I’ve seen a lot of pronghorn antelope shot more or less straight on as they drank at a watering hole. With moderately thin bones, penetration on these animals is not much of a problem given your bow generates more than 55 foot-pounds of kinetic energy.


Randy Ulmer (a veterinarian) had this to say about straight-on shots. “I have never taken this kind of shot and never will. It’s better to be patient. Your chances of killing that bull are 1 in 10, and the same goes for a deer. You are basically shooting for the thoracic inlet. It’s a hole about the size of your fist, but where is it? You don’t really know.”


Chuck Adams says he would take such shots, but only under certain circumstances. “On a big-boned animal like an elk, I would not,” said Adams. “For shots like that, two factors become important: Size of the animal and temperament of the animal. I’ve never taken a shot at a whitetail deer straight on because you know they’ll jump the string. On the other hand, I shot my formal world-record Sitka blacktail deer back in 1986 with a full-frontal shot from 35 yards. I knew from past experience that these deer are not notorious for jumping the string. I also knew my powerful bow/arrow would shoot straight through the brisket bone and into the vitals. However, if you wait, you’ll usually get the broadside shot you need in.”


As far as I’m concerned, all other shots at big game are to be avoided—period. To intentionally shoot an animal in the mid-section (guts) or through the rear end (ham or anus) is purely immoral and leaves way too much to chance. The odds of dispatching that animal quickly are slim to none, whereas the chance of gimping the animal or causing slow, painful death is extremely high.


Fact: Ethical bowhunting means shooting an arrow through both the animal’s lungs for a clean, rapid kill.
Be sure to pick up your copy of Technical Bowhunting, available at or by calling (866) 834-1249, and requesting item #216. Cost is $21.95; shipping extra, CA residents pay sales tax. Direct dealers e-mail or phone Becky Silvas at; (800) 332-3330, x259. 

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