Deer Headshots and Ethics

Taking a headshot on a deer is considered an absolute no go for many hunters. It is frowned upon, deemed as unethical and seen as being arrogant by the hunter.

However, it may have a place in hunting, and we need to look at the finer details before completely writing it off as unethical.

Arguments For a Deer Headshot

  1. Quick kill

A well-placed shot to the head of a deer with the bullet penetrating the skull and hitting the brain killing the deer instantly.

  1. Maximum meat recovery

For those hunters that hunt exclusively for meat, a headshot on a deer means maximum meat recovery without wastage.

  1. Opportunistic

It may very well happen, or the situation arises where the only option to place a shot is on the deer’s head. The rest of the body may be hidden by vegetation with only the head sticking out and the deer may run away when it notices the hunter. This is a likely scenario when following up on a wounded animal.

  1. Central nervous system

Disruption and breaking the central nervous system of a deer prevents stress in the animal and prolonged death which some believe taints the flavor of the meat through lactic acid and adrenaline.

Arguments Against a Deer Headshot

  1. Small target

The average size of a deer’s brain is 3 ½ – 4 inches wide and 2 ½ – 3 inches, that is about the size of a person’s fist. Compared to the lungs which are four times larger.

  1. Non-fatal wounding

Missing the brain or spinal column of the animal and hitting the jaw for example will lead to the animal suffering from a wound that it will only die from after a long period of pain and infection. There are no arteries below the deer’s head towards the nasal passage. Hence the animal will not bleed out.

  1. Ethics and respect

With the high risk of a non-fatal wounding, many hunters and guides discourage taking headshots on animals and frown upon hunters that may insist on a headshot.

  1. Never with a bow

There is almost no hunter with an ounce of credibility that would disagree with this argument. Even those hunters that believe in taking a headshot on a deer with a rifle to be perfectly acceptable would not agree to a deer being shot in the head with an arrow. We will discuss the reasons why later in the article.

  1. Trophy damage

Apart from the meat, having a trophy quality animal mounted and preserved is important to many hunters. A headshot on a deer will damage the cape and the taxidermist may not be able to restore the cape to mounting quality.

What to Consider For a Deer Headshot?

There is an obvious degree of risk in taking a headshot on a deer and certainly a level ok skill required while using the correct equipment. 

Below are some considerations and factors that need to be made and assessed when taking a headshot on a deer.

  • Correct equipment

It is important to have the correct equipment that can perform the task. Apart from a reliable rifle in a suitable caliber for taking such a shot, one should use a quality rifle scope, range finder to be sure of the exact distance, solid rest in the form of bipods or sandbags.

  • Accuracy of rifle and ammo

The target area for an effective headshot on a deer is relatively small. Therefore, accuracy from not only your rifle but the ammunition that will be used is extremely important and groupings of less than 2” should be achieved from a five-shot grouping.

  • Trajectory and distance

Knowing the trajectory of your bullet and how it performs over certain distances will be an essential piece of knowledge when attempting a headshot on a deer.

  • Environmental conditions and animal movements

Strong winds will affect the flight of a bullet and it is advised against taking a headshot on an animal when there is a strong crosswind. If an animal is feeding, walking or running, then the movement of the head will make it tough to keep the crosshairs fixed on the exact spot for the shot.

  • Angle of the head
Deer Headshots and Ethics

The best angle at which to take a head on a deer is when it is facing away from you. The reason for this is because when the bullet enters from the back of the head it has a greater chance of hitting vertebras, nerves and/or arteries that all lead up to the base where the head and neck join.

Taking a frontal headshot risks the bullet deflecting from the bones in the nasal passage, this is especially true in hogs that have an angled skull or missing below the eyes and only hitting the jaw area which will not kill the animal.

What Happens to a Deer When Shot in the Head?

A bullet kills an animal in two ways when hitting the head area:

  1. Direct Contact

This is the physical action of the bullet hitting or destroying a vital organ such as the brain, the cervical vertebrae which lie just below the base of the skull or the autonomic plexus which is an extensive network of nerve fibers cell bodies all related to the nervous system.

  1. Indirect Contact

This relates to the high velocity bullet imparting its energy and creating a shock wave effect onto the animal. There are two types of shock, the first being hydraulic shock which refers to the pressure of fluid particles that create a wound channel.

The second being hydrostatic shock waves, which disrupts nerve centers from emitting their electrical impulses to the rest of the body.

The reason these two types of contact were mentioned is because it is important to note that even when the brain is not directly hit by the bullet, there is still a high probability the animal will die or become incapacitated from a shot to the head.

The hydrostatic shock waves in many instances have done enough damage and disruption to the deer’s brain that it cannot function correctly, effectively shutting down and causing the deer to die. Arrows lack hydrostatic shock and hence should not be used for a headshot.

Final Thoughts

There are good arguments for and against a headshot on a deer. No hunter wants to inflict unnecessary pain on an animal and anyone that does is not a hunter but a poacher.

There is a place for headshots on deer and the action of doing it should not be outright condemned, after all we have heard many stories of gut shots, high spinal shots or low leg shots from hunters attempting to hit the deer in the more conservative heart and lungs area.

Are these wounding shots not as equally painful to the animal?

My only stipulation for a headshot is this, it may only be taken by a hunter that is certain of their shooting ability, has spent hours on the shooting range fine tuning their rifle and ammo combo to achieve a very tight and consistent grouping.

Other than that person, rather stick to the phrase; “Broadside is best!” 

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