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DEAD ON ARRIVAL: What did ancient whitetail hunting share with our modern methods? One simple truth: No matter the tool, death still occurs in exactly the same ways it did back then.

I found it by supreme accident.

I was a junior in veterinary school, skipping Friday afternoon lectures, home on the first good cold front of late October and desperately trying to hurry my way to the tree stand for an evening hunt. The two-hour drive and the anticipation of arrowing a mature buck on the home farm found me speed-walking across one of Dad's freshly picked corn fields.

By dumb luck, I hopped over a grassy waterway, slipped a bit... and bingo: my very first Indian arrowhead. The small stone point was in great shape, and 1 slid it into my vest pocket for safekeeping.

Later that evening, as the cool breeze swayed the yellowing field-edge maple I was in, I took out the arrowhead and examined it. I wondered about the hunter to whom it had belonged hundreds or even thousands of years prior. My mind imagined the ancient hunter to be barefoot and stalking a bedded buck in the Illinois prairie grass. I wondered if the arrow had found its mark or if the hunter had gone home empty-handed, losing his projectile in the process.

I chuckled at the thought of the ancient hunter looking at my state-of-the-art compound bow and store-bought camouflage. I compared the modest stone point with the hulking 3-blade broadheads in my own quiver. And I wondered to myself: Is there anything about deer hunting that time hasn't changed?


One can think of the whitetail body as an enclosed system in which two basic processes keep the animal alive and well: ventilation and perfusion.

Ventilation is the ability of the animal's respiratory system to take oxygen-rich air into the lungs and transfer it to the bloodstream. Perfusion is the ability of the circulatory system to move that oxygen to all the organs and tissues of the body. These two supremely vital processes are completely separate but work hand in hand to keep the deer alive. If one force is present without the other, a scenario called ventilation-perfusion mismatch occurs, and the animal dies. Debilitate both these "master forces'" simultaneously, and the animal expires much more quickly.

Another simple way to consider the physiology of the whitetail is to look at how the body performs all its functions. Every tissue and organ in the deer's body has a job to do. The kidneys filter out metabolic waste and regulate blood pressure. The liver filters the nutrients from the gut and stores glycogen for energy while also making bile and helping detoxify the body. The spleen helps filter blood as part of the immune system. The brain keeps it all up and running. The heart is the supreme pump station moving blood to all these areas. The lungs take in oxygen to be delivered to all these tissues as "payment" for doing their various functions.

To oversimplify, oxygen is the currency on which all the organs and tissues of the body get paid for staying on the job day in and day out. If there's a breach in this currency delivery system, called hypoxia, organs go on strike and walk off the job. Swiftly and permanently. Physiologic death occurs after about three minutes without oxygen payments being made.

It's for these reasons, when walking a blood trail or evaluating shot angle on a whitetail, I tend to be less concerned about blood loss and more about oxygen loss. Hypoxia is the mother force governing all tissue death. Blood loss doesn't kill our prey--oxygen loss does. Every single time.

The tired old debates regarding "best" broadheads and "best" cartridges still rage on in deer camps. Now they've moved on to social media, too. Folks bicker about the ethics of this or that.

We've all been in these discussions at one time or another. The topic has been covered ad nauseam, and I'm not that interested in getting in another discussion about expandable vs. fixed blades. You think those ancient Native American hunters ever sat around the campfire and argued over whose knapped flint heads were better? Maybe. I'm betting not. All those points did the same thing.

What matters most is shot placement. So let's examine a few scenarios with respect to the above-mentioned physiology.


An area of whitetail anatomy targeted by a large number of centerfire rifle hunters is the neck and high-shoulder area. A suitable bullet delivered to either area is usually fatal. However, such shots don't target the vasculature of the thorax; their intent is to disrupt the central nervous system.

When a bullet or slug strikes either the cervical or thoracic area of the spine, it usually drops the deer in its tracks. What makes the shot fatal is the hypoxia created when the nervous tissue controlling respiration is rendered inoperable. Within three to five minutes post-shot, the deer usually has expired.

The drawback to targeting the central nervous system in these areas lies in the fact that the hunter is indirectly targeting only one of our two master forces. Although ventilation stops, vascular tissue could be spared, leaving perfusion to continue for a brief time.

Knowing one's firearm seems key. I personally wouldn't attempt this type of shot placement on a whitetail with a smaller cartridge such as .223 Rem. or .243 Win. at great distance. But larger cartridges such as the classic .30-06 Springfield, .308 Win. and 7mm Rem. Mag. carry enough energy to cleanly make these types of shots if delivered accurately.

That said, I can't speak from a ton of personal experience with centerfires. In my home state of Illinois, shotgun slugs and muzzleloaders are the norm, and they seem to carry enough energy for these shots. Two of my largest muzzleloader bucks both met their fate from quartering-to neck shots inside 75 yards with quality 300-grain bullets. Both deer dropped instantly and expired swiftly.


I lump these two shot angles together here because, in the interest of tissue type targeted, they're essentially the same. The common broadside "12 ring" lies a pinch behind the forelimb in the lower half of the thorax. Some hunters refer to this area on a deer as the "Golden Triangle."

A well-placed projectile hitting here usually proves fatal to the animal inside 100-150 yards. With respect to archery tackle, this shot provides lethality because it's targeting both our master forces. A complete pass-through in this region of the body creates a pneumothorax, a condition wherein atmospheric air sucks into the chest cavity and deflates both lungs. The inability to inflate both lungs creates a catastrophic halt to ventilation.

Likewise, the heart and "great vessels" of the thorax can be encountered here. Sever the heart, aorta, pulmonary artery and/or superior/inferior vena cava and a catastrophic halt to tissue perfusion is soon to follow. Our two master forces are simultaneously debilitated with shot placement in this region, and total body hypoxia comes quickly and efficiently. Hit here, even the largest-bodied buck will have seen his last day.

But targeting the thorax isn't without its potential for hiccups. Impartial penetration of the arrow and broadhead can lead to one-lung hits--and big bucks can run a long way on one lung. They can and will survive if the heart and thoracic vessels aren't damaged.

For this reason, I prefer a heavier finished arrow weight of around 600 grains, topped with a simply designed fixed-blade broadhead. I feel this combo gives my arrow momentum transfer and energy retention sufficient to ensure a complete pass-through on the large-bodied, heavily muscled mature bucks I target here in the Midwest.


Although not ideal, mid-body hits on a deer quartering toward the hunter can bring home the venison. But with respect to ventilation and perfusion, these shots can be exceedingly variable in their results.

Projectiles striking the liver and spleen will likely be mortal wounds--but if the hepatic artery, portal vein, vena cava or splenic artery isn't severed, liver and splenic tissue can be a slow bleed. Ventilation continues with undamaged or only partially damaged lungs, and perfusion slowly drops to a shock state.

If a hit through only one lung and the liver is suspected, the same result can occur. However, it will leave a tricky blood trail to follow, in what I refer to as a "dual-cavity" wound channel. Quartering-to shot angles are notorious for dual-cavity wound channels.

Ventilation and perfusion can be mismatched well enough to cause eventual circulatory collapse. But having a wound track through one lung, the diaphragm and the liver often means a tricky tracking job. Blood will pool up in the chest, and the exit in the abdomen can become clogged with fat or omentum from the guts, leaving a variable and spotty blood trail.

The name of the game in these less-than-ideal scenarios, be they with a gun or with a bow? Time. These deer need plenty of time to expire. Most experienced hunters recommend four hours for these cases. If possible, I try to err on the side of caution and take up the trail 8-12 hours after the shot; the needed hypoxia to kill the deer can be so slow and variable. With such hits, patience is paramount.


A whitetail facing the hunter is a tough shot angle from a tree stand and is classically considered a poor choice for an elevated angle. But what about from the ground?

I find head-on shots with a firearm on level ground ethical and highly effective. I just imagine the rib cage to be an upright hula hoop. A well-designed, well-placed centerfire or muzzleloader bullet or slug dead center in the hoop crushes the lungs and can encounter the heart and thoracic vessels nicely. Ventilation and perfusion crash quickly.

At close range, the right archer also can make this shot--but I don't advise it. Even the fastest arrows are slow compared to the slowest bullets or slugs. The deer could spin or pivot before impact, leaving this shot angle to produce nothing more than a nasty wound.

One also loses the likelihood of creating that preferred double-lung-collapsing pneumothorax, as in broadside shots. Also, ventilation here can continue. Likewise, penetration can be an issue, given the thick brisket of a mature buck. So I typically limit head-on shots to when I'm at ground level, and only with a firearm on a solid rest.


Fifteen years and several whitetail stand sits after finding that first flint point, I feel comfortable in answering my own questions from that October evening.

There's indeed one facet about deer hunting that remains unaltered by the hands of both time and technology. This topic might not be pretty to talk or write about. It might lead to verbal debate between fellow hunters or cause infighting on social media. But the fact is, the whitetail our ancient ancestors killed for sustenance died the exact same physiologic death as the regal bucks that grace the pages of this publication.

Past or present, the causes of deer death remain completely unchanged, no matter what our projectile or weapon of choice. This process defines our success in the deer woods, or lack of it. It requires our attention and careful study of the anatomy of the deer body. And it demands our utmost respect.

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Author:McCoy, Clint A.
Publication:North American Whitetail
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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