I’ve been airgun hunting for about four decades now, and over that time I’ve come across two topics that raise passions, divide hunting camps and lead to arguments between hunting buddies that go on ad infinatum – mainly what is the best hunting caliber and secondly what is the best shot placement, head or chest? The latter is the topic of my blog post this week.
I grew up hunting small game and big game with firearms, and even then I was always struck by a dichotomy; my hunting mentors, the gurus writing in the magazines, the conventional wisdom from the hunting community in general was that you never took a head shot on big game. They said your chances of wounding an animal was too great, that a fluffed shot could damage the animals jaw and sentence it to slow starvation, and that the only ethical shot was a heart lung placement. But then I’d read about elephant or buffalo taken with head shots, or hear about dangerous game taken with head shots when a quick kill was required. I accepted that these animals were bigger and the brain shot was a larger target than a deers brain, and the situation for the hunter was was more “do-or-die”. But I also knew from shooting a fair number of hogs in the head, a good brain shot dropped them dead …. and I’d never had a bad head shot on a pig (years later I did on a warthog, but that’s another story). I never shot a deer in the head because the guys I hunted with told me it was unethical…. real hunters never took a head shot on game….but pigs seemed to be alright as nobody really cared about them. So I kept head shooting the pork and asking myself; why should this be such a high percentage shot on hogs but not deer?
At the same time I was hunting small game, and here was the confusing thing; the same experts were telling me that for small game head shots were the mark of a true hunter. Dump a rabbit with a head shot and he didn’t run but drifted peacefully off to meet his ancestors, plus you wouldn’t damage any meat. but with my .22 rimfire they tended to go just as dead whether I hit them in the heart/lungs or right on the noggin.
The simple truth of my experience was that a well placed heart/lung shot killed game just as dead as a well placed head shot, and was equally effective (though the animal might make some ground before dropping). So I refrained from head shots on a deer and continued scalping the wild pigs with good results. Then I started hunting South Africa more, and kept using chest shots on plains game, I lost a couple animals but not many. Later I had a chance to go on a meat hunt with a family friend that wanted to thin out the springbok population on his property, and called in a few guys to shoot a great many buck for the meat truck that drove in to process the animals for market. The rule: only head shots, be fast, and no meat damage. in three hours fifty dead animals, none lost, and we walked away with not a wounded or suffering buck to be seen.
When I started airgun hunting and shooting with the Euro hunters, they made it clear the only clean way a rabbit, squirrel, magapie pigeon, dove,or crow could be killed is smacking them in the head. Sure a chest shot would work, but there would be lost animals and they would suffer needlessly. The same sentiment seemed to be building on this side of the pond as we started using airguns more for hunting. I saw a lot of guys posting they had a strong preference for head shots on small game and varmint, perhaps the bias was not so marked as in the UK, but it did seem to become the prevailing view. So the message coming across was; if you take a headshot on small game its a quick and humane kill, but you’ll loose animals with chest shots. But for big game a chest shot yields an effective and humane kill, but a headshot wounds and leads to needless suffering. That thinking just didn’t make sense to me. While I primarily use head shots more for rabbit, squirrels, prairie dogs and such smaller quarry, I don’t hesitate to use a heart/lung shot either. I have seen literally thousands of small game animals and varmints go down in flames with a pellet in the boiler room and have no doubt of the effectiveness.
Why do some argue that you should hunt small game with head shots, while the same guys will argue heart/lung only for big game? I think there are a few reasons for this; for guys that are more accustomed to firearms hunting than with airguns might consider that when you shoot big game with a centerfire (and to a lesser degree a muzzle loader) the hydrostatic shock imparted can drop an animal cleanly most of the time, and if not causes enough trauma and blood to be sprayed so that the spoor can be easily followed. Whereas a shot from even a very powerful big bore airgun is more like (though not analogues to) an arrow wound than a firearm, producing less of a blood trail. That’s why blood trails from an airgun shot deer are much more difficult to follow than those from a centerfire. On the other hand, when you shoot a rabbit or a squirrel with an airgun, a heart/lung shot more closely approximates the effect of a deer shot with a firearm; the ratio of projectile size to body mass and pass through of the pellet more closely resembles the deer/30-06 paradigm. But the amount of blood from chest shot small game is small and the distance which a wounded animal needs to travel to reach its burrow or tree is often short, which is why so many rabbit hunters in the UK (where rabbits live in warrens) prefer headshots for an immediate kill, fewer lost rabbits down the hole.
On small game I prefer a head shot because they’re more effective in anchoring the animal on the spot. But if I’m in an environment where I won’t loose my quarry if it runs a ways, like jackrabbits out in the desert, I don’t have any problems with a chest shot. The hunter has to look at the situation and choose the appropriate shot for themselves. When I’m shooting larger quarry with conventional caliber and power airguns,; raccoon, fox, groundhogs, I’ll usually stick with head shots. I’ve had these species carry lead a long distance, after what had looked like a picture perfect double lunger.
On coyote, I’ll take body shots with .30 calibers on up, but if using a .25 or .22 at close range have always been of the opinion that staying with head shots makes more sense. I am rethinking this though, because a good friend on mine (and one of the best coyote hunters around) called in a few dogs the other night and nailed two right between the eyes…..and they took of across a semi frozen swamp like they’d had a fire lit under them while. He was shooting his .25 caliber doing about 75 fpe, the third dog he hit from a little further away with a broadside and it dumped him. These types of experiences add gray to the black and white answers often given.
What about big game with an airgun? The conventional wisdom that you should never take a headshot on a deer or other big game, is in my opinion an outdated mode of thinking, or at least when it comes to airguns. Its like the other urban legend that a deer gun needs to produce 1000fpe to be effective, it may be an acceptable adage for firearms but doesn’t hold up in the context of airguns. Airguns are a closer range proposition than hunting with a centerfire and the accuracy tends to be very good; trying to hit a deer with a perfect brain using your favorite centerfire at 200 yards is a different matter than dropping one down the ear of a doe at 70 yards with a .308 air rifle. What about the idea that you’re likely to wound a deer, hitting it in the jaw so that it will slowly starved to death? Of course this is a worst case scenario for any hunter, but I’d say that your just as likely (or more so) to wound a deer with a bad chest shot….. there are more areas adjacent to the heart/lungs of an animal with a missed heart shot… that would be a clean miss with a head shot. No,, my reasons for still using a chest shot are different; headshots can be harder to get if the animal is not perfectly still, old habbits die hard and many years of firearms and the conventional wisdom around them have conditioned me, and if I want to mount the animal I don’t want to mangle the cape or the rack. When hunting with my centerfires and slug guns I stay with chest shots; taking an animal with a firearm is easier in almost every respect than with an airgun. There is such an excess of killing power available with most centerfires that you can get away with a less optimal chest shot than you can with an airgun.
So my opinion is …… it doesn’t really matter if you take a head shot or a chest shot as long as it’s a good shot with respect to the ability to kill your game, that means hitting the brain or hitting the heart.
But the decision as to which shot to take resides with the hunter, in the field, at that moment when the trigger is pulled. Think about your probability of making the shot, how far the animal might go if he doesn’t drop immediately, the environment and tracking conditions, and the likelihood of recovering your game. Your experience over time will lead you to your own guidelines on what works and what doesn’t …… my message is that whether you prefer head shots or chest shots…. you’re right. I think either is a valid shot on big game, small game, or anything in between, the more important factor is that you place the projectile exactly where it needs to be.