Monday, October 19, 2009

The 'Texas' Heart Shot

I don't know the history of why this particular shot is called the "Texas Heart Shot" and I'll apologize to all the fine Texans I know right out of the gate but then again- I didn't name it. After the well received responses to my "Hail Mary Shooting" article and some consideration of the factors of wounding game animals in the field I thought I would write again on the topic field shooting and the ethical hunter.

I'll refer the reader to an excellent essay on the subject by Gary Wolfe, entitled "When Not to Shoot" in which he organizes the primary reasons behind wounding loss to be distance, angle, movement, and haste. I'll not elaborate on any of the excellent points Mr. Wolfe makes but I'll keep his general outline in which I'm in agreement with. Mr. Wolfe was the ranch manager for over a decade on a large elk ranching operation and has had more experience retrieving wounded critters than most of us will even think about. During the last essay I think we pretty well covered the distance but today I want to talk about the angle and to a lesser degree, shot placement.

The famous (or infamous if you will) "Texas Heart Shot" is any shot taken from dead astern. Any of my readers who are even slightly familiar with quadruped anatomy will realize that this is a shot the places the bullet clearly away from the vitals but in a manner that will almost certainly mortally wound your animal. I became familiar with it not in my native Tennessee where I'd never heard of the practice but rather among hunters of the tiny Sitka Blacktail deer on the coastal islands of Alaska. Apparently the technique is to move through the thick brush in the hopes of spooking a deer into bolting and then snap shooting the fleeing creature in the rear end; hoping your bullet penetrates through to something that's quickly fatal. Hunters who pursue this shooting generally use a much tougher bullet or a much larger rifle than one would normally think appropriate for deer that barely break 100 pounds in weight in hopes of getting a complete shoot through the brisket. From an ethical shooting standpoint I have to shake my head as I'm sure the number of deer wounded in this manner has got to be quite high and the number of recoveries very low.

First of all, gut shot deer tend to bleed surprisingly little and the entry wound is not in a position to rub on brush and leave a good trail. Second, the thick coastal vegetation and constant rain would make following a good blood trail challenging and a faint one almost impossible. The position of the gut and its contents puts a lot of mass between the aft and the first vital component- the diaphragm and the heart/ lung cavity beyond. Consider a moose with the same placement- there could be 5 feet of water, vegetable mass and gut between the point of impact and the vitals. It would be like shooting something several feet under pond water- that's asking a lot from even a Superfloogunboomer. Bad show. In the words of Cooper in The Art of the Rifle- "'s impolite, tends to wreck the carcass and doesn't bring the game down."

But the Texas Heart Shot isn't the only less than idea shot you can be presented with. The dead forward or facing shot is almost as bad. The forward profile contains lots of space where a bullet can wreak havoc without an immediately fatal wound. The heart is a possibility as is the spine and you may get lucky and get a lung but facing is a poor way to make a shot. In a lot of animals I've seen recovered over the years, sometimes days afterward- this was frequently the wounding mechanism. A facing or a strongly quartering too position that certainly dropped the animal at the shot but they got up and ran vigorously afterward as nothing immediately fatal was hit.

The other shot I hear bandied about is the neck or head shot. This one is often declared the preferred shot by folks using undersized rifles and who profess to be such stylish shots that they can't possibly miss a vital point. A killing shot is possible in either the neck or head and I've seen it brought off a number of times. I've also seen it blown rather badly and the result is a horrible wound that a strong deer could live with for days. A moose has a brain that's roughly the size of a man's fist and its really a rather small organ when you consider the size of the creature's great head. A good friend of mine tried this on a moose this year and his .300 Winchester magnum failed to penetrate the brain from a mere sixty yards and expended its energy in the nasal cavity- that moose was recovered but only through fortune as the head shot didn't even take him off his feet. The spine in the neck is a similarly small point and its location in the neck isn't where you'd generally suppose and its surrounded by surprisingly robust tissue. Leave the head and neck shots to the sniper wannabes and gun shop commandos; the ethical hunter darn well knows better.

What are the preferred shots then? The broadside of course is a splendid shot. Where a moose's brain is the size of a fist; a good bull or adult cow's lungs are the size of a small block Chevrolet motor. Every single quadruped has a set of lungs that are at least an order of magnitude bigger than any other vital point in their body. On most animals a broadside shot with even a modest caliber rifle will involve both lungs since the bulk of the space is air and presents little in the way of resistance to the bullet. The heart is the largest in profile as well and lies generally between the lungs. So from broadside you will likely hit both lungs and lots of times the heart as well. You don't have to be a doctor to figure out that the damage is invariably fatal and the rapidity of death will surprise even some experienced hunters. Strongly possible shots are the quartering away and quartering too but be advised the more the angle deviates from 90 degrees the more uncomfortable the ethical hunter should become. The vital zone is best represented as a cylinder which you'll want to puncture from end to end. The broadside is often presented by fleeing animals after a few dozen yards as they have the fatal habit of turning to look and see if they're pursued, a patient hunter will often wait for his quarry to look back and then pull the trigger.

A lung shot is quickly fatal and in my experience a lot of animals such struck barely move from the spot they're shot at and often fall at the shot through some means I can't quite explain but high velocity rifles do so with more regularity in my experience. I believe it has something to do with rupturing blood vessels in the brain but its simply a theory. The animal may occasionally regain its feet but usually falls again quickly. Even a bolting animal generally piles up within just a few yards and expires. The lung shot also has the added bonus of bleeding the animal rather quickly into the lung cavity and that reduces meat loss, particularly in warmer weather.

I strongly advise all hunters to study up on the basic anatomy of their quarry, much the way a bowhunter would. There are several excellent references available both in the bookstore and on the web. In fact, I wish all rifle hunters would think more like a bowhunter in that the angle of the quarry is a very significant factor in good field shooting. While a lot of folks think the benefit of range practice would reduce game wounding (and I'm certain it would to a point) I think some basic knowledge of animal anatomy and wound mechanics would do even more so. The rifle is not a magic talisman that barks loudly and causes animals to fall (much to the chagrin of the ballistic marketeer). It is a basic instrument and its wound mechanics are rather straightforward, easy for any one to understand and vital for the ethical hunter to comprehend before going afield.

Good hunting friends!
About the Photos- this is a mature cow that hangs around the house sometimes. The first photo from aft, you'd be lucky to get a stout loaded .375 to penetrate that moose from that angle into the vitals. For reference- that is a 3/4 ton F250 in the background to give you some sense of scale. A few moments later the cow turned and slowly walked into the woodline- from profile just about any decent centerfire rifle would have completely penetrated the vitals and killed this cow within seconds.


Phillip Loughlin said...

Enjoyed this one too, although I didn't find myself agreeing with everything as heartily as I did the Hail Mary post.

Anyone who's read the hunting mags, or spent time around the campfire or woodstove knows that the debate about the neck shot has raved and raged and will still go on when you and I are hunting the highest of the high country. But I still contend that a competent (not expert) field marksman can make a clean neck shot as easily as he can hit the vitals. On most big game animals, that kill zone on the neck is almost as large as the traditional heart/lung area.

It requires understanding the way an animal is built (the spine does NOT run right along the top of the neck, folks), and the patience to wait until the presentation is right (broadside is much better than dead on or facing away).

Personally, it's my chosen shot under the right conditions. In anything less than an ideal situation, I'm looking for heart/lungs instead. And maybe that's the difference... knowing when it's "right" and when it's not. Or maybe you'll say (as others have) that I'm just fooling myself.

I don't like headshots under normal conditions, by the way. Way too much abrupt movement going on there, and way too much non-vital area that can result in an ugly, crippling wound (nasal cavity, jawbone, eye socket, etc.). I've heard a lot of guys swear by them, and seen a lot of quick, one-shot kills, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a risky shot that may well do the animal an extreme injustice.

As to the Texas Heart Shot, that's a meat-waster if there ever was one. It can certainly be quite deadly, as there are a handful of serious arteries running through that back end, but at best, you're gonna lose a hunk of ham... at worst, you'll blow out tenderloins and backstraps and spill guts, feces, and urine into everything that's left, and that's just a damned shameful thing to do.

Loving this topic, and looking forward to reading more!

hodgeman said...

Phillip, I debated a moment because I knew the neck shot piece would generate controversy, but I decided to discuss it anyway. I've made a decision to use it once on a deer at 40 yards. The deer was in brush and the neck and head was the only thing visible- it turned out well and the deer fell instantly. You're right- folks will argue this one until we're both hunting "over the mountain". I think guys that will take that shot will take it no matter what I say but I still can't say I prefer it to a proper lung shot.

I meant to make a stronger reference to folks using small caliber rifles- ie. the .223 and taking the neck shot because they think they lack the capacity to shoot for the lungs. Although a proper .223 SP in the lungs will kill a deer stone dead- its a trick I'd rather not contemplate.

Locally in Alaska- its common for folks to attempt neck shots using the .223 and FMJ ammunition. Although its legal, you can imagine how horrific that frequently turns out...

Holly Heyser said...

I can't believe anyone would use a Texas heart shot as a strategy - that's kinda sickening.

Thanks for this piece. I am extremely picky about my shots because I'm pretty new at this and I want the best possible odds, and pieces like this bolster my decision to be choosy.

Phillip Loughlin said...

Nothing wrong with bouncing around the thoughts. A little controversy keeps us on our toes... and if we don't all agree, at least it makes us examine our reasoning a little more closely.

Good stuff, mon frere!

mdmnm said...

I agree the Texas Heart Shot is wasteful and haven't ever attempted it for that reason. Seen it, though. The proper way to do it (say at the first photo, sans pickup and trailer) is to shoot the root of the tail, breaking up the back end of the spine. The animal can't go anywhere and a finisher is then made. Not a clean kill and ruining a lot of prime meat, but better than trying to drive through the gut to something vital.

As to neck shots, with calibers bigger than .223 the impact of the bullet seems to break the neck and/or damage some pretty important tissue. You're absolutely right about the debate and the risk of wounding. Like that deer you shot, in the right circumstance it can be really deadly. As for me, I haven't tried one (except as a follow-up once a bullet was through the ribcage) in a long time.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Very thought provoking, and very well written too

On a Wing and a Whim said...

I've heard the Texas Heart Shot mentioned before, in a tone of disgust akin to describing people who miss the toilet and don't clean up after. I didn't stop the conversation to ask what it was - and now that I know, the analogy still seems apt.

Thank you for the enlightenment!

LOBO said...

Great article you have there Hodgeman. I tend to read most but first time to comment since this involves my home state. I'm sure like many things it has alot of origin stories, but the only one I've ever heard down here is that it's based on the fact that most Texans are over gunned for just about everything we do and the fact that most Texans actually know how to shoot. From personal experience I've never met a fellow Texan in the woods that had anything lighter than a .308 on them during deer season. This and anything larger works more than well on the size of whitetails we have down here. So for the Texas heart shot, the key is a very powerful caliber, and of course marksmanship. Should it ever be a first or anything other than a last choice? No. Over my two decades of hunting I could count the number of times I've used this shot on less than two hands but I've never had it fail either. When I've used it I've gone for the high Texas heart shot, placed right at or an inch or two higher than the base of the tail. In all the cases except one, the bullet hit the spine dead on or went over the base of the tail and hit the spine farther up all the way to the back of the neck. Every time the animal never moved from where it stood. The one time this didn't happen, I was actually out after hog and was using a .375H&H, the bullet hit the base of the tail and traveled all the way through the deer and exited the lower chest. The deer was probably dead before he hit the ground. As for a low Texas heart shot where you're looking to 'anchor' the animal by breaking the pelvis, well I just don't see the point of anchoring when you can just kill. For the other 99% of my shots, I do neck shots and only neck shots. I'm not a fan of tracking and I've never had too with the neck shot. I never take anything less than a .30-06 in the field, and even when the bullet itself didn't penatrate the spine, the hydrostatic shot alone destroyed it. In a few cases I have used a heart/lung shot at animals over 400yds away, and it did work. However I almost feel if I'm taking a heart/lung shot, the animal might just be too far away to be shooting at in the first place. Although my hunting style tends to fly in the face of what you wrote, I advocate your point for the thousands of hunters out there that literally only take their gun to the range the week before deer season and who think if they can hit a pie plate at 100yds that it's good enough for a deer. Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Patrick said...

If you are the type of despicable idiot that would take a texas heart shot, you deserve to be shot yourself. Same goes for head and neck shots. There is no time when any of those shots are ethical. If the animal doesn't present a broadside you leave it alone.