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Shot placement buffalo and cattle

by Don and Ryan Caswell

Every hunter’s goal, and obligation, is for a swift, clean kill. Don and Ryan Caswell guide you through the subject.

Shot placement buffalo and cattleWhen you pull the trigger with a living creature in your sights, you have a moral and ethical obligation to ensure that death is swift and efficient.

Proficiency in the skills of bushcraft and hunting will get you close to your quarry. From there your shooting skills briefly take centre stage. To achieve a safe, quick kill the following is essential:

• The target animal is in a position that does not pose a risk to third parties, or objects, in the event of a missed or exiting shot

• The target animal presents an opportunity to deliver a fatal shot

• Your firearm and ammunition is of adequate calibre for the shot on offer

• You are capable of hitting the target area on your quarry

Being a safe, successful hunter with a well-deserved reputation for one-shot kills is a lot more about discipline than being a particularly good shot or having the latest big magnum in your hands. It is all about knowing where to aim and when not to shoot. There are three principal target zones on an animal that will deliver fast, humane death with good shot placement. These are the chest, the neck and the brain.

A high velocity projectile delivered to the brain will cause instant death. Likewise, a well-placed neck shot will sever the spine and/or the major blood vessels that supply the brain. The aim of the chest shot is to destroy the heart and cause rapid death through loss of blood flow to the brain and massive shock to animal.

Chest and head shot from front on

Chest and head shot from side on

Chest and head shot from the rear
The chest shot offers a bigger target than either the neck or brain shots and is the most common shot taken when hunting. The ideal target zone is essentially about a third of the distance up from the bottom of the chest directly between the front legs. A shot placed here will wreck the top of the heart where all the major blood vessels connect. It will also take out the lungs at the same time.

A hit that is a little off the exact centre of the target zone will still be very effective because the heart, its radiating blood vessels, and the lungs present a relatively large target zone. A shot that is high has a good chance of damaging the spine, which dips down surprising low in the body at that point.

A common mistake with inexperienced hunters taking side-on chest shots is a tendency to aim a bit too low and a little far back behind the shoulder.

In the following discussion, we draw some distinction between hunting and shooting, which is relevant to choice of calibre and shot placement. In our terms, hunting implies stalking through the bush on foot seeking to find and kill your quarry. Shooting implies taking your shot under much more steady and controlled conditions, such as spotlighting from a vehicle, and similar.

In hunting we would advocate carrying the most powerful calibre you are comfortable and proficient with. Projectiles would be slow-expanding and heavy for the calibre to ensure deep penetration. This is particularly the case with big-bodied creatures, such as wild cattle and buffalo. Remembering that we are on foot and mixing it with our quarry, we would suggest minimum calibres of .338 for buffalo and .308 for cattle.

Our choice of target zones for shot placement when hunting are limited to the heart and neck areas no matter what our quarry. We would not take a brain shot, no matter how tempting. This is because the brain is a small target. In cattle, and especially in buffalo, the brain is often masked by heavy bones or the horns. On top of that, wild animals approached on foot in daylight are often quite wary and prone to move their heads unexpectedly.

With a big-bodied animal angling away from the hunter, the chest shot is only viable with particularly heavy calibres that have the power to penetrate the significant mass that must be traversed to reach the vitals. If the firearm you are carrying cannot do that, then you must wait for a chance at the neck shot or resort to other tricks.

Wild cattle and buffalo that become suspicious, rather than downright alarmed, and start to move off can sometimes be tricked into turning around and approaching the hunter if a call is made. We discovered this many years ago by accident when, after some considerable time pursuing a wary and elusive buffalo, in frustration we gave our version of a deer roar and was pleasantly surprised to have the buffalo come back to investigate.

We have used that trick successfully many times since, especially with buffalo. Unkind hunting companions tell us our call resembles no known animal, save perhaps, a steer stuck in a high voltage electric fence. Anyway, we guess that proves there is nothing special about the call itself, so when you next have the opportunity take a deep breath, give out a lusty bellow and see for yourself what happens.

Shooting, rather than hunting, allows some reduction in choice of calibre but only when strict discipline is applied. For instance, if shooting undisturbed cattle from a solid rest over a short range with no intervening brush, then a .243 or maybe even one of the .224 centrefires can be used for brain shots. But only brain shots. Even at point-blank range we consider these calibres unsuitable for a chest shot (no correspondence please, disgruntled .243 owners). Obviously, and without wanting to enter an endless debate about specific calibres, bigger is better.

A picture is truly worth a thousand words and the accompanying illustrations clearly show the target zones on animals from typical orientations. Good hunting!