After chasing bugles for days through high timber, your glassing finally pays off: it's time to make the stalk. Adrenaline floods your body as you creep forward, aware that tunnel vision and the thrill of the chase can sometimes eclipse the critical details. You think you're ready after daily practice during the offseason, but even those seasoned in the sport will be the first to tell you that a perfect shot isn't gifted by luck; it's an enigma that demands to be cracked.
It's about deciphering the animal, interpreting the wilderness, evaluating your angle and delivering a shot that's as swift as it is clean.
The precision of your shot does more than secure bragging rights or a trophy. It's a silent salute to the elk, a symbol of respect and ethical hunting that also rewards you with top-quality meat. Mastering this precision draws the line between the greenhorns and the old hands out in the field.
But how do you take this theory and apply it in the backcountry where unpredictability rules? For hunters, interpreting the art and science behind elk hunting is part of the appeal.
Understanding the subtleties of elk hunting can initially seem complex and challenging. For beginners, it can feel daunting; however, with the right information, the mystery of shot placement can be revealed and learned to make your next elk hunt a success. Think of this guide as your practical manual to shot placement on elk.
We'll help you navigate the ins and outs of elk shot placement from every conceivable angle you'll face in the field. You'll not only learn where to aim, but why that spot matters, giving you a true understanding that will soon become second nature. We'll map out the details of elk anatomy and the factors influencing your shot as well as the common errors to avoid and how to avoid them.
So get ready to transform from an elk newbie to a master elk tactician. The knowledge you'll gain here could shape your next hunt into your best one yet.
Elk Anatomy: The Hunter's Blueprint for Success
Elk are designed to endure. Their sturdy bones and well-protected vital organs help them withstand harsh environments and evade predators. Their build mirrors their strength and instinct for survival.
But don't let their undeniably colossal size fool you into thinking this makes them an easy target.
The thick hide and strong bones offset any perceived advantages their size may imply.
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What's the Best Shot Placement on Elk?
A precise shot through an elk’s lungs, heart or both is the best shot placement. An elk’s heart is flanked by large lungs; striking either yields a quick and more humane death. The lungs are preferred since they’re significantly larger, easier to reach and cause a quicker death than a shot to the heart.
New hunters often assume a fatal shot is always the best shot, but many hunters say this is wildly incorrect.
The best shot placement is more complex than life or death. There are other factors of equal importance at play.
The best shots create instant, fatal damage that reduces the time between shot impact and the animal's death.
As an elk hunter, your goal is to take down an elk, but your responsibility is to do this without creating prolonged suffering for the animal. They are two sides of the same coin of respect.
That's why another factor to account for is one that sets you up for the highest probability of success because the best shot placement also leaves the highest tolerance for error. This means essentially aiming for the largest target in the kill zone.
These combined factors are the real criteria for the best shot placement for elk hunting and, ultimately, this is why the lungs and heart should be your primary target.
A solid shot in either vital is fatal. It's fast. It's harder to fail.
Critical Targets: The Heart and Lungs of an Elk
As the crux of an elk's vital organs, the location of the lungs and heart is often referred to as the “boiler room,” which is a metaphorical nod to the parallel importance of an industrial boiler room on infrastructural function and operation.
Traditionally, a boiler room provides heat in buildings and provides heat that could also convert to power in vessels. In a roundabout way, the lungs and heart act as the source of “heat” or “power” throughout an elk's body.
And, just like the consequence of a boiler room breaking down in a scenario where people relied on it for heat and power, landing your arrow or bullet in an elk's “boiler room” can cause the entire system to immediately go offline.
In the elk's case, there's no coming back.
If you're hunting elk, you have multiple ways to get a fatal shot. Just look at the table above. However, our emphasis here is on reliability — the shot that ensures the highest probability of success.
The Double Lung Shot
A seasoned elk hunter knows that the double lung shot is the fastest way to take down an elk. It immediately deflates the elk's lungs, reducing their ability to evade. At the same time, it also cuts off the oxygen supply. Because the lungs cover two large areas on either side of an elk's body, your odds of missing decrease.
If you have an opening for a double lung shot, take it! This shot checks all the boxes for a precise, effective, quick and ethical kill.
Yes, a shot to the heart will get the job done, but the target is smaller and more difficult to reach. Tucked behind the front shoulder, towards the bottom of the body cavity and surrounded by the lungs on either side, it's a challenging shot.
It’s also a smaller target area where there's little room for error. The heart is hidden behind the front shoulder at the lower end of the body cavity and flanked by lungs. It's not impossible, but certainly more of a challenge than a lung shot, which makes a shot to the lungs the path of least resistance.
Whether you're using a firearm or bow, the lungs should be your primary target for shot placement on elk.
The Tissue, Muscle and Bones of an Elk
As titans of the wilderness, the only way for elk to support their size and weight is through a strong skeletal system reinforced by sturdy muscles and connective tissues in key places. Without this framework,they wouldn't make it very long (or very far) in the backcountry.
While we could dive deeply into what makes elk so unique with regard to their tissues, muscles and bones, we know that’s not what you’re after. Instead, we're going to highlight the most important ones that should be on your short list of elk anatomy to know.
The Shoulder and Scapula: The Powerhouses
The shoulder and scapula of an elk are a testament to nature's engineering skills. They withstand the challenges of the wilderness while simultaneously supporting the elk's immense size and weight.
An elk's scapula (shoulder blade) can vary significantly in thickness. On the low end, it can measure a mere 1/4 inch; however, on the high end, the scapula thickness can reach a hefty 2 1/2 inches!
And if you want to penetrate the prime vitals, the shoulder and scapula are what stand in the way of your arrow or bullet.
The Spine: Source of Strength and Flexibility
The spine of an elk is a marvel of strength and flexibility. Aside from supporting substantial weight, it's also the enabler of agile movement while also safeguarding its vital organs.
A shot to the spine can immobilize an elk, but it's a challenging target. It requires precision and understanding of the elk's anatomy.
While a clean shot to the spine can immobilize an elk, it's an extremely challenging target. As you can imagine, you'll need precision and a solid grasp of elk anatomy to pull this shot off.
The Rib Cage: The Protective Armor
You should consider the rib cage a significant obstacle. This network of bones is designed to protect the heart and lungs — and it does a damn good job at it!Still, a well-executed shot can penetrate this shield, but it's not going to happen without skill and knowledge of elk anatomy.
The ribcage is more than just a barrier for the tactical hunter; it's a roadmap to the vitals. Those who know this part of an elk's anatomy in fine detail can chase it with a precise shot when the angle demands it and, ultimately, succeed with their harvest.
Understanding Hunter Angles for Effective Elk Shot Placement
A successful hunt isn't solely dependent on squeezing a trigger or releasing an arrow; it's about understanding the variables that make each shot count.
Wind, elevation, distance and shooting position — these are the critical factors that will define your success in the wilderness.
Wind: Wind can turn a well-aimed shot into a miss. Understanding how it affects your arrow or bullet trajectory is key. Spend time practicing in different wind conditions to get a feel for how to adjust your aim.
Elevation: Elevation changes the game. Shooting uphill or downhill can significantly affect where your shot lands. Learn how to adjust your aim for elevation changes to ensure a clean, ethical kill.
Distance: The distance between you and your target is a crucial factor. Misjudging it can lead to a missed shot or worse — a wounded animal. Practice estimating distances in various terrains and weather conditions to improve your accuracy.
Shooting Position/Angle: Your shooting position and the angle at which you're shooting can make or break your hunt. This is where understanding hunter angles comes into play.
This section is dedicated almost entirely to the shooting position (angle). As the closest relative to shot placement, your ability to get in better position is directly related to your shot placement.
Broadside, quartering away, quartering towards, frontal — these are the angles you'll face when hunting for elk. Each angle poses unique challenges and offers distinct opportunities. We're going to dissect these angles thoroughly, providing a comprehensive guide to leave no stone unturned.
In the end, elk shot placement isn't just about where you stand — it's about how your position affects your shot placement. It's a test of geometry and physics played out in the rugged terrain of the backcountry.
Every hunter — from the seasoned veteran to the greenhorn — knows the gut-punch of a missed shot or, worse, a bad one.
For all the time we've spent on piercing the lungs, heart or striking the “boiler room” in this guide, you'll appreciate this angle.
Broadside shots are the bread and butter of elk hunting. They offer access to the largest target area and the highest probability of a clean, ethical kill. When an elk is standing broadside, you've got a clear shot for the heart and lungs.
Aim for the area just behind the shoulder, halfway up the body. This places your shot solidly in the lung area with the heart just below. If you're slightly off, you still have a good chance of hitting a vital organ. That's the power of aiming for the lungs and heart.
The ideal shot angle for broadside is perpendicular to the elk. This gives you the best chance of hitting the elk vitals without the arrow or bullet being deflected by bone.
It's worth noting that elk are rarely perfectly broadside, so you'll need to adjust your aim based on the angle of the elk.
Identifying landmarks on the elk's body can help ensure proper shot placement. The crease behind the shoulder is a good reference point for a broadside shot. Aim just behind this crease, halfway up the body.
Quartering Away Shot
The quartering away shot involves the hunter aiming at an elk that is positioned at an angle, facing away from the hunter.
This position exposes a large area of the elk's vitals with minimal resistance, which increases your odds of a deep, penetrating shot for a clean kill.
If the broadside shot is the staple of elk hunting, then the quartering away shot is the one that separates an average hunter from a tactical hunter.
This isn't an easy shot. It requires skill, patience and a high recall of elk anatomy. However, when executed correctly, it can be incredibly effective.
The angle of the elk in a quartering away shot significantly affects where you should aim. Just like the broadside position is rarely going to be perfectly perpendicular, there are many shades of the quartering away position, too.
As the angle of the elk away from the hunter increases, the margin between the back hip and front shoulder shrinks. This means that an extreme quartering away shot offers little room for error.
However, a slight quartering away angle will open up the vital area to the hunter, providing a better opportunity for a deep, penetrating shot. In other words: if the elk's quartering away stance is closer to a broadside position, you'll have easier access to the vital area.
When the angle presents itself, imagine the path of the arrow or bullet through the elk.
You should aim to penetrate both lungs, minimizing the angle to ensure a good pass-through.
It may sound like some New Age practice, but it's actually more like swinging through the ball in golf. Visualizing the flight path of your shot is a powerful tactic for a successful double lung shot.
Understanding Elk Anatomy for the Quartering Away Shot
The skeletal structure of an elk — particularly the shoulder blade — is the biggest challenge in this shot.
Remember that an elk's scapula is robust and can be even 2 1/2 inches in thickness. That's thick enough to deflect an arrow or bullet with an unfavorable angle of impact. Yet another reason to know your elk anatomy.
Quartering away still opens the elk's vitals up, but it's a "game of inches" or, in this case, radians. A single degree of change in the elk’s angle can mean the difference between hitting the shoulder blade or the vital area.
So, what do you do with this information? Well, the point is that no matter what, you're going to need to break through varying thickness and density of a significant amount of matter to reach the lungs.
On a good day at a great angle, your arrow or bullet is going to need to break through thick skin, heavy muscles and potentially a 1-inch-to-2-inch scapula to reach the vital organs.
Practice this shot and learn your elk anatomy to find the sweet spot regardless of how the elk is angled.
Advantages of the Quartering Away Shot
Open Angle to the Vital Organs: For experienced hunters, this is a favorite angle thanks to the generous exposure to the vitals with minimal resistance. The only obstacle a precise shot by skilled hands could possibly encounter is the smaller ribs at the back end of the rib cage. For elk hunters who trust their capabilities, this is hardly a deterrent.
Usually Penetrates Into the Vitals: Piercing the vitals isn't typically an issue when quartering away. The distance your arrow or bullet needs to travel to reach the vitals is a manageable distance — usually between 12 to 18 inches for elk.
Higher Probability for a Double Lung Shot: You know why the double lung shot is important: it's fatal, quick and, therefore, the more humane kill. This angle will give you a great opportunity to thread both lungs.
Challenges of the Quartering Away Shot
Risk of Single Lung Hit: Aiming for a double lung shot might only hit one lung. An elk can cover a lot of ground before falling, making tracking hard. You might also hit one lung and the off-side shoulder, preventing a pass-through.
Potential for No Pass-Through: As the elk turns further away, the off-side shoulder could block your shot, preventing a pass-through. This situation needs a keen eye and a steady hand.
Possible Blocked Entry Hole: The quartering away shot can lead to a blocked entry hole if your shot lands behind the rib cage. A confusing and unreliable blood trail can make tracking difficult, especially if there is no exit hole.
Shrinking Target Area: As the elk angles further away, the space between the back hip and front shoulder narrows, shrinking your target area and increasing the chance of hitting non-vital areas. This situation is a test of your skill and patience, reminding us that each shot has significant implications for the animal and the hunting process.
The Quartering Towards Shot
Aptly named, the quartering towards shot is when the elk is facing slightly towards you. This angle isn't as common as the broadside or quartering away shots, but it does occur and knowing how to handle it can make the difference between a successful hunt and a missed opportunity.
The best angle for this shot is where the elk faces you, but is slightly to the side, showing you the pocket above the elbow.
Too much to the front and you risk hitting the sternum or shoulder blade. Too much to the side and you're better off waiting for a broadside shot.
Precision is the name of the game for any shot, but for this one in particular, your aim has to be extremely precise
The front leg and shoulder blade of the elk shield the vital organs, but there's a sweet spot above the elbow where the leg bone angles forward that leads directly to the heart and lungs of the big game animal.
This spot offers a clear path for your arrow or bullet, increasing your probability for a quality shot.
Identifying Landmarks for Proper Shot Placement
The most important landmark for this angle is the point of the elbow. Visualize a line from this point into the body of the elk.
Another useful landmark is the fur color change line that usually runs along the elk's belly and up the back of the front leg. Your target is where this line intersects with the line from the elbow.
Risks and Benefits to this Shot
Every angle and shot comes with its own set of risks and benefits. On the upside, nail your target (heart or lungs) and you'll have a quick and clean kill.
Because the angle provides such a direct path to the “boiler room,” good shot placement will cause rapid blood loss and a fast kill.
The risks are significant though.
The angle of the shot means that there's a higher chance of hitting bone, possibly deflecting your arrow or bullet and preventing it from reaching the vitals.
The leg and shoulder bones are also obstacles to consider.
The margin of error is much smaller compared to a broadside shot. So if you're presented with the opportunity for this shot, only do so if you're confident about hitting the pocket above the elbow.
Frontal shots, also known as straight-on shots, occur when the elk is facing directly towards the hunter.
This is the least common of all of the angles we've discussed and they often occur during calling scenarios when an elk approaches to investigate the source of sound.
These shots pose a unique challenge: you need a high degree of precision and knowledge of elk anatomy plus the ability to make good decisions quickly.
Anatomy for Frontal Shots
The anatomy of an elk from the front is robust with the vital organs — namely the heart and lungs — shielded by skin, heavy muscles, tendons and, potentially, also the scapula.
There's a small window to pull this off: 12 inches to be precise. Aim for the center of the animal's body cavity halfway up to ensure the projectile reaches the vital organs.
However, because this shot is so risky, anyone who dares to try needs meticulous precision. You’re aiming for the thoracic opening — a complex region encasing major arteries.
The target area is smaller than a broadside or quartering shot and less forgiving of errors.
Position your aim halfway up the body cavity between the heart and lungs. If your placement is too low or off-center, your arrow or bullet could deflect off the ribs, which is a quick way to land a non-lethal shot.
The Controversy Surrounding Frontal Shots
Frontal shots on elk are the subject of intense debate among hunters. While some attest to their effectiveness and the massive, immediate trauma they can inflict if well-placed, others deem them a low-percentage shot due to the smaller target area and the potential for deflection off the ribs.
The controversy also stems from the ethical considerations of ensuring a quick, humane kill.
Misjudging the distance or angle can result in a missed shot or, worse, a wounded elk.
It's a delicate, delicate balance between hunter and prey.
Ideal Conditions for a Frontal Shot
This shot operates a bit differently from the others because the conditions aren't as simple as the elk and the hunter being at the correct angle to take the shot.
The conditions also include the distance and a hunter's skill level — and confidence in that skill.
This shot isn't for the impatient, but if you can pick your moments correctly and wait for the conditions to become perfect, you have a chance at a successful harvest while decreasing the likelihood of injuring and losing the animal.
Aiming for a Frontal Shot
If the angle is too sharp, you risk hitting the leg bone and missing the vitals; too shallow and you might only hit one lung.
Landmarks are extremely helpful in this instance. Here are four to consider:
Aim for the area directly above the point of the elbow, avoiding the tough leg bone and shoulder blade.
Alternatively, aim for the center of the body cavity, halfway up, providing a 12" window to the vitals.
Avoid aiming too low or off-center as this could lead to deflection off the ribs and a non-lethal shot.
Avoid aiming at the transition of dark to light hair—this is where the sternum converges, and the leg bones are closer together.
7 Common Mistakes in Elk Shot Placement
Elk hunting is as much an art as it is a science and even the most experienced hunters can make a wrong move. Here are seven common mistakes made in elk shot placement as well as advice on how to avoid these blunders and up your game.
1. Ignoring the Wind
Wind is a sneaky player in elk hunting. Ignore it and you might find your scent carried straight to an elk's sharp nostrils, tipping them off to your presence.
Elk have a nose better than a bloodhound and can pick up your scent from a mile away.
To turn the tables, always keep an eye on the wind direction and thermals. Be mindful of how the landscape shapes wind patterns and remember that sunlight and shade can shift the direction of thermals.
2. Improper Setup for the Shot
Finding the right spot for your shot is a balancing act. A lot of hunters set up behind bushes or other obstacles, which might seem like a good idea, but it often costs them their shot.
Instead, look for spots that offer multiple shooting lanes and use cover to break up your silhouette from the back, not the front.
In other words: blend in, don't hide.
3. Not Practicing with Broadheads
Shooting with broadheads and field tips? Then you're practicing for two different experiences. Broadheads fly differently than field tips and, without practice, your shot placement could be way off when it matters most.
If you don't practice with broadheads, you might find your shot off-target when it counts.
Practice with broadheads at varying distances to understand their flight path. Keep in mind that different types of broadheads fly differently, so tailor your practice accordingly.
Elk calling is like playing a musical instrument; too much can turn into a racket.
Instead, consider using calls sparingly and at the right time. Over-calling can alert the elk to your presence and make them wary. Strategic calling, using calls sparingly and at the right time can be more effective in luring elk closer.
Get to know the different types of elk calls and when to use them. Bugles work great to challenge other bulls during the rut while cow calls can lure in bulls on the prowl for a mate. Try to avoid the temptation to overdo it.
5. Leaving the Area Too Soon
Patience is a virtue and can pay off when elk hunting. Leaving an area too quickly might result in missed opportunities.
Elk can cover a lot of ground, but they also have a home range that they tend to stick to.
Before you decide it's time to move on, look for elk sign like fresh tracks, droppings and rubs.
If you spot these, consider staying put and let the elk come to you.
6. Not Having Backup Plans
Elk hunting is unpredictable and having only one plan can leave you unprepared for the unexpected. Have multiple hunting strategies and locations to increase your chances of success.
To develop and implement backup plans, start by scouting multiple areas before the season starts. If you can’t go in person, e-scouting can be done from the comfort of your living room.
Look for signs of elk activity, such as tracks, droppings and rubs.
Also, consider the terrain and vegetation in each area.
Having a variety of areas to hunt can give you options if your first choice doesn't pan out.
7. Ignoring the Importance of Terrain
Ignoring the terrain is like missing half the story. If you don't understand the lay of the land, you might end up wasting energy and opportunities.
To use the terrain effectively during the hunt, start by studying topographic maps of your hunting area. Look for features that elk might use, such as water sources, feeding areas and bedding areas. Make sure to mark these relevant features on your maps app for access when in the field.
Also, consider how the terrain might affect your approach to these areas. For example, steep slopes can be challenging to navigate, but they can also offer good vantage points for spotting elk.
The Final Arrow: The Art and Science of Elk Shot Placement
The backcountry will test your skill, patience and wisdom. Each shot we take carries a responsibility: to the elk for a swift and humane end and to ourselves to uphold ethical hunting principles.
This guide has dissected elk shot placement from every angle. We've explored the elk's anatomy and discussed the specifics of broadside, quartering away, quartering towards and frontal shots.
While we hope it's been informative and answered any blind spots in your shot placement knowledge, we know that guides like this have real limitations. When you've got an elk in sight, you're not going to be scrolling through this article for specifics.
With this in mind, we know the real education starts with every shot you take. Each one is a learning experience. So go on, absorb all the information you can before your next elk hunt.