Responsible hunting and “head shots” ?

The so called “headshot” by a hunter at a live animal will always be a controversial subject and many a debate developed around the campfire about the advantages/ disadvantages of this. The term “headshot” is by definition already a problem – to kill an animal successfully with the first shot, the animals’ brain should be damaged sufficiently. Reference should therefore be made to a “brain shot” to ensure that less experienced hunters understand the implications and risks of this shot.

Why don’t we talk about a “front quarters shot” when we refer to a heart/lung shot. Simply, because the bullet has to damage the specific organ/s (heart/lungs) of the animal sufficiently and the “front quarters” is not specific enough when successful shot placement is under discussion. Even the traditional “shoulder” shot is too vague a description.

An article in Magnum magazine of April 2008 (The Head Shot – A No-Brainer) describes a shot at a kudu bull at short range, at dusk in typical bushveld terrain where the 270 grain bullet from a 375 H & H Magnum rifle was placed centrally between the eyes of the animal. At the shot the animal collapsed, but when the hunter approached, the animal jumped up and ran away. With the approaching darkness the hunter could not find the kudu and the animal was tracked and killed the next morning. The bullet damaged both eyes and the bull was completely blind as a result. It lost a large amount of blood, but its’ brain was undamaged – with a 270 grain/ 375 H & H Magnum bullet! Imagine the animals’ suffering during those long hours between the first “wounding shot” and the final killing shot the next morning.

The Associations’ first responsibility is the education of our members and specifically the juniors to act responsibly when hunting – in this case when you shoot at an animal. A responsible hunters’ primary obligation is to kill his prey with the first shot as quickly and AS SURELY as possible. When in doubt, do not shoot! Shot placement consist of two elements, namely the theoretical or anatomical knowledge of where the animals’ vital areas (ex. heart/lungs) are situated and secondly the practical skills of the hunter to be able to place the bullet under hunting conditions (depending inter alia on the angle at which you are shooting at the animal) to reach the correct organ/s and damage it sufficiently, to kill the animal as quickly as possible. This imply the use of an appropriate bullet (weight and construction) for the specific caliber taking into consideration the size of the species involved to ensure sufficient bullet penetration to reach and damage the vital organs.

My own experience with this type of shot placement on the antelope species, regardless of their size, if carried out successfully, is the death of the animal within 10 to 20 seconds, after the first shot.

The following quote from the SA Hunters- and Game Conservation Association’s Code of conduct should serve as a guideline:

  • “Hunt with compassion and to utilize from nature with utmost discretion;
  • Employ my firearms with skill and consideration, and with understanding for the value of life”;

The privilege and attendant obligation to take the life of an animal cleanly and surely under hunting conditions, should be taken very seriously by every responsible hunter.

There is a vast difference between culling operations and hunting! During culling operations the aim is to shoot fairly large numbers of animals under controlled conditions by marksmen with specialized equipment who do this frequently enough to know their limitations. The market requirements for clean (no body shots) carcasses necessitate brain shot animals. The shooting position will usually be from a vehicle with some sort of dead rest. Please do not ever confuse this type of harvesting of animals with hunting by the average hunter. A person culling animals in this way is not hunting, he is busy with a commercial operation! A hunter hunts because it is a passion and because of his love for the outdoors, where the number of animals hunted is not important. For a hunter the way in which the hunt was conducted, should be the main criteria and the SAHGCA Code of Conduct should be the yardstick. Most of the Associations’ members should avoid the brain shot like the plaque under hunting conditions, the target is simply too small, too mobile and the risk of a terrible wound to the animal, too high.

An excellent article by Gawie Hattingh – “Langafstand - Springbokskiet” appeared in the SA Hunter of October 2006. In this article certain elements of “long distance shooting” are explained in detail by considering the accuracy of the rifle and ammunition, the effect of distance (including an error in range estimation), and the effect of windy conditions on accurate shot placement. In this article a comparison is made between a rifle able to group 5 shots in 30mm or less at 100m with a second rifle able to group 5 shots in 15mm or less at 100m. The final recommendation is that even with a (extremely accurate rifle) rifle able to group 5 shots, in 15mm or less at 100m, brain shots at springbuck should be limited to 200m.

For this model, a light wind speed of 5 km/h was taken into consideration. When the wind speed increase, the practical shooting distance decreases significantly. On the plains where springbuck and blesbuck are traditionally shot, windy conditions are a problem, more often than not!

Members of the SAHGCA that participates in the plains shooting exercise on a springbuck target on the shooting range, know how difficult it is, to place a well placed heart/lung shot at 200 and 300m distances. On the shooting range you have relatively ideal conditions – known distances, wind flags available at 100 meter intervals, a stationary target, an ideal shooting position and virtually unlimited time to fire the shot.

A unsuccessful shot at the brain of an animal that do hit the nose or larynx (gorrel) might for example go unnoticed – it is accepted as a miss! and the animal will die a very ugly and painful death from infection, blood loss, thirst and starvation. The hunter with the necessary confidence to attempt a brain shot, do have a very specific obligation to ensure that the shot was actually a complete miss! Follow up and ensure that you did not hit any other part of the animal. If you were confident that you can hit the pomelo sized brain of for example a blue wildebeest , why do you assume that you missed the much larger head of the animal completely?

It is never a good idea to take a shot at an animal too late in the day – with approaching dusk and darkness. As with the example above of the kudu bull, it is especially risky to attempt a brain shot with dusk approaching. With an attempt at a brain shot under these conditions, even if a wounding shot is declared by the shooter, with the approaching darkness, the animal may not be found before nightfall and best case scenario, left to be found and killed the next day!

Another consideration when attempting to shoot an animal in the brain by hunters, under normal hunting conditions (not culling), is the type of terrain. When hunting in open plains or savannah type terrain, a wounded animal can usually be seen and followed with a vehicle, if necessary, and killed quickly. When hunting on foot in bushveld or mountainous terrain, a wounded animal is immeasurably more difficult to track, locate and kill humanely. Too often under these conditions, a wounded animal are found a day or a few days later – already dead, or in a weakened state. Sometimes the hunter already left the farm and paid for an animal that could not be found in time. In spite of the hunter paying for the “lost” animal, the farmer will still be unhappy about the unnecessary suffering of the animal.

A DVD on “Shot Placement” is available at the Hunters’ Shop at the national offices of the Association, produced and approved by the Association. This DVD (at R100-00) illustrates responsible shot placement and in the footage the risks of “brain shots” are explained and shown in detail.

Enjoy your hunting - I trust that you will not have reason to regret a “headshot” that went wrong!

  • Last modified on Saturday, 25 April 2015 17:43
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Andre van der Merwe

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