Elk are big, tough animals. Even with well-executed shots, tracking is an essential skill to ensure recovery. Understanding elk anatomy will help you before the shot, and it will help you analyze the hit – and the ensuing tracking job – after the shot.
Obviously, the main goal is to get an arrow or a bullet solidly into the vitals. Rifle hunters often have a larger margin for error, as the shock caused by high-powered rifles can drop an elk in its tracks, sometimes even if that shot is outside the normal “kill zone” (think neck shots or shoulder shots). An arrow in the neck or the shoulder, however, isn’t usually going to bring fatal results.
Breaking Down Areas of Impact
The body cavity of an elk can be broken down into two segments – the thoracic cavity (in front of the diaphragm) and the abdominal cavity (behind the diaphragm). The diaphragm is simply a sheet of muscle that separates the two cavities. The thoracic cavity contains the “vitals” – the heart and lungs – as well as several arteries that supply blood to the heart from the rest of the body. This is where you want an arrow or bullet to hit for a fast, clean kill.
The back cavity (abdominal) contains the stomach and intestines, and is commonly referred to as the “guts”. An arrow or bullet here will almost always result in fatality, but death can be slow and the bloodtrail minimal, making the chances of recovery poor.
To help illustrate this discussion, I recently spent a day at a wild game processor, completely dissecting an elk carcass. Actual measurements, weights, and images were taken in an attempt to provide factual representations of elk anatomy.
The thoracic cavity (vitals) of an elk is housed inside the protective ribcage. Additionally, the front portion of the vitals is also protected by a large leg bone and scapula (shoulder blade) on each side.
Looking from the broadside view, the heart is tucked just above the front leg bone, and sits in the middle of the lower third of the thoracic cavity. The lungs extend from the rear edge of the diaphragm forward to just in front of the leg bone and shoulder blade. A bullet or an arrow typically has no problem penetrating through the hide and the rib bones on a broadside shot to get inside the thoracic cavity.
However, an arrow typically won’t penetrate through the leg bone or thicker parts of the shoulder blade, so understanding where the bone structure lies is very important. Typically, an arrow placed inside the thoracic cavity will provide fatal results, but there are a few locations within this area to keep in mind.
First, there is an area high in the thoracic cavity where it’s possible to slide an arrow through without actually impacting vitals. Many hunters refer to this as the “void”, and while it oftentimes looks like a solid hit, it’s possible to miss vitals completely. This is due to the structure of the vertebrae in this area.
The actual spinal cord of an elk is housed within the vertebral foramen of the “backbone”. This is the main opening in the vertebrae. In the area above the thoracic cavity, this opening where the spinal cord lies is actually located around 6” below the top of the elk – not right at the top of the back as you might think. The area above the vertebral foramen/spinal cord in this area is made up of bones that extend upward off the vertebrae, known as the spinous process. There are no vitals in this area.
A shot in this area can be enough to knock an elk down, but it won’t usually keep it down or be fatal. It’s also possible to slide a bullet or an arrow between spinous processes and get nothing more than a simple flesh wound and no blood.
Another consideration is that the lungs don’t completely fill up the inside of the ribcage. There are areas in front of the diaphragm, within the ribcage, where an arrow or bullet can also slide through and miss the vitals.
The area just under the vertebrae in the very top portion of the thoracic cavity is supported and protected by a layer of muscle. This provides a small buffer between the top of the lungs and the bottom of the vertebrae. Within this area, the only thing that really has a chance of bringing an elk down is a direct hit to the vertebrae/spinal cord. A bullet or an arrow anywhere else within 9” or so from the top of the back can slide through without fatal effects.
Within the thoracic cavity, one of the largest protective obstacles that archery hunters need to consider is the scapula. A good portion of the top part of the lungs is actually covered by it. It’s possible with the right setup to penetrate the scapula, but it isn’t something to count on. Regardless of your bow/arrow setup, an archery hunter will want to recognize where the scapula lies and avoid it.
Another area that can provide a “great-looking” hit, but a long tracking job, is right behind the heart. It’s possible to hit this spot, yet only catch one lung or miss the lungs completely. In fact, a shot in this area can leave you feeling like you hit exactly where you were aiming, yet not recover the elk.
On the lower section of the thoracic cavity is a section of muscle known as the brisket. A low shot here will generally produce a large amount of “muscle blood” initially, but the bloodtrail will often become nonexistent soon after. Although the initial bloodtrail will lead you to believe that you should find the elk lying dead just ahead, the blood loss usually isn’t enough to be fatal.
The Abdominal Cavity
Behind the thoracic cavity lies the abdominal cavity – intestines; stomach; guts. A shot here typically produces a long, difficult tracking job. It will likely be fatal, but the bloodtrail can be minimal and the amount of time needed for the elk to expire can be hours or even days. There is a large amount of protective fat and tissue surrounding the abdominal cavity, which can act as a seal to keep blood from being exposed externally. This can mean little or no blood to follow.
I’ve personally seen an elk that was shot here still on its feet and moving a full 36 hours after the shot. Persistence and patience led to the recovery of that elk just a few hours later, but there were fewer than ten drops of blood to follow during the final eight hours of tracking. Again, a shot in this area will almost always end in death, but an elk can stay on its feet and cover a lot of country – especially if bumped soon after the shot. With minimal or no blood, this can often lead to a failed recovery of that elk.
Neck and Legs
There are two additional important areas. The first area is the appendages – the front and rear legs. The second area is the neck.
A shot in the front leg structure (shoulder blade, humerus, radius) is typically non-fatal. Archery hunters definitely want to avoid hitting in this area. With a rifle, the shock from a shot to this area, combined with the resulting damage to the adjacent vitals, is typically enough to put the elk down for good. At a minimum, it will usually result in a broken front leg/shoulder that can drop the elk and provide an opportunity for a follow-up shot if needed.
The upper portion of the back leg contains a large amount of muscle. A shot in this area will typically produce a decent amount of muscle blood, but without getting into the abdominal cavity, the chances of recovery are very low – with one exception. The femoral artery runs from the backbone down along the inside of the back legs. If you happen to get lucky and sever the femoral artery, the tracking job will typically be very short. This isn’t a shot you’d ever want to aim for, but I’ve seen things go really bad in a shot and turn out really good thanks to the femoral artery.
The last area to understand is the neck. Rifle hunters will sometimes aim here to avoid the potential meat loss that can occur from a shoulder/thoracic cavity shot. The shock from a 180-grain bullet hitting solidly in the neck can be enough to drop an elk in its tracks. However, the primary source of fatality for archery hunters is severe blood loss, and with a broadside shot, the neck is not a good bet for achieving this.
It’s worth noting, though, that the carotid arteries and the jugular veins run from the heart up along the spine through the neck. The carotid arteries are responsible for providing blood to the neck and head (brain), while the jugular veins circulate blood back to the heart. The severing of these arteries and veins will produce massive blood loss and quick death. Hitting these circulatory pathways from a broadside shot would be incredibly challenging, so it isn’t ever a good shot to take. However, this info will come in handy as we discuss shot angles, particularly the frontal shot.
With knowledge of anatomy, you can start to see where a bullet or arrow needs to hit in order to produce best results. You can also see that there are areas within the standard vital cavities that might just miss the vitals. It’s worth pointing out again that a bullet’s primary cause of death is by shock, while a broadhead-tipped arrow causes massive blood loss leading to death. This distinction is important, as a good shot angle for a rifle hunter is often not a good shot angle for an archer.
Shot angles, especially for archers, can spawn very heated debates. I’m not here to debate, but rather to educate. The choice to take certain shots will always remain the decision of the hunter. Being educated on different shots, as well as confident in your abilities to make certain shots, is always the responsibility of each individual hunter.
A broadside shot is the ideal shot. It provides the largest target, and therefore, the greatest margin for error. A well-placed double-lung shot will usually provide an obvious and short blood trail. The ideal place to aim on a broadside shot is center of the body (vertically), and in the “crease” that runs vertically behind the front leg. A shot in this location will put you right in the center of the lungs and provide the largest margin for error if you miss your mark.
As mentioned, I’ve found that shots that hit slightly low and back, even if they clip the lungs, can lead to a longer tracking job than those that hit right in the center, or even slightly higher, in the lungs.
When I started hunting, I was taught to aim 1/3 of the way up the body, right in the crease. The problem with using that as an aiming point is it removes much of the margin for error if I happen to shoot a little low or too far back. By aiming at the midway point between the brisket and the back – still along the crease – you now have a solid 4-6” in each direction to err and still get a solid, fatal hit.
As mentioned, a shot that is too high in the thoracic cavity on a broadside shot can often result in a non-fatal wound. The infamous “dead zone” or “void” includes the spinous process area above the spinal cord as well as a small area below the vertebrae and above the lungs. An arrow in this region often provides a very sparse bloodtrail and typically results in a non-lethal outcome.
Conversely, a low (brisket) shot on a broadside elk can provide an incredible bloodtrail for a short distance. Shots that are too low to catch the vitals will often sever many of the veins and capillaries that feed the blood-rich muscles of the brisket. Unfortunately, as massive as the bloodtrail may be for the first 200 yards, it usually isn’t enough to be lethal.
When it comes to a broadside shot, it’s important to understand the size of the target. The average height of the chest cavity on a bull elk is around 24” (excluding the hide). When you remove the non-lethal upper section of the thoracic cavity and the brisket muscle below, you’re left with an average height of 12-14” of vitals. While a broadside shot provides the largest vital area to shoot at, the shot needs to be placed behind the leg/shoulder bones and in front of the diaphragm.
The width of this vital area on an average-sized elk is also around 12-14”. A shot in the bone structure of the front leg can be lethal for a rifle hunter, but a large amount of meat will be wasted due to the damage caused by the expanding bullet. For rifle and archery hunters alike, it’s best to avoid the leg structure covering the thoracic cavity. It’s also best to avoid hitting behind the diaphragm in the abdominal cavity.
As an elk turns away from the broadside perspective, the primary vital area within the thoracic cavity is still very much exposed. It’s important, however, to visualize where the vitals actually sit inside the cavity, and not focus on the location of the “vital ring” that can be found on a 2D or 3D target.
As an elk shifts its perspective, the point of impact for the shot will also move. For a quartering-away shot, the spot to aim for is no longer tight against the “crease”. Your aiming point will shift back closer to the diaphragm in order to keep your arrow or bullet aligned with the center of the vitals. The more the elk is angled away from you, the farther back you’ll need to aim.
While many hunters tout the quartering-away shot as an ideal shot, there are a few points to consider, especially for an archery hunter. First, an arrow will often hit the offside shoulder/leg bone. This means the arrow won’t likely pass through (no exit hole), and provides only one wound for blood loss (entry hole). For a rifle hunter, a quartering-away shot can increase the chances of losing meat due to damage in the offside shoulder.
Additionally, if the shot enters behind the diaphragm, as is the case with most quartering-away shots, the fat that surrounds the abdominal cavity will often seal the entry wound and produce a limited bloodtrail, especially if the shot doesn’t produce an exit hole.
Lastly, depending on the severity of the angle, it’s possible for a quartering-away shot to hit just one lung, which can greatly increase the time it takes for the elk to expire, and greatly decrease the odds of recovering that animal.
The size of the vital area doesn’t change vertically with a quartering-away shot, but horizontally, the size of the target gets smaller. The sharper the angle of the elk, the narrower the target.
I won’t get into the ethical debate that exists among archers regarding a frontal shot, but I will state that there is a massive amount of blood that is circulated between an elk’s heart and brain. A well-placed frontal shot will sever multiple arteries and veins and provide a blood trail Ray Charles could follow. Before you decide to take a frontal shot though, it’s important to know the size of your target, what you’re aiming for, and what obstacles stand in your way.
First, visualize where you want to aim on a broadside elk (midway up the body vertically). Then, slide that point of impact around to the front of the elk. Many people suggest aiming for the area where the lighter brown hair transitions to the dark mane of the neck. That area is typically really close to the “bump” on the front of the elk that identifies the sternum. That’s too low, especially for an archery hunter. An arrow shot here has a high chance of glancing off the sternum and sliding between the rib cage and the leg/shoulder bone, never penetrating the chest cavity.
Ideally, if you’re taking a frontal shot, you’ll want to hit the thoracic opening. This is the unobstructed opening that leads into the thoracic cavity. An arrow that penetrates this opening will often sever the carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain as well as the jugular veins that transport that blood back to the heart.
Additionally, the arrow will continue through the opening and take out the lungs. Depending on penetration, it can also take out the organs inside the abdominal cavity.
The thoracic opening begins just above the sternum, which is the point where the front ribs come together. The sternum is made up of bones and cartilage, and is not an ideal place to aim or to hit. The sternum can often be readily identified as the “lump” on the front of the elk’s chest, and represents the very bottom of the thoracic opening. From the sternum, the thoracic opening extends upward around 8” on an average bull elk. The width of the thoracic opening is approximately 6”.
I do want to point out that the vital area on a frontal shot isn’t limited solely to just the thoracic opening. However, if the elk is straight on and your arrow hits too far left or right, especially if you also hit low, the arrow will likely slide between the rib cage and the leg bone, and never enter the body cavity. Additionally, if you hit squarely on the sternum, there is a substantial mass of bone and cartilage at that point that will prove difficult for an arrow to penetrate.
At a slightly quartering-to angle, you do gain a little on the horizontal area you can aim at, as an arrow can easily break through and penetrate the small rib bones that surround the thoracic opening. The primary obstacle on this shot is the large humerus (leg) bones on either side of the rib cage.
Again, it’s critical to envision where the vitals lie inside the cavity, and adjust your point of impact accordingly. A sharp quartering-to shot is heavily protected by the leg and shoulder bone, and won’t leave much of a target at all. Shooting behind the shoulder in this case will often catch only one lung and pass through one side of the abdominal cavity. Neither are high-percentage shots.
This discussion of shot angles isn’t meant to encourage or discourage any particular shot. It’s simply meant to educate elk hunters on the obstacles that need to be considered, as well as the vital targets you’ll be shooting for. With this education, it becomes the responsibility of each hunter to determine their level of confidence on shot opportunities, and choose to only take shots that they know will provide a very high chance for a quick, clean kill.
NOTE: This article comes from an excerpt of one chapter of the 36-chapter University of Elk Hunting ONLINE COURSE. For more detailed info on elk and elk hunting aimed at increasing your elk hunting knowledge and success, visit www.elk101.com/onlinecourse/. Be sure to use code: ‘ElkHunter40’ to save $40 when you sign up.