Reading the Signs

Watching the deer’s reaction is key

Rudi van Kets presents the definitive guide to interpreting shot signs and animal behaviour when recovering quarry

Using the guide here, accompanied by the easy-reference table, we can interpret a variety of shot signs to better assess the significance of the hunter’s shot. We should start with the premise that the location of the shot, the bullet strike, and the impact site of the bullet will result in different reactions from the animal. The aim of the shot is to destroy the nervous system; this can lead to many diverse responses. We must also take into account the exact point of impact, the condition of the animal, and the type of bullet used. If we presume that we have used the right bullet then we will concentrate on the animals’ reactions – meaning the behaviour of the animal as it is shot. This behaviour and the nature of the bullet’s impact will be our starting points. From here, we can start the recovery.

The type of blood can tell you a lot about the shot

Shot reactions

Let’s start with the classic heart shot. In reaction to this, the animal will jump, collapse or run away. We can often differentiate between high and low heart shots; with a high heart shot the lungs will be hit and the search for the animal will be longer.

If the shot goes just behind the heart, there will be no clear signs – but if the bullet is further back, it’s a stomach shot. In this case, the animal will kick with its hind legs and retreat quickly into its wound bed. The liver will have been penetrated, and fatal blood loss will force the animal to cover.

If shot in the liver, the animal bends its back and runs a few hundred metres. By observing the flight we can see whether the animal is severely wounded.

A kidney shot causes one of the most distinctive: The animal will collapse and cry in pain, but will get up again. Observe carefully – the hind legs might be paralysed. If so, be patient – it will die in its wound bed within two to four hours.

Let’s move on to the less common (and less lethal) shot placements, typically only taking place in error. If a shot touches the spine, the animal will collapse, then kick with its legs, get up and run away. Try another shot, otherwise it will be very difficult to recover it.

If the bullet hits its leg, the animal will limp on the hit leg and run; in this case, all you are likely to find is bone fragments. The animal gets used to these wounds, so it will seldom go to a wound bed, meaning a difficult search lies ahead. If the legshot was particularly high, a vein may rupture, presenting more vivid red blood.

With no clear signs, the hardest shot to interpret is probably the jaw shot. Worse, it is very difficult to recover a jaw-shot deer. Additionally, the animal will suffer for days after being shot, before eventually dying of starvation. You will commonly find teeth, tongue, blood and whatever was in its mouth at the shot place.

If no vital parts are hit (a ‘meat shot’), the animal won’t show signs – it will simply run away. Blood will mostly be vivid red, which diminishes further along the track. This quarry is more recoverable in the winter.

Finally, a mere superficial wound – a bullet strike that causes shock, making the animal fall then run away. Blood loss can be heavy, but the animal won’t be mortally wounded.

Pay attention to surroundings. Not all strikes are obvious

Bear in mind that roe and red deer show clear shot signs, but wild boar less so. It is also important to remember: animals that have already been shot at will present fewer, less obvious signs, and a rutting deer will be similarly stoical, so watch closely. Behaviour will differ depending on the surrounding area and context, and whether the shot was from a high seat.

Shot Signs: Reference Guide

Heart or lung shot

Vertical jump, then the animal runs for up to 200 metres

Half-long hair found at shot place

Lung blood is vivid red and foaming

High heart shot

The animal either jumps vertically or collapses

Long hair at shot place

Lung blood is vivid red and foaming

Liver shot

The animal bends back then walks away slowly

Red-brown blood with small liver fragments

Wait for about two hours; the animal will die in wound bed

Kidney shot

The animal bends back and then goes into cover

Small amount of blood: dark to medium red

Half-long hair found at shot place

Blood mostly in droplets

Spine shot

Total collapse

Fatal shot

Stomach shot

Flees either quickly or slowly, depending on bullet placement

Small amount of blood: medium red with stomach content

Fatal but will still run a long way

Wait 4-5 hours before tracking

Gut shot

Kicks with hind legs, sometimes bends back

Medium red blood with gut content

Half-long hair found at shot place

Fatal if left alone; the animal will go into wound bed

Start tracking after 4-5 hours

Shot shocks top of spine

Falls on its back, waves its legs for a few seconds then runs away

Long hair at shot place

Little or no blood

Animal will seldom be recovered

Jaw shot

Few visible signs at first other than a shake of the head

Short hair and fragments of bone

Bright red blood with mouth mucus

Not immediately fatal. Animal must be recovered as otherwise it will starve slowly

Meat shot

Animal flees

Depending on location different sizes of hair

Medium red to bright red blood

Mostly the animal recovers if the shot is only a flesh wound

Leg shot

Animal will limp on the side of impact

Short hair, bone splinters found at shot place

The higher the shot, the greater the amount of medium-red blood

If both legs are broken the animal either remains still or moves with its hind legs

Animal can recover, not often fatal if only one leg injured

Superficial wound

Animal marks, then runs away

A lot of hair with occasional flesh found at shot place

Vivid red blood, more at the place of impact then less within a few metres

Not often fatal

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