Of Vital Importance by Gregor Wood

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Of Vital Importance by Gregor Wood: The error is in the angles

Certain hunting-related subjects are so important they should be revisited periodically to cater for newcomers. Shot placement and terminal ballistics are cases in point. A single magazine article cannot fully cover all you need to know on animal physiology, bullet placement and bullet performance, but with the hunting season now upon us, some mention of the basics might help.  

Novice hunters naturally tend to become overexcited, especially if the situation requires that they shoot quickly. This is when they forget all about the vital organs and fran- tically aim for the general thorax area – or worse, simply for the animal. Others memorise the aiming points indicated by dots imposed on photos of animals, but fail to consider the angle at which the animal is standing. It is crucial that you picture the vital organs inside the animal, and aim precisely for those, not merely at the chest that contains them. 

Some favour head and neck shots as these kill instantly and waste no meat. Such are good for night culling with a spotlight which mesmerises the animal, but for hunting, they are the riskiest shots and the most commonly botched. The head and neck are the most mobile parts of the body; as you squeeze the trigger, the animal has only to raise, lower or turn its head slightly and you’ll likely wound it. An average-sized antelope’s brain is not much bigger than a golf ball. Miss this and you’ll likely break the jaw or blow an eye out, or half the muzzle away, leaving the animal fully capable of running all day, possibly to die a slow, painful death by starvation while maddened by flies. And you will have lost money. 

With larger species, angling shots for the brain can be tricky. In 1992, in Tanzania, I tried to brain-shoot a wounded buffalo bull facing me at twelve paces; my .375 solid entered the eye-socket but missed both brain and spine. The bull dropped, but instantly got up and charged, requiring three more shots to put down. Angles are critical.  

I also had a weird experience with a buffalo cow in the Zambezi Valley. It began with her facing away from me at a slight angle. Before leaving SA, I had been unable to get my usual 450gr Barnes-X bullets for my .458 Lott; I had to settle for 400-grainers, which I consider too low on sectional density for angled shots on buffalo. Murphy’s Law: as I fired, she moved forward, and my bullet struck too far back, failing to reach the vitals. She ran off but stopped to ambush us. Instead of following her tracks, we climbed a small ridge and spotted her from above. Long story short, she turned to face me, so I head-shot her from 20m at a downward angle and she dropped. My bullet hit just below the horn base and exited the back of the skull to penetrate the first three neck vertebrae before stopping under the skin, where I cut it out. What followed is too long a story to tell here; suffice it to say the buffalo was not dead but immobilized by the damage to the vertebrae. The carcass had to go immediately to another camp for use as lion-bait, so I was unable to investigate the head-shot, but it had apparently passed under the brain. Again, angles are everything. 

Read the full article in the July 2018 issue of Magnum.

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