African safari preparation: Taking the shot
By John McAdams

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You've spent months researching, preparing mentally and physically, buying the right gear and dropping thousands of dollars to book with a highly recommended outfitter. All of that preparation boils down to one instant: taking the shot on the trophy of your dreams.


Have you studied up on the anatomy of African animals?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

The most expensive, high-quality rifle shooting the best bullets will do you no good if you do not place your shot exactly right. While African animals are by no means bulletproof, they are extremely tough, and poorly placed shots will take a long time to bring them down, if ever.

Let's assume that you've done the other things right: You've got a high-quality rifle shooting controlled expansion bullets that will penetrate deeply enough to hit the vitals of the animal, and you've practiced enough to hit what you are aiming at. That's only half of the battle. Not only must you be able to hit what you are aiming at, but you must aim at the right part of the animal without hesitation, from virtually any angle in varying light and cover conditions.

In my last article, I discussed some ways to prepare for an upcoming African safari. In this article, I'll discuss a few aspects of actually taking the shot on your trophy animal. This is another aspect of preparing for the hunt that is not quite as easy as it initially sounds. Shot placement varies across the different types of animals and how the animal is standing relative to you.

As an ethical sport hunter, the vast majority of your shots should be into the heart/lung area of the animal you are shooting at. Only in specific circumstances, such as a charge situation or a close-in brain shot on an elephant, should you aim for the brain. Compared to the rest of the head, the brain is a relatively small target, and the head moves the most compared to the rest of the body. These factors combine to present an increased risk of a wounded animal by aiming at the brain and accidently hitting the jaw or nose, for instance. As a result, the brain is a high-risk target that should only be used when absolutely necessary.

The neck/spine is a target similar to the brain. A good shot will bring the animal down instantly, but it is still a relatively small target and moves almost as much as the brain. The heart/lung area, however, presents a large, typically stationary target on an animal and shots with large enough caliber bullets of the proper construction will typically bring the animal down very quickly with a minimum of suffering and tracking involved.

Unfortunately, it's not always quite as simple as "shooting just behind the shoulder." Take an impala for example. Yes, if the impala is standing perfectly broadside to you, a shot placed just behind the shoulder will likely hit the heart and lungs and result in a quick and ethical kill. However, a shot behind the shoulder on an impala that is angling towards you could potentially result in a hit to the stomach instead of the lungs and will likely lead to a long follow-up.

Cats, such as leopards and lions, have vitals that are positioned slightly further to the rear than antelope. Shooting a lion or a leopard on or even slightly behind the shoulder could result in a bullet that travels in front of the lungs and heart, which generally results in an unpleasant combination for both the hunter and the cat.

The real challenge is to visualize where the heart/lung area — also known as the "boiler room" — is on your animal and be able to properly place your shot, regardless of the circumstances. This is where your pre-safari research will pay off. There are numerous resources available both as books and on the Internet that discuss the anatomy and recommended shot placement of most African animals.

Kevin Robertson has written two books that specifically deal with this issue: "The Perfect Shot," which discusses shot placement on a variety of African game, and "Africa's Most Dangerous," which focuses on the Cape Buffalo. Robertson is a veterinarian in addition to being a professional hunter and discusses in detail the anatomy of each animal and why he recommends each type of shot.

For instance, he discusses why he considers a left-side quartering away shot on a Cape Buffalo acceptable, but the right-side quartering away shot unacceptable due to the location of the liver relative to the stomach. In addition to shot placement, he discusses proper rifle, caliber and bullet selection, as well as providing interesting facts about African animals and discussing what to expect while hunting each animal. Both books are well written and well worth your time in preparation for your safari.

Remember, you owe it to yourself and the animal to do everything possible to make a quick and ethical kill. Everything you did in preparation for the safari was in preparation for that one pull of the trigger. Ensure that you take the time to learn the anatomy of the animals you are hunting so that you know exactly where to aim each and every time.

John McAdams was born and raised in Texas where he started hunting at an early age with his father and grandfather. John has hunted big game all over the United States as well as in Namibia and Zimbabwe, and he runs his own website, The Big Game Hunting Blog. He is currently serving in the United States Army and has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.