February 27, 2023
By Dwight Guynn, Ph.D.
As a retired wildlife biologist who is over a decade past his “use by date,” I’ve dissected hundreds of wild animals — mostly deer or elk size. I’ve studied skeletons and locations of various bones to the point that my friends sometimes benevolently refer to me as a “bonehead.” And, as a lifelong bowhunter, I’ve considered what arrows striking different bones could mean for the hunter involved.
When you read this article, you may think that arrows striking bones is quite common, but except for ribs, that has not been my experience. The infrequent events I describe here occurred over decades of bowhunting.
Of course, an arrow’s angle of flight, kinetic energy, and broadhead type all factor into the equation. The purpose of this article is to help you understand the various potential results when bones are impacted by an arrow.
We typically ignore the rib bones because an arrow with even moderate kinetic energy can usually penetrate a rib or slide between them with minimal effort and deflection. In addition, on a broadside shot, the ribs cover the vitals, and avoiding them just isn’t practical.
The only time ribs deflect an arrow is when the shot angle is extreme. For example, while hunting elk in Colorado, I shot at a bull that was strongly quartering away. My arrow glanced off the bull’s rib cage, passed under the shoulder blade (scapula), and then exited through the front of the bull. The nonlethal hit served as a reminder to aim farther back on a strongly quartering-away animal.
A series of vertebrae make up the spine. When an arrow strikes the thoracic vertebrae, comprising the spine over the chest, it can either penetrate or glance off.
On a broadside shot, deflection off the spine typically causes the arrow to travel either below or above the spine. When deflection occurs above the spine, it’s typically a superficial wound.
But what happens if the arrow strikes the blade-like projections (spinous process) at the top of the vertebrae? Such a hit can create shock to the spinal nerves, causing the animal to collapse. While not fatal, the hit has only a short-term effect from which the animal usually recovers quickly. Therefore, my rule of thumb is to always follow up a spine shot with an immediate arrow to the chest.
An arrow deflecting downward under the spine can cut the dorsal aorta artery just beneath it — always leading to a quick death. However, if the arrow is low enough to pierce the chest cavity, then even if it misses the lungs and other organs, it may cause breathing problems because the hole in the chest makes it difficult for the diaphragm to function properly. Death may or may not result, depending on whether fat, skin, and/or other tissue helps plug the hole.
If an archer is in a treestand, the shot angle could be straight down. If the arrow deflects off the vertebrae, it could continue through the body of the animal. This often results in a one-lung hit, and a difficult tracking job.
When a broadhead actually penetrates the vertebrae, the effects can range from “stunned” to complete paralysis. It all depends on whether the arrow severs the spinal cord.
The spinal cord is the long bundle of nerves extending from the brain down the entire length of the spine. Severing this bundle of nerves requires the arrow to cut or smash through the sidewall of the vertebral cavity (vertebral foramen), which protects the cord. Severing the spinal cord causes paralysis and a follow-up shot is required.
I once killed a deer that had a scar on its neck. When I dissected the neck, I found a lump of gristle the size of a ping-pong ball surrounding one of the neck vertebrae. Cutting into the gristle, I discovered a broadhead that had entered the vertebrae from the right side; its tip extending through to the left side. The broadhead had pierced the thick vertebrae just under the spinal cord but did not injure the cord.
The body of the vertebrae is filled with a jelly-like compound (nucleus pulposus) consisting of mainly water, as well as a loose network of collagen fibers. Interestingly, it does not contain nerves like the spinal cord. The deer had lost the arrow shaft at some point and healed up, appearing completely healthy.
I’ve also severed a deer’s spinal cord with my own broadhead. It happened near sunset one evening on a hunt in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia.
I spotted a deer entering a cut cornfield a couple hundred yards away. I stalked toward the deer through thick broomsedge along the cornfield’s edge. The deer continued toward me and entered the broomsedge within 25 yards of where I crouched. I drew my recurve and launched an arrow. The deer vanished. Poof! I’d expected to see the deer bound off, whether hit or not.
Confused, I walked toward the spot where the deer had disappeared, where I spotted my arrow sticking straight up out of the tall grass with its nock and fletching looking like a flag on a pole. Mystified, I crept closer and discovered the deer with my arrow through its neck. I quickly finished the job with an arrow through the buck’s chest.
After butchering the animal, I found my arrow had cut through the disc between two vertebrae. A spinal disc is made of cartilage tissue; softer than bone, acting as a cushion between each of the vertebrae. When the arrow passed through the disc, it had severed the spinal cord. I was lucky.
An animal’s shoulder blade (scapula) lies at the top of its front leg and extends up and back at an angle along the side of the animal. The bone is wide and flat — almost like a slice of pizza. It’s thicker than a rib, which makes it more difficult to penetrate. It’s position, just above and at the front of the heart/lung area, makes it a likely bone for the arrow to strike if the shot is only slightly high. I’ve had three different results from hitting scapulars with my arrows.
Once, while hunting elk at treeline in Colorado, I called in a 5x5 bull that presented a slightly quartering-to shot at 20 yards. I felt I could make the shot and loosed an arrow. The bull moved at the sound of the shot, and my arrow went wide of the mark and struck the bull squarely on the shoulder blade. I could see my arrow was not fatal and stalked to where I had seen the bull disappear.
By good fortune, I spotted the bull hiding in some spruce trees. I eased forward to where I could see his broadside chest. My next arrow entered the center of his chest, and the bull made his last run only 50 yards before expiring.
While butchering that bull, I examined the results of my first arrow that had struck his scapula. The two-bladed head from my 70-pound compound had penetrated the scapula just enough for the point of the broadhead to stick through about a quarter inch. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to get in a second arrow, the bull would most likely have developed a gristle coating around the broadhead and healed completely.
Another experience when I shot a bull elk on the scapula, had much different results. I was hunting in the mountains of western Montana with a 70-pound compound and broadheads with three replaceable blades.
Time and again, the bull approached me through the dense timber to where I could almost shoot between the trees, only to retreat. Finally, I was able to position myself for a shot through an opening in the trees as the bull approached once again. When he walked into this narrow opening, his chest was broadside and I came to full draw. I cow-called and the bull stopped. I estimated the range at 30 yards and released my arrow. The elk proved to be at 25 yards, and my arrow impacted high, striking the scapula. My arrow appeared to have penetrated about a third of its length into the bull’s chest, but I remained unsure of the shot.
The wounded bull ran about 20 yards and stopped. Through the thick timber, I watched him reach around with his mouth and pull the arrow out of his chest. Then he slowly walked away.
Fifteen minutes later, I heard a heavy exhale from the direction in which the bull had retreated. An hour later, I walked in the direction of the sound I’d heard and found the bull dead just 60 yards from where he’d been hit.
When breaking down this bull, I found that my arrow had indeed penetrated his chest and pierced the near lung. The bull had broken off the broadhead when he extracted my shaft, and the broadhead had remained in the chest cavity.
Why was the result of this shot so different from the elk previously described? I can only conclude that the arrow shaft was a factor, as well as the greater efficiency of my compound bow. The first elk was taken in a year when compounds were new and in their early stages of refinement. The second bull was taken after more than 20 years of improvements in compound-bow efficiency.
The first elk was shot with a 2219 aluminum shaft (read fat arrow). The second elk was taken with a slim A/C/C (aluminum-carbon composite) shaft; a tiny bit smaller in diameter than the broadhead’s ferrule. Once the broadhead on the slim arrow had penetrated the scapula, the shaft had a sufficiently large enough hole through which to slide.
My most puzzling experience with an arrow striking the scapula occurred this past hunting season with a whitetail deer. I sat perched in a cottonwood tree with a doe tag in my pocket and watched a single doe approach like she had read the script. At 15 yards, I drew and mouth-bleated to stop her. She stood ever so slightly quartering-to me. Since I sat high above the doe, I put my sight pin a little high on the deer’s chest, near the scapula.
At the shot, the deer spun and bolted back the way she had come. Feeling good about my shot, I waited only a few minutes before climbing down. I found my arrow sticking in the ground where it had passed completely through the doe, and I noticed it had what looked like rumen contents on it instead of bright-red, foamy blood. Puzzled, I sniffed the shaft and confirmed it was indeed covered with rumen content.
Following the trail on which the deer fled, I found a few drops of blood at first, then nothing for about 200 yards. Fortunately, the deer had expired within the next 50 yards. I remained puzzled. How could such a seemingly perfect shot, at such close range, produce these results?
Further inspection of the deer revealed that my arrow had entered exactly where I had aimed but had struck the back edge (medial border) of the scapula and deflected back and down, where it passed through one lung, the liver, and the rumen, before exiting low on the stomach. The moral of these three stories is this: You just never know what will happen if you accidently hit the scapula!
Late one morning in one of Montana’s high-mountain basins, I had several close encounters with bull elk but had been unable to get a shot. I continued to stalk around the basin, periodically bugling. To my surprise, a bull answered from about 200 yards at midday. I set up quickly and nocked an arrow.
After only moments, the bull came in on a steady walk. Due to the open cover, I couldn’t draw my bow without him seeing me. He finally stopped, facing me at 10 yards. The staring contest lasted only moments before the bull bolted back the way from which he’d come. I jerked the string back on my bow and gave a cow-call that stopped him — only problem was he stopped behind a fir tree.
The bull bugled and then walked into the open, where he stood broadside at what I judged to be 20 yards. I put my 20-yard pin on the crease behind his shoulder and sent my arrow on its way. The impact looked good, but maybe a little low. The bull spun and ran downhill.
I waited 45 minutes before taking up the blood trail. The arrow had not exited the bull on the offside, and I couldn’t see it sticking out the near side of the animal as it ran off. I was mystified but realized that sometimes it’s hard to tell what you saw at the peak moment of excitement. I followed a small but steady trail of blood drops for 60 yards, where I found the bull dead.
Examining the bull, I discovered that my shot had indeed been low, and had struck the leg joint at the top of the radius and ulna. This joint extends up over the bottom of the chest front. My arrow had deflected upward and penetrated the chest, piercing both lungs before finally lodging completely inside the bull’s chest cavity.
Hits on the front leg of deer and elk that are below the chest usually result in a superficial wound. Sometimes the leg is broken, and the wounded animal may recover. Severing an artery in the front leg can result in death, but it usually means a spotty blood trail and extremely difficult recoveries.
On another occasion, a friend of mine shot at a sharply quartering-away deer and hit it in the rear leg. While the femoral artery traverses the rear leg, my friend had missed this major artery. If he had cut this, the deer would have tipped over in very short order.
The arrow made a loud crack upon impact, indicating a bone strike, and the deer ran into nearby brush. After waiting an hour, we were able to follow the sparse blood sign and finish the animal with a second arrow. My friend’s initial shot had struck the deer’s upper rear leg bone (femur), breaking it. The deer traveled only a short distance before bedding. We were lucky in recovering it.
While severing the femoral artery is quickly fatal and almost always results in massive blood trails, sometimes hits occur in the large muscles of the hindquarter. These can create significant blood loss and impair an animal’s ability to travel.
I once dumped the string on a pronghorn that lunged forward at my shot. My arrow struck him at the back of the hindquarter, making a large cut. The antelope ran about a hundred yards and then bedded. I watched him for some time, but his head remained erect.
Finally, I approached the animal and it limped away. I pursued it at a walk for several hundred yards before it bedded again, at which point I was able to slip close enough to administer the coup de grâce. While arrows striking the rear leg can lead to death with just large cuts to major muscles, immediate pursuit is recommended to prevent blood-clotting and the animal’s escaping.
Occasionally, striking either a front or back leg with your arrow works. Obviously, it should be avoided if possible. The same can be said for all other bones, except the ribs. While we can’t always make the perfect shot, it helps to know the location of the scapula and spine to avoid them. When you do strike bones, understanding the potential outcomes can help you in knowing what to do next. At times like these, knowledge of the skeleton and the different effects of striking various bones can be critical. Sometimes it really does pay to be a “bonehead!”
The author has a Ph.D. in wildlife management and has spent 30 years working in the wildlife profession. He has been an archer since the age of five, when his grandfather made hickory bows for him.