No biologist, veterinarian, or medical professional believes the popular bowhunting claim that deer have dead space high in their chest.
That void, it’s said, lets a broadhead pass through with little harm to the deer if it just happens to exhale as the arrow hits, supposedly opening the space farther. MeatEater’s “consulting physician,” Dr. Alan Lazzara, calls that myth “deer hunting’s magic-bullet theory” for explaining unrecovered deer.
The “magic bullet” references the second of three shots fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade when he was assassinated in November 1963. The first shot apparently missed, but investigators later claimed a near-impossibility: The next shot, the “magic bullet,” somehow blew through JFK’s neck and necktie knot, and altered its course before ripping through the chest and lower arm/wrist of Texas Gov. John Connally, before stopping in Connally’s thigh. The third shot was fatal, striking Kennedy’s head. Nearly 60 years later, some critics still consider the magic-bullet theory impossible, given its path, timing, the victims’ wounds, and the bullet’s nearly pristine condition when found on Connally’s hospital gurney.
Lazzara also likened the “mythical void” in the deer’s chest to an “arrow-through-the-head headband” that jokesters wear for Halloween. They might look like they took an arrow through the head, but looks can be deceiving.
After all, eyewitnesses are often wrong. Just ask Larry Gohlke of Neshkoro, Wisconsin, who has blood-trailed over 750 wounded deer over the past 31 years. Gohlke’s wire-haired dachshunds have found 250 of those deer dead or near dead. Gohlke said few deer shot through both lungs require help from blood-trailing dogs. Double-lung wounds typically kill deer quickly, within 50 to 200 yards, and leave obvious blood trails.
Who calls Gohlke for help? In many cases it’s hunters who say their shot didn’t stink. “Half the calls I get, they claim they made a perfect shot, and they have no idea why they didn’t find the deer,” Gohlke said. “That tells you they can’t accurately describe their shot. Others say they hit the deer ‘a little high,’ but that means their shot was probably ‘way high.’ And those who thought the deer was broadside often learn it wasn’t broadside when the arrow hit.
“I had a guy this fall claim his deer was standing at a ‘slight forward angle’ when he shot. When my dog found his deer, the arrow was sticking out the deer’s asshole. It caused massive damage inside, but no blood trail. Based on what he had told me, that angle was impossible unless he bounced his arrow off a rock.”
What about photographic evidence of wounds? That’s no guarantee, either. Brian Hack of central New York State was bowhunting his 280-acre lease in Illinois at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13 when he arrowed a buck at 23 yards from a treestand 30 feet high. Hack said the buck was in a creek bottom, making the shot angle steeper yet. He initially thought his arrow hit atop the buck’s near-side rib cage and exited the far-side ribs above the brisket. The buck bled well the first 100 yards, but its trail grew faint and disappeared in the evening rain.
Hack did a grid search the next day, but finally left the buck for dead. When checking his trail-cam a couple of days later, he was shocked to see a photo of the buck walking past—26 hours after the shot. The exit wound from Hack’s arrow was visible in its lower chest. Hack believes another photo three days later also shows the buck, but the blurry image made verification impossible.
Hack now thinks the buck probably ducked at the arrow’s release, causing a strike atop the buck’s far-side rib cage, not atop the near-side ribs. That means the arrow likely pierced the opposite lung, but not both lungs. Hack plans to return in December for gun season, review more trail-cam photos, and maybe learn more about the buck’s fate.
But even videos can deceive at first glance. In September 2006, Pat Reeve of “Driven TV with Pat & Nicole Reeve” thought he fatally arrowed a Boone & Crockett buck in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County. Before tracking the buck, Reeve reviewed video footage of the shot with friend and outfitter Tom Indrebo. The video appeared to show Reeve’s arrow striking the buck’s chest, convincing Reeve and Indrebo they’d quickly find it.
But as Indrebo wrote in his book “Growing & Hunting Quality Bucks,” the fleeing buck, dubbed “Moses,” soon led them up and over a steep ridge. And when they blood-trailed the buck into a cornfield, it blasted out the other side. Within a few days the buck appeared on one of Indrebo’s trail-cam photos, a scar behind and below its right shoulder blade.
During the November 2006 gun season, a neighboring hunter killed the buck. Indrebo inspected Reeve’s broadhead scar, which was mostly healed. The broadhead cut hair along the chest, and slammed into a forward rib, snapping the arrow at an angle that looked lethal on video replay. Indrebo wrote: “Upon further review … [the buck] stepped and turned to his left the instant Pat released his arrow. Instead of quartering into the chest as we first thought, the arrow actually glanced [forward] off the buck’s ribcage.”
Why Dead Spaces Don’t Exist
Those cases don’t disprove bowhunters’ “dead space” theory, but physics, anatomy, and physiology explain why dead space inside a healthy mammal’s chest cavity is impossible. Dr. Tim Lewis, a dentist and veteran bowhunter from Florida, has written often about the mythical void, including in his recent book, “Tales of Trails: Finding Game After the Shot.”
Lewis said most people erroneously believe the deer’s spinal column runs atop the rib cage. Actually, the bottom of the spine is about 1.5 inches lower than the rib cage’s upper bones, just beneath the joints where ligaments connect the ribs to the thoracic vertebrae.
In addition, the spine drops farther into the body as it passes over the shoulders and joins the neck. That curve puts 5 to 8 inches of muscle and spinous processes above the forward spine, and 3 to 4 inches farther back, depending on a deer’s size. Therefore, an arrow could hit a third of the way down the deer from the hair line, and pass above the chest cavity.
“If you look forward inside a deer’s rib cage, you’ll see its top is shaped like a Valentine’s heart, with both upper sides curving higher than the spine,” Lewis said. “Whether the deer is exhaling or inhaling, both lungs fill the entire chest cavity, top to bottom. An arrow passing right below the spine can’t avoid slicing lung tissue.”
Lewis and Lazzara also note that any dead space in the chest cavity would react to outside changes in air or water pressure. They likened it to the ear pain scuba divers feel when descending into the depths. Airline travelers feel similar pain when experiencing uneven cabin pressure. In both cases, relatively fast pressure changes cause a vacuum that blocks the inner ear’s eustachian tube. The resulting pressure imbalance painfully stretches the eardrum. The pain persists until the person pinches their nostrils and blows gently, forcing air into ear canals to equalize the pressure. Air passengers can find relief by yawning or swallowing.
“Human lungs and deer lungs are very similar,” Lazzara said. “If we had a void in our thorax we’d feel chest pain, we’d struggle to breathe, and we’d risk collapsed lungs every time we encountered pressure changes. A mammal’s lungs stay in constant contact with the chest walls. They’re part of the chest’s tightly sealed pressure chamber, which adjusts its size and capacity to accommodate breathing, physical exertion, and external pressures. No healthy mammal has a chest void, and mammals have amazingly similar anatomies.”
Lazzara recommends hunters watch a YouTube video posted in 2015 by Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine. The video features Wisconsin taxidermist Brian Johnson, who removed a dead deer’s hide, muscles and sinew to expose its chest cavity. He then attached a hose from an air compressor to inflate the dead deer’s lungs. Lazzara said the demonstration doesn’t replicate a breathing deer, but it shows how inflated lungs easily fill the entire chest cavity.
Dave Clausen, a retired veterinarian in northwestern Wisconsin, said the tight space between a mammal’s lungs and inner chest is filled by two sacs surrounding each lung: the visceral pleura and parietal pleura linings. Mucus fills the tiny spaces between the lungs, pleural sacs, and chest cavity, lubricating them as their surfaces glide against each while mammals breathe. If a lung’s surrounding sacs get punctured, the chamber starts losing its vacuum, and the lung can collapse.
All mammals except bison have pleural sacs surrounding each lung. Bison have one pleural sac surrounding both lungs, making the big beasts more susceptible to one-lung puncture wounds. Deer, however, can survive one collapsed lung but seldom two. Even so, one collapsed lung makes life miserable.
“I’ve operated on hounds with broken ribs and a punctured pleura after they got hit by bears,” Clausen said. “If that lung didn’t collapse, air escapes everywhere as they fight to breathe. The lung overfills the chest cavity and the dog’s skin blows up like a balloon. To fix them up, I would put a drain tube under the skin, suture the wound, and evacuate the air. They were really struggling, but they often survived.”
Lazzara thinks some so-called dead-space wounds are actually hits in the top, bottom, or rear of the rib cage. A deer might survive if the broadhead barely punctures the pleural sacs, but those are exceptions, not the rule. Either way, no deer owes its life to a chest void.
“No two wounds are ever alike in degree,” Lazzara said. “The possibilities are endless, based on the wound’s location, shot angle, broadhead size, blade sharpness, and whether the wound gets plugged with tallow or hide. The sharper the blade, the lesser the shock and more bleeding. A slice in the lungs’ outer edges is not as lethal as a slice through its thicker center or forward sections. We see people survive wounds to the lung’s outer edges. It’s not easy, but they can survive.”
Lewis, likewise, recounts rare incidents where hunters field-dressed deer and found scar tissue in the lung surrounding a stick or broadhead. And in his book “Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer,” John Jeanneney recalled a 1977 study he organized in New York’s Cayuga County where hunters brought in deer with intact chest cavities. Of 51 deer they examined, researchers found one doe that survived an arrow wound to the lung while a fawn.
Keep ’er Moving
Gohlke’s experience supports Lewis and Lazzara’s observations. “If a broadhead cuts just the edge of the lungs, we’ll often get the deer if we can keep it moving,” Gohlke said. “If you let a deer rest, it stops dying. Once you get it moving, the wound breaks open and you start finding blood again. I laugh when I’m watching a Western, and some guy gets shot and rides three days to reach town and see a doctor. In real life, he’d never make it.”
But if the arrow didn’t pierce the chest cavity—and actually struck the neck, brisket, backstraps or outer ribs—the deer will likely survive. “I’ll often put the dog on a ‘chest-shot’ deer, and somehow that wound starts getting higher and higher the longer we’re on the trail,” Gohlke said. “We’ll find blood on saplings or golden-rod stalks. If we go beyond two hours and the dog senses the deer isn’t dying, it starts losing interest. I’ll suggest it’s time to quit. Then the guy will say: ‘Yeah, I thought it was probably too high. I probably hit the backstrap.’”
Gohlke finds that frustrating. “I’ll say: ‘Oh, is that right? Then why did you tell me you hit it where you aimed?’”
Why would hunters insist they know the arrow wound’s location, even when they can’t find the deer to prove it? Dr. Grant Woods, owner/creator of “Growing Deer-TV” and The Proving Grounds in southwestern Missouri, said it’s probably some combination of wishful thinking and the memory of where they aimed. Woods said he’s reviewed countless shots on video, and learned one thing with certainty.
“We want to believe we shot where we aimed,” Woods said. “But few hunters, including myself, know exactly where the wound occurred. Arrows fly faster than the human eye can track, especially during a moment of extreme excitement. Even if we see the fletching bounce upon impact, it might not be where the broadhead actually struck.”
Woods also said many hunters assume there’s a void in the deer’s chest because they see a void when field dressing deer. But dead, punctured lungs deflate, leaving vacant chest space. Either way, Woods doesn’t expect to convince people they’re wrong.
“When we post that there’s no ‘hole’ below the spine in the thoracic cavity, we always receive lots of hate mail,” Woods said. “It doesn’t matter that every thoracic surgeon verifies there’s no open space there, and that it makes no physiological reason for an open space to exist there in any mammal. I just know it will remain a contentious topic.”
Clausen gives this advice to hunters who insist the chest void is real: “There is no ‘dead space’ inside deer, so if you take a shot and don’t find your deer, you need to find a better excuse.”
Feature image via Matt Hansen.