How Much Does Brush Deflect a Rifle Bullet?

Photo: Donald M Jones

The bull is standing broadside just behind that screen of brush. Do you shoot through the limbs and hope your bullet punches home? Or do you wait for a clear shot, even if it means the elk might get away?

Most of us answer that question by referring to some vague understanding of cartridge-box ballistics. “I’m shooting brush-busting bullets,” some might reason. Others might justify their decision to shoot by telling you that their big-bore rifle hammers right through obstructions, or that bullet deflection is inconsequential.

But after testing a variety of calibers and bullet types in both brushy and grassy environments, I’m convinced the only ethical answer to the question is: Wait for a clear shot. Not only do most bullet types deflect when they encounter brush and grass, but many also tumble, losing their aerodynamic efficiency and terminal effectiveness.

THE DEFLECTION TEST

My brush-deflection test was designed to mimic, as closely as I could, real-world hunting conditions. With my Ruger Scout Rifle supported on a bipod, I fired five-shot groups through a 38-yard-wide screen of red-willow saplings about the diameter of my pinkie, using both soft-point hunting bullets and hollowpoint match ammunition in two different classes of caliber: .308 Win. and .223 Rem.

BULLET TUMBLING

The results of the brush-deflection test were profound. As the chart to the right indicates, all bullet types showed significant deflection, but none was more pronounced than that of Federal’s 168-grain Sierra Match­king. What is arguably America’s most accurate bullet careened wildly through the willows. Two of the projectiles entered the target sideways, printing a perfect side-on signature of the bullet, and others showed signs of less dramatic tumbling. Three 5-shot groups with the 168-grain match ammo averaged 4.97 inches.

The 150-grain Remington Core-Lokt, a more classic hunting bullet, fared better, averaging 1.99 inches. But keep in mind, this is at 45 yards with a supported .308.

RICOCHET AND FRAGMENTATION

Because I wanted to test the deflection of lighter bullets as compared to heavier projectiles, I shot a .223 through the same red willows. The groups fired by the .223 were smaller than those of the .308—until you factored in the occasional bullet that either fragmented on impact with the brush or deflected so wildly that it failed to make contact with my 4-foot-by-6-foot backing target. Few of my five-shot groups with the .223 printed five holes after passing through the brush.

I wanted to shoot both a high-velocity frangible bullet in the .223 as well as a slower hunting-type bullet. Both types performed similarly in the brush-deflection test. Three groups of Federal’s 43-grain Speer TNT Green (which zip out of my barrel at 3,680 fps) averaged 3.67 inches, while Hornady’s 55-grain V-Max (traveling at 3,205 fps) averaged 3.49 inches.

WAIT FOR A CLEAR SHOT

My conclusion, based on these results: Don’t trust your bullet to remain on course if it encounters any obstacle, and the thicker the debris, the more your bullet will veer.

Red Willows

In order to ensure that my shots entered the brush at the same point, I aimed at a reference target 12 yards from my muzzle, just in front of the brush. I then measured the point of impact just behind the stretch of brush with a second target stapled to a large cardboard box, which allowed me to assess the amount of deflection the bullet encountered on its 38-yard path through the brush. By comparing group size prior to the brush with that of the projectiles after they passed through the screen of limbs and branches, I was able to measure deflection.

I selected two bullet types in two calibers—.308 and .223—to represent both heavy-for-caliber match bullets and more typical hunting projectiles.

Rank Grass

I replicated the test with a stretch of dense orchard grass, shooting two bullet types from a .223 and a .25/06, and again measured the difference between the initial reference target and the second impact target.

I set up this test in the same way I arranged the brush-deflection range: shooting at a reference target 12 yards in front of my muzzle. I measured impacts on a backing target located 38 yards away, through a stand of dense, dried orchard grass.

The deflection I measured in the grass was significantly less than that in the brush, but it was still pronounced and consistent. Both the .25/06 and the .223 printed group sizes at 50 yards that would result in either clean misses or crippling hits at 100 yards and beyond.

RESULTS

Brush Deflection at 50 Yards
.308 Winchester
150-grain Remington Core-Lokt: 1.994
168-grain Federal Sierra Matchking: 4.967

.223 Remington
43-grain Federal Speer TNT Green: 3.668
55-grain Hornady V-Max: 3.495

Grass Deflection At 50 Yards
.25/06 Remington
85-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip: 1.209
115-grain Federal Nosler Partition: 4.967

.223 Remington
55-grain Hornady V-max: 3.668
43-grain Federal Speer TNT Green: 3.495