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The “brush rifle” is a commonly used term, but it’s one that’s poorly understood. A brush rifle should be defined by its handling characteristics—a short and handy lever action, pump action, straight-pull, semi-auto, or a scout-style bolt action—and how easy it is to maneuver and shoot in tight thickets at close range. However, many hunters use the term “brush rifle” synonymously with certain cartridges. Specifically, a cartridge or bullet’s perceived ability to bust through bush and briar to take game when other rounds would fail.
“They wanted .35 Remington, brush cutters,” says Hugh Schultz one night at moose camp while our dinner slowly sizzled on the small wood stove.
Schultz, who owned a small store for many years in rural Vermont was talking about the deer trackers who bought ammunition from him. After many years, his memory of local hunters’ favorite deer rifles and ammunition is as clear as the reason they chose them. The trackers often had close but fleeting shot opportunities, often in thick brush. But are some bullets really better at punching through brush? I decided to test 5 different hunting cartridges and a variety of bullet types to find out.
Perceptions About Brush Bullets
But before we get to my test, let’s talk about the origins of brush bullet concept. Most hunters have encountered a situation where an animal was partially obscured by sticks, brush, or tree limbs. Many of us have blamed our missed or wounded animals on brush or twigs sending our shot astray. That’s the story I’m sticking to on a moose I killed two years ago. I fired my first shot through a small window in a patch of standing burnt timber, and one of my follow-up shots hit the bull in the antler (I did recover the bull).
It’s common for hunters to suggest that heavy-caliber cartridges with slow, blunt projectiles are the best option for punching through the brush. This seems logical. The more mass a projectile has, the harder it will be for something to knock it off-course—at least that’s concept.
I can’t remember the specific story or issue of Outdoor Life, but Jack O’Connor wrote about the reasoning for using cartridges like the .35 Remington in the deer woods of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Like those Vermont deer trackers, the average deer hunter in those days was presented with fleeting shots in thick cover—largely because of how folks went about hunting deer at the time—and the best brush bullets would give you a better chance at connecting.
Studying the Best Brush Bullets
In the October 1957 issue of Outdoor Life, O’Connor wrote a story titled Rifles for the Brush, in which he wasn’t focusing on the handling characteristics of brush rifles, but the performance and deflection-resistance of various calibers and bullets. In his decades of hunting experience, O’Connor had more than a few anecdotes to share about shooting at game through brush, and usually it didn’t work out well.
O’Connor conducted his testing by placing a 100-yard smallbore target (which has an 8-inch black bullseye) behind 15 feet of brush having branches up to 1.5 inches thick. The brush was just open enough so he could see the target through the brush to aim at it and fired from 30 yards in front of the brush (35 yards from the target). He fired five-shot groups with 12-gauge slugs, a .458 Winchester, .375 H&H, .35 Remington, .30/06, .270 Winchester, and .220 Swift. Published diagrams of his results indicate only one group with each load, but O’Connor refers to “a lot of experimental shooting.”
In 2014, Editor Andrew McKean conducted another deflection test, this time shooting through brush with .308 Win. and .223 Rem. loads, and through orchard grass with a .25/06 Rem. and the .223 again. After all, what bullet wouldn’t strike home after going through a bit of grass? McKean’s tests sent bullets through 38 yards of willow brush, fired from 12 yards in front of the brush. He set a target in front of the brush to aim at, and another behind the brush to catch impacts. This way, the deflection due to brush can be measured exactly. He did the same with a patch of orchard grass.
Filling in the Blanks on Brush Bullets
Both O’Connor’s and McKean’s brush testing give us valuable information, and O’Connor concluded that “factors which contribute to bullet deflection are sharp points, fragile construction, high velocity, unstable form, high rate of spin, and light weight.” Factors which contribute to the reliability of bullets in brush are blunt or flat points, moderate velocity, strong construction, stable form, and slow spin.
Considering that the subject of brush rifles and brush bullets is one that’s discussed as fervently today as ever, I decided to conduct a test of my own. I wanted to see if I could verify what O’Connor found in his testing and collect data on the most popular “brush rifle” cartridge of today—the .45/70 Gov’t. Ironically, the .45/70 (which had been around for 84 years already) wasn’t included in O’Connor’s testing and has enjoyed a revival in the past couple of decades.
A newcomer that I also wanted to feel out was the .350 Legend. Winchester’s contemporary straight-walled deer cartridge shoots a .355-inch-diameter bullet, and its 180-grain factory loads are just slightly below the .358-inch-diameter .35 Remington’s 200-grain Core-Lokt loads. Considering the word-of-mouth reputation of the .35 Remington as a “brush cutter,” I wanted to see how the similar .350 Legend would do.
In my testing, I split the difference between the tests of McKean and O’Connor. I set up a target frame 50 yards from my firing position (target 1) to provide a consistent aiming point and measure the entrance group. I used butcher paper with stick-on targets to minimize deflection from the target itself. I placed a four-by-eight-foot cardboard wall behind 15 yards of brush (target 2). The brush was on a river sandbar and consisted of live and dead willow and alder, up to 1.5 inches thick. It was exactly the kind of stuff one might expect to see a moose in here in Alaska.
I fired two to three five-shot groups with each load from a .45/70, .375 Ruger, .338 Lapua, .338 Win. Mag., .350 Legend, and 6.5 Creedmoor. I measured groups entering the first target, and at the second target as well. Periodically, I moved the target slightly to provide the most consistent shots through un-broken brush. I noted group size as well as bullets that had tumbled and key-holed through the backing target. I considered a bullet impact “key-holed” if the hole in the target was approximately 50 percent sideways, or more. A slightly yawed bullet could still deliver decent terminal performance, but all bets are off once it really begins to turn sideways. I considered these impacts failures because their terminal performance would be unpredictable.
My first goal was to see if any of these cartridges or loads were truly viable for an ethically minded hunter to take shots through the brush. My second goal was to examine O’Connor’s theories with some contemporary bullets and cartridges. I wanted to see how the same bullet (a .338-caliber 225-grain Hornady CX in this case) would deflect at different velocities—hence the .338 Lapua vs. .338 Win. Mag. I also wanted to see if the supposition that blunt-pointed or flat-nosed bullets would deflect less easily than their streamlined counterparts.
Interpreting Brush Bullet Data
The most important thing to keep in mind when interpreting these results is that every shot taken through brush will produce unique results. Even with the 30 groups I fired through the same patch of brush, no two bullets encountered the same obstacles in the same way.
Putting a solid figure on each bullet’s effectiveness through brush would take hundreds of groups. Even then, it would come with a disclaimer. Unsurprisingly, what I found is that you should never intentionally shoot through the brush unless the animal is already hit, and you must make a follow-up shot. Any bullets can be deflected by almost any brush—some worse than others. O’Connor and McKean both came to the same conclusion, and O’Connor wrote:
“Some bullets are better in brush than others, but all will deflect—even the 300-grain bullet for the .375 Magnum (H&H).”
Brush Bullet Results
O’Connor’s conclusions about what made a bullet more or less likely to be deflected by brush included velocity, twist-rate, bullet shape, weight, and construction. To summarize his results, a round or flat-nosed bullet that’s heavy and stoutly constructed, fired at moderate velocity should produce the best results. On the other side, bullets with higher velocity, lighter weight, more aerodynamic profiles, and higher twist rates should deflect more easily.
Brush Bullet Velocity
From my testing, I concluded that higher velocity could increase deflection, but that velocity alone cannot determine if a bullet will deflect to a greater or lesser extent. Firing the same bullet with the same twist rate at different velocities showed me that the higher velocity bullet did deflect more and have a higher failure rate. To test this, I fired hand-loaded 225-grain Hornady CX bullets through my .338 Lapua at 3020 fps, as well as through my .338 Win. Mag. at 2713 fps. Both rifles have a 1:9.3-inch twist rate. The faster bullets had an average deflection of 2.303 inches and 40 percent of the bullets key-holed (which I count as failures). The slower .338 Win. Mag. load deflected by only 1.236 inches on average, with no key-holes, and only one flyer in 15 shots.
Although the same bullet at higher velocity seems to deflect more, higher velocity does not in-itself mean anything when comparing two different projectiles from the same rifle. In-fact, lighter, faster projectiles performed better for the .45/70, .375 Ruger, .338 Win mag, and 6.5 Creedmoor than the heavier, slower bullets.
The 300-grain Hornady DGX that I’ve used with great success on bears at close range in my .375 Ruger fared poorly when being slung through this patch of sandbar brush. At 2660 fps, they had an average deflection of 3.38 inches, and a failure rate of 60 percent. The lighter, faster Barnes 250-grain TTSX bullets weren’t perfect, but at 2805 fps, they showed a deflection of only 1.46 inches and an improved failure rate of 40 percent.
Shaped and built like the 220-grain .30/06 soft points that O’Connor liked, the Hornady 250-grain Interlock bullets fired at 2615 fps from my .338 Win. Mag. Ruger Guide Gun made an abysmal showing. The bullets will stop a grizzly bear that’s running at you, but not if you’ve got to shoot them through the brush first. These bullets had an average deflection of 3.76 inches and failure rate of 60 percent. As detailed above, the 225-grain CX bullets at 2713 fps did much better.
Even the 6.5 Creedmoor displayed better results with a faster, lighter bullet. Hand-loaded Hornady 143-grain ELDX bullets at 2670 fps would enter the first target in a .452-inch group but scattered to nearly 12 inches through 15 yards of brush, with an 80 percent failure rate. Federal Premium 130-grain Barnes TSX loads at 2825 fps deflected less at 5.228 inches and a slightly better 60 percent failure rate.
Brush Bullet Shape and Construction
O’Connor found through his shooting that blunt, round, or ideally, flat-nosed bullets would resist deflection better than pointed, more aerodynamic bullets. He stated that in the .30/06, the 220-grain bullet is more reliable than the 180-grain or 150-grain pointed bullets. This conclusion wasn’t the case in much of my testing, and I surmise that it has everything to do with bullet construction. O’Connor stresses the importance of sturdy bullet construction because logically, any deformation in the bullet will likely cause instability. A highly aerodynamic bullet with good sectional density might be the most stable, but deformation can ruin that instantly. On paper, the bullets with the best sectional density should be the most stable (and hardest to deflect). However, the lead-core bullets with higher sectional density still seem to deform and deflect dramatically.
In 1957, the sturdiest hunting bullets were those heavy, blunt, or flat-nosed specimens he refers to. I believe O’Connor unknowingly hinted at the reason why my results didn’t reflect his. He refers to some folks he’d known who hunted in brush with full metal jacketed bullets of various calibers. It makes sense that an aerodynamic bullet that resists deformation should do better than a soft-point of the same shape—that’s how FMJ bullets are designed. What was the difference with my testing? Modern mono-metal bullets. In every case that I tried them, monolithic copper/alloy bullets came out on top. Bullets like the Barnes TSX, TTSX, and Hornady CX, as well as the Lehigh Defense .458 Extreme Defense (Black Hills Honey Badger .45/70) all beat their lead-core counterparts in both deflection and failure rate (key-holing).
I don’t believe that the pointiness of the bullet alone is what causes some of them to be deflected or destroyed easily as O’Connor observed. Rather, the fact that spire or spitzer-pointed lead-core bullets simply deformed more easily than blunt ones—and were thus less-stable after contact with a branch or other vegetation. Modern copper bullets expand reliably, but they aren’t as malleable and prone to deform as lead-core bullets. That’s my theory anyway.
Is the .350 Legend a Brush Cutter?
Stories of the .35 Remington’s reputation as a “brush cutter” inspired me to include the .350 Legend in this test. Sure, the .35 Remington out-powers it by a bit in factory loads, but it’s close. O’Connor’s stated, “even the round-nosed, heavy, and relatively slow .35 Remington bullet will show a good deal of deflection and evidence of key-holing when shot through the brush.” Was the .35’s reputation for brush-busting simply exaggerated?
O’Connor’s diagram shows some deflection and a key-holed shot in his test group, and through an additional 12 yards of brush, the .350 Legend didn’t fare better. Both Federal Premium Power Shock 180-grain loads and Winchester Super X 180-grain loads averaged about six inches of deflection, and 60 to 70 percent of the projectiles key-holed.
The .350 Legend is a handy, accurate, and effective little deer cartridge that certainly is comparable to the old .35 Remington, but the stubby, broad bullets don’t have great sectional density and are easily turned off-course by brush. I’d bet extensive testing of the .35 Remington would show the same thing.
What’s the Best Brush Bullet and Cartridge Today? The .45/70 Gov’t
The .45/70 outperformed everything else in penetrating brush and delivering a bullet that’s still flying straight and true—something that will surely inflate the egos of its contemporary fans. I expected the .45/70 to yield the best results simply because of the mass of the bullets, but it exceeded my expectations substantially. With extensive enough testing some other big-bore cartridges might outdo the .45/70, but when it comes to common and available brush rifles today, the .45/70 wins.
The best brush bullet in my testing was the 325-grain, .458-inch Lehigh Defense Extreme Defense bullet. It was in Black Hills Ammo’s Honey Badger factory loads, traveling at 1900 fps. These are solid copper machined bullets with a nose that’s fluted and resembles a Phillips screwdriver. The bullet is designed for zero deformation, and to penetrate deeply. The fluting at the tip is designed to cause cavitation and a wound channel like expanding bullets. I’ve seen bears shot with them, and they are formidable. This load had an average deflection of only 0.63 inches, without a single key-holed bullet in 15 total shots.
Next best was Federal Premium’s Hammerdown 300-grain load. Traveling at 1800 fps, it features a soft-point, jacketed bullet. Average deflection of this bullet was 1.43 inches, and only one bullet of 15 key-holed through the second target. They proved to be substantially more stable than the slower 405-grain LFB loads I tried, which spread to 2.32 inches with a 15 percent failure rate.
Final Thoughts on Brush Bullets
Recognizing the impossibility of absolute conclusiveness, O’Connor closed his story with the following:
“So, about all a brush hunter can do is use the most suitable bullet for his rifle, one that’s round or flat-nose, strongly constructed, and moderate in velocity. Even then he should try to pick a hole in the brush. If he can’t, he’d better mutter a small incantation to the Red Gods and hope for the best. Of all the alibis for missing game, the one that blames the brush or deflecting the bullet is still the best I know of.”
Echoing his conclusions in today’s world, I’d say that those who hunt in brushy country ought to consider copper bullets, especially in bigger rifles. Their less-deformable construction seems to give them an edge compared to even heavier, blunter lead-core bullets.
Summary of Brush Bullet Deflection
What Helps Make a Better Brush Bullet
- Monometal Construction
- .458-in. Caliber
- Moderate Velocity
What Limits a Brush Bullet
- Fragile Cup and Core Design or soft lead point
- Higher Muzzle Velocity
- Sub .458-in. Bullet Diameter
Brush Bullets in Today’s World
Unlike the mentality of the 1950’s, I’d urge you to hold yourself to a higher standard than to just shoot and hope. If you’re hunting with anything in the realm of normal deer calibers, never take your first shot through brush or grass of any kind. The chance of deflection and wounding is simply too high. Wait for a better shot, even if it might mean the animal gets away. Certainly never do it with a 6.5 Creedmoor.
If I were hunting brush thickets where fleeting and obscured shots were common at close range, I would feel relatively comfortable with the .45/70 and the right ammo based on what I’ve seen. Should I still wait for the best opportunity possible? Yes. But the .45/70 does provide a level of forgiveness if brush is encountered, and a much better chance of connecting on a follow-up shot through the wicker. Nothing else in my testing came close.
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