SA JAGTER/HUNTER | September-Oktober 2020 | By GRAEME WRIGHT
Bullet deflection - Part 1
Hunting conditions in much of Southern Africa (and indeed much of Australia) would be what South Africans describe as bushveld. Good numbers of full-sized trees plus lots of scrubby, bushy growth, all interspersed with coarse grasses. Shooting distances tend to be modest but will most likely involve trying to find a clear path from the shooter to the animal. Under these conditions, one often-repeated saying is “just shoot through the brush – it’ll be fine”. With dangerous game hunting, this saying may be modified by the PH to say, “just use a solid – it’ll go straight”. I have always had doubts about this particular piece of “field wisdom” so I decided to set up a trial to find some answers.
CARTRIDGES AND BULLETS USED FOR THE TEST
I tested four cartridges. A .450 NE and a .375 H&H would cover the dangerous game cartridges, and a .338 Win Mag and a .30-06 would cover general hunting cartridges. All rifles had scopes fitted. Because of availability, the projectiles used were all Woodleigh – codes as follows: PP (Protected Point), RN SN (Round Nose, Soft Nose), FMJ (Full Metal Jacket), RN HD (Round Nose, Heavy Duty) and Hydro (Hydrostatically Stabilised).
The shooting bench was placed 80 yards from the target. This is a good, average distance for shots at big game on a typical Africa safari. The rifle was held on the bench with a lead sled and sandbags, and the target was a paper with a crosswire-style bull that allows for a very precise hold with a scope sight. A portable frame was made with a “window” (which could be closed by means of pulling on a drawstring) in it to hold various types of test media. The test media was clamped into the window using wooden slats at the top and bottom. The frame could be positioned at any distance between the shooter and the target. To conduct a test, the frame is set at a predetermined distance from the target and the desired media is clamped into the frame. With the window open, I lined up and adjusted the unloaded rifle on the target and the frame so that the bullet would go through the middle of the window.
After making sure the range was clear, the rifle was loaded, and a test shot fired through the open window. This was the datum shot for each particular test and the subsequent shots were measured from this datum. Each test consisted of one datum shot followed by five shots through the media on the way to the target. The technique for these five shots was for the shooter to align the scope onto the target with the window open and then ask an assistant to close the window using the drawstring. With the window closed the shooter couldn’t see the target, which meant that the bullet had to travel through the media on the way through. Finally, without moving the rifle, the shot was squeezed off, and the target examined for point of impact and the media reset.
Media used was 16mm hardwood dowels, and pieces of cane about 6.4mm thick. When the test was first conceived, coarse grass was also considered as a media. However, the cane had such a negligible effect that grass was not tested. As for shooting distances, the first test was at 40 yards, simulating hitting an obstruction halfway between the rifle and the animal, as well as a shorter test at 10 yards to simulate an animal standing in cover.
Although the vital heart/lung area on a big-game animal such as a buffalo could be considered fairly large, the heart area itself is only about 8” in diameter, and only a hit through the heart could be considered a positively fatal shot. By the same token, an 8” circle would also represent the heart/lung area on smaller antelope so this was the standard used – if any bullet fell outside this area it would be considered as a failure to hit close enough to the vitals and therefore unreliable.
As mentioned above, at the beginning of each test, a datum shot was fired at the target with no obstructing media. The shots fired through the media were then assessed in relation to the datum shot. If a shot fell more than 4” from the datum it would be considered to have missed the vital area.
DATA SUMMARY – ACCURACY
Obstruction at 40 yards – hardwood dowel: Soft-point projectiles proved erratic and gave the worst performance. The new 300gr Heavy Duty RN in .375 did considerably better than the PPs in this calibre. This indicates that the heavier jacket is delaying expansion and the projectile was able to hold its shape better.
Out of a total of 30 soft-point projectiles, only six landed inside the 8-inch circle. The FMJ projectiles did much better than the soft-points, although they were only tested in the two larger calibres. Of ten shots fired, six landed inside the 8-inch circle. The Hydrostatic bullets were the stand-out performers. Of 20 shots fired, 18 landed inside the 8-inch circle. The larger/heavier projectiles performed better, a result that would have been intuitive to most shooters. Greater mass and momentum hold the heavier projectiles closer to course, even after hitting an obstruction.
Obstruction at 10 yards – hardwood dowel: As would be expected, projectile performance was much better with only 10 yards to travel after hitting the obstruction. Of 30 soft-points fired, 26 managed to hit inside the 8-inch circle. The FMJs did perform better when looking at all the soft-points together, however, they did show something of an anomaly in that they performed worse than their same weight/calibre soft-points. This is where a further test with a greater number of shots would be useful to get a higher reliability average. Again, the Hydros performed best, with all 20 shots hitting the control circle. The larger/heavier projectiles performed better in this instance as well.
Obstruction at 40 yards – cane: Cane did not seem to present much of a problem to most projectiles. Of thirty shots fired, only one landed outside the control circle.
DATA SUMMARY – ACCURACY
During the course of these tests it became quite clear that bullet stability was an issue. When a soft-point went through the dowel, it presumably started to expand to at least some degree. This expansion destabilised the bullet to varying degrees, sometimes completely, with some bullets going through the target sideways.
Where the bullet missed the target completely, it was not unreasonable to assume total destabilisation of the bullet. This then brings in another factor in addition to simple accuracy – penetration. A soft-point that has partially expanded would have much less penetration, and if the bullet was going sideways it may have no effective penetration at all, causing just a surface wound.
Both the FMJs and the Hydros are non-expanding bullets and presumably held their shape when passing through the test media. However, both types showed some degree of yawing at the target, although none showed bad keyholes or side-ways profiles. With solid bullets even mild or slight yawing may affect penetration in terms of both depth and possibly more importantly, their ability to penetrate in a straight line. This area really requires more testing but was outside the scope of these tests.
No doubt this can be seen as a tough series of tests, especially with the hard media at 40 yards. However, these situations can and do regularly occur on safari. Another very important thing to consider is that in the sporting/civilian application, NO projectile is designed to hit an obstruction between the rifle and target.
In this respect, these series of test fall outside any design criteria and as such no projectile can “fail” a test that they were not designed to pass in the first place. In relation to soft-points, the tests show what most experienced hunters would have instinctively reasoned, namely
that if a soft-point hits anything on the way to the target, it may start to expand, and accuracy suffers. Many soft-points showed considerable yaw, with quite a number going through the target sideways, and others missed the target completely. After hitting any substantial twig or branch, the soft-point will start to expand and this presents two problems. Firstly, accuracy suffers, but, as the bullet has already opened up to some degree, penetration would be affected as well and very unpredictable.
To give the PH comment “just use a solid” its due, the story with FMJs was much better, but still gave enough problems to cause concern. Many FMJ projectiles showed some degree of yaw at the target, although none went through sideways. This would indicate that hitting a substantial twig or branch might destabilise a FMJ to some degree and hence also effect penetration.
As mentioned above, the Hydros were the stand-out performers and delivered unforeseen results. However, they are not infallible, and just like the FMJs, many of the Hydros showed yawing at the target that may affect penetration. The cane media also delivered an unforeseen result. Before the tests I would have thought that ¼” of cane would have had at least some measurable effect but it actually presented little trouble to nearly all bullets. The odd one out was a .375 bullet landing 6” from the datum, and this illustrates that even something light and frangible may occasionally have some effect on bullet performance. Overall, hitting any substantial twig or branch on the way to the target can have dramatic results. Lighter vegetation such as grass may have little effect, but it may still destabilise a bullet enough to affect accuracy. Bullet construction also makes a big difference in deflection. Hydros are the best, followed by FMJs and, lastly, soft-points. Probably the most important point is that NO bullet is infallible even when shooting through grass.