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Deref Coercion in Rust

· 3 min read

Rust's approach to handling types and memory is notably distinct, emphasizing safety and efficiency. One of the key features supporting this is the Deref trait, which facilitates the conversion of references to types, enhancing the flexibility of code through deref coercion. This feature can lead to cleaner, more intuitive code by allowing a type to behave similarly to another type, mainly through the method syntax.

Deref Coercion

Deref coercion is a convenient Rust feature that automatically converts references to a type into references to another type for any operations that require the latter, assuming the former type implements the Deref trait targeting the latter. This mechanism is commonly seen in smart pointers like Box<T>, Rc<T>, and Arc<T>, which use Deref to dereference to their data.

For example, Vec<T> implements Deref with the target [T] (slice), allowing methods defined on slices to be called directly on Vec<T>. This is not only syntactically pleasing but also conceptually simplifies understanding ownership and borrowing semantics by providing a borrowed view of the owned data through the Deref implementation.

Use Cases and Patterns

  • Smart Pointer Behavior in Collections: By implementing Deref in collections such as vectors, these structures can be treated much like smart pointers. This offers both owning and borrowed views of the data, facilitating more flexible APIs and usage patterns.
  • Facade over Composition: Deref can also be misused to create a facade over composition, emulating inheritance seen in object-oriented languages like Java. This is done by structuring one type around another and implementing Deref to return a reference to the enclosed instance. While this reduces some boilerplate by allowing method calls on the outer type as if they were calls on the inner type, it introduces a non-obvious design that might confuse future maintainers due to the implicit behavior and lack of real inheritance semantics.
  • Wrapper Types for API Stability: Implementing Deref in wrapper types can encapsulate functionality and ensure API stability, especially when interfacing Rust code with other languages. This pattern can safeguard against common errors such as use-after-free by tightly controlling the access patterns to the underlying data.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The primary advantage of using Deref coercion lies in its ability to reduce boilerplate code and clarify the usage of types that inherently manage resources, like smart pointers and collections. It allows for a more intuitive interaction with these types by treating them as their target types, simplifying method calls and property access.

However, the misuse of Deref, especially to simulate inheritance, can lead to confusing code. Since Deref coercion is implicit, it might not be immediately clear to someone reading the code that the methods being called are not actually methods of the type on which they're being invoked. This can complicate maintenance and debugging.

Moreover, using Deref does not allow for the automatic implementation of traits on the new type, which means additional boilerplate might still be necessary to fully mimic inheritance-like behavior.


Deref coercion is a powerful feature in Rust that, when used properly, can significantly enhance the expressiveness and clarity of code. It exemplifies Rust's commitment to providing safe, efficient, and clean coding practices, leveraging its type system and ownership model to reduce errors and increase productivity. However, developers must use this feature judiciously to maintain clear and maintainable codebases.

This post is inspired by Collections are smart pointers from the Rust Unofficial Design Patterns Book.