…The Ideal Alternative to Lead
In the early days after lead shot bans were put in place, one of the alternatives available was bismuth shot shells. After fading away, it has come back, and it has done so in a big way.
All of the major shotgun ammunition companies now have bismuth loads.
To fully understand bismuth’s potential, travel back to high school chemistry class and the periodic table. Right next to element 82 (Lead), is element 83 (Bismuth). This ranking means that bismuth has a similar atomic weight to lead.
Shooters don’t talk atomic weights, though. They talk metal densities. Bismuth has a density of 9.75 g/cc. This is close to lead’s 10.8 g/cc and 22% heavier than steel shot.
Although lead and bismuth are side-by-side on the periodic table, they are quite different in composition. While lead is soft and malleable (which makes for an ideal material for shot and bullets), bismuth is soft, but brittle. Bismuth does not have the toxicity of lead though, and is actually an ingredient in the well-known, common stomach medication Pepto Bismol.
Compared to steel, bismuth shot has greater retained energy and velocity. It also has less wind drift. Its softness also allows it to be shot through full-choke guns.
A First Alternative
Bismuth was one of the first alternatives launched outside of steel, after lead shot bans were put in place in the 1990s. Since then, several manufacturers tried their hands at it.
The brittleness of bismuth shot meant that the pellets often fractured shortly after firing and before leaving the barrel. Shotgun pattern science says that the more uniform and rounder the pellets, the better the shot pattern will be. Fractured pellets don’t generate good patterns. Bismuth still had a following though, since it could be shot out of classic, full-choke guns.
“Bismuth was also fairly odd-shaped and was not consistent in size or sphericity, which led to reduced pattern performance,” says Jeff Berry, of Kent Cartridge, speaking of the earliest bismuth shells. “Products such as our Tungsten Matrix far outperformed bismuth for several years. When the price of tungsten began to escalate, bismuth returned to the market as it was now less expensive than tungsten-based products. This was around 2015, with more coming on board since,” Berry says.
When Kent Cartridge launched bismuth, the company started to manufacture its own pellets.
According to Barry, “At Kent, we are committed to quality and performance. The early bismuth shot did not meet our quality standards due to its tendency to fracture and hence provide sub-standard pattern performance. We spent several years in research and development to come up with a proprietary process, which solved the fracturing and uniformity issues. We accomplished both by binding the bismuth with tin, along with a burnishing and rolling process to produce a more uniform shot. It was only then that we introduced a product loaded with bismuth bearing the Kent Cartridge name.”
Seeking An Alternative
Fast forward a few years to when other shotgun shell manufacturers were looking for a premium load that performed better than steel but was less costly than tungsten. They circled back to bismuth.
My first experience with bismuth was when Kent introduced its bismuth loads. My interest was to be able to shoot my grandfather’s Winchester Model 12 in 16 gauge with a full choke during a hunt. Bismuth loads commonly came in boxes of 10 at that time, and they were often in the $40 to $50 range.
I wanted to take a turkey with it. The full choke was ideal for a turkey gun. The loads I had were Kent #6 one-ounce loads (not the magnums I would have preferred) and patterning showed my range was limited to 35 yards. One thing I learned years earlier is that 16-gauge shooters need to take what they can get for ammunition.
As I sat there the first morning with the 16-gauge in hand. I realized that the blued gun was much shinier than my camouflage turkey gun. I was hunting in a blind and when a turkey came in, I moved the gun in position when the bird was behind a tree. I had done this many times before. Instead of pulling the trigger though, I ended up trying to put the bead on a rapidly-retreating bird that had put a tree between me and it. The bird was out of range before I was on it.
My goal moved from taking a Tom to taking the first legal turkey that was in range. On my second outing with the gun, I took a jake. As I sat reflecting on the hunt after ensuring that the turkey was down, I realized that my grandfather had grown up a little over a mile away as the crow flies. That certainly made this hunt extra special.
(See Kent Bismuth Shells in action in this article by Brad Fenson)
The next goal, which came a couple of years later, was to use bismuth for duck hunting with the 16 gauge. I started duck hunting as a kid using that gun, shooting mostly wood ducks over ponds. By this point, the bismuth loads now came in boxes of 25 and the price wasn’t much different from boxes of 10 a couple of years earlier. An invitation from a friend to shoot wood ducks at his pond was a perfect opportunity to try the gun. The first night, no ducks came in, but it was a different situation the second night, and the loads proved effective.
My experiences made me think of the hundreds of thousands of family heirlooms out there with full chokes, and how bismuth could breathe a second life into them. The load and shot selections from various manufacturers using bismuth in 12-gauge guns are a lot more diverse than 16-gauge ones.
It now seems that almost all shotgun-shell manufacturers looking for a premium load that performs better than steel, but is less costly than tungsten, have circled back to bismuth. In the last two years, most of the major ammunition manufacturers have launched a variety of bismuth loads.
Federal, Remington and Hevi all use bismuth shot manufactured by the latter company. Hevi worked on perfecting the manufacturing and alloy mixture to make its product.
“The shotshell engineers at Federal, Remington and Hevi-Shot have worked together to develop optimized cartridges that leverage the major advantages of bismuth shot. That means they are lead free and have better density than steel, with softness that is easier on barrel wear. Combining bismuth shot with better primers, modern propellants and wad technologies have provided the consumer with an optimized shotshell solution, a Federal spokesperson said.
The end products offered by the three companies are different. The Federal loads, for instance, use Flite Control wads. I have found that these produce nice, tight patterns.
Drew Goodlin, senior director of engineering with Federal, explains that the price of tungsten was a factor in the company launching bismuth. “The advantage of it is it’s compatible with all guns, which is important to a lot of consumers,” he says. Goodlin also spoke of bismuth as being more fragile and of a need to use an alloy with the pellets. He said bismuth is similar to steel in that there is very little deformity.
A Nice Opportunity
I recently had the opportunity to shoot Federal’s new Meateater Bismuth on a duck hunt with Chris Benn of Crooked Hook Charters on Lake St. Clair. I had visions of using the shells and shooting a quick limit of decoying ducks. On the ride to the launch ramp, Benn told me there were ducks there in big numbers, but the problem was that nice weather prior to our hunt date resulted in all the birds sitting in the middle of the lake.
I eventually got my limit with a mix of species. One of the birds I shot was a Bufflehead, taken at 40 yards. Those who shoot Buffleheads know these small ducks can be a real test of the effectiveness of your pattern.
In between shootings, Benn said he’s had customers who previously shot bismuth, and said it helps them reach out to distances not possible with steel shot.
Winchester uses bismuth in its latest iteration of its Xtended Range turkey loads. The company recently launched bismuth loads in boxes of 25 aimed at the waterfowling market. Winchester uses buffering to improve performance. (We reached out to company representatives, but they did not respond to questions seeking more details before our publishing deadline.)
Bismuth is not the cheapest shotshell product on the market. It ranges in price from $50 to $80 for a box of 25 upland or waterfowl loads. Turkey shells are around $20 for a box of five, which is more than lead but far less than tungsten.
It’s not often a new ammunition product comes along that appeals to a wide variety of shooters, but the latest bismuth loads may be just that. These loads allow shooting at extended ranges for those looking for a premium product, are an alternative in upland areas where lead is banned, and may help revive the use of a classic, full-choke shotgun, which is often a family heirloom.