Bismuth Shot Fundamentals

By Nick Johnson

Around the time I was born, lead shot used in waterfowl hunting began to be phased out. I vaguely recall my dad and grandpas grumbling about the lesser performance of steel shot for a few years preceding when I was old enough to know what duck hunting was. Nonetheless, this was the law and hunters adapted to various brands and sizes of non-toxic steel shot for waterfowl species.

Fast forward to the 21st century and it’s becoming increasingly common for hunters required to shoot non-toxic loads on not just waterfowl, but also upland game on certain public ground opportunities. Steel shot is still the most affordable option in this regard, but a new wave of non-toxic performance shot has been breaking into the budget consumer market the past decade or so, bringing back the knock down power, and in many cases exceeding what hunters experience with lead shot.

When I started waterfowl hunting on my own or with friends in the early 2000’s, steel shot was the norm. They had some fancy non-toxic stuff coming out about that time such as Hevi-shot or Kent Tungsten matrix but those loads were completely out of my high school-aged budget so I never got to experience the performance they had to offer. We made do with steel and it worked just fine in most applications.

These companies who made performance non-toxic shot quickly saw a need for a consumer level product that the average hunter wouldn’t break the bank on. Products like Hevi-Metal with a blend of Hevi Shot and steel offered a performance shot with a greatly reduced price tag, giving budget conscious hunters like myself a chance to try out something new. I quickly began to see a difference. I could take slightly longer shots and reduce crippled birds, along with the sheer knockdown power on well placed shots.

As the years have progressed, shot technology has come a long way and it is now considerably easier and more affordable for some of these companies to produce non-toxic shot such as bismuth, trickling down to an affordable product for the consumer. Bismuth shot, in my opinion, is one of the greatest advancements in shotgun shell technology for quite some time in terms of non-toxic. It’s been around for a long time although it has traditionally been incredibly expensive to shoot. Companies like Boss Shotshells have taken the reigns as an American company to produce a very affordable and quality product for not just waterfowl, but also turkey and upland game. They recently upped their game on bismuth shot by copper plating the pellets which offers maximized penetration on the target. Bismuth, being relatively soft in terms of metal, is safe to shoot in older guns so there’s no fear of chewing up that old double barrel or Model 12 passed down from Grandpa.

But, Its Still More Expensive than Steel
Yes, indeed bismuth shot shells are more expensive than standard steel loads but not by a wide margin as in the past. When you consider the rate of crippling birds on average for steel load and following up with one or more shots to put that bird down, it starts to make a little more sense. With bismuth being heavier and denser than steel, you get added penetration and knock-down power and a drastic reduction in crippled birds. The proof is in the math for me. I’m not making a sales pitch; this stuff is legit.

Smaller Shot Advantage
Along with bismuth being heavier than steel, it also patterns more tightly and enjoys a restricted choke which I’ll touch on in a bit. This, coupled with a heavier density, allows hunters to downsize their shot and still get the same knockdown performance with more pellets on target. If you traditionally like to shoot mallards with #3 or #4 steel, this will translate to #5 or even #6 bismuth which is a huge advantage in my opinion. For me, I spend a fair amount of time each fall hunting diving ducks on big water in Iowa. In the past I’ve mostly used #2 or #3 steel with fair success. Naturally, a bit of cripple chasing as divers often have dense feathers and a thick layer of fat around their meat. With bismuth, I can downsize to #4 or #5 shot with greater lethality and fewer cripples. The same step down in shot size naturally applies to geese and other game species.

Choking Bismuth
This is a very open-ended topic because it all boils down to your gun and what ranges you typically shoot the majority of birds. Do you hunt a lot of fields where much of the shooting is within 20 yards? Are you typically taking shots at birds feet down in the decoys at 15 yards or less? Do you like to hunt open water or public upland areas where shots exceeding 25 yards are not uncommon? These are all things to consider and it ultimately comes down to trying a few different chokes and ranges and getting shot on paper. I won’t describe that process because there are a staggering number of videos and articles on the web that explain how to pattern a shotgun much better than I can do.

I mentioned that bismuth likes a more restricted choke, and this tends to hold true. While steel prefers a slightly less restricted choke, bismuth will behave closer to lead and a tighter choke tube generally leads to better pattern performance. I shoot a full choke in my waterfowl gun and that generally gives me good performance in that 15-35-yard range for most applications, even upland. Always paper pattern a gun with bismuth shot before hunting so you know what works and what doesn’t.

The transition from steel to bismuth shot is rather straightforward. Other than selecting the right choke and getting the pattern and range dialed in, there is nothing else you need to worry about with the gun itself. I made the transition to bismuth two seasons ago and have been overly impressed with it thus far. As I mentioned before, Boss makes a pretty darn affordable shotshell and worth a look to try it out. Or even the Kent or Winchester bismuth although they run a little more expensive.

I’m being dead honest when I say that shooting bismuth has cut down on the number of shells I shoot at an equal number of birds in the bag with steel by at least one third. That’s assuming I don’t flat out miss which definitely happens. A case of shells now lasts a lot longer and rounds out to cost about the same as steel, per bird, in the end. I laid out some facts and general knowledge on bismuth but definitely do more research on your own if you haven’t already. I promise this stuff is worth trying out at the very least. Stay safe and have a great season field.