Non-Toxic Update:
Bismuth Shot
by: Tom Armbrust

Posted: 06/24/2008

In the January issue of Trap & Field, Jim Heggeness covered Tungsten Iron shotshells introduced by Federal Cartridge Co. (900 Ehlen Drive, Anoka, MN 55303).   For more information contact Mike Larsen at 612-323-2300.   My good friends Jim Heggeness and L.P. Brezny are partners in "Ballistic Research".   They were invited to an outdoor writers seminar featuring Tungsten Iron and Tungsten Polymer in the heart of the Texas rice country for some excellent goose and duck hunting.   Outdoor writers from the U.S. and Canada were teamed up with the new Browning 12 GA 3-1/2" Gold shotgun, plus Federal's new 12 GA 3-1/2" high velocity Tungston Iron loads at 450 FPS, hosting 1-3/8 oz of BB, 2 and newly introduced size 4 shot.   This shot size should be welcomed by the duck hunter as a more useful size, providing more pellet hits in the kill zone due to an increased number of pellets (192) in the shotcharge.   Jim and Brez were both impressed with Browning's 12 GA 3-1/2" Gold, and Federal's 3-1/2" Tungsten Iron ammo, in regards to its deadly goose and duck harvesting ability.   For more information on Browning's 12 GA 3-1/2" Gold Hunter or their wide selection of clay target shotguns contact Browning Arms Co. (One Browning Place, Morgan, Utah 84050, phone Travis Hall at: 801-876-2711).

Now let's turn our attention to Bismuth shot and what it means to the hunter and clay target shooter.   First, let us look at its physical properties.   Bismuth is a non-toxic heavy metal with a specific gravity of 9.71 (when alloyed with 3 percent tin).   Compared to lead with a specific gravity of 11.12, Bismuth is 87 percent as dense as lead.   Steel, with a specific gravity of 7.86, is only 71 percent as dense as lead.   More importantly, Bismuth is 24 percent denser than steel.   The higher density of Bismuth is extremely important when comparing its down range performance to steel shot.   Bismuth pellets will weigh 24 percent more than steel pellets of the same size.   In addition, assuming similar pellet sphericity, the denser Bismuth pellet will not lose its velocity as rapidly as the steel pellet.   Due to the Bismuth pellets greater weight and better retained velocity, it will deliver more energy to a target at any range than a similarly sized steel pellet started at a similar muzzle velocity.   Not only that, the denser Bismuth pellet will experience less lateral dispersion, thus providing tighter long range patterns.   This is a win/win situation for the waterfowler.

Factory Bismuth shells will cost about 1-1/2 to 2 dollars a piece for 12 gauge shells.   The 10 GA shells will run 2-1/2 to 3 dollars a piece.   Handloaded shells, of course, will be less expensive.   Do you have only old or expensive guns that you don't want to or don't dare to shoot steel shot ammunition in?   Use Bismuth shot loads.   Want to shoot waterfowl with a 28 GA or a 410?   Now you can with Bismuth shot loads.   Do you pass shoot waterfowl at extended ranges?   If you are disappointed in the performance of some steel shot loads, use PSB bead buffered Bismuth shot loads.   The Bismuth pellets are made for long range waterfowl shooting.   Why aren't other pellets as effective?   Because of the interesting physical properties of Bismuth being so similar to lead.

Bismuth, like water (ice), expands as it solidifies and cools.   Pellets larger than Number 6 do not retain a spherical shape when formed by the drop method.   Therefore, only pellets in sizes Number 6, Number 7, Number 8 and Number 9 can be formed via a modified version of the drop method.   The BB, Number 2 and Number 4 Bismuth pellets are manufactured through use of a proprietary manufacturing technique.   While this method is more expensive, the result is a superior pellet.   Current production Bismuth BB's are very spherical, rivaling steel pellets in this regard.   Since they are 25 percent denser than an identically sized steel pellet, PSB bead buffered BB Bismuth pellets provide very dense patterns and are an excellent pellet to be used for all long range work.   The Number 2's make an excellent middle to long range pellet for geese and large ducks.   The Number 4, Number 5 and Number 6 Bismuth pellets should all he adequate for most duck hunting and upland game situations.

You have heard the term "PSB plastic bead buffer" several times by now.   What is it?   It is a 0.015" plastic bead.   Why use it?   The "PSB plastic bead buffer", when used as a shot column agent, considerably improves pattern density.   This buffer is sold under the name of PSB plastic bead buffer and is obtainable from Precision Reloading Inc. (124 South Main St., Mitchell, SD 57301).   Ask them for a copy of their Bismuth shotshell reloading manual or contact Keith or Mary at 800-223-0900.

In the early stages of pattern testing Bismuth shot loads, it was common to see pellet shards or irregularly shaped holes from pellet fragments on the pattern sheets.   The purpose of using various buffers was to reduce the pellet fragmentation, ACTIV used PSB plastic bead buffer.   A 10 round string of a 10 GA 1-3/4 oz.   PSB bead buffered Number BB Bismuth shot load produced a 60 yard 65 percent average in the 30 inch circle.   A repeat of that pattern test produced the same results.

At 40 yards, this load produced 93-95 percent 30 inch circle patterns and recorded all but one or two pellets on the 4' x 4' pattern sheet.   It was obvious that pellet fracturing from ignition forces was no longer a problem when the Bismuth shot column was buffered with PSB plastic bead buffer.

Some impact fracturing would occur when Bismuth pellets hit wood or other hard surfaces.   Occasionally, Bismuth pellet fracturing would occur in recovery or penetration box media (polyethylene or polystyrene foam panels).   Fractured pellets have also been recovered from geese on several occasionsV It didn't make any difference to the geese, they were dead!   Number BB Bismuth pellets recovered from recovery and penetration boxes generally showed no deformation other than pellet to pellet contact dimpling.   Even pellets that were recovered from wood pattern sheet frames were not deformed..   Only on rare occasions has a Bismuth pellet been recovered deformed.

The pellet fracturing problem was exacerbated by the poor quality pellets initially available.   Many pellets had voids that promoted fragmentation.   Pellet quality, especially in the Number BB's and Number 2's, has improved greatly since then.  

In all Bismuth shot sizes in all gauges, the PSB bead buffer has dramatically increased pattern performance.   The higher pattern levels observed with PSB bead buffered loads is due to almost entirely to the prevention of pellet fragmentation rather than reduced pellet deformation.

In our opinion, no other buffer works as well in maintaining pattern densities.   For example, eighty-eight test patterns at 60 yards using PSB buffered 10 GA BB Bismuth shot patterns averaged 60.4 percent in a 30 inch circle.   This outstanding performance was obtained out of three different guns with choke constrictions ranging from 0.026" to 0.052".   Eighty-eight test patterns at 60 yards using ground polyethylene type buffered 10 GA BB Bismuth shot patterns under similar conditions averaged 46.2 percent in a 30 inch circle.   Most of these patterns were shot using a 1-3/4 ounce 94 pellet loads.

At 60 yards, the PSB head buffered load averaged 57 pellets in a 30 inch circle compared to an average of 43 pellets for the ground polyethylene loads.   That is a 33 percent increase in the number of pellet hits in a 30 inch circle!   Don't take my word for it though.   Pattern test a PSB plastic bead buffered Bismuth shot load against any other buffer type Bismuth shot load and prove it to yourself.   The increase in pattern percentage obtained is due almost entirely to the use of PSB plastic bead buffer.

Bismuth shot loads for long range work, require tight chokes, PSB bead buffer and the BB Bismuth pellet.   A choke constriction of 0.045" works best in the 10 GA.   A choke constriction of 0.035" works well in the 12 GA.   Don't rely on what your barrel or choke tube is marked.   With the advent of steel shot loads, many firearm manufacturers severely reduced the constriction in their choke tubes to prevent steel shot from damaging them and still labeled the tubes "Steel Shot Full".   Many of these "Steel Shot Full" chokes are only improved Cylinder to modified as far as degree of constriction is concerned.   If you are serious about long range shot gunning, use the BB Bismuth pellet buffered with PSB plastic bead buffer.   Then have a gunsmith mic your barrel and choke to determine what the choke constriction is.   If you are within 0.005" of the above values, your load will produce dense long range patterns.   More open chokes are fine and even desirable for short to mid range work with Bismuth shot loads.   I have heard of some hunters having success with Number 7-l/2's and Number 8's in the 28 GA and 410.   No matter which gauge and shot size you select, insure that the Bismuth shot loads you use are buffered with the PSB plastic bead buffer.

ACTIV loaded the first U.S. commercial Bismuth shot loads.   They used PSB plastic bead buffer in the buffered loads, mainly because it flowed so well into the shot column.   At that time, no one realized how well that buffer would work to prevent Bismuth shot pellet fragmentation.   Those loads remain today as the best of the commercially produced buffered Bismuth shot loads.

Kent Cartridge in England loaded what was considered an equivalent bead buffer in shot size Number 4 and smaller buffered Bismuth shot loads.   Unfortunately, the Kent Cartridge bead buffer was not equivalent to the PSB plastic bead buffer and the patterns resulting from loads using the Kent Cartridge bead buffer are not much better than those using no buffer at all.

Estate Cartridge used Alliant 380 series propellant and a fine ground high density polyethylene buffer in their 12 GA Bismuth shot loads.   The fine ground high density polyethylene buffer does not prevent pellet fragmentation as well as the PSB plastic bead buffer.   In addition, the propellant used in the 12 GA loads had a somewhat fast burn rate.   For more information on Estate Cartridge Company extensive lineup of Bismuth shotshell offering from 12 GA through 410 bore, contact Estate Cartridge Co. (PO Box 3702 Conroe, TX 77305, phone Paul Butaud at: 409-856-7277).

Winchester has selected to use GREX as a buffer.   This buffer is coarser than the fine ground polyethylene buffer and provides better pellet fragmentation protection.   The pattern performance suffers only slightly compared to PSB buffered loads.

Morris Bunemann of Winchester's R & D department pattern tested his 10 GA Browning Gold auto, at both 40 and 60 yards using Winchester 3-1/2" factory ammo with 1-7/8 oz shotcharges of Bismuth.   Getting exceptional test results, BB shot averaged 92 percent at 40 yards, with 69 percent in the 20 inch circle core and 67.3 percent at 60 yards!   For more information on Winchester Bismuth shotloads, contact Winchester Olin Corporation Mike Jordan (427 E. Shamrock Street, East Alton, IL 621024-1197 phone.   618-258-2000).   The prototype choke tube used in the Winchester testing is called Terminator.   It was designed by Wallace Labisky (1323 4th Avenue SE, Aberdeen, SD 57401, phone 605-225-7906).   Manufacturing is done by Clearview Products Inc., PO Box 12160, Oklahoma City, OK 73157, contact Mr. Larry Nailon phone 405-943-5753.

Jim Heggeness and I have worked with Bismuth shotloads almost since its inception.   We have harvested hundreds of wildfowl in many different parts of the country, under all types of hunting conditions, with most excellent results.   Kill rates are very high for the number of shots expended.   Pellet penetration and pattern density are properly maintained right out to maximum range of harvesting capability, if proper pellet size, shot charge weight, and gun, choke combo are selected.   If cost is not a major consideration Bismuth shot may be just the most effective wildfowl loads to date all other things considered.

I take great pride and get much enjoyment from again being able to hunt wildfowl with my cherished old doubles, to name a few, Parker, L.C. Smith, Fox, Lefever, and Charles Daly.   These old shotguns are choked just about right, on the tight side for shooting past 40 yards.   It has been much too long a wait to use these fine old shotguns for fear of choke damage due to steel shot!   Now once again the grand old and almost forgotten 16 GA shotguns can once again be used for duck hunting.   Plus the 20 GA magnum using Bismuth loads is a fine duck gun.   My old buddy Don Preban is a duck hunting nut, and he is really impressed with the new 20 GA 3" mags 11/16 oz 5 Bismuth in his 20 GA Remington 1100, 26" modified barrel.   Inside of 45 yards big mallards don't know what hit them", plus the gun is light and responsive.   Morris Bunemann has dumped 15 consecutive mallards without a miss with Winchester 12 GA 3" 1-5/8 oz 4 Bismuth loads, a feat he can never remember doing ever before with any other type of shotshells.   More and more hunters are seeing far less crippling with excellent quality Bismuth shotshells, and their killing range has been increased so they are enjoying the best of both worlds.   The future indeed does look bright for the wildfowl hunter.

Now let us turn to the clay target shooter regarding Bismuth shot.   I have shot hundreds of rounds of both trap and skeet targets in all gauges from 12 GA to 410 bore, with size 7-1/2 and 8 Bismuth shot.   For my 16 yard trap shooting a 1 oz load of 8 shot works very well.   I can not tell any difference between the Bismuth or a quality 1 oz lead target load in bird breaking ability, both loads really grind em up.

These following reloads have worked very well on 16 yard targets:

Shell: 12 GA 2-3/4" Remington STS Premier
Primer: Win-209
Powder: 16 GR IMR 700-X
Wad: Winchester WAA 12SL
Shot: 1 oz. 8 Bismuth
Velocity: 1,200 FPS
Pressure: 10,500 PSI
Shell: 12 GA 2-3/4" Remington STS Premier
Primer: Win-209
Powder: 16.5 GR Hodgdon Clays
Wad: Winchester WAA12
Shot: 1 oz. 8 Bismuth
Velocity: 1,210 FPS
Pressure: 10,220 PSI

This following reload worked fine on the mid range handicap targets from the 20 to 23 yard line:

Shell: 12 GA 2-3/4" Winchester AA
Primer: Win-209
Powder: 19 GR Alliant Green Dot
Wad: Blueduster GT 9118-12
Shot: l-1/8oz 7-1/2 Bismuth
Velocity: 1,195 FPS
Pressure: 10,520 PSI

Nonbuffered Bismuth targets loads using 1 oz size 7-1/2 or 8 shot usually pattern about 5 to 8 percent less dense versus hard high animonity lead shot target loads.   Your choke selection would be very similar to your lead shot choke constrictions.   Tight modified, improved modified, and full chokes seem to be the best for the trap shooter past 35 yards.

Powder selection and wad selection are a consideration for the reloading trap shooter.   Best pattern density is achieved by a slightly slower burn rate type powders, such as IMR PB, Alliant Green Dot, and Hodgdon International Clays to name a few.   These somewhat slower burn rate powders have a slightly more elongated time pressure curve, resulting in reduced peak pressure, thus enhancing patterns, due to less severe pellet setback on powder ignition and acceleration down the bore.

Your shotcup capacity on a lead shot target wad is designed for either 1 oz or 1-1/8 oz of lead shot, in sizes 7-1/2 to 9.   Well the Bismuth shot pellet is slightly less dense by 13 percent versus a lead shot pellet so a 1-1/8 oz shot capacity wad will work perfectly with a 1 oz load of Bismuth shot.   A normal 1-1/8 oz target wad can be used with 1-1/8 oz of Bismuth shot but more wad pressure will have to be applied to the wad for a good firm crimp.

A while back I remember MEC thinking about offering a line of Bismuth shot charge bars for their reloaders, for what ever reason this did not happen.   Just for curiosity, I inserted a Mec 302-118 lead shot charge bar into my Mec Size Master 12 GA press, and filled the bottle with size 8 Bismuth shot.   Remember, this MEC charge bar was designed to drop 1-1/8 oz of low antimony 8 lead shot.   Dropping ten charges of Bismuth 8 shot on to my electronic scale, averaged 432.8 GR with an extreme variation of 5.9 GR just under 1 oz of Bismuth shot.   So your 1-1/8 oz lead shot charge bar will work fine for 1 oz Bismuth target loads.   MEC can modify your existing Mec 1-1/8 oz bar to drop 1-1/8 oz of Bismuth shot.   Contact Ron Freitag at Mayville Engineering Co. (Inc., 715 South St., Mayville, WI, 53050 at: 414-385-4500 ext 6228).

Quality Bismuth shot reloads will perform very well on all types of clay target games and are no more complicated to put together versus similar lead target loads.   The one draw back is the reloader will have to dig deeper into his or her pockets, due to the increased price of Bismuth shot.   Follow published Bismuth reloading data to the letter.   Hodgdon Powder Company spent much time and effort into their Bismuth shot loads, contained in their new "Shot Shell Data Manual" pages 185-207.   Contact Ron Reiber or George Weber at Hodgdon Powder Co. (PO Box 2932, Shawnee Mission, KS 66201, phone: 913-362-9455).   Take the time to pattern test your shotguns choke load combination, this will pay dividends in your shooting success, at game and clays.   For information on availability of Bismuth shot target and hunting loads contact Ken Elliott at Bismuth Cartridge Co. (2041 E. Rosecrans Ave., Ste 363, El Segundo, CA 90245, phone: 800-759-3333).

Good luck with your Bismuth shot loads at the clay target range and in the field.   While I was attending a recent wildfowl symposium in Peoria, IL, Winchester's Steve Meyer, one of their shotshell research and design people, told us of a Bismuth No-Tox shotshell improvement.   Winchester was conducting in house pattern tests with their Grex buffered Bismuth magnum loads in 12 GA and 10 GA.   A new type of polybead buffer was showing pattern improvements up to ten percent at 40 yards and beyond.   These updated and improved Bismuth No-Tox magnum polybead buffered loads should be an excellent wildfowl harvesting load for shooting past 40 yards said Meyer.

See Jim Heggeness's pattern test results shooting a 12 GA 3-1/2" Browning Gold teamed with a Clearview Labisky terminator choke tube.   For more information on the terminator tube contact Wallace Labisky, (1323 4th Ave SE., Aberdeen, SD, 57401, phone: 605-225-7906).   Jim was shooting 12 GA 3-1/2" Winchester Supreme, prototype 1-7/8 oz BB Bismuth polybead buffered loads at 60 yards.   This load placed 66.8 pellet hits in a thirty inch circle for 73.1 percent.   This is full choke performance a full 20 yards past the 40 yards standard!   This was a 12.9 percent pattern improvement over the Winchester Grex buffered load, containing 55.0 pellet hits.   These new Winchester Supreme No-Tox Bismuth offerings are the most deadly non toxic wildfowl loads to date for long range shooting under adverse conditions!   Winchester's 1998 product guide lists component Bismuth shot available in size BB through 6.   A complete line of Bismuth reloading components such as hulls, wads, shot PSB polybead buffer, and their updated Bismuth shot reloading manual with new loads using Alliant Steel powder are available from Precision Reloading Inc, phone 800-223-0900.


Copyight @ Tom Armbrust, USA 2008
All rights reserved

Reproduction of this material without written
permission from Tom Armbrust is strictly prohibited.

Click here to send Tom Armbrust an email:

Website Technical email Contact: