Bismuth shot is an old friend of mine, having worked with the very first batch of pellets invented by John Brown of Canada. Soon after, I traded information with a professor, who was working on non-toxic metal applications and raw ballistics research in England. This led to testing the then-new shotshells, which had not yet been offered in the U.S.
The English 12-gauge loads carried a totally biodegradable wad and hull, and used a very soft and somewhat rough-edged form of bismuth. Over the next three years, I shot hundreds of test patterns with it, as well as crows and waterfowl. Bismuth soon went mainstream, and hunters took hold of the bore-safe heavyweight material.
After a long hiatus, bismuth was brought back by Rio Ammunition. The affordable 3-inch, 12-gauge shotshell (also offered in 2 3/₄-inch) consists of a plastic wad more commonly found in lead fodder, containing 191 pellets of No. 3 bismuth. These loads run out the muzzle at 1,415 fps, and maintain 600 fps of killing power out to 60 yards.
At this range, it out-guns steel 3s, extending the working energy (foot/pounds and penetration) another 15 yards. But don’t push the Rio ammo any further, as cripples can be the end product of such actions.
On its own, bismuth is soft, so it always requires some type of hardening agent or blended metal (Rio uses tin) to be effective. Rio’s No. 3s were very much like those offered up by Eley Hawk of England back in the day, which makes perfect sense since Hawk retains the rights to bismuth, and allowed Rio to load and market the product. During a simple cracking test on several pellets, I found them to be as resistant as high antimony lead shot, for the most part.
In terms of weight and density, bismuth is very close to pure lead shot, offering similar killing power. Indeed, Brown found an excellent non-toxic substitute for lead that is bore-safe in the finest of guns, and also effective downrange. I have tested rounds by the hundreds in some very high end double guns and observed no damage in the tubes.
Bismuth works with choke changes readily. The modern bismuth pellet won’t fracture when compressed to a full choke or ultra-longrange constricted waterfowl tube as soft-shot problems are no longer an issue.
During a month-long field test on ducks and geese in South Dakota, I found feather “cutting” common with this load on birds hit hard from the side and going away shots. And it produced a clean run down the bore with no obvious scratching or cutting. These 3-inch loads delivered a stiff punch, and cycled well through my autoloader.
Shooting small Canadas in early season along the Missouri River indicated solid penetration at 35 to 45 yards, and those birds hit came down dead or immobile in each instance. Hunting early teal and ringbills, we killed ducks stone dead out to around 50 yards. I dumped several patterns into a flock of snows in the fall too, dropping a pair over a local stock dam at 35 yards. I don’t recommend 3s for geese, but sometimes things just work out that way.
I believe the basic shot string on these loads was long, making crossing shots easier. By late season, the hunting was dreadful, typically 30 mph winds and below zero temperatures. In these elements loads tend to become somewhat anemic at times, but the bismuth fodder did not fail in some of the worst conditions possible.
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