Asked & Answered

bismuth shotshells

Bismuth shot, a nontoxic preferred by many for being denser and softer than steel, was nearly unavailable for years. Now, in addition to shells available from Kent and Rio, RST offers bismuth in 2½" shells for 12-, 16- and 20-gauge guns. Photograph by Benjamin williamson

Each year I devote a column to letters from readers addressing topics of general interest to the broader audience of shotgunners. Here is a selection.


Have you done a review of HEVI-Shot Classic Doubles nontoxic shotshells? I ask because I am wondering if they are safe for use in my new Watson Bros. 12-gauge side-by-side. I know that a variation of HEVI-Shot available some years ago had an average hardness that was less than that of lead but contained granules of a material that was actually harder than steel, with the result being that shotshells containing pellets made from this material would not have been good for use in my gun.

HEVI-Shot Classic Doubles loads, manufactured by Environ-Metal, contain soft tungsten-composite pellets that the company says are suitable for firing in any shotgun that can handle lead shot and the pressures of American shotshell loads for the gauge and shell length in question.

Classic Doubles pellets are similar in density to bismuth/tin pellets—that is, about halfway between lead and steel shot. Bismuth/tin pellets are another “soft” nontoxic, as are the pellets loaded in Kent’s Tungsten Matrix loads. Of these three, Tungsten Matrix pellets have the highest density—almost as dense as hard lead shot.

I’m writing to gain your perspective on 20- vs. 12-gauge shells loaded with 1 oz of shot. My wife hunts with me. We’ve hunted with the same-gauge guns so we can share shells. Upland hunting requires her to carry a gun all day. I bought her a light, semi-auto 20-gauge with a recoil reducer in the stock. She shoots the gun great. The gun is light enough that she can carry it easily.

I am wondering how a 1-oz 20-gauge load compares to a 1-oz 12-gauge load. For pheasant hunting, most companies create high-speed loads with No. 5 lead shot. As you can imagine, 1¼ oz of No. 5 shot at 1,350 fps is not an ideal load for my wife. Is 1 oz out of a 20-gauge just as lethal as 1 oz out of a 12-gauge? Are there other factors that should I be considering?

As long as the shot type, shot shape, shot size, charge weight and velocity level are all similar or the same between the 12- and 20-gauge loads being compared, they will generate virtually the same recoil level and develop similar ballistic and lethality potential, as long as they pattern similarly from both guns. But to know the latter, this must be checked by pattern-testing the two guns. Chokes must be tried until you find the choke in each-gauge gun that, with the load in question, yields a similar pattern to the other gun and choke at the same distances relevant to your expected shooting situation.

Is my reasoning sound, or are there too many other factors affecting performance to conclude that lower pressures are almost always better?

For the most part your thinking is correct, especially that lower-pressure loads tend to pattern better with soft shot types such as lead or bismuth because of the slightly gentler launch of the shot they provide. This results in less pellet deformation, and anything that reduces deformation results in rounder pellets emerging from the muzzle.

However, there are situations where higher pressures are of benefit. These include cold-weather shooting, where higher pressures ensure a more successful powder burn. Higher pressures also almost always aid smaller shot-to-shot velocity variations. Higher pressures result in more complete and cleaner combustion, especially where certain slow-burning propellants are being used and where light shot charges for a given gauge and shell length are involved.

While pattern-testing results can be empirically derived and visually appreciated, these other ballistic phenomena go largely undetected, with the possible exception of dirty powder burns. Shot-to-shot velocity variation, for example, is important to certain shooters’ consistency in hitting success but is unspecified for both factory loads and reloading recipes.

I am a Texas hunter desperately looking for bismuth shot—size No. 6 or 7—for a light, small Purdey I’ve been shooting since 1960. It, of course, cannot handle steel shot. I would not shoot lead over a pond of wildfowl and would hate to give up my favorite sport due to the inability to find cartridges.

If you are talking about reloading bismuth shot, contact Precision Reloading (800-223-0900) or Ballistic Products (888-273-5623) to order the shot. In Texas contact Cabela’s or Academy Sports & Outdoors as two of many sellers of factory Kent and Rio bismuth ammunition. Also, check out RST at rstshells.com concerning 2½” 12-, 16- and 20-gauge bismuth loads.

In analyzing reloading data from powder manufacturers, it is apparent that chamber pressures vary—sometimes considerably—for equivalent muzzle velocities, depending on different component combinations. I am referring specifically to data published by Hodgdon for 28-gauge loads with Longshot powder that states a 10% chamber-pressure difference due just to different primers. Because the higher-pressure recipe is right at the SAAMI maximum for 28 gauge, this seems significant.

I have always tried to pick a primer-powder-wad combination that will result in the lowest pressure for the velocity I am loading for (within reason). It seems intuitive to me that, all other things being equal, lower pressures should result in better patterns, should definitely be easier on guns and may extend hull life. I would say my loads perform well using these criteria.

I am a relatively new shotshell reloader and very sensitive to recoil. I am reloading 1 oz of lead shot at about 1,200 fps. I use No. 8s for trap, skeet and sporting clays. But I put some No. 6 shot in my target loads, and it seems to kill pheasants, if I can hit them.

It seems that there would be an advantage to having more lead in the air, like a 1¼-oz load. Is there a way to load 1¼-oz light loads? All of the books put 1¼-oz loads in the hunting arena and use magnum primers and powders and crank up the velocity. My experience appears to favor 11/8-oz loads over 1-oz for quail. It just seems that I kill more with more pellets.

Does less pressure mean less recoil?

Just load 1,200-fps lead-shot target loads with 11⁄8 oz of No. 6s or 5s instead of No. 8s. That will take care of your recoil issues and still be lethal on pheasants. Do not mix non-lethal No. 8s with larger pellets; that is a subtraction from the load’s pheasant-taking lethality. Use the same load with No. 8s on quail.

No, lower chamber pressures do not lessen free recoil. But some shooters claim they experience less felt recoil from lower-pressure loads. Others can feel no difference.

Through all your years of testing sporting-shotgun loads, have you developed a mathematical formula for arriving at the minimum amount of pellets required in a 30” circle to kill a bird? I have studied your lethality tables and wondered if they are based on a formula or pattern- and field-testing. I’m familiar with Burrard’s formula, but by his own admission it doesn’t provide an adequate number of pellets for gamebirds that are greater than two pounds.

The minimum-pattern-count data listed in my lethality tables for various bird species and body sizes were derived solely from empirical testing and the X-ray/necropsy results gained from examining more than 26,000 birds taken in the field as one-shot kills—either in wildlife-agency-sponsored shooting tests or under the authority of scientific collecting permits. The patterns of the loads and chokes that successfully did the killing were then examined at the various distances the birds were struck, to derive the pattern data. Nothing was done with computer simulations or projections or predictive mathematical formulae.

I read with interest your piece “Sub-Gauge Loads for Upland Birds” (March/April). Did your testing show Spred-Rs to be the best in 12-gauge as well? I want to add them to my sporting clays bag this year.

In a word: Yes!

To correspond with Tom Roster or to order his reloading manual on buffered lead and bismuth shotshells, his HEVI-Shot reloading manual, his updated 75-page Shotgun Barrel Modification Manual or his instructional shooting DVDs, contact Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601, 541-884-2974.

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