Bismuth Lives!

Shot Talk


Factory-loaded bismuth shells and loose bismuth shot for reloading have been available on an on-again but mostly off-again basis in the US since bismuth shot came into existence in the late 1990s. At least two US companies imported loose bismuth shot from Eley Hawk in England and started loading and marketing it in the US in their own US-branded factory ammunition. Neither line survived more than two years. Bismuth shot was kept alive a bit longer by a couple more outfits importing Eley Hawk factory loadings into the US and selling them through their mail order Rio_Bismuth_Piccatalogs. That didn’t last either. Bismuth loads just didn’t prove to be a big enough seller in the US, so it has been practically unavailable for a decade. But the picture for bismuth in the US has changed and stabilized for long enough that I’m confident bismuth loads and loose shot should now be readily available for quite some time.

About a dozen years ago Maxam Outdoors, which owns the Spanish shotshell manufacturer Rio, bought Eley Hawk. This made Rio and Eley, in essence, sister companies. Besides manufacturing shotshells, Eley has been the world’s sole source of bismuth shot in all commercial shotshell loads and for reloading. Rio will complete a new shotshell-manufacturing facility in Marshall, Texas, which is reported to be a 105,000-square-foot facility and a $15 million investment. From all appearances and reader feedback, Rio factory ammunition—lead and steel, hunting and target—is enjoying wide distribution throughout the US. Rio ammo can be found at such outlets as Cabela’s, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Academy Sports, Natchez Shooters Supply and Able Ammo. Rio ammunition also can be ordered online from these retailers. Since all of this has been a happy and successful state of affairs in America for some time, it’s safe to conclude that Rio is here to stay.

Bismuth shot’s main attraction is its softness and thus compatibility with shotguns and chokes that were not intended or proofed for hard steel shot. Whether it is desirable or not is a matter of opinion. To many American shotgunners—mainly waterfowlers—it has not been desirable given its intermediate density and modest ranging performance, considering its high cost. After ample opportunity to try bismuth shot, not enough American hunters bought more. If Rio makes a go of it, it will be because Rio will have substantially less overhead expense and has other shotshell lines—lead and steel—to subsidize its bismuth line through shared manufacturing and distribution costs.

Since Eley is in a close business alliance with Rio, it will be a more streamlined path to import bismuth shot to load in the Texas facility for the US market. And that same import route will apply for bismuth shot for reloading. In short the American Rio-to-Eley connection should ensure that “bismuth lives” in the US.

Rio’s line of bismuth shotshells has expanded considerably during the past several years. Rio now offers American shotgunners a total of nine bismuth loads in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge plus 3” .410 in shot sizes No. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, depending on the load. Taken together, that’s a full line of bismuth loads for a wide variety of bird hunting purposes in every popular gauge and shell length, except 3½” 10 and 12 gauge and 2½” .410. Other than goose hunters, Rio has virtually every prospective bird hunter covered who’s considering using bismuth. Following are my experiences testing Rio’s current bismuth lineup.

First, 12 gauge. I have shot and tested about 10 boxes of Rio’s 2¾” 12-gauge Bismuth 36 load (Stock No. RBi36). This 1¼-oz load at 1,350 fps is available in shot sizes No. 3, 4, 5 and 6. I tested the No. 3s on ducks and the No. 4s on released pheasants. I took a total of 24 mallards, pintails and goldeneyes at distances of 30 to 45 yards. I found the killing performance satisfactory through barrels choked Modified and Full. Most of the ducks that were hit were dead or immobile within 30 seconds. You can’t ask for much more than that.

But I was really anticipating how the Bismuth 36 load with No. 4s would work on pheasants. I conducted my testing in September, so it was with released birds. Now before you pooh-pooh released pheasants, I have not been able to find any measurable difference in killing “toughness” between released pheasants and their wild cousins. This comes from observing thousands of pheasants I have taken under permits and by participating hunters during sanctioned tests I designed and administered comparing results for birds struck at the same distances with the same loads. Of course, there often are observable differences between wild and released birds in their wiliness and sometimes even in their flight speeds. But other than the fact that released pheasants typically hold better for dogs and thus offer closer shots, the lethality data gathered does not show that wild pheasants are harder to kill at 20 to 35 yards than released pheasants. And so it was very encouraging to record that of the 30 released pheasants I took with Rio’s Bismuth 36 load of No. 4s, fully 82% were dead or immobile very quickly.

Based on this data, my advice is that anyone pursuing ducks or pheasants with bismuth loads would be well advised to have those loads in size No. 3 for ducks and No. 3 or 4 for pheasants. During the early development stages of bismuth loads it was discovered that the brittleness of bismuth resulted in the majority of pure-bismuth pellets fragmenting before exiting the muzzle. Studies revealed that alloying tin with bismuth results in pellets that are much more resistant to fragmentation. But the amount of tin needed to solve this problem results in pellets that are seriously compromised in terms of density compared to pure bismuth, which at around 10.9 grams/cubic centimeter (g/cc) is similar to lead. Today’s bismuth/tin-alloy shot has a density of about 9.7 g/cc, which places it slightly more than halfway between the density of steel shot, at 7.86 g/cc, and lead, at 11 g/cc. Thus, to obtain the same downrange energy from a bismuth/tin pellet as a lead pellet, one needs to use a bismuth pellet one size larger. For example, if lead No. 5s are preferred for pheasants, one would need bismuth No. 4s for parity.

In 2013 I had a chance to test Rio’s 16- and 20-gauge bismuth loads (Stock Nos. RBi16 and RBi20). The 20-gauge load is available in 2¾” only in shot sizes No. 3, 4, 5 and 6 at 1,250 fps, while the 16-gauge is in 2¾” in No. 4 and 6 at 1,200 fps. That fall I took a significant number of released chukar with 20-gauge No. 5s at distances of 25 to 35 yards.

To compare the performance of 16- and 20-gauge bismuth loads, I elected to try both in No. 4s on released chukar. If you’re wondering about the choice of No. 4s for chukar, my reasons were that I wanted to test the same shot size in both loads, and it’s been my experience that not only can you get some pretty long shots with chukar, but also they are relatively tough birds. With lead shot, many experienced chukar hunters shoot primarily No. 5s at wild birds and never anything smaller than 6s. Ergo the bismuth No. 4s for parity with lead 5s.

Not surprisingly, since the loads contained the same amount of shot—1 oz—at virtually the same velocity, in a sample of 50 released chukar taken with each load at distances of 30 to 40 yards, I was unable to detect any difference in performance between the loads. And since a shot charge doesn’t know what gauge it is being shot from, if two shot clouds from similar choking contain the same number, size and type of pellets launched at about the same velocity with equal shot protection, both shot clouds develop almost identical exterior ballistic behavior. If you elect to shoot the 2¾” 16- or 20-gauge Rio bismuth loads at chukar, my experience says go with No. 4s and nothing smaller than 5s.

I have not yet had an opportunity to test Rio’s bismuth 28-gauge (Stock No. RBi28) or .410 (No. RBi410) loads. The 28-gauge load is 2¾” and contains ¾ oz of shot at 1,250 fps, while the .410 load is 3” and contains 9/16 oz of shot at 1,175 fps. For testing purposes I am going to order both loads in No. 7 shot. I intend to target both doves and quail. In the future I may test 28-gauge No. 5s for close shots at released pheasants and chukar. If I do, I will try to present the results as soon as possible.

Based on my tests, I am quite impressed with the quality and performance of the Rio bismuth loads I have shot. Bismuth-tin alloy is a good option for those who want to shoot softer nontoxic shot in guns with barrels or chokes that they believe could be damaged by hard shot types like steel or tungsten-composite. Like tungsten, bismuth is a relatively rare metal, and the base price of raw bismuth is quite high. But it’s nowhere near as high as tungsten. Thus, the price point of bismuth shotshells and shot should remain somewhere between steel and tungsten-composite shot.

Author’s note: For more information contact Rio Ammunition, 214.389.1896;

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;

See every Shot Talk article by Tom Roster, in print or online, with a subscription to Shooting Sportsman, the Magazine of Wingshooting & Fine Guns.

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