I think Winchester Bismuth shotgun ammunition is a great choice for those who need hard hitting and reliable non-toxic shotshells for waterfowl hunting. I explain why I feel this way in this Winchester Bismuth review.
Like it or not, waterfowl hunters in The United States are required to use lead free shot since the institution of a nationwide ban on the use of lead shot for hunting ducks and geese in 1991. There are unfortunately many downsides associated with using lead free shot on waterfowl. Indeed, many hunters have experienced extreme frustration with the reduced effective range and less impressive terminal performance of many non-toxic shot options when compared to the old lead shotshell loads.
This is especially true on really big and tough birds like Canada Geese and Sandhill Crane. I’ve used all sorts of different of non-toxic shot on waterfowl over the years with varying degrees of success. I know how frustrating it is to hit a bird multiple times and have it still fly away, fall crippled into the water and attempt to escape by diving, or just have to shoot it so many times the breasts are full of tooth breaking pellets.
Fortunately, non-toxic shot has come a long way in the last 30 years and waterfowl hunters now have a much better selection of shotshell loads to choose from that offer better patterns, a longer effective range, and improved terminal performance.
This article is a Winchester Bismuth review where I go over the strengths and weaknesses of this ammunition so you can make an informed decision regarding whether or not it you should use it yourself.
Before we get started, I have two administrative notes:
First, the folks at Winchester sent me some Winchester Bismuth ammunition free of charge so I could evaluate its performance afield on a sandhill crane hunt out in west Texas.
Second, some of the links below are affiliate links. This means I will earn a small commission if you make a purchase. This commission comes at no extra cost to you. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue to create free content that’s useful to people like you. Thanks for your support.
What are Winchester Bismuth Shotshells?
The story of Winchester Bismuth ammunition starts back in 1991 when the federal government instituted a lead shot ban for waterfowl hunting. Going forward, American waterfowl hunters had to use shot made of materials like steel, tungsten, bismuth copper, tin, nickel, and copper.
Ammunition manufacturers primarily used lead pellets in their waterfowl loads up until that point because lead is cheap, readily available, and fairly dense.
Lead is also toxic though.
Well, that change banning the use of lead forced hunters to use shot made of materials that were more expensive, less common, and/or less dense. Those materials also have different physical properties when compared to lead.
All of those factors led to lots of growing pains as everyone tried to adapt to using non-toxic materials for waterfowl hunting.
Steel was (and remains) one of the primary materials used in non-toxic waterfowl loads. However, steel is less dense than lead. This means that a steel pellet will weigh less than a lead pellet of the same size.
For this reason, manufacturers increased the size of the steel shot used in their waterfowl loads. However, that meant they needed to reduce the total number of pellets in a given shot shell. At the same time, those steel pellets did not retain velocity and energy as well as otherwise identical lead shot (sort of like comparing a ping pong ball to a golf ball).
Those things all result in a reduced effective range, diminished penetration, and reduced lethality on birds.
Manufacturers have made all sorts of changes to reduce or eliminate those problems over the years and steel shot today is much better than what was available back in the 1990s.
One other non-toxic material has really started to catch on with waterfowl hunters though: bismuth.
What are the advantages of bismuth over steel?
Well, bismuth is more dense than steel.
Lead shot has a density of 11.1 g/cc (grams per cubic centimeter) and steel shot has a density of just 7.86 g/cc (about 30% less dense).
On the other hand, bismuth has a density in at 9.6 g/cc, which is over 20% more dense than steel. It’s still not quite as dense as a traditional lead load, but it comes a lot closer than steel.
As previously mentioned, a heavier object will retain both energy and velocity better than a lighter object. At the same time, their increased density means it’s also possible to make a bismuth pellet smaller and nearly as heavy (or even slightly heavier) as a steel pellet, which allows for more pellets to be used in the same amount of space.
It’s not all sunshine and roses with bismuth shot though.
Bismuth shot presents a unique set of challenges for manufacturers.
First, bismuth is brittle and can shatter under the extreme pressures common when fired from a shotgun.
If that happens, those smaller fragments do not maintain energy nearly as well, which reduces their penetration, effective range, and terminal performance. It can also negatively affect patterning.
With this in mind, Winchester included a special buffering compound in each shotshell in order to both improve the patterning characteristics of the load. That buffering material also helps prevent the bismuth payload from fracturing or breaking when fired.
Additionally, Winchester bismuth waterfowl ammunition features a water resistant-lacquered primer and double seal wad to keep water out of the primer and powder pockets. So, a hunter who gets caught in the rain or accidentally drops their shells in some water can rest easy knowing those shells are designed to still deliver dependable ignition under damp waterfowl conditions.
Winchester Bismuth At The Range
Winchester specifically advertises that this ammunition is supposed to pattern really well. So, I decided to verify that for myself.
I fired three shots of Winchester Bismuth 3-inch #1 shot loads into 30-inch circles at 40 and 50 yards using a 12-gauge Mossberg 940 Pro Field with the factory modified choke. Next, I counted the holes inside both circles to determine the average percentage of pellets hitting those circles at each distance.
Before shooting, I cut open a couple of different 3-inch #1 shot loads and learned they had 103-107 bismuth pellets inside them. So, call it an average of 105 pellets in a shell.
I was very pleased with the results.
This new load put a staggering 70.5% (74 pellets) into a 30-inch circle at 40 yards and a smaller, but still impressive 48.6% (51 pellets) into that circle at 50 yards.
Additionally, I did not notice any evidence of broken bismuth pellets either. Just dozens of clean, circular holes straight through the target in a pretty uniform shot pattern.
This ammunition also reliably cycled my shotgun with every single shot with no malfunctions. Recoil was stout (this is a heavy, 1 3/8 ounce load after all), but not terrible either.
Winchester Bismuth Afield
Performance at the range is one thing, but performance afield is something else.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to test this stuff out in something resembling an apples to apples comparison with another popular waterfowl load.
I hunted sandhill crane in December 2021 with Western Wing Outfitters out in Abilene using a 3-inch 12-gauge load of Winchester DryLok Super Steel ammunition firing a 1 1/4-ounce payload of BB shot.
That’s pretty typical and effective 12 gauge ammo for use on really big birds like geese and sandhill crane.
That ammunition worked well for me on my hunt, but I was frustrated at how I (and the other hunters I was with) often had to shoot those crane multiple times to bring them down.
Sandhill crane are really big and notoriously tough, so these results weren’t unusual at all though.
Even so, I wanted to use something more effective without having to step up to a 3.5″ 12 gauge or a 10 gauge shotgun.
Winchester officially launched their new Bismuth ammunition in the interim, so I decided to give it a try when I returned for another crane hunt with that same outfitter in January 2023.
Specifically, I used a Winchester Bismuth 3-inch 12-gauge load firing a 1 3/8 ounce load of #1 shot at an advertised velocity of 1,450fps on this hunt.
Holy cow I was impressed!
Instead of having to shoot birds multiple times to bring them down (or even worse, still fly away after taking 2-3 hits), I killed several crane with a single shot each.
Heck, I even knocked down two crane in two consecutive shots and (on a separate day of hunting) brought down a crippled bird over 60 yards away as he tried to escape!
By and large, the birds I hit with my bismuth shot fell stone dead to the ground and did not require additional finishing shots.
My guides on that hunt were astounded by the effectiveness of that ammunition on those crane. They’ve seen a lot of guys come through there with a lot of different types of shotgun ammo over the years, but they’d never seen any non-toxic shot hit sandhill crane with such authority as the Winchester Bismuth ammo I was using.
A closer inspection of these shells at home provided some clues as to why they performed so much better.
I cut open a couple of those DryLok and Bismuth shells and inspected the individual pellets when I returned home.
Each steel BB pellet weighed about 6.1 grains and there were around 90 pellets in each shot shell.
On the other hand, each bismuth pellet weighed about 5.5 grains and there were an average of 105 pellets in each shot shell.
BBs are a little bigger than #1 pellets (BBs are .180″ in diameter vs .160″ in diameter for #1 shot). With this in mind, those larger diameter BBs actually have a lower sectional density than the #1 shot, even though the BBs are slightly heavier.
Sectional density (SD) is a measure of the ratio of the diameter of a projectile to its mass.
All other things equal, a projectile with a higher sectional density will penetrate deeper than a projectile with a lower sectional density.
Not only did those individual #1 bismuth pellets have a higher sectional density than the steel BB pellets, but there were also 17% more of the bismuth pellets.
Plus, the #1 shot is also a little more aerodynamic (since it’s smaller in diameter).
Add it all up and I was shooting a load with a significantly larger number of bismuth pellets that each retained more energy and penetrated better than each individual steel pellet.
The fact that the bismuth ammo patterned so well in my shotgun also undoubtedly helped as well.
Saying that Winchester Bismuth ammo exceeded my performance expectations on this hunt would be an understatement.
Winchester Bismuth: Final Thoughts
I think that #1 bismuth load is great for bigger birds like geese and crane. Winchester also makes another 3-inch 12-gauge load firing 1 3/8 ounces of no 4 shot. In addition to that 12-gauge loads, Winchester also produces a bismuth 20-gauge load firing a 1 ounce load of #4 shot (1,300fps advertised muzzle velocity).
Those smaller shot sizes are ideal for duck hunters.
Additionally, unlike steel, bismuth loads won’t damage barrels in older shotguns either.
At $45-60 for a box of 25, this stuff is a little pricey. However, it’s also more or less comparable in price to other premium non-toxic loads (and less expensive than the really high end stuff like Tungsten Super Shot) and delivers a wicked blend of more knockdown power at (potentially) longer ranges than steel.
Additionally, even though the bismuth ammo is more expensive on a per shell basis, it’s also likely I used a smaller dollar amount of ammo with the bismuth since I needed fewer shots to bring down birds on my hunt when using that stuff.
With all that in mind, I think Winchester Bismuth waterfowl shotgun ammo is a great non-toxic alternative ammunition choice for die-hard waterfowlers who want less frustration, fewer crippled birds, and more bag limits filled. This stuff will work great on puddle ducks and mallards close to home, sea ducks in the Pacific Northwest, and even sandhill crane out in west Texas.
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Endorsement Disclosure: Per the guidelines of the Federal Trade Commission, the product reviewed here is an endorsement and I received compensation by “in-kind” payment to review the product.