Modern bismuth waterfowl hunting ammunition has achieved impressive performance that has essentially eclipsed the capabilities of steel shot. Several brands now make premium bismuth ammo that is able to outperform even the best steel on the market. These new bismuth loads are able to pattern tighter and penetrate deeper than steel. I do not believe there is still any need to make a case for bismuth duck hunting ammo, it is clearly impressive relative to steel. The big question I will address in this article, is which bismuth shells are best for various hunting uses.
This is not a fluff review packed with regurgitated internet research either, I have personally pattern tested and ballistics gel tested the top four bismuth brands on the market, including BOSS copper plated bismuth shotshells, Kent bismuth, Winchester tin plated bismuth, and HEVI-Bismuth. I have examined recoil, reliability, price, and availability as well. Some of these shells ARE better than others, and some are better in certain circumstances.
This article is not sponsored, these are my insights drawn from my personal tests, most of which has been recorded and published online. I will link to some of the more relevant videos as we go if you want to look deeper still. There is a lot of marketing involved with all duck and goose hunting gear, which is why I also did this podcast episode that might be of interest to you: How To Navigate The Duck Hunting Marketing.
Overview Of Bismuth Shells Tested
BOSS Copper Plated Bismuth. For years BOSS has been one of the top contenders in the waterfowl bismuth marketplace. Owning the patent on the process of copper plating bismuth has given them a distinct competitive advantage that other companies have been working to make up. The load I tested was #4 shot, 3″, 1.375 oz (232 pellets), 1350 FPS. It is worth mentioning that BOSS makes a 1.5 oz and 1.625 oz version of the same 3″ shell at the same velocity. None of the other companies have any other load options. I had to intentionally use BOSS’s lowest payload 3″ shell for this test in order to match the payloads. I have shot a lot of BOSS bismuth shells for different tests, so many that I did a full article: BOSS Bismuth Shotshells Review.
Kent Bismuth. Kent is one of the longest standing companies producing bismuth duck hunting loads, and for good reason. They produce a very high-quality product that certainly performs very well. The specs on their shell were #4 shot, 3″, 1.375 oz (232 pellets), 1450 FPS.
Winchester Bismuth. Winchester is the newcomer to the bismuth marketplace, having just released their new duck hunting shell about a year ago. There is also of controversy around this shell with accusations flying around about alleged plastic beads used as buffer material. I did not even attempt to evaluate that but what I can say is that Winchester Bismuth came to play. This new shell performs very well. It is tin plated, most likely because BOSS holds the patents for copper and nickel-plated bismuth. This shell’s specs were also #4 shot, 3″, 1.375oz (213 pellets), 1450 FPS .
HEVI-Shot HEVI Bismuth. HEVI-Shot mixes bismuth into some of their other loads so it is only natural that they would also have an all-bismuth waterfowl hunting shell. They are not new to game by any means, but they do lack a differentiating factor with the other shells. If HEVI-Bismuth has one unique element it would be availability. They seem to the shell I most often find in stores. This shell also had the same specs, #4 shot, 3″, 1.375 oz (232 pellets), 1450 FPS.
Federal Bismuth? I did not test this shell by itself, mainly because I have heard that ever since Federal and HEVI-Shot were bought out by the same company, that the HEVI-Bismuth was relabeled and also sold as Federal Bismuth. So if that information holds true, they are essentially the same load. If anyone knows better, please let me know so I can adjust this and try to test them in the future.
To test these duck hunting loads I used my Mossberg 940 Pro Waterfowl with its 28″ barrel and a Carlson’s Bismuth Bone Buster ER choke tube, which is the equivalent of an XF choke. For more info on that shotgun, I did an article here: Mossberg 940 Pro Waterfowl Review.
I fired these shells at 40 yards at extremely large paper with a reactive shoot and see target in the middle. Other folks doing test videos often do the same thing but they often make a critical research error, they count the pellets on the shoot and see target. This is NOT a reliable way to judge pattern. Evey shell may have a different point of impact. You need to use much larger paper and then draw a 30″ circle around the densest part of the pattern and count the pellets within, whether they are on the shoot and see target or not. The Winchester and Kent loads had the most pellets in the 30″ circle followed by the BOSS and the HEVI. Take a look at the data:
It is noteworthy that the Kent and Winchester are designed and marketed as high pattern density loads. And they would indeed perform better for long range applications, however for short range applications their patterns may indeed be too tight. You would want to use a very open choke for regular hunting ranges, perhaps improved cylinder. The following field test video tells the story very succinctly and enables you to see the patterns for each.
Ballistics Gel Testing
For the ballistics gel tests, I shot each shell at 40 yards. I tested two shells in each block of gel because that is all you can reasonably see and count in one piece of gel. I used several blocks of gel for several tests comparing each load against the others.
A big issue people run into with gel testing is comparing the results from different blocks of gel, especially across different days. You cannot do this. A block of gel is only useful for comparing the ammo fired at that block of gel under the current conditions. Even the same gel on different days will give different results. So you cannot compare measurements between tests unless you are under lab conditions and using lab calibrated gel every time.
These ballistics gel tests are useful for comparing the two shells tested in each. The below links will take you all four short and concise test videos, each is complete with a second pattern test as well. As you might imagine, the differences in ballistics gel penetration between the loads was not huge. The faster Kent, Winchester, and HEVI loads got just slightly more penetration than the slower BOSS, between 2% and 8% more to be exact.
- BOSS vs. Winchester Bismuth
- BOSS vs. KENT Bismuth
- BOSS vs. HEVI-Shot Bismuth
- KENT vs. HEVI-Shot Bismuth
A big factor in being able to shoot accurately is recoil. Many people do not realize how big of a difference recoil makes when it comes to how quickly and effectively you can make follow-up shots. It has nothing to do with your ability to shoot the shotgun without crying, or even to fire it without discomfort. It is all about how much the recoil impacts your body position, moves the muzzle of the gun off target, and disrupts your vision with the muzzle blast. The more recoil you have the less effective you will be with second and third shots. This all factors into why I made the video Why You Should NOT Hunt With 3.5″ Shotgun Shells.
Most hunters do not realize that with less recoil they would take more birds, despite the velocity or payload advantage the comes with heavier loads. Felt recoil plays a massive role in being an effective and efficient wing shooter. When comparing these shells, the recoil analysis is actually very simple. All of the shells have the same recoil, except for BOSS.
Per the chart below, BOSS has 30% less recoil than the other shells. It seems crazy but the extra 100 fps you get with the other shells at this payload weight adds almost 12 lbs. of recoil. And it feels like it too. Those loads hit noticeably harder than the BOSS. To me having 2-8% more gel penetration at the cost of 30% more recoil isn’t worth it. But you do you.
Quality & Reliability
After testing all four shells, I found that all of them performed well. There were no misfires, failures to eject, or bad rounds. They all seemed perfectly reliable. In terms of shot quality, no bismuth shot is perfectly spherical due to the most common production methods. But 3 of the four seemed fairly consistent with only the HEVI-Bismuth being noticeably odd-shaped.
There were some massively larger and mutated looking HEVI pellets. However, it is worth noting that despite really big and bad looking pellets, those pellets hit the duck sized ballistics get target and were recovered for evaluation. So, the odd shapes and sizes did not seem to hurt performance much. However, overall, the HEVI was the worst patterning shell, and this could very realistically be why.
Price & Availability
When it comes to cost, the prices do fluctuate. BOSS sets their prices, and they are what they are, but others are based on the retailers selling them and when availability is low, prices can go up a lot. All in all, on average BOSS is usually a little cheaper than the others.
The big story here is the options available. Winchester has the fewest options, followed by Kent and HEVI-Shot. But BOSS on the other hand specializes in bismuth waterfowl loads and makes nothing but bismuth. And since they are a direct-to-consumer brand, you can only buy their shells from their website. This may seem like a con initially, but BOSS has 17 different options in 12 gauge alone. Different shot sizes, different payload amounts, different shell sizes, etc.
If you add all the options up including 10-gauge, 16-gauge, 20-gauge, 28-gauge, and .410 bore, they have about 50 different options of shells to pick from. That is amazing and unheard of. Whatever you want, you can have. BOSS is all in with bismuth, and no one can touch their shell options.
The Winners & Losers
If you look at all the data points and consider all the variables, the best shell for you will depend on what you value most. If you value selection, price, low recoil options and all around performance then BOSS is the best shell. If you value long range pattern density above all else, then Kent or Winchester are in the lead. If you are most interested in the shells you can find at your local outdoors shop then HEVI is most often going to be the winner. If you prefer penetration as the most important piece, then Winchester seems to have a slight edge.
All in all, I think the two best performing shells tested are the Winchester and the BOSS. Winchester Bismuth has the edge in pattern and penetration while BOSS leads in every other category. If I am jump hunting ducks on the water at range, I will prefer the Winchester. If I am hunting decoying ducks at any regular range then BOSS would be my go-to. For more on the subject of waterfowl ammo, check out my podcast episode: All About Shotguns & Shells For New Duck Hunters.
I should note, that as I write this, BOSS is talking about their newest buffered bismuth shotshell that is not yet available. They are calling it “Project Warchief” and it is designed match the Winchester in pattern and penetration without increasing velocity, recoil, or price. If it does all of that, it will likely be the greatest bismuth shell ever produced. But time will tell. Once it is released, I will work to get some and add it to the test.
Conclusion & Recommendations
You cannot go wrong with any of these shells, they are all great performers. My recommendation is to get a box or two of your favorite ones and do some pattern testing with your gun and choke. You need to see how they shoot for you and feel how they shoot. I would absolutely buy a box before ordering a case to make sure you really like whichever one you pick.
Be sure to listen to The New Hunters Guide Podcast and check us out on YouTube.
Till next time. God bless you, and go get em in the woods!
George Konetes Ph.D. – Founder and Host of the New Hunters Guide.
The New Hunters Guide is simply what George wishes he would have had when learning how to hunt; a single place to get practical hands on knowledge about different kinds of hunting, gear, strategy, and tips that can improve your comfort and fun factor in the woods.