The influence of ion bombardment on the mechanical stress and microstructure of sputtered silicon nitride (SiNx) films has been systematically investigated. Applied substrate bias voltage was used to control the bombardment energy in a radio frequency (rf) reactive magnetron sputtering system. The resultant films were characterized by transmission electron microscopy (TEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR), Rutherford backscattering spectrometry (RBS), stress and chemical etch rate measurements. As the bias voltage was increased, the internal stress in SiNx films became increasingly compressive and reached a value of about 18.3 × 109 dyne/cm2 at higher bias voltages. These correlated well with the transition of the film microstructure from a porous microcolumnar structure containing large void to the more densely packed one. The obtained results can be explained in terms of atomic peening by energetic particles, leading to densification of the microstructure. It was also found that the amount of argon incorporated in the film is increased with increasing bias voltage, whereas the oxygen content is decreased. The lowest etch rate in buffered HF solution, approximately 1.2 Å/sec, was observed with the application of a substrate bias of -50 V.