SAFARI Magazine Feature
They Gave Us Ammo, Piece by Piece
By Wayne Van Zwoll
Sixty years ago, hunters had few factory loads to choose from.
These men helped shooters roll their own.
The middle of the 20th Century brought some of the best hunting those of us born then can recall. Shooters found headline news in the startups of companies that promised them more and better ammunition. Handloaders, especially, benefited from the early efforts of pioneers like Joyce Hornady, Bruce Hodgdon and Dick and Vernon Speer.
Just after World War II, Joyce Hornady partnered with Vernon Speer in a bullet-making enterprise. The union soon dissolved, Speer moved to Idaho. Joyce stayed in Nebraska, but relocated from Lincoln to Grand Island. In 1949 he set up shop to make hunting bullets. His first year’s receipts totaled $10,000 – he tripled that the following year. The 150-grain Spire Point bullet Joyce fashioned for the .30-06 remains, six decades later, one of Hornady’s top sellers.
In 1964, Joyce Hornady began making ammunition under the Frontier label. He employed canister powders, once-fired cases and his own bullets.
Joyce perished in a plane crash in 1981 along with employees Ed Heers and Jim Barber, en route to the SHOT Show in New Orleans. Two years later, under family management, Hornady Bullets was absorbed into a new Hornady Manufacturing Company.
The other divisions, Frontier Ammunition and Pacific Tool Company, became Hornady Custom Ammunition and Hornady Reloading Tools. A year later, the firm was making its own cartridge cases and loading them.
Still, not all good ideas get quick approval. “We supplied sub-caliber bullets for Mike Bussard at Federal when that company was experimenting with a .17 rimfire. But we weren’t interested then in taking a chance on a new round we weren’t equipped to load,” Steve Hornady said.” Later our chief engineer Dave Emary applied new powders. I wasn’t very receptive, but Dave persisted. When I finally joined him at the range, we had fun! I figure shooting that’s fun for us will be fun for others. When I called Darrell Inman at CCI to see about loading a .17 rimfire, he told me I had to order five million cartridges and pay for the tooling.”
|A Steyr rifle delighted Wayne with Hornady .338 RCM ammo. Dave Emary developed the round.|
But Steve took the gamble. It paid off right away. Within weeks of the .17 HMR’s introduction, Hornady doubled its order for cartridges. “At one time we were backordered 12 million rounds,” he said with a grin.
New centerfire rounds followed. Hornady fashioned .308 and .338 Marlin Express rounds for the Models 336 and 1895 lever rifles with the Flex Tip bullets it loads in LEVERevolution ammunition. The soft, resilient polymer tip allows a pointed profile without the hazard imposed by hard conical tips contacting primers in a tube magazine.
LEVERevolution cartridges in .30-30, .32 Special, .35 Remington and .45-70 have breathed new life into traditional lever rifles. The stable also includes modern rounds like the .444 Marlin and .44 and .357 Magnums – and the .450 Marlin, developed at Hornady. The .300 and .338 Ruger Compact Magnums combine short-action hulls with a new series of propellants that Dave helped develop to wring magnum velocities from carbine-length barrels.
Hornady approached Ruger with the idea for its .204, then produced it. The .376 Steyr had its start in Grand Island. After Ruger’s Steve Sanetti suggested a .30-06-length .375, Hornady developed it and the subsequent .416 Ruger on the same big case.
Recent developments include GMX lead-free hunting bullets, Critical Defense handgun ammunition that cuts big, deep channels even after penetrating heavy clothing, and a Dangerous Game line that offers solid-bullet options for new and classic rounds, from the 9.3x74 to the .500 Nitro Express. There’s TAP rifle and handgun ammo for law enforcement.
One Hornady press on the 108,000-square-foot factory floor turns out more bullets in a day than Joyce Hornady’s company did during its first year. Lock-N-Load handloading tools benefit as much from CNC machines, and they’re gaining on the competition.
The firm is still a family-run affair, with Steve at the helm. Marval (Mrs. Joyce) Hornady, now 97, helped with the business into her eighties. Daughter Margie retired this year; son Robert died in mid-2008. The company is a founding member of the Shooting Sports Heritage Foundation, which Steve helped organize. A member of SAAMI, NSSF and other industry groups, Hornady Manufacturing steams ahead on a course charted 60 years ago by a man who wanted to make better bullets.
Brewster E. Hodgdon hailed from Joplin, Missouri, where he was born in 1910. He apprenticed under his father and grandfather, both civil engineers. But one frigid day, riding in the back of an open 1917 Buick to survey farmland, Bruce decided to study business at Pittsburg State College. Later he attended Washburn. He married Amy Skipworth in 1934, soon after he started as a gas appliance salesman. Within a few years, Bruce and Amy had a house and a garage, a chicken coop and a small orchard on two acres.
Bruce nonetheless dreamed of owning a business himself. Surplus gunpowder gave him his chance. Bruce knew that huge stocks of powder were dumped at sea following World War I, just to get rid of it. A handloader even during his Navy service in the 1940s, he decided to buy as much powder as he could from military depots, then sell it to handloaders. Bruce bought his first 25 tons with cash borrowed against his life insurance policy. It was 4895, ideal fuel for the .30-06. He stored the powder in a derelict boxcar in a rented pasture. A one-inch ad in American Rifleman summoned buyers who got 150 pounds for $30.
|H4831 accounted for most of
Bruce Hodgdon’s early powder sales. It still excels in big cases.
By 1952, brisk powder sales prompted Bruce to quit his appliance job in Kansas City to funnel all his energy into the powder business, B.E. Hodgdon Incorporated. J.B. and Bob joined him after finishing school in 1959 and 1961.
Bruce Hodgdon sold about four million pounds of surplus powder, mostly H4831. Developed for use in 20mm cannons, H4831 was available in huge quantities, and it suited the belted magnum cartridges just beginning to snatch market share from the .30-06.
“We got some surplus H4831 fresh,” J.B. recalled. “Some came from disassembled ammo. To sell it quickly, we offered primers with it in a package deal. Primers were not easy for handloaders to find then.”
Ron Reiber has worked at Hodgdon for nearly 20 years. He knows the origins of other popular surplus powders.
“H870 was fuel for the .50 BMG,” Ron said. “We no longer offer it. H335 was first designated WC 844, a powder for the 55-grain .223 load for the M16. It followed BL-C2, developed as WC 846 for 147-grain hardball in the .308.” A powder that began as WC852 took on a new moniker when Bruce found it gave excellent results in his .22-250.
“He used 38 grains behind a 50-grain bullet for 3,800 fps,” Ron said. “The powder became H380.”
By 1959, surplus stocks had run dry. The Hodgdons looked for commercial sources. Before and during the war, the U.S. government had subsidized Olin and DuPont here and abroad. The French-owned Australian Thales plant that currently manufactures Hodgdon’s extruded powders got its start as a U.S.-funded project.
“After the war,” J.B. said, “countries transferred ownership to commercial interests. One of our first nonmilitary sources was a plant in Scotland established to supply powder to the British.”
The Hodgdons bought ball powder, pioneered by John Olin in 1933, from the Olin Corporation. At first Bruce called ball powders ball powders. “But we soon learned Olin had registered that name,” J.B. said, “so we changed our designation to spherical.” Olin’s Winchester powder is currently made by St. Mark’s, an industry supplier owned by General Dynamics and operated at a Florida location. Since 2005, Hodgdon has marketed Winchester canister powders under a licensing agreement. IMR powders are made at a factory near Montreal.
DuPont chose not to sell extruded powders to Hodgdon in the 1960s. Ironically, Hodgdon now owns DuPont’s IMR business. “We also distribute Finland’s Vihtavuori line,” added J.B.
It’s unlikely that Bruce Hodgdon, borrowing on his life insurance for a mountain of surplus cannon powder, could have foreseen the day his firm would furnish dozens of types of handloading propellants. Or that he could have imagined the crowded field of cartridges that would consume them. Then again, maybe that’s just what he had in mind.
Vernon Speer was born in 1901 in Cedar Falls, Iowa. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he indulged an interest in aviation by building his own aircraft engine at age 21. He then installed it in a biplane and took to the sky in a test flight. Work as a tool foreman for John Deere grounded him for a while, but in 1941 he became chief ground instructor at a flying school in Lincoln, Nebraska.
There he also started making bullets. Handloading was in its infancy; shooters still cast their own bullets. Jacketed bullets hadn’t yet become widely available, and the war effort caused shortages in both brass and copper. Vernon struck upon the idea of using .22 rimfire cases for bullet jackets. He built a machine to iron out the rims and draw the hulls to proper dimensions for .224 jackets.
His partnership with Joyce Hornady proved as fragile as most, and in 1944 Speer left Hornady and Nebraska to establish his own business in Lewiston, Idaho. For two years he sold his jacketed .224 bullets in paper bags while laying the groundwork for a new bullet manufacturing plant on the banks of the Snake River. That’s still where Speer bullets come from.
War’s end renewed the flow of gilding metal to the commercial ammunition industry. Vernon took advantage by expanding his line of bullets to include all popular types and diameters. His son Ray joined the growing company in 1952. Two years later Ray produced the first Speer Reloading Manual. Ever the experimenter, Vernon Speer developed the Hot-Cor process to ensure better marriage of the bullet core and jacket.
Although Vernon’s name is widely known among shooters, his brother Dick also contributed a great deal to the growth of handloading. Fourteen years younger than Vernon, he became a machinist at Boeing Aircraft in Seattle. After Speer’s bullet factory began operation in Lewiston, Dick moved there to produce specialty cartridge cases.
Shooters keen to brew handloads for discontinued, proprietary or wildcat rounds took note. Selling the hulls first under the label Forged From Solid, Dick named his part of the business Speer Cartridge Works. While his extrusion processes were sound, the quality of raw stock varied widely in those days. Consequently, so did case quality. A high rejection rate, combined with the limited market in specialty brass, scuttled Dick’s enterprise.
Not to be deterred, Dick looked to handloaders for another inspiration. He found that primers were a bottleneck on most loading benches. Major ammo firms couldn’t (or wouldn’t) ensure a steady supply of component primers. Dick Speer seized on this failing as an opportunity. In 1951, he hired explosives expert Dr. Victor Jasaitis from Lithuania to come up with percussive compounds to fuel a new business in primers for handloaders. His first products were FA-70 primers to fill government contracts.
Later, Jasaitis came up with noncorrosive primers for sporting ammunition. To differentiate his business from Speer Bullets, Dick (with partner Arvid Nelson) changed his firm’s name to Cascade Cartridge, Inc. Now known universally as CCI, it soon outgrew its corner in Vernon Speer’s bullet plant. Dick bought a 17-acre chicken farm a short distance upriver, near the Lewiston Gun Club. There, in a converted coop under a tarpaper roof, he began producing centerfire primers.
After the gun club moved, Dick bought that property, expanding his operation in 1957 to include manufacture of shotshell primers. Two years later he started making power loads - rimfire cartridges for nail guns and other industrial tools. Rimfire rifle cartridges were a natural sequel, in 1963. When Hornady decided to load its .17 HMR cartridge, it turned to CCI. Hornady’s tiny, polymer-tipped bullets, combined with CCI’s manufacturing expertise and commitment to high quality, delivered to shooters supremely accurate cartridges that became one of the industry’s greatest success stories in the last 40 years.
By this time, CCI had improved its centerfire primers to give handloaders lower seating pressures and easier ignition. In 1991, it opened a new primer facility in Lewiston, and subsequently became a major supplier of cannon primers to the U.S. armed forces.