July 19, 2022
2020 was a banner year for Federal Ammunition. At that year’s SHOT Show in Las Vegas, the company released a record 130 new ammunition products, including Terminal Ascent and Hammer Down centerfire hunting ammunition and FireStick, a revolutionary premeasured, color-coded propellant charge for muzzleloader hunters. It wasn’t surprising to see this type of new product rollout from Federal. The company has become one of the world’s largest ammunition manufacturers, and generations of hunters have relied on Federal ammo for hunting everything from small game and waterfowl to the world’s largest and most dangerous game.
But Federal hasn’t always been such a large and influential ammo brand. By the time the current company produced its first round in 1922, Federal had already failed once. And if it weren’t for the vision of a single Minnesota businessman, the ammunition brand we know today would never have existed.
The Early Days
Charles Horn was the president of the American Ball Company in Minneapolis. It was a manufacturer of specialized ball bearings for machine parts. When the 34-year-old Horn heard reports that neighborhood children were breaking into the company’s scrapyard to steal cast-off bearings to use as ammunition for their air rifles, he concluded the company had accidentally discovered a new revenue stream. American Ball entered the air-rifle ammo business.
Horn had the ability to produce plenty of BBs. What he lacked was an effective packaging system for the sale of his ammunition. He developed and patented a paper tube design, but American Ball didn’t have the production capabilities to produce these tubes. He began the search for a shotshell manufacturer since, at that time, shotshells used paper hulls and the manufacturing process to make them would be like what Horn required for his BB tubes.
Horn called upon the Federal Cartridge and Machine Company in nearby Anoka, Minnesota, but the plant was closed and the building shuttered. Federal Cartridge and Machine had opened in September 1916, but by 1917, when Louis and Harry Sherman, brothers who had founded the company, left, the plant had never produced anything close to the 175,000 shotshells a week it was projected to manufacture. Only a handful of 12-gauge shells were ever verified to have come from the original company (and, not surprisingly, those boxes of ammo are highly coveted by Federal collectors). Only the plant manager, a man named John Haller, remained in the building, roaming the vast factory where hulking steel machines sat silent.
T.W. Lewis was the last stockholder in the failed Federal Cartridge and Machine Company. Horn struck a deal with him, and instead of purchasing BB tubes as he’d planned when he visited Anoka, he purchased an entire ammunition company. Horn’s first order of business was to hire Haller as the new plant manager. Horn knew nothing about manufacturing ammo and, according to early employees, broke most every machine he touched. The name was changed to Federal Cartridge Company when the purchase was complete in April of 1922.
Horn proved very effective at overseeing plant operations. He developed a workforce, and when the sleeping machines roared back to life, Federal was once again manufacturing ammo in short order. Initially, Federal offered three different Hi-Power shotshells: “short brass” Dixie blackpowder loads, “medium brass” Standard ammunition, and Ranger “Long Brass” ammo. Horn also struck deals with large companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck to create their “house” brand shells, which would produce a solid revenue stream for the brand.
A strong revenue flow was important in the company’s early days because larger ammunition brands, like Western Cartridge Company, which was owned by Franklin W. Olin, effectively shut off sales channels for Federal. This meant Federal ammunition would never make it to the shelves of sporting goods stores, which might have killed the brand.
Horn wasn’t going to give up, so he developed an alternative sales plan. Horn had his secretaries type hundreds of letters addressed to dentists, doctors, and barber shop owners across the Midwest. As a boy who grew up in Iowa, Horn felt that these establishments, which were in most every major town, were a gathering spot where local people chatted about various topics, including hunting. Anyone receiving a letter could order ammunition ($17 for 500 12-gauge shells, $14 for 500 16-gauge shells, or $13 for 500 20-gauge shells) to sell in their shop. Horn personally made deliveries in his red Buick.
In 1924, Federal hired Maurice “Daddy” Swope. Swope had previously worked at Western Cartridge, so it must have been satisfying for Horn to hire an employee away from a company that in effect was trying to derail his business. Swope was an expert in the production of rimfire ammo, and that same year Federal purchased the American Cartridge Company, a brand for which they produced house brand ammunition and which had fallen into debt. American Cartridge became American Eagle, a brand that’s still under the Federal umbrella.
In 1925, a familiar name turned up on Federal’s stockholder list: Franklin W. Olin. Apparently impressed by Horn’s efforts to avoid being bankrupted by Olin’s own guerilla sales tactics, Franklin Olin’s foundation purchased majority stock in Federal, effectively making him the brand’s owner. Horn, the other primary stockholder, remained president, a position he would hold until 1977.
The War Effort
Federal continued to grow throughout the 1920s and 1930s, which is particularly impressive considering the financial state of the nation during that period. By 1941, Federal’s success had captured the attention of the United States government. At the time the conflict in Europe was growing more intense, and it seemed unavoidable that the United States would become involved. In the fall of that year, the government joined with Federal to open the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant (TCOP). TCOP was classified as a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) plant, which meant the government would pay for the facility, which cost $30 million to build and operate. As a GOCO, Federal would manage the facility and supply the workforce to produce ammunition needed by the government should war erupt, and it wouldn’t take long until the United States was embroiled in battle. In December 1941, just a few months after TCOP began ammunition production, Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered World War II.
At the time Federal produced only shotshells and rimfire ammunition. The war effort required the manufacture of .30-, .45-, and .50-caliber munitions, and so several Federal employees traveled to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, where they learned to manufacture centerfire ammunition. That provided Federal with the capabilities to produce military ammunition (the initial GOCO contract called for Federal to produce 100 million rounds, but by the end of the war the company had produced over 5 billion rounds). It also laid the foundation for Federal to release its own line of commercial centerfire ammunition.
In 1963, Federal began offering centerfire hunting rifle ammunition in the Monark line. Fourteen calibers ranging from .222 Remington to .35 Remington were initially offered, including 8mm Mauser, .303 British, .300 Savage, and .32 Winchester Special. Except for the .222 Remington and one .243 Winchester load, all Monark ammo was offered initially with Federal’s Hi-Shok copper jacketed lead core bullet.
During that same period, Federal revolutionized shotgun-shell design. In 1961, Federal began color-coding shotgun shells, beginning with yellow 20-gauge shells. Color-coding helped to quickly identify the gauge of a shotshell and reduced accidents, and by 1966, Federal was the first company to color-code all of their shotshells (red for 12 gauge, purple for 16 gauge, yellow for 20 gauge). In 1965, Federal was the first major ammunition manufacturer to utilize plastic shotshell hulls. This wouldn’t be the last time Federal would be at the forefront of ammo innovation.
Less than a decade later, in 1973, Federal released its first steel shotshell load. This was revolutionary because the nationwide ban on lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting was still almost two decades away, and it illustrated Horn’s insight into the changing hunting market. In 1978, a year after Horn left his position as company president, Federal launched the Premium line of hunting ammunition, which included centerfire rifle ammo loaded with premium hunting bullets from Nosler and other brands.
The Tax Reform Law of 1969 stated that all foundations that owned majority shares of stock of companies had to sell those companies within 20 years, and that impacted Federal Ammunition, which had been owned by the Olin Foundation since 1925. In 1985, Federal was sold to the Federal-Hoffman company, and in 1988, the company was resold to Pentair Inc. Changing ownership didn’t slow new product development. That same year, Federal released the first-ever 3½-inch 12-gauge magnum load in conjunction with Mossberg. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, American Launi Kay Meili won the gold medal in the women’s 50-meter three-position rifle event using Federal’s Gold Medal UltraMatch. Meili’s win marked the first time a medalist had used American ammunition since the 1960 Rome Olympics.
In 1993, Federal purchased the rights to a hunting bullet designed by Jack Carter. After seeing several premium hunting bullets fail when used on large, dangerous game, Carter designed a bullet with a bonded core that would penetrate deeply and expand reliably. He called his design the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC). Federal kept the name but changed the bullet’s composition slightly. Rather than the full copper jacket Carter used, Federal opted for a 95 percent copper/five percent zinc jacket, which facilitated production without impacting bullet performance. Carter’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer designs became part of Federal Premium’s line of ammunition. In 2000, Federal began offering TBBC muzzleloading bullets as well.
Over the years, the Bear Claw design has evolved and improved. Though it has always been one of the toughest bullets on the market, the original Bear Claw wasn’t a particularly aerodynamic design, so in 2008 Federal released the Trophy Bonded Tip (TBT) bullet, which incorporated a polymer tip and slightly deeper nose cavity to improve ballistic coefficients and help initiate expansion. In 2020, Federal introduced the Terminal Ascent hunting bullet, which utilizes the same bonded design that originated with the Bear Claw bullet and improved performance further by adding a Slipstream polymer tip that initiates expansion at velocities that are 200 feet per second lower than competing bullets. The tip also helped increase ballistic coefficients even further. Both features make this bullet perfect for those who hunt at long range. In fact, Terminal Ascent is one of the few premium hunting bullets to offer exceptional long-range performance with the reliability of a bonded bullet.
As good as the Terminal Ascent is, it’s not the only bonded bullet in Federal’s line. In 2005, Federal released Fusion bonded bullets and ammunition. Like Terminal Ascent, Fusion ammunition uses a bonding process (although the process differs significantly from the bonding method used for Terminal Ascent) but is a very affordable option. This makes it a superb option for rifle and handgun hunters, especially while hunting tough game like bears and hogs. Fusion bullets continue to be an important part of the Federal line. In 2019, the company offered 10 new Fusion component bullets for reloaders, and Federal recently added 6.5 PRC and 10mm Auto Fusion loads. In 2005, Federal also launched their first branded centerfire hunting cartridge, the .338 Federal, which was based on a necked-up .308 Winchester cartridge.
There’s been no shortage of shotshell additions to the Federal ammunition line over the last few decades. In 1996, just a few years after the nationwide ban of lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting, Federal released their first tungsten shotshell load. Ten years later, Federal released Heavyweight shotgun ammunition, which was denser than lead yet non-toxic. Today, Federal also offers the Black Cloud line, which features TSS pellets. TSS (for Tungsten Super Shot) has a density of 18.3 grams per cubic centimeter, which is 56 percent denser than lead.
A History of Conservation
Federal’s many successful ammunition lines are well known, but what may not be as widely known is Federal’s long commitment to conservation. Starting in 1933, Charles Horn began serving on the Minnesota Conservation Committee, and a year later Federal initiated 4-H conservation programs nationwide. In the 1930s, Federal commissioned artists to create conservation cartoons that promoted observing bag limits and passing on hunting traditions to the next generation. And in the 1940s, the company published a booklet titled Upland Game Propagation.
Federal’s commitment to wildlife conservation continued after Horn’s death. By the early 2000s, Federal was supporting dozens of conservation organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and others. Bill Stevens, Federal’s conservation manager, received the Lynn Boykin Hunting Heritage Award in 2003 from the National Wild Turkey Federation, and in 2007, Stevens earned a lifetime achievement award from Field & Stream. That same year Stevens retired, but his legacy remains. Federal is still a major supporter of several conservation efforts and has played an active role in the R3 movement to preserve hunting rights while simultaneously conserving wildlife and protecting valuable habitat.
Today, Federal Ammunition is owned by Vista Outdoor, and Jason Vanderbrink serves as president. And while Federal has become one of the leading ammunition manufacturers in the world, the company president says it’s not the time to slow the pace of new product development.
“We need to be more focused on the end user of our products and be the leader in innovation, in all of our brands,” said Vanderbrink. “I think complacency has ruined many great companies, and I can assure you we are not and will not be complacent. We will expand research and development activity and consumer insights, so we have a solution for any need that consumers need.”
It’s hard to imagine that the brand that so nearly failed in 1922 is now celebrating a century in business. It has taken a great deal of effort by many people to propel Federal into its current position, and it will take more dedicated individuals to help maintain the brand’s dominance in years to come. There’s little doubt that Federal has earned its spot as one of the top ammunition manufacturers in the world, and it’s safe to say that future generations of hunters and shooters will also rely on Federal ammunition.