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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
April - May 1999
Volume 34, Number 2
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 198
On the cover...
Hornady celebrates 50 years. The .240 Weatherby Li
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We'd watched the elk for about 40 minutes, inching closer as they moved off the hill into bottomland brush near a pond below. We couldn't move fast in the latticework of noisy branches, and a precipitous open face finally stopped our progress. The elk had by then vanished in dense aspens. We listened to them as evening slowly leaked its light.

I decided to act boldly, motioning my hunter to follow down an adjacent draw. We reached the bottom too late, as the bull nosed his cows into a slash of windblown timber, then into thicker conifers around the skirt of the hill. About to pick up the pace across the windthrow, I spied a raghorn looking our way from the far side. We couldn't move. My one option: set up the tripod and hope the big bull popped out before dark.

Once in awhile, things work out. My hunter had just settled his Browning over the spotting scope when a cow ambled into a stringer meadow above us. After minutes of ever-failing light, antlers appeared. "Can I shoot?" he hissed.

There was just enough light to confirm through my Swarovski glass that this was indeed the bull. "Yes. Figure 200 yards."

The .270 bucked, and at the report the bull's legs buckled. He then flipped over backward, tumbled down the hill and died. We dug the 140-grain Hornady from the off-side ribs. It hadn't retained 90 percent of its weight or even 80, but it had driven deep; it had killed. Traditional softpoints from garden-variety cartridges can take big elk.

One of America's premier bullet companies, Hornady has now been in business for half a century. The Grand Island, Nebraska, firm began when Joyce Hornady and Vernon Speer, who had been working together, split to seek their own fortunes. By fashioning bullet jackets from spent rimfire casings, they'd circumvented war-time metal shortages. Handloaders would, they hoped, sustain a market for better bullets after V-J Day.

Joyce Hornady was quick to spot value in the specialized machinery and tooling then dormant in government arsenals. The Hornady plant still uses Waterbury-Farrell transfer presses, manufactured as early as the 1920s and now updated with computerized controls. "There's a rich history here," says Michelle Fitzke, marketing administrator. "It's part of what keeps the company in tune with shooters. The people here are part of a family with deep roots, a commitment to the industry. They want to make good bullets."

Much has changed in Grand Island since the war, but the place is still pleasantly rural. Despite its upscale office, Hornady is still run by people with Midwest smiles who make time for shooters with technical questions and hunting tales.

"We're always keen to know how our bullets are perceived." Mike Timmerman, plant supervisor, strides between pulsating machines, pointing out tiny groups in targets taped above each. "We already know how they perform."

Every bullet run is tested at 100,000-unit intervals - rifle bullets for accuracy, pistol bullets for expansion. "We insist that pistol bullets not only shoot consistently but that they open reliably and penetrate. Wide velocity spreads make mushrooming more difficult to control in handgun bullets. Our .38s and .45s are tested at 750 fps and 1,500; the .454 Casull bullets at 1,000 and 1,600. Those velocities work for muzzleloaders too. We use some pistol bullets - like the 300-grain .45 XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) - as sabot projectiles in muzzleloaders. We sell our own sabot packets, and we make bullets and sabot hulls for Thompson/Center."

Mike walks; I follow. He jabs a finger at a rugged one-holer, "We shoot four, five-shot groups with rifle bullets. The average must meet our standards."

"What standards?"

"Depends on the bullet. For .30s it's .600 inch at 100 yards, for .17s it's .400. The 6mm's come in at .450, the .338s at .750 inch. We have more stringent standards for match bullets - .350 inch for .22 match. We check 'em more often too: every 30,000 units. Our .30-caliber match bullets are tested at 200 yards. They have to shoot inside .800 inch."

Dave Emary, chief ballistics engineer, says that jacket design largely determines expansion. "Nose cavity dimensions and bullet hardness matter too." Hornady gets its lead in ingots, which are then melted and formed into cylindrical blocks about the size of a roll of freezer paper - but lots heavier. A massive press squirts these cylinders, cold, through dies to form the lead wire that's then cut into bullet lengths. Antimony content is specified at purchase, from 0 to 6 percent. More antimony means a harder bullet. Most bullet cores have 3 percent antimony. Softer lead material sticks in the dies.


Jacket cups are punched out of sheets at the factory. "Jacket concentricity is vital to accuracy," Dave continues. "We hold it to .003."

Like many of Hornady's 140 employees, Dave Emary is an active shooter. His high-power rifle skills earned him a coveted spot in the President's Hundred at Camp Perry. Before coming to Hornady he worked with military artillery, "shooting 5-pound bullets at 7,000 fps and 12-pound bullets at 6,500" from 90mm and 120mm cannons. The expertise he acquired there now goes into 25-grain, .17-caliber spitzers.

"We're still running .17s because there haven't been many available lately," says Dave. "Only Walt Berger had 'em in '97, and we underestimated the pent-up demand." The machines will have spit out over half a million by the time you read this, presumably enough to supply Hornady customers through 1999.

"Some shooters think we make all sorts of bullets all the time. Not true. We can't dedicate one machine to, say, 200-grain, .338 bullets forever. But change-over is costly, so we run lots of one bullet in a batch, then change the tooling for another bullet." Batch size and the duration of a run depend on market demand.

Hornady's Spire Point softpoints have been a mainstay of big game hunters for decades. Now the firm also makes A-Max (Advanced Match Accuracy) spitzers for competitive shooting. V-Max bullets, introduced in 1995, share the A-Max's plastic nose insert. They're designed with very thin jackets for explosive effect on small animals. A new SST (Super Shock Tip) plastic-nose bullet for big game is under development. "We got the SST designation from an old 1950's Hornady bullet board," explains Director of Sales Wayne Holt. "But the design incorporates everything we know about bullets."

 

Some shooters might question the need for new softpoint bullet designs, given the broad selection available from Hornady and other makers. In fact, Steve Hornady might crack a wry smile if you asked how much weight retention one might expect from, say, a 180-grain, .308 Spire Point. I'm certain (but must not quote to verify) that more than one bullet maker is spending lots of money on new designs simply to boost weight retention in recovered bullets. The sad truth is that weight retention is only one measure of bullet performance, and that weight shed en route to the off-side ribs can wreak terrific damage on animal tissue. But as any accountant will tell you, customer perception is much more important than sad truth.

Meanwhile, Hornady stays busy supplying handloaders and other companies that assemble ammunition. "We just finished a run of two million FMJ bullets for Federal," Wayne says. "We make the V-Max and boat-tail softpoints Remington loads. In fact, we've manufactured bullets for every major ammunition firm."

However, the Grand Island bullet maker is not out to change its focus to loaded ammunition. Dave Emary: "We launched our Light Magnum line in 1995 after I saw at Olin-St. Marks how these super-powerful loads could be concocted. It was a good move, and we plan to expand the Light and Heavy Magnum stable." But shotshells and rimfire ammunition are out of the question. There's no profit in either, claims Wayne Holt, adding that with market incentives, loaded centerfire rounds are as cheap now as they were 20 years ago, when you could buy a new automobile for $4,000.

Instead, Hornady is counting on its wide selection of high-quality bullets to keep orders coming. "We're developing new bullets all the time," says Lowell Hawthorne, a ballistician who's been with Hornady 18 years. We're now in the lab, next to a rack of gleaming Hart and Schneider barrels screwed onto Model 70 and Model 700 receivers - the test battery. There's a three-point free-recoiling machine rest filling the mouth of the 200-yard tunnel, where ballistic coefficient is determined from launch and terminal velocities.

A few bullets, like the .348s for Winchester's Model 71, are tested in stocked rifles from the shoulder. Dave shows me a cloverleaf group from a well-worn 71.

I ask about an instrument I've not seen before. "That's a Heise Gauge, a hydraulic device for calibrating pressure in ammunition," says Dave Emary. He explains that it has a transducer with a quartz crystal. Pressure registers through electrical discharge.

Dave points out that peak pressure as commonly measured in copper units (CUP) is not sufficient because it tells nothing about the pressure curve. "Time matters. You can boost velocity by extending the peak of the curve forward without making the curve higher." He says that a strain gauge falls short because it can't be calibrated to a standard in the manner of the Heise. Dave allows that handloaders get adequate indication of high pressure levels by measuring web expansion. "But it's crucial that you mike the same spot, because a .001 inch bulge at the web can become .005 inch just a touch farther forward. It's best to measure forward, because you get more reaction from the brass."

Typically, he observes, you'll start to pierce primers at 70,000, see blown cups at 80,000. Pressure that's high enough for most shooters to notice is already well above SAAMI spec. "We get higher speed from Light and Heavy Magnum ammunition by pushing the pressure curve forward so the peak occurs when the bullet is 3 inches out. The powder has about 4 percent more nitroglycerin than ordinary double-base powders. Surface deterrents slow the initial burn so the bullet doesn't outrun the burn so soon."

The Light Magnum line includes popular rimless rounds - and the .303 British. "Why?" I ask. The old cartridge became one of my favorites years ago, when the only rifle I could afford was a surplus SMLE.

"The .303 has a great record on big game," Dave replies. "And we still get lots of orders for 174-grain FMJs from Australia." The Light Magnum load features a 150-grain Spire Point bullet at 2,830 fps.

Hornady manufactures between 60 and 70 percent of its cartridge cases in house.

Niche markets definitely get attention at Hornady. Dave Emary points out with some frustration that the firm's .308 match bullets are fully the equal of Sierra's popular boat-tail. "Our bullet tips are also rugged, surviving even M1-A cycles, which can bloody most bullet noses. But tradition means a lot, and we haven't promoted target bullets so much as our game bullets." The official Palma Match bullet is still the 155-grain Sierra.

However, Hornady retains a stellar reputation in Africa. Professional hunters I've talked with favor Hornady solids over most others for elephant culling, and the 50-year-old firm is about to release one that's even better. "We're developing a new solid for the .458 Winchester," says Wayne Holt. "Material for our old copper-coated steel jackets is no longer available in the quantities we can use. We'd have to buy enough for the next 50 years all at once. Now we'll use brass with a cap on the base so the core is enclosed."

Hornady's new "Africa" line will include .375 and .416 bullets. "The solids shoot through 3/8-inch steel plate," says Lowell Hawthorne. The blokes in khaki shorts will also be pleased to learn of Hornady's intention to market a .458 Heavy Magnum load booting a 500-grain bullet downrange at 2,300 fps. Erratic velocities from other brands of four-five-eight ammunition have given this veteran mixed reviews on the dark continent. The .458 has a small case ideally suited to compressed loads of high-nitro powder. At 2,300, its bullet would hit harder than one from a .470 N.E., yielding 15 percent more energy than current .458 Winchester Magnum loads.

If the .458 hits hard, it lacks the reach of the .50 BMG. Surprisingly popular since someone found it would detonate dynamite at 1,000 yards, this military round got a boost when Hornady announced its A-Max bullet for the big .50 in 1994. A sleek profile and long aluminum tip keep weight to the rear for best accuracy; it has a ballistic coefficient of over .600.

"We tried the aluminum tip on 162-grain, 7mm bullets too," says Dave. "They worked but proved too costly. We replaced them with a long plastic tip, but that gave erratic accuracy." The company then switched to small plastic tips (all Hornady red) in both match and hunting bullets, adjusting nose contours when necessary. These have produced small groups consistently, according to Dave - "partly because the tips are easier to manufacture to uniform dimensions, partly because the bullets come out a trifle shorter and are thus less finicky about rifling twist."

Aluminum is now used only in the A-Max .50s. "They're expensive, all right," Dave admits, "but alternative bullets are mostly handmade and even more expensive."

 

Those half-inch missiles draw lots of attention on factory tours and at gun shop counters, but they account for a small percentage of Hornady's sales. The traditional Spire Point and thin-jacketed V-Max dominate Hornady's output. The SX will remain a staple in the smaller bores, and there's now a 33-grain, .224 bullet that can be driven 3,100 fps from a .22 Hornet. "Great fun!" says Lowell Hawthorne.

The folks at Grand Island sell mainly through established distributors to sporting goods shops. While they market black-powder sabot packets and roundballs to chain stores like Wal-Mart, they reserve their jacketed bullets and ammunition for "core" gun businesses that can't generate the volume of the chains.

"Probably our most knowledgeable big buyer is Cabela's," says Wayne Holt. "We appreciate their involvement in the shooting sports and the way they try to provide sound advice to customers. Sound advice means better shooting, if the customer acts on it."

Do Hornady products ever come back? "Well, yes," says Dave Emary. "But they shouldn't." He points to long shelves full of red boxes labeled seconds. "We cull bullets severely, even for minor surface blemishes. Our rigid testing schedule just doesn't allow substandard bullets or ammo out the door." He smiles. "Well, they do go out the door, I guess. Employees get the seconds."

I suspect that's one reason the average shop tenure at Hornady is 12 years.

"What happens when a customer insists he's got bad bullets?" I press.

Dave laughs. "One of those characters phoned me not long ago to say his bullets wouldn't stay closer than 3 inches. He seemed to know a little about shooting. Because he was also local, I asked him to bring his rifle to the plant, expecting I'd have to suggest major gun work. When he came in, though, the first thing I did was load up some of his bullets and take his rifle to the test tunnel. It shot into 3/4 inch. I showed him the target and gently implied that perhaps his shooting technique needed tuning. To his credit, he took it gracefully. Not all customers do. Shooting can be an ego thing."

Steve Hornady, who runs the business his father started 50 years ago, knows how shooting can put pride in jeopardy. On a hunt some years ago he made a poor shot and used the last of his ammunition trying to finish the escaping animal. He had to tell an astonished guide that he was out of bullets and had to return to camp for more. "If you make millions of bullets a year, seems like you oughta be able to pocket a few," observed the guide.

Steve redeemed himself on a later hunt, when I watched him fire three shots into the chest of a great bull moose at around 300 yards. He had to do it quickly, from a field position. It was exemplary shooting. Steve accepted the compliments, like the earlier brickbats, with a shrug. "You can't let the audience affect your shooting." He grinned. "What matters is that you keep hunting, and keep shooting Hornady bullets."

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