The year was 1922. Tech giant IBM, which wasn’t yet named that, was just 11 years old. Prohibition was in its second year; and the Russian Civil War was in its final year, as Ukraine and Crimea had just fallen to the Red Army a year earlier. Some things changed, others stayed the same.
The baseball season had kicked off on April 12 — and 15 days later, the company that today is known as Federal Premium Ammunition was founded in Anoka, Minnesota.
Now 100 years later, and with a workforce of nearly 1,500, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Vista Outdoor is currently the town’s largest employer. From its vertically-integrated 700,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility — where materials enter one door and finished product rolls out the other end — employees work in three shifts, 24/7, to produce millions of rounds of centerfire, rimfire, and shotshell ammo per day. The factory is also self-sustaining, meaning that all the personnel needed to build quality ammo are on site, including machine operators, plumbers, and electricians.
Within the massive modern building are its own machine shop, equipment maintenance, manufacturing engineering, product development engineering, marketing, and sales. Moreover, to make sure the ammo performs at a high level, the site also contains 16 test ranges including ten for centerfire, one for rimfire, and five for shotshell. It is a self-contained center that needs little except the raw materials to roll in.
“We don’t just buy parts and put them together, or have other companies load stuff for us,” explained Vista Outdoors Ammunition President Jason Vanderbrink.
“We do it all on-site, and every day our manufacturing facilities consume tons of plastic beads, lead, brass strips, copper, steel, and chemicals. These materials are used to build our own bullets, pellets, cases, primer parts, primers, shotshell hulls, shotshell heads, and more,” Vanderbrink continued. “The consumer benefits because we have complete quality control, and our seasoned operators have decades of experience.”
Thanks to that long-established process, the company has become an industry leader.
“Federal Ammunition’s centennial anniversary is a truly remarkable milestone, not just for the firearm and ammunition industry, but for American manufacturing as a whole,” said Mark Oliva, spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the firearms industry’s trade association.
“Federal Ammunition has been a leader in providing reliable and accurate ammunition to America’s recreational shooters and hunters for generations and they have earned the loyalty of their customers for their quality and innovation. This is a company that has been on the cutting edge of providing ammunition production for several generations,” added Oliva. “Their ammunition today, though, is far beyond anything that was used by our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The ammunition Federal Premium offers today is among the most accurate and reliable ammunition on the market.”
This milestone is also a testament to the pride of the Federal Premium workforce.
“This is a company that believes in their product and the customers they serve. Federal Premium has played a significant role in the growth of hunting and recreational shooting for decades, and now the renaissance of those sports,” said Oliva. “They are a leader in wildlife conservation and are proud of the significant role they have played in the contribution of over $14.7 billion in excise taxes that is directly responsible for the recovery of wildlife across our country. America’s wildlife is abundant today because of the contributions that Federal Premium, along with other firearm and ammunition manufacturers, have made to the restoration of wildlife and conservation of the habitats they fill.”
An Ammunition Centennial
As Federal Premium Ammunition reaches this significant milestone, it is now in good company — with true American brands such as Coca-Cola, UPS, Harley-Davidson, and Boeing; not to mention firearms makers including Colt’s Manufacturing, Smith & Wesson, and Savage Arms.
It almost didn’t happen.
The company was actually “refounded” by Charles L. Horn on April 27, 1922, after he took control of a small, shuttered plant and expanded it as the Federal Cartridge Corporation.
So how did it begin?
Five and a half years earlier, Harry and Lewis Sherman formed the Federal Cartridge and Machine Company. As with other pioneers in the firearms industry, the Sherman brothers had experience working for someone else before they opted to branch out on their own. The two had been employed at Western Cartridge as well as at two companies based in Kansas City, Missouri, the Sportsman Cartridge Company and Brass and Metals Manufacturing Corp.
For no particular reason, it seems that the Shermans decided to venture north with a wealth of technical knowledge and patents and decided to launch a new company. They successfully secured funding from several businessmen to establish the new ammunition plant on 31 acres of land in Anoka, Minnesota.
That original facility that was built in 1916 was just a 320- by 60-foot fireproof building located on the eastern outskirts of the small city. It was a humble beginning for a company that would grow over the course of the next century, yet the Sherman brothers’ days at the firm they founded were already coming to end.
From Humble Beginnings
That first factory was where the company’s shotgun shells were produced, and efforts were already underway for a far larger facility, while a building in downtown Anoka was dedicated to testing and regulating the new machinery before it was installed in the factory.
The Anoka Union newspaper described the project as a “massive munitions plant” where “all kinds of cartridges will be made.” It was a sign of the things to come.
A few months after construction on the plant was completed, the corporation was reorganized as the Federal Cartridge Company. The plan was to manufacture shotshells for foreign and domestic military contracts as the United States entered the First World War.
However, it wasn’t to be.
An opportunity had been missed as the fighting in Europe ended in November 1918, and the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following June.
By that time, due to ongoing conflicts with investors, the Sherman brothers left the company in early 1917, and only a small amount of shotgun shells were ever made by the factory’s twenty employees before it closed in 1920. In fact, in the months leading up to the 1920 closure, employees were only called in to produce shells when orders arrived. Though the company had plans to offer 12-, 16-, and 20-gauge shells, only 12-gauge shells are ever known to have been produced prior to the 1920 factory shutdown.
That could have been the end of the story, but it was actually the beginning.
Enter Charles L. Horn
For nearly two years, the Federal Cartridge Company building sat idle, much to the disappointment of Anoka residents who had anxiously awaited the jobs and the economic benefits the ammunition factory would have brought to the city.
Then 34-year-old businessman Charles L. Horn from Minneapolis entered the picture. As noted, he took control of the company. He was already the president of the American Ball Company, which produced shot and steel balls.
Horn, who had earned a degree in forestry at the University of Minnesota followed by a law degree at the university’s law school program, had been seeking to find a manufacturer to construct paper tubes to hold BBs for air rifles. He learned about the defunct Federal Cartridge Company and inquired about purchasing the machinery to produce the paper tubes for BBs. However, he was persuaded to reopen the plant.
Working with T.W. Lewis, who was the only remaining stockholder from the defunct company, Horn provided the funding to bring the old company out of receivership. This venture proved successful, and on April 27, 1922, the new Federal Cartridge Corporation was incorporated.
Horn and Lewis were the only two stockholders. That was the beginning of today’s Federal Premium Ammunition.
Newcomer to the World of Ammunition
Unlike the Sherman brothers, Horn seemingly knew nothing about the ammunition business. However, he was a quick study, and as a businessman, he also knew to hire the men who could run the operation
That included hiring back John Haller, who had been the plant manager prior to Federal’s closure in 1920, and as the new Federal Cartridge Corporation’s first employee, he taught Horn the basics of ammunition production. Horn proved to be a far better businessman than the Shermans, while Haller proved to be an extremely effective plant superintendent.
The partnership led to great success.
Haller was also a mechanical wizard — and it would be safe to say that he shared the qualities of prolific gun designer John Moses Browning, and perhaps even Henry Ford. Under Haller, who drove many innovations and built many of the early machines used in shotshell production, the new facility was up and running. Instead of offering just one product, as it did under the “previous management,” Federal offered three different Hi-Power shotshell loads in 1922: the “short brass” Dixie load with black powder propellant, Standard ammo with “medium brass” and Ranger “long brass” ammunition.
In addition, Horn didn’t forget about the paper BB tubes that proved to be the impetus that essentially launched the venture. The tubes were extremely popular at the time, and more importantly, provided the fledgling company with additional revenue to continue expanding operations.
Company archives describe it as “an all-hands-on-deck operation,” where “the young company ramped up shotshell production.”
New Distribution Channels
Much like with many of today’s dot-com startups, Horn didn’t sit up in his office. It was to be no ivory tower for him, and he worked in the factory to help reduce overhead costs.
However, Horn’s eagerness to pitch in didn’t work out exactly.
His “help” actually resulted in several burned-out machine motors, snapped belts, and ruined shotshell components.
As well-intended as they were, Horn’s “contributions” on the factory floor became too numerous to ignore. One of the company’s employees was even charged with repairing the damage from Horn’s mistakes, and respectfully told the company’s new president that the best way for the company to make money was for him to “keep out of the factory as many hours a day as possible.”
Horn took the advice and relocated Federal’s corporate offices to a building about 20 miles away from the factory. It wasn’t an exile, but allowed him to do the needed wheeling and dealing to keep the firm growing. Federal’s headquarters later moved to the Foshay Tower in downtown Minneapolis, where it stayed until the mid-1980s.
He may have failed on the production line, but Horn proved to be the leader the Federal Cartridge Corporation needed.
Charles Horn also successfully took on the big players in the industry. At the time, the larger competing ammunition companies — which included Winchester and Remington — had effectively closed trade channels. Horn realized that he couldn’t break into those channels, so he decided that he would begin selling Federal ammunition in small local businesses. He personally traveled from state to state to distribute his product.
Horn had great luck selling his shotshells in doctor and dentist offices; patients would come in for a checkup or to have a tooth filled and would leave with an armful of shotshell ammunition. He also successfully launched a unique distribution plan that involved the merchandising of Federal products at such locations as nearby grocery stores, barbershops, pool halls, and even gasoline filling stations.
In 1924, the company began producing rimfire ammunition but also acquired the American Cartridge Company, which was based in Kansas City, Missouri. In a twist of fate, that company had also been founded by the Sherman brothers, and had become insolvent — and Federal had begun producing shotshells for them for several years. American Cartridge Company’s debt to Federal became so significant that Horn took over the company and eventually moved it to Anoka.
It went on to become the American Eagle brand of ammunition that Federal Ammunition still owns today.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Federal started producing ammunition for various retailers. That included Montgomery Ward’s Redhead shotshells, as well as Sears & Roebuck brand ammunition from 1927 to 1971 for both shotshells and rimfire, including their Mallard, Pointer, and Xtra-Range loads. Other house brands produced by Federal included Gamble’s from 1929 to 1979 in shotshell and rimfire; and M.W. Savage & Company from 1922 to 1930 for shotshells only.
Many hunters and shooters likely never knew that those house brands — and many others throughout the 20th century — were actually Federal loads in alternate packaging.
Under the Olin Corporation
After three years in operation, the two primary stockholders in the Federal Cartridge Corporation were Charles Horn and Franklin W. Olin.
Olin had started Western Cartridge Company in 1898, and although he was an early investor in Federal, few people—employees included—associated his name with the company, even after Olin purchased majority stock in Federal in 1932. Charles Horn remained president of the company, while F.W. Olin was owner, and in 1930, R.B. Ehlen, who began working at the company shortly after it was incorporated, was named manager of ammunition operations.
With Horn serving as the company’s president and Ehlen managing operations, Federal flourished, and its workforce in the Anoka plant grew from just seven in 1922 to over 500 people by 1930.
By the Great Depression, the company had established itself, and the quality of ammunition shipping out of Anoka rivaled larger, older ammunition companies. Federal was now offering not only Hi-Power shotshells but a robust line of .22 ammunition that included such products as .22 Short, Long, and Long Rifle loads with either greased lead or coated bullets in the Standard line and cadmium-coated .22 Short and Long Rifle loads in the X L Xcess Speed line.
Federal Goes to War
During the Second World War, the company earned a reported $87 million in U.S. government contracts to build and operate the $30 million Twin City Ordnance Plant (TCOP), and Federal actually ranked 59th among U.S. corporations in value of military production contracts.
Federal’s Anoka employees were dispatched to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia to learn to manufacture centerfire rifle ammunition for the war effort. TCOP went on to produce .30-, .45-, and .50-caliber and 7.62 and 5.56 ammunition for the military; but it also produced the machinery in the plant, and a fleet of workers with experience loading centerfire ammunition would forever change Federal’s course, as a company.
Ammunition production began at TCOP on March 9, 1942, and by 1943, the plant employed 25,000 workers churning out small arms ammunition. By the time the plant was officially deactivated on V-J Day, August 15, 1945, it had produced five billion rounds — greatly exceeding the initial government contract that called for the company to produce 100 million rounds of ammunition.
Its wartime experience running the Twin Cities Arsenal allowed Federal to add some very important products to its lineup, and by the 1960s, it was producing centerfire rifle and handgun ammunition. Initially, 12 centerfire rifle loads were offered, all of which were packaged in blue and white boxes and loaded with Federal Hi-Shok soft point bullets. In addition, two handgun loads were advertised, including the Monark .45 Auto and .38 Special. Those new products would also be the first of many centerfire loads that Federal would offer for the law enforcement community.
Half a Century and Going Strong
In 1972, Federal Cartridge Corporation celebrated 50 years in business. What had begun as a small Anoka-based ammunition company had become one of the nation’s leading ammo manufacturers. Much of that success could be traced back to Charles Horn, his founding employees, and their tireless efforts.
What is also notable is that for those first 50 years, Federal had only one president, a remarkable feat that few large companies can boast. Horn finally stepped down as president in 1974 but remained chairman of the board until he officially retired in 1980. He passed away at age 90 the following year, and by all accounts, it was a life well-lived, while the company’s success is his lasting legacy.
It was even under his leadership that the Federal Cartridge Corporation became the first company to develop shells loaded with steel shot.
Horn had a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of conservation, and he had the foresight to see that a call for a nationwide ban on the use of lead shot for hunting waterfowl was coming. By the time that happened in 1991, Federal had nearly two decades of experience producing non-toxic shotshells.
Change of Ownership — A “Premium” Brand
In 1985, the Olin Foundation — which had owned the company since 1938 — was forced to relinquish control due to the Tax Reform Law of 1969, which required charitable foundations to sell majority stock in corporations within 20 years. The company was sold and became Federal-Hoffman, Inc., a newly established corporation that would organize and run two separate companies: Federal Cartridge and Hoffman Engineering.
Throughout the 1980s, ownership of the company changed hands a few times — but despite who was running it, Federal remained a premium brand.
That fact was even recognized in 2002 when the Federal Cartridge Company embarked on a major rebranding initiative and repositioned itself with a new working name: “Federal Premium Ammunition” — and no doubt Horn would have approved.
It should be noted, however, that the company never legally changed its name, yet it has referred to itself in all marketing and business communications as Federal Premium to highlight its top-tier products and reputation.
In addition, product names were changed to include “Shok” in the title — including Vital-Shok, Power-Shok, etc. — and the legendary Federal duck logo that had graced the company’s boxes and headstamps since the early days was retired and replaced by the shock wave design, and has since become as iconic as the duck logo.
Under the ownership of ATK (Alliant Techsystems) and the presidency of Mark DeYong, Federal continued its production of military contract ammunition, including its long-term working relationship with the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Missouri. As part of the Olin Corp., Federal had taken over management of the plant in 1985.
In 2015, ATK spun off its sporting group, and Vista Outdoor Incorporated was established. It became its own independent, publicly-traded corporation focusing on outdoor products, and in 2018 Jason Vanderbrink — who had been with the company since 2005 — became president of Federal Premium. Vista Outdoor also put Vanderbrink in charge of the corporation’s other ammunition companies, which include Alliant Powder, CCI, Hevi-Shot, Remington, and Speer. Under Vanderbrink’s leadership, the focus of the company became maintaining the most efficient manufacturing processes, cost-effective business strategies, and the use of the best raw materials and components.
New Federal Premium Ammunition products coincided with Vanderbrink’s arrival, and these included the .224 Valkyrie, a .22-caliber centerfire cartridge that could handle high-BC bullets popular with long-range shooters, and Hydra-Shok Deep personal defense ammunition. In 2019, the company opened its own custom shop where customers can special order desired ammunition loaded to the highest standards.
Dealing With a Global Pandemic
In 2020 the world was turned upside down thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic, which required mandatory “stay-at-home” orders. Production lines were shuttered briefly, and following a year of often violent protest around the country, gun sales surged.
In the process, demand for ammunition vastly outpaced supply, and what is largely forgotten today is that after former President Donald J. Trump took office in 2017, gun and ammunition sales had taken a nosedive. This climate created a reversal of the downward trend.
When the ammunition demand soared, there were too few workers to ramp up production, even when there was the factory space and available machinery. That was compounded by the global supply chain bottlenecks that also began during the pandemic.
Shortages of raw materials further slowed production, yet Vanderbrink and his employees rose to the challenge. In 2021, it actually produced more hunting ammunition than in any year prior. To try to meet the massive demand for ammunition — driven by the increased sales of firearms — Vista Outdoors also was able to get its newly acquired Remington ammunition plant running at full capacity.
“We are making ammunition every minute of every day! We are making all of the ammunition as fast as we can! We are doing our damndest to meet the demand,” Vanderbrink said in January 2021, and since then ammunition has been steadily returning to store shelves.
A Year of Celebrations
While ownership of the brand has changed hands, Federal Premium Ammunition remains unique in that it will be among the one percent of all U.S. companies that make it to their 100th year in business. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to celebrate all year long.
“The entire staff of 1,500 hard-working Americans in Anoka, Minnesota is extremely proud to celebrate a full century of continuous and successful operation,” said Vanderbrink. “We appreciate those who came before us to make this possible and look forward to taking Federal into its next century.”
Federal will kick off the centennial celebration by lighting up a 100th Anniversary sign on top of one of its silos in Anoka and will continue to tout its accomplishment with limited availability throwback packaging, special merchandise available on its website, and an exhibit at the Anoka County Historical Society Museum among other activities. A special magazine has been released that marks the anniversary while a coffee table book will be published later this year.
“Our workforce and business have never been stronger than they are today, and we owe it to a century of continuous innovation across every department in the company,” added Vanderbrink. “Many people and partners have contributed to our success and I’m proud to join the current team in making sure that tradition of excellence continues.”
Ammo Subscription Service
In December 2021, Federal Premium Ammunition also unveiled a new limited-availability monthly subscription service that allows consumers to receive five boxes of ammunition, which will be delivered to their doorstep every month with a 12-month service commitment. This new service, which includes free shipping for all subscription orders, is available in states that allow ammunition to be delivered to an individual’s home.
“We are very excited to launch this new service which is loaded with benefits for our online customers,” said Jason Nash, Federal VP of marketing. “Interested consumers should visit our website to learn all the details of the new program. At the time of the subscription service launch, available calibers at the initial rollout will be 9mm, .40 S&W, and .45 Auto, with possible expansion into other loads and cartridge options, pending market demand.”
Even after a century in operation, Federal Premium is adapting to changing consumer demand and shows that it is ready for the next 100 years and beyond. Charles Horn might be smiling down, knowing his company is in good hands.