Federal Goes To War

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Women aiming a large military gun

By the end of the 1930s, Federal had made billions of shotshells and rimfire cartridges but most all for peacetime pursuits such as hunting and target shooting. That all began to change in 1940, as World War II ramped up and the British Purchasing Commission placed an order for 1.4 million mortar ignition cartridges.

If you’re not familiar with the term, an ignition cartridge is essentially a blank 12-gauge shotshell that is inserted in the base of the mortar bomb just before firing. The bomb is positioned in the upward-pointing muzzle of the mortar tube. It is released to slide down the tube, and the primer of the ignition cartridge impacts on a fixed firing pin at the bottom

This ignites the powder charge in the ignition cartridge, which in turn ignites the propelling charge of the mortar round. In some mortars, this can be adjusted by adding or subtracting propellant rings on the round.

The British continued to order ignition cartridges, and soon the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps was buying them as well. Federal’s fast and reliable fulfillment of these contracts gave it the credibility to bid for the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant contract.

The Lasting Effect

This original piece of military business remains with Federal today, as the firm continues to make No. 150D primers for 60-120mm mortars and the No. 215D primer for the Mk 19 40mm automatic grenade launcher. These are almost identical to the Federal primers civilian handloaders use, except they have slightly shorter anvils, thus the D for “desensitized.” This lets them stand up to rough handling in combat.

Federal also provided trap and skeet ammunition during the war for aerial gunnery training and recreational use. These were in Monark and Hi-Power configuration, while Hi-Power ammo was offered in 00 Buck. Some buckshot loads were made with brass collars at the front of the hull for more reliable feeding from the variety of pump and autoloader shotguns being issued.

All these boxes were marked “U.S. Property,” and if you find one, you’ve got a cartridge collector’s prize. After World War II, Federal’s contact with the military was primarily through the Twin Cities Army Ordnance plant, and there was plenty of cross-pollination between the Anoka staff and the arsenal.The beginning of centerfire production at Anoka in 1962 meant Federal had more to offer both the U.S. military and foreign armies.

This paid off almost immediately with orders for 30 cal. and 45 match ammunition in 1962. Service rifle and pistol shooting were huge sports at the time, and providing match ammo was a prestigious business.

Other Military Business

Throughout the Vietnam period and the 1970s, Federal provided shotshells and specialty items like the M41 38 Special load with full metal-jacketed bullets. But at the end of the 1980s, Federal really began to find a niche in military procurement. Warfare began to be conducted more and more by special units using arms and equipment not commonly seen in regular formations. Customers like the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana found Federal more receptive than competitors to the idea of developing, not just producing, special-purpose ammunition.

Desert warfare allowed for long-distance sniping, and Federal made the 7.62mm Long Range Special Ball Mk 316 to extend the reach of M21 and M24 sniper rifles. When U.S. snipers needed to shoot even farther, the Mk 248 300 Win. Mag. cartridge with 190-grain bullet gave them the means.

Penetrating barriers is an important task of special operators, and Federal provided what they needed with the 5.56mm and 7.62mm Special Carbine, Barrier rounds. These are made with very thick copper bases that help keep the bullet together when penetrating thick cover. While sniping and barrier busting are the glamorous tasks for a rifle, the armed services consume billions of more prosaic rounds like plastic training blanks and dummy cartridges.

One of Federal’s most successful military offerings is frangible 5.56mm ammo Mk 311, currently sold under the unassuming contract number AA40. The armed services order this by the hundreds of millions for training. The frangible bullet means it can be safely fired in shoot houses and against steel targets.

By The Book

Making military ammo does not mean just sticking the stuff you make for civilians in brown boxes and shipping it out. Service ammunition is governed by minutely detailed specifications that cover everything from case annealing to how the ammo is stacked on a pallet.

These minute regulations aren’t written just so paper-pushers can torture manufacturers. Ammunition must be able to survive extreme temperatures and rough handling for years and then go off reliably.Ammo in bulk must fit designated spaces in warehouses, ships, trucks, or airplanes. In more recent years, an important consideration has been non-toxic priming and environmentally friendly bullets.

Federal’s more than 80 years in producing military ammo has demonstrated its mastery of building ammo to the most exacting specifications. This was recognized in 2020 with the James R. Ambrose Award for Federal’s outstanding contributions to the field of small arms systems. The award is presented periodically by the Small Arms Committee of the National Defense Industrial Association. The committee especially noted development of the MK 248 Mod 0 and Mod 1 rounds and the Mk 316, 318, and 319 7.62mm rounds. It went on to note the company’s sales of buckshot and breaching shotshells, its provisioning of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, and its development of 40 S&W ammo for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Federal has an active sales and support team for overseas customers, who often can’t get the most up-to-date tactical ammo from their national manufacturers. Federal reps are well-used to mixing up and cooling gelatin blocks in unusual locations. These are to demonstrate the penetration and expansion of Federal military and law enforcement ammunition.

When you consider all of this, it’s not surprising Federal is now one of the world’s premier providers of military and law enforcement ammunition. That’s not bad for a company that started with paper-hulled 12-gauge blanks more than 70 years ago.