The Unlikely Start

old Federal Shotshells

Ironically, it wasn’t ammunition that drew Charles L. Horn to the Federal factory as it sat idle in 1922. It was his interest in machinery that could make paper tubes for holding airgun BBs. In fact, he had as little intent to make BB as ammunition, but that didn’t keep BB manufacturing—or ammunition—from becoming an influential part of Federal history.

On The Ball

When Horn worked at the American Ball Co., he focused efforts on selling steel air rifle shot as a new product. He quickly found that Daisy, the primary maker of BB guns, advised against steel shot, even though lead BBs tended to jam the rifles. Horn successfully demonstrated that steel BBs didn’t damage airgun barrels, and soon enough Daisy itself was recommending them.

BBs were made at American Ball until 1933, when manufacturing was moved to Federal plant.Federal XL BBs could initially be ordered in lead, steel or cadmium-plated steel. Cadmium is a byproduct of zinc manufacturing and has a variety of desirable properties like rust resistance and lubricity.

These led to something of a fad for cadmium plating in the 1930s, including for consumer products like lug nuts. Unfortunately, cadmium is also highly toxic, and today cadmium plating is mainly used in electronic or aerospace applications where human contact is rare.

By 1935, the line had expanded to cadmium-plated lead and cadmium or copper-plated steel. Cadmium was dropped in 1937, and lead disappeared about the same time. Thereafter, BBs meant copper-plated steel.

Branching Out

Air rifle shot was sold in cardboard tubes the diameter of a 12-gauge shotshell containing 3 ounces of shot—about 225 BBs. The early tubes were two-piece, with a tapered body and separate roll-crimped cap.

Later tubes used a folded crimp and were available in regular, medium, large, and giant sizes, holding 100, 130, 225, and 600 pellets. Suggested retail prices for these were 5, 10, 15, and 25 cents. A quarter in 1961 bought goods worth $2.28 in 2021.

By the 1970s, the usual cardboard tubes had been supplemented by see-through plastic tubes and conventional cardboard bulk packs that held 2,000 BBs.

Federal made these for all the usual private-brand customers like Gambles, Sears, Wards, and Western Auto. The packaging will generally be the same, other than the brand stamp.

Sadly, BB manufacturing came to an end in 1976, closing the books on a sideline whose significance in Federal history should never be forgotten.