What’s Old Is New

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staff working at a loading press

As demand for ammunition demand hit peak levels in recent years, the perennial urban legend that shortages are caused by manufacturers’ reluctance to expand production capacity reared its head on cue. However, at least in Federal’s case, nothing could be further from the truth.

The original Federal plant totaled about 20,000 square feet, and that figure remained relatively stable through the end of World War II. But projects between 1949 and 1953 added more than 100,000 square feet, with another 200,000 square feet added in 1967 and 1968.

Major building sprees in the late 1970s and early 1990s brought the total to more than 850,000 square feet, with enough on the drawing board to take Federal to more than a million in 2022.

Filling that space with production capacity has meant acquiring bigger, faster machinery to feed what often seems infinitely growing consumer, law enforcement, and military demand for ammo.

Turning To The Past

Sometimes, the key to increased production is not buying new machines but making use of what you already have. Joe Lueck and Pete Schreck of Federal’s Capital Implementation department recently thought to bring rusty old loading machines out of sheds and get them back into production. On the face of it, the efforts seemed impractical: If past management had retired old loaders, surely their life had been used up, right?

Not so fast. These old machines were made at a time when removing every ounce of excess weight wasn’t part of the program. Heavy steel castings can last almost forever if not abused, and the Yankee craftsmen of the old-line Connecticut machine manufacturers made precision tools, even if they worked in fractions of an inch rather than thousandths.

The first job after digging the machines out of their resting places was to remove generations of pigeon nests and droppings with a vigorous steam-cleaning. This also blasts away hardened grease and dirt, leaving a clean, if rusty, machine. The team then used a variety of techniques to remove rust and restore the shine of old steel parts and repair the pitting caused by pigeons.

Machines were retired for a reason, and generally it was the accumulated wear from loading millions of rounds of ammunition. The original machine makers took that into account, however, using brass guides and bushings at critical wear points.

A skilled machinist can remake those items, a job that’s made a lot easier if there’s documentation. A recent job restoring a Standard Knapp turret press went a lot faster when Lueck and Schreck dug in the Federal archives and discovered blueprints made by a Chrysler plant in Evansville, Ind., during World War II.

In short order, they were able to fabricate a variety of brass parts that restored the old press to smooth, precise operation. Once it’s made a few million more rounds, some future machinist can make more replacement parts and keep it going. The oldest machines were originally intended to be run by leather belts pulled by a jackshaft in the factory. Those were generally replaced by electric motors during World War II or in the 1950s. Sometimes the old motors still work, but often a new motor is required.

After that, they paint the refurbished machine: battleship gray for stationary parts, orange for moving parts. They add connections for any electronic sensors and protective guards where necessary. Lueck and Shcreck get a great sense of accomplishment when an old loading press, once no more than a pigeon roost, returns to the factory floor and begins pouring out loaded ammo.

“It was headed for the scrapyard, and now it’s producing thousands of rounds a day,” Pete says. “That makes you feel pretty good.”

It takes about three months of on-and-off work to get a press production-ready, but the cost of both labor and materials is recovered in less than a month. Management has taken notice, and sheds and storage areas around Federal are being scoured for machines that once have been no more than fodder for the scrap man.

The Long Haulers

Not every old machine at Federal became a pigeon perch. Many have worked continuously since the earliest days. The best place to find them is in the paper shotshell department.

Federal is the last maker of paper shotshells in the United States. Plastic shells have every possible advantage when it comes to ease and speed of production, but there’s just something about paper shells that shotgunners, especially competition shooters, still love.

They’re made almost exactly as they were in 1922 and on some of the same machines. It all starts with paper strips being fed through winders that make them into base wads.

The hulls themselves are wound into tubes about 6 inches long that are cured to remove humidity and impregnated with wax in a big, hot kettle. Then they are visually inspected and cut to proper length for shell production.

It’s a hot, demanding job, but the shooter who insists on Gold Medal Paper shells when shoot-offs get intense appreciates the results.

In this time of unprecedented demand for its products, Federal is using everything from presses from the 1920s to modern loaders that crank out 500 rounds of 9mm at a time to integrated shotshell loaders from the 2000s that can take in components at one end and pour out boxed shotshells at the other. If a machine can contribute, it’s pressed into use and runs all day, every day to satisfy customers’ unending demand for the highest quality ammunition.