Anderson: At 100, Federal looks ahead while churning out ammo

Federal ammunition from Anoka turns 100 this year, an outstanding achievement.

Now one of seven ammunition or ammunition component brands owned by parent company Vista Outdoor in Anoka, Federal’s facility operates 24 hours a day, producing ammunition for hunters, law enforcement agencies and governments worldwide.

Founded in 1922 by Charles L. Horn and employing approximately a quarter of Vista’s 6,000 employees, Federal has enjoyed an innovative and ultimately successful first century.

Horn initially distributed Federal ammunition to barber shops, gas stations, and grocery stores, and by 1930 Federal’s workforce had grown to 500.

With the start of World War II, the company’s production grew exponentially. In 1941, Federal was commissioned by the US government to build and operate the Twin City Ordnance Plant in New Brighton. When the plant closed in 1945 (before reopening during the Korean and Vietnam Wars), it had produced 5 billion rounds of WWII ammunition, far exceeding the 1 million originally requested.

In 1951, Federal began producing reloader primers, and in 1960 it was the first ammunition manufacturer to color-code shotshells by gauge. In 1973, Federal was the first company to make steel shotshells.

As Star Tribune business reporter Patrick Kennedy recently reported, Vista’s munitions makers grew third-quarter revenue 60% to $460 million, while gross profit rose 123% to $178 million.

Collectively, Vista’s 39 outdoor brands grew parent company net income by 50% in the third quarter.

Vista Ammunition’s President is Jason Vanderbrink, 42. A Michigan native and lifelong hunter, Vanderbrink joined Federal in sales 17 years ago and has served as President since 2017.

Vanderbrink recently appeared on YouTube trying to dispel rumors and “conspiracy theories” about ammo shortages that have been affecting hunters, sport shooters and handloaders.

In the following interview, Vanderbrink addresses this topic, among other things.

Q In addition to Federal ammunition in Anoka, Vista ammunition and ammunition component brands include Alliant Powder, CCI, Estate, Remington, Speer and Hevi-Shot. How large does the hunter and sport shooter customer base for these companies compare to other customer groups such as military and law enforcement?

A We’re not breaking this down publicly. I will say that the shooting and hunting segments have increased significantly.

Q Is High School Trap Shooting Contributing to Increased Ammo Demand?

A High school trap shooting has seen phenomenal growth. We’ve been supporting it nationally for 15 years and we hire a person to look after the schools to make sure they have access to ammunition. We enable youth shooting teams to order ammunition twice a year. It could be a team in Minnesota, Utah, Florida or another state. We limit how much each team can order. The trainer has to make the order and of course verify it. But the last thing we want is for these students to not be able to find ammo. Whether it’s hunting, hiking, backpacking or whatever, we think it’s extremely important to get kids outside. To enjoy nature. We also support 4-H and other youth programs. We have one employee and that’s all he does. Sometimes we give ammunition for their retreats. Sometimes we give money to their national organizations. We strive to donate to programs that support shooting and conservation.

Q Ammunition has been difficult to find in recent years. Why?

A It was a perfect storm. Social unrest led to a surge in sales of firearms and ammunition for personal protection. Then the shooting sport began to grow. And during the pandemic, we’ve seen hunting license sales gain momentum. The demand side of the business was very challenging. In response, our production facilities are running seven days a week.

Q Vista’s acquisition of Remington ammunition in Arkansas in 2020 and its purchase of Hevi-Shot in Oregon last year have significantly expanded Vista’s sporting ammunition production.

A Remington ammunition is heavily focused on the recreational shooting and hunting markets. It was in financial trouble and we were able to buy its ammo brands and manufacturing facility. Hevi-Shot, on the other hand, is a premium brand that’s big on non-toxic ammo. His acquisition immediately expanded our product line in this category.

Q Do Remington’s products overlap with Federal’s? Are they distributed differently across the country?

A Some categories overlap, others complement each other. Remington, founded in 1816, is of course a much older brand than Federal. There are places across the country where some brands are stronger than others, but both are sold in all 50 states.

Q Non-toxic ammunition is among the concerns of some lawmakers, who argue that lead ammunition should be phased out. How does Vista feel about such proposals?

A Our job is to give consumers as many choices as possible. We don’t make the laws. We are aware of non-toxic initiatives, particularly in California. The overall picture is that non-toxic ammunition is significantly more expensive to produce than lead. As a company, we want to maintain competitive prices so that our ammunition can continue to be purchased by prospective buyers. We don’t want demand to fall. By law, we pay an 11 percent state excise tax every time we ship ammunition, and those millions of dollars go back to the states to support conservation. If our sales go down because our prices go up, conservation loses. As I said before, our job is not to speculate about what the government might do, but to serve our customers. I will say that going completely non-toxic would be a monumental task and it would end up being detrimental to conservation.

Q Given the amount of ammunition that Federal and the other Vista firearm brands manufacture from handguns to muzzleloaders, your supply chain demand for plastic, brass, steel, powder, lead and other components must be challenging.

A Our deliveries come from all over the world. But the lead we use at Federal in Anoka comes almost entirely from recycled car batteries in Minnesota. But you are right. Like many companies right now, our supply chains are stressed for a variety of reasons.

Q Poisonous vs. non-toxic considerations aside, do you see shotgun shells changing significantly in the future? So much progress has been made in hulls, wads and, partly as a result, muzzle velocity. It seems that few improvements need to be made.

A All ammunition has changed a lot in the last 20 years. But we’re always looking for ways to improve performance. We strive to be the innovation leader and I think you will see further improvements over the next 20 years. It could be with the propellant, the cotton ball, the shot, any of that. We have engineers in different disciplines. Some are chemical engineers, others are mechanical engineers. What they all have in common is their love of nature, hunting and shooting sports. They are constantly checking how we can improve our ammunition.

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