ABOVE: Every cartridge is hand inspected at Black Hills Ammunition. Here MK262 Mod1 cartridges are getting inspected prior to going into their boxes. (Black Hills Ammunition)
There are many manufacturers making ammunition as well as remanufacturing it. Few have a reputation of being precision ammunition manufacturers let alone manufacturing military grade ammunition. But consider ammunition that is match grade loaded to military specifications? Trying to bridge match grade accuracy and ability to produce military reliability is very difficult. Loading any precision round is difficult in mass production. But there is one company out there that has done it, and that is Black Hills Ammunition owned by Jeff Hoffman and his wife Kristi, who is a co-owner and an integral, indispensable part of Black Hills Ammunition. This “little big company” has produced the most precise and sought after military ammunition in the industry. Not only have they produced it, they designed the specifications as well.
Jeff Hoffman was a police officer in 1979 and has served as a police sniper since 1989. Financially strained, he worked two other part time jobs and Kristi worked a full time job. In late 1982, the Hoffman’s had an opportunity to buy into Black Hills Shooter’s Supply (established in 1981). They borrowed $12,000 and bought into the new company. The company did well selling ammunition and reloading supplies. In 1988 the Hoffman’s broke off of the Black Hills Shooting Supplies and opened Black Hills Ammunition. The same ammunition, machines and people; the Hoffman’s took that part of the company and their then partner continued with Black Hills Shooter Supplies. Working this end alone, the Hoffman’s were financially strapped in this new venture. But one phone call was a game changer for Black Hills Ammunition. They had sent the Illinois State Police some sample ammo and they called and said that they wanted to place an order for 700,000 rounds of 9mm ammunition and needed it now! Jeff was very excited about the order but very nervous about being able to manufacture it in a timely fashion. One range master, Master Sgt. Norm Higgerson, said he did not care and that he was sending money and Jeff would make the ammo for him. Jeff did not want to take the money upfront feeling that was a lot of trust on the Department’s part. Jeff was then assured by the officer that that was no trust at all – if he messed the order up he would get down to Black Hills Ammunition and personally break Jeff’s legs! Jeff saluted and said “Yes, sir.” and delivered. That solved the temporary cash flow problem.
Nearly 30 years later, Black Hills Ammunition recently moved into a new 60,000 square foot facility plus a 7,200 square foot warehouse on 10 acres of land. Black Hills Ammunition has 75 full-time employees and nearly half of them are in the inspection side of the business alone. They are the only manufacturer in the country that meets all the military safety requirements without waiver for military ammunition manufacturing. Their reputation is based on quality and precision. Black Hills is an assembler of ammunition. They do not manufacture components. They rely on tight relationships with vendors of projectiles, primers and propellants. When components arrive at Black Hills, every projectile and cartridge case is checked for uniformity and quality. These are all checked before any component reaches a loading machine. The ammunition is assembled with extreme care by employees with years of experience manufacturing premium quality ammunition. Once the ammunition is manufactured, each round is handled and inspected by a well trained inspector searching for any anomaly (dent, scratch, blemish, crack…) that may cause rejection. The last step in inspection in loading military contract ammunition is to weigh the completed box of ammunition. If this weight is off it is an indication that a projectile could have been incompletely manufactured or any other possible deformity. The key is catching the anomaly before the box of ammunition goes out the door. In the early days, Black Hills Ammunition was known for remanufactured ammunition. There were many companies offering reloaded ammunition and he found he was competing at a price point. However his competition lacked the quality and consistency of the ammunition. This is where Black Hills truly shined. Once this was seen in the market place, Black Hills no longer played the low bid game. Educated customers wanted quality ammunition and they were willing to pay for it.
In 1996, a monumental year for Black Hills Ammunition, they were awarded their first military contract for the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU). At the request of LTC Mike Harris (ret), Black Hills bid on a contract for producing V8 load, which was an 80 grain OTM cartridge intended for single loading and shooting 600 yards during slow-fire competition. This cartridge was hand loaded by the AMU using Vitavouri powder. There was a catch; the load had to maintain velocity without exceeding SAAMI pressure. The actual specs for this round were impossible, there was no way to attain that velocity and keep the pressures within SAAMI specifications. Black Hills loaded the ammunition to the velocity specification using the best possible powders available at the time. They informed the Army who already knew of the situation and knew of this problem. However, the Army was happy Black Hills saved them 10,000 psi over the AMU hand loaded ammunition plus it gave them the required accuracy, resulting in Black Hills Ammunition’s first military contract. The AMU was very impressed with the quality of Black Hills Ammunition and they began to order additional loads including 73 grain Berger and Sierra 69 grain Match King bullets specifically designed for the AMU. Eventually, Black Hills manufactured ammunition for the USMC Rifle Team and ultimately the Air Force and Navy teams as well. The ordnance community watches to see what the AMU does because they have such a great competitive team.
Black Hills works very closely with their suppliers; particularly powder manufacturers to get powder blends to perform the specific task of each round. Over the years Black Hills has loaded 5.56x45mm/.223 Rem ammunition with 69 grain Sierra Match King, 73 grain Berger, 75 grain Hornady A-MAX, 77 grain Sierra Match King and 80 grain Sierra Match King bullets for a variety of marksmanship teams. Black Hills also loaded 6mm Benchrest, 9x19mm and .45 Auto match ammunition for the US Military.
With the variety of offerings Black Hills had, one particular load became the most popular and was destined to be the most sought after military load in SOCOM. In 1999, SOCOM requested that Black Hills to work with them jointly to develop the MK12 Special Purpose Rifle (SPR) weapon system. SOCOM was to develop the rifle and Black Hills Ammunition was to develop the ammunition the new rifle would shoot. This rifle was to be accurate out to 600 yards. The load would use the proven Sierra 77 grain open tip match projectile of the AMU. To meet the requirements, the cartridge must be “militarized.” This included switching from .223 Rem to 5.56mm cartridge cases, loading to the increased 5.56mm pressures, crimping and sealing the primers and adding flash retardant to the powder blend. Black Hills Ammunition developed the first 5.56mm sniper cartridge, the MK262 Mod0 cartridge adopted in 2002.
Like every piece of equipment ever developed within the small arms community, the MK262 round went through a development process. During evaluation of the new round, issues came up with reliability when the temperatures dropped and the guns got dirty (external dirt, not ammunition). Issues with short stroking when the rifles were in these conditions without sound suppressors were encountered in the cold with the SPR, which uses a 2 inch shorter barrel than the original 20 inch M16A2 gas system the SPR was built on. Black Hills got right on the problems and through switching to a slower burning powder with a pressure curve tweaked for the 18 inch SPR barrel, the MK262 Mod 1 was born. Later during extremely rigorous function testing at Black Hills, when the weapons were fired at rates greatly exceeding the 12 to 15 round spec rate of fire for the M16/M4 weapon system, it was found that the new propellant was more sensitive to heat from the chambers of hot weapons. This resulted in the increased pressure and increase incidences of failure to extract. Black Hills notified NSWC-Crane and set out to work again to improve the load. By working on a powder blend with higher heat tolerance and improving the brass, these issues were overcome. Another issue that needed to be addressed during the product improvement stage was Black Hills’ desire to have Sierra manufacture a cannelure on the 77 grain OTM projectile. Sierra feared this would affect the accuracy of the projectile. Black Hills knew that this round was being used in an auto-loading rifle and wanted to avoid the possibility that a rough feed could cause the bullet to push back or telescope back into the case, resulting in a malfunction. Sierra agreed to produce the cannelured version of the projectile. The new and final round was named the MK262 Mod1 in 2003 and with the correction of the temperature sensitive powder the specification changed but remained the Mod1.
The effectiveness of this round was not just seen in the MK12 but by the M4A1 and the MK 18 short barrel as well. Due to the dynamics of this round it offered match accuracy and an increased terminal performance over the M855 ball. When tested in 10% ordnance gel with the M4A1, the initial yaw of the projectile began 2.125 inches. The temporary cavity length is 10.125 inches with a temporary cavity diameter of 5.75 inches. The round performed consistently regardless of the depth of the target whether it is a thin malnourished Taliban or a heavy set adversary. The M855 round developed a poor reputation; the bullet would pass right through the thin malnourished Taliban not disrupting much tissue at all. The MK262 Mod1 would take down the target regardless of width. Even with the short 10.5 inch MK18 carbine, this ammunition had readily been the preferred ammunition for this carbine. The MK262 Mod1 has become the 1st choice of SOCOM for all of their 5.56mm caliber rifles and carbines and is the cartridge our warfighters use to engage targets well out of the range of the AKs used by the enemy insurgents. The ammunition provides unquestioned stopping power to the adversary. Black Hills Ammunition is and has been the sole source for this incredible round. This author has used this ammunition for a base line cartridge for accuracy for more than 5 years on every 5.56mm rifle tested.
Black Hills was at the forefront of the M118LR AB39 PIP (Product Improvement Program) round. Hoffman was asked by elements of the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Bragg to see if he could look into improving their existing 7.62x51mm M118LR cartridge, which was loaded with a 175gr Sierra MatchKing projectile. Initial testing showed Hoffman that he could not improve on velocity or accuracy. Accuracy was consistently 1 MOA with the MK11 Mod0 rifle. Later Hoffman was contacted by a civilian trainer working with the army who advised that an area that needed to be addressed on the M118LR round was temperature stability. Hoffman immediately began environmental testing and found the M118LR conditioned to -40 deg F, +70 deg F and +140 deg F. Results showed the total spread on velocity was 227 feet per second and the pressure spread was 1,8120 psi. To put that into a real world situation, a 227 fps change would indicate an elevation correction of 6.3 MOA, which is 58 inches and the difference with a 10 mph full value crosswind (90 deg to path) effect is 10 inches. Black Hills’ input to the Navy resulted in the solicitation for the improved performance round that became the AB39. Black Hills competed on this solicitation, meeting the solicitation’s higher required performance levels. The contract was ultimately awarded to Federal based on price but Black Hills was pleased its efforts resulted in another improvement to the U.S. Military sniping capability. Black Hills produces a 7.62mm load they sell for export that is 100% compatible and equivalent to the M118LR AB39 PIP load. They have in fact sold this improved load to foreign governments.
The main improvements of the new AB39-PIP M118LR are that the cartridge is loaded with a propellant that is much more temperature stable. The second change is the specifications were written differently, increasing the required uniformity of the lots. What this meant was that a sniper did not have to try to hoard lots of M118LR from the same lot so he did not have to re-zero and change his “dope” when he switched to a different lot of ammunition. The new specification made it so the consistency of the ammunition was improved enough so he would not have to change his “dope” when switching from lot to lot.
Another of the Black Hills manufactured (A191) MK248 Mod 1 .300 Win Mag 220 grain Sierra OTM is used in the SOCOM MK13 Mod5 sniper rifles. An early requirement for the .300 Win Mag cartridge was a 190 grain Sierra Match King projectile with an effective range of 1,200 yards (A190/MK248 Mod0). Black Hills Ammunition provided some small quantities to the U.S. Government. Hoffman had sent communication to Crane regarding his belief that the 190 grain Sierra projectile could be improved by the heavier 220 grain projectile. With Hoffman’s suggestions of improvement possibilities, the .300 Win Mag cartridge got a new requirement established for a 1,500 yard maximum effective range. Two other objectives were to decrease the effect of wind drift and flash reduced and increase temperature stability as tested in ranges from -25 F to +165 F. Results of testing concluded that there is comparable velocity retention between 250 grain .338 Lapua Mag and the 210/220 grain .300 Win Mag. The muzzle velocity of the 220 grain Sierra OTM .300 Win Mag is 2,768 feet per second. It was also found that there was only a .5 moa difference in the 190 and 220 grain projectiles when compared at 1,000 yards: this is less than typical fine tuning necessary for each rifle/shooter/load combination. The 220 grain .300 Win Mag met all objectives, could be fired in existing weapons, was less sensitive than the 210 grain VLD, had comparable accuracy and velocity retention to the 250 grain .338 Lapua Mag round and the .300 Win Mag is a significant cost savings over the .338 Lapua Mag ammunition. There were two areas in which the (A191) MK248 Mod1 was an improvement over its predecessor. These areas are temperature stability (less pressure and velocity change in internal ballistics as a result of ambient temperature) as well as a reduction of muzzle flash. Black Hills met these requirements with a new powder blend that included flash retardant. The work Black Hills did on the advancement of this cartridge was done at no cost to the U.S. government. This cartridge is devastating when seen in 10% ordnance gel. The initial yaw is in just .5 inches with a temporary cavity length of 14 inches. The temporary cavity diameter 7.75 inches with a temporary cavity diameter locations length of 5 inches. The projectile fragments into many pieces creating significant tissue damage.
The U.S. Military contract was ultimately won by Federal, but Black Hills efforts again led to improved capability of the U.S. sniper. Black Hills Ammunition does continue to supply the U.S. military with .300 Win Mag ammunition on other contracts.
Black Hills Ammunition has also done significant testing and development on the .338 Lapua Magnum cartridge. The quality of this ammunition gets them continuous contracts from the U.S. government as well as foreign military units. They produce a 250 and 300 grain Sierra Open Tip Match projectiles.
Another very important niche filled by Black Hills Ammunition is their manufacturing of factory proof loads for the gun manufacturers. These specially designed high pressure loads insure the weapon is manufactured properly. In mil-standard testing, both barrels and bolts are shot with a proof round and then magnetic particle tested to ensure against stress fractures. These loads are made in virtually all centerfire cartridges and Black Hills Ammunition sells more than 24 OEMs of this proof ammunition. Black Hills also provides approximately 30 OEMs with test ammunition so they may function test and test accuracy in their firearms before they are shipped out of the factory.
Manufacturing ammunition for commercial and hunting use is certainly one thing. Manufacturing military and law enforcement ammunition is another. At the end of the day, if you miss that deer or bear, the hunting trip is a loss but you go again next year and try again. If military ammunition fails, that is the soldier’s life on the line. There is no second chance. There is a significant amount of pressure and responsibility put on manufacturers such as Black Hills to make our war-fighter the best ammunition possible not to just win the battle but to come home alive. Hoffman and Black Hills Ammunition continue to work with our warfighter to insure they have the best ammunition available with the ever improving technology of manufacturing of propellants, projectiles and other components.