The announcement by Walmart that their stores will no longer sell handgun or assault-rifle ammunition is, if nothing else, a testimony to the hard work and energy of our friend Shannon Watts which has been on display now for the past six years. Shannon began a national gun-control campaign shortly after Sandy Hook focusing on women, particularly women with children, and using public spaces where most women could be found, namely, at the entrance to retail stores, Walmart being at the top of her list.
I remember seeing a group of red-shirted women from MOMS marching in front of the entrance to a Walmart store in 2015. I had often seen other public advocacy efforts in front of this store, usually people asking shoppers to sign a petition to get someone on the ballot of the upcoming election in the nearby town. But I had never previously encountered anyone marching in front of any public space with messaging that had to do with guns.
Of course right now Shannon’s Walmart strategy has had plenty of help, unfortunately help of the wrong kind. Because until recently, mass shootings were still infrequent enough that if you gave it a couple of days, like any other natural disaster, the media would stop talking about it and public concerns about gun violence would subside. But lately, it seems like once every week a bunch of people get mowed down in a public space.
not talking about an ‘epidemic’ of mass shootings, which means an event which
creates a lot of injuries but occurs only from time to time. We are talking
about something which, to quote our friend Katherine Christoffel, has become
‘endemic,’ i.e., it’s happening all the time.
significance of Walmart’s announcement lies in the fact that retail chains tend
to watch each other in the same way that drugstore chains are usually clustered
where they can keep an eye on what each chain is promoting in a particular
week. If overall revenues for Walmart don’t take a hit from this announcement,
which I suspect they won’t, it would come as no surprise if other discount
chains follow suit. And nobody, but nobody cared when the NRAwhined
about Walmart’s ‘shameful’ decision.
other hand, my friends in Gun-control Nation need to understand that the
importance of Walmart’s announcement is much more a symbolic gesture rather
than representing anything real. Not that symbols aren’t important – all
advocacy relies on symbolic messaging to get their arguments across. But let’s
not kid themselves into thinking that a decision by Walmart to pull out of the
gun business will have any real impact on injuries from guns.
My gun shop is located less than a mile from a Walmart. The store was never a competitive element when it came to gun sales, because Walmart doesn’t sell handguns and never sold used guns of any kind. And generally speaking, what creates foot traffic in every gun retailing establishment are handguns and used guns of all sorts.
Where Walmart did hurt me was in ammunition sales because there was simply no way I could compete with a big-box’s pricing structure for a commodity as common as ammunition, particularly calibers bought in bulk, like 22LR for target shooting and shotgun shells. But these calibers don’t represent the type of ammo which trauma surgeons have to dig out of people’s chests or heads. I can guarantee you that if I were still doing retail ammunition sales, that within 30 minutes after Walmart’s announcement, my gun wholesaler would have contacted me with a ‘great deal’ on 9mm and 40 S&W rounds.
The real importance of the Walmart announcement is that it places the issue squarely where it belongs – on products that have nothing to do with sporting or hunting guns. In this respect, Shannon has won a major victory that pushes the gun business back to where it really belongs.
To understand how American citizens today can get their hands on ammo, which rolls off the same factory lines as those that supply the world’s largest militaries, it’s important to first understand how munitions technology developed. Starting in medieval Europe, on a battlefield where a mounted knight in armor could defeat almost any number of peasants, the development of more advanced and accurate ways to destroy enemy personnel and equipment by launching a projectile is one which combines trial and error, scientific ingenuity, and private enterprise. It’s a story of power and technology dating back to the 13th century, at the height of “the divine right of kings,” and tracks the subsequent diffusion of that power held by a chosen few as the individual became capable of breaking the state’s monopoly on violence.
The first recorded use of gunpowder appeared in Europe in 1247, although China had used gunpowder for centuries before that, mostly for fireworks. The cannon appeared nearly 100 years later in 1327, with a hand-sized version making its debut in 1364. The first ordnances were made of stone, and while it might have been theoretically possible for anyone to own one, this would have been outside the financial reach of anyone but the nobility.
Stone was quickly discarded as a source of materiel for one simple reason: It wasn’t effective against stone fortifications. Thus did the first ever arms race begin, as medieval armies sought ways to fire heavier and heavier projectiles. The first recorded example of a metal ball being fired from a hand cannon came in 1425, with the invention of the hand culverin and matchlock arquebus, which led to lead balls becoming the gold standard for projectiles. This is where we get the term “bullet” – boulette is French for “little ball.”
Ammunition remained largely the same for centuries: Little balls of metal virtually anyone could make. This was true until the invention of rifling in the mid-19th century. Even this invention was, at first, not terribly useful for military purposes. Not only did the barrels quickly become useless, but the barrels often could not be fitted with a bayonet. This made early rifles impractical for military use and mostly a bit of a toy. Not until the advent of progressive rifling (which came, depending on one’s point of view, fortuitously or not, in the middle of the U.S. Civil War), did rifles become practical for military, and also widespread civilian purposes.
Copper jacketed bullets arrived in 1882, but since then the development of both military and commercial ammo has largely been about degrees rather than revolutionary innovations like rifling. The same basic design for cartridges has been in place since the late 19th Century.
Advancing technology was likely a driver in the move toward ammunition produced for commercial purposes, rather than simply military use. While in the past, it was common to simply make lead balls in front of the fire as a family after dinner, making a modern rifle cartridge is far beyond the means of most people. Further, it requires safety procedures above and beyond simply molding lead balls.
What Is the Difference Between Civilian and Military Ammunition?
For the most part, the distinction between civilian and military ammunition is largely down to marketing. However, there are some important differences between civilian and military (often known as “milspec”) including:
All military ammunition is full metal jacket. There are military treaties requiring this on an international scale, beginning with the Hague Convention in 1899. Civilian ammo is not subject to such requirements and can be full metal jacket, composite, hollow point or any other configuration.
As a rule, civilian ammunition is designed to expand upon impact. Military ammo is not, due to treaty restrictions. Military ammunition frequently passes through a target with no serious damage, whereas civilian rounds are designed for “one shot, one kill.” This is not a purely humanitarian consideration: Wounded soldiers are a greater burden for an army than dead ones.
Military ammunition comes with moisture sealant, while civilian ammunition does not. This is due to the wide array of climates that military ammunition might be used, as well as the fact that military ammunition might be stored for decades before it is actually used.
Military ammunition primers are harder than its civilian counterparts. This helps to prevent accidental discharges, the worst case scenario of which is when a weapon gets stuck in automatic fire mode.
The chamber pressures are different between military and commercial ammunition, though the degree to which they are different varies significantly from one caliber to another. As an example, the 7.62x51mm NATO and the .308 Winchester are basically the same round, but the NATO(military) version has lower pressure.
Sometimes the military version of a round can be fired through a weapon chambered for the civilian version and vice versa – but sometimes the compatibility only works one way. For example, the military weapon can fire the civilian round, but the civilian weapon cannot fire the military round. Never assume that a military and civilian round and chamber are cross-compatible.
Civilian ammunition tends to be far more consistent in terms of its dimensions than military ammunition. Because every round simply must feed and fire properly, military ammo allows for looser tolerances than civilian ammunition.
Military ammunition casings tend to have thicker walls because, as a general rule, they are subject to higher pressures than civilian rounds.
It’s common for civilians to buy military ammunition, either because they want the particular qualities of that cartridge or because they simply want to get a deal on price. For the most part, there’s no problem with buying surplus ammo provided that your weapon can handle it. You should also examine the ammunition when you receive it — as stated above, it’s not uncommon for rounds to sit in storage for decades.
The Springfield Armory and Commercial Ammunition
Today, the Springfield Armory is a historic site. However, it used to produce the lion’s share of American military hardware and, through the secondary surplus market, a good deal of the commercial ammunition floating around. All told, the site manufactured ammunition from 1777 all the way until 1968. It was both the first federal armory and one of the first American factories dedicated to the manufacture of ammunition.
The use of the location for military training dates back to the colonial days, when George Washington personally scouted and approved of the site during the Revolutionary War. The entire city of Springfield was built around the armory, which wasn’t much to speak of at the time: Little more than an intersection of rivers and roads. These features, however, are what made the location optimal for the manufacture of weaponry for the war effort. What’s more, the Connecticut River provided a natural defense against naval attack.
Shays Rebellion attacked the Armory, but was unsuccessful, as the state militia was able to defend it from attack using grapeshot. The Armory started producing ordnance in 1793, which included everything from paper cartridges and musket balls all the way up to howitzers. Flash forward to the post-Civil War period, and for a brief time this was the only federal armory in operation after the destruction of Harpers Ferry. It produced the first firearm native to America, the Model 1795, a .69 caliber flintlock musket.
The Springfield Armory was a huge driver of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. This was part of the United States military’s need for replaceable parts on the battlefield under the theory that it was easier to replace parts than it was to repair weapons on the battlefield. In turn, this made it easier for the average person to own and maintain a firearm. No longer did one have to know anything about gunsmithing or pay a gunsmith to keep a weapon in good working order. Now one could simply replace parts as they broke down.
Commercial Ammunition in America: The Big Four
For clues to where the story of commercial ammunition comes from, it’s worth looking at the history of America’s oldest weapons and ammunition manufacturers: Remington, Smith & Wesson, Colt and Winchester. These are four American brands as iconic as Coca-Cola, Levi’s, McDonald’s or General Motors. And they all play a role in the transformation of the arms industry from a martial enterprise into a commercial one.
Remington Arms is the oldest gunmaker and operates the oldest factory still making firearms and ammunition to this day. It is also the largest domestic producer of rifles and shotguns. Remington is responsible for the development of more cartridges than any other ammunition manufacturer in the world. As such, they are not just an early adopter in the world of commercial ammunition manufacturing and sales – they are also a world titan of commerce.
The transformation of Elijah Remington from a shooting enthusiast into a gunsmith gives us a bit of insight into commercial ammunition development. He designed his own flintlock rifle for a shooting competition. He didn’t win, but observers were so astonished with his custom-made weapon that offers started pouring in.
The next big name to appear on the scene was Samuel Colt. While his company did not incorporate until 1855, his game-changing percussion revolver, the Colt Paterson, hit the markets in 1836. This was the first revolver and Colt held a monopoly on the production of revolvers through his patent until 20 years later. Unlike earlier weapons designed by Springfield specifically for the purpose of the military, Colt designed his weapon and then later, in an act of shrewd business, was able to sell his design to the United States military. While the innovative design was able to give troops some firepower advantage, the weapons were also notoriously unreliable in combat and were more suited for civilian purposes.
Colt’s New Model Revolving rifle, an attempt to port revolver technology to the rifle, was likewise a hit on the civilian market. It was the preferred weapon of armed guards on the Pony Express, particularly those guarding the extremely dangerous stretch between Independence, MO, and Santa Fe, NM. This particular leg never lost any mail.
Smith & Wesson
Smith & Wesson first began tinkering around with weaponry in 1852. The fruit of their labor was the Volcanic rifle. They were also the first company of note to develop a revolver after Samuel Colt’s patent expired in 1857.
The Civil War represents a turning point in the history of American commercial ammo. Many of the pistols carried by enlisted men, and officers alike, were purchased privately. What’s more, in middle of the war, modern rifling was invented, meaning that weapons became far more accurate, useful and deadly. Handloading became a far more niche hobby – and in any event, the innovation was mostly coming out of the Big Four. Though, it was also the post-Civil War period which saw the rise of wildcatting, where amateur gunsmiths and handloaders were finding ways to improve the commercial offerings on the market.
The post-Civil War period also saw both the United States military and civilian communities turning toward the final conquest of the Old West from the native population. While the impact of the United States Army on this cannot be overstated, it was armed American civilians who settled the West, and demand for weapons and ammunition was high.
It was also the period after the end of the Civil War that saw the entry of the final of the Big Four onto the scene: Winchester. The pre-history of Winchester lies in the first company incorporated by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, not to be confused with the famous company bearing their name to this day. Their original company was responsible for the Volcanic rifle, the world’s first repeating rifle. Known as Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, it was largely funded by Oliver Winchester. The pair left the company and it was reorganized as New Haven Arms Company, and then as Winchester Repeating Arms Company. While Winchester was the last entrant on the market, they quickly made up for lost time by debuting the Winchester rifle, which quickly earned the sobriquet “The Gun That Won the West.”
While the Winchester rifle saw action in the United States military during the series of conquests known collectively as the Indian Wars, it was an enormously popular civilian weapon, with a whopping 720,000 sold and built. The original Winchester rifle, the Model 1866 (nicknamed “the Yellow Boy”) saw high demand all the way to the end of the century, due to their low cost. The weapon continues production to this day and is approximately as synonymous with the Old West as a Stetson.
Its successor, the Model 1873, was the first Winchester rifle chambered for the 44-40. If the Winchester rifle was the Gun That Won the West, this was certainly the “Cartridge That Won the West.” The primary market for this round was not the military, but lawmen, settlers, and cowboys for the simple reason that it could be used in both a rifle and a pistol. This eliminated the need to carry two different types of ammunition at all times and was a genius stroke of both engineering and marketing on the part of Winchester. Their competitors quickly scrambled to release their own weapons chambered for this enormously popular round. The 44-40 is, among other things, known for killing more deer than any other cartridge.
The Decline of Commercial Ammunition Manufacturing in America
As with other sectors of the manufacturing economy, ammunition and weapons manufacturing went into deep decline, beginning in the late 1960s.
Colt has a slightly different story. It ceased production entirely between 1945 and 1947, with several big retirements occuring at the end of the Second World War. However, the Springfield Armory’s destruction was a boon for Colt, as Secretary McNamara moved a lot of the business from the Armory over to Colt – which finally started seeing its profits fall after the budget cuts at the end of the Cold War.
It all began with a five-year strike. The Colt factory employees were organized by the United Auto Workers, one of the longest-lasting strikes in American history. Replacement workers took the line and there was a noticeable decline in the quality of arms, which negatively impacted the brand’s reputation. By the end of the strike, Colt was sold to a group of investors, the State of Connecticut, and the United Auto Workers. By 1992, the company declared bankruptcy. A boycott, organized in response to CEO Ron Stewart’s statements to the Washington Post that he would favor a federal permit system, didn’t help matters. In 2002, the company spun off its military, defense, and law enforcement wing entirely as Colt Defense. The company reunited in 2013, but declared bankruptcy again in 2015.
Winchester’s decline came in the late 1960s, largely due to a unionized workforce and the increased labor costs that come along with it. A number of hand-tooled weapons were discontinued because the company could not compete with the cast-and-stamped Remington competitors. Much of their product line had been replaced in 1963 and 1964. And for the commercial market, it was no longer seen as a prestige brand, but rather another company selling discount firearms for the mass market. Winchesters made after 1964 continue to be less valuable and less sought after than their earlier counterparts.
A labor dispute proved to be the beginning of the end for Winchester. The strike took place between 1979 and 1980, and ended with the company being sold to the employees as the U.S. Repeating Arms Company. It went bankrupt in 1989, and is now owned by Belgian firm Fabrique Nationale de Herstal. The New Haven plant closed in 2006. Winchester is now an ammunition brand owned by Olin Corporation. It does not produce its wares in Connecticut.
Smith & Wesson fared the best, perhaps, after being sold to American conglomerate Bangor Punta, who diversified the company’s products to include gun-related products such as holsters, as well as breathalyzers and handcuffs for law enforcement. The War on Drugs served to break the back of the company, as law enforcement agencies adopted Glock, Sig Sauer and Beretta. Between the years 1982 and 1986, Smith & Wesson profits fell by a whopping 41 percent, with ownership changing twice during the decade. A boycott organized in response to “smart guns” development nearly destroyed the company. Its current marketing is extremely commercial focused, with the main target being customers at big box stores.
Remington was able to weather the storm a little better than its competitors, in no small part because it was acquired by the DuPont Corporationduring the Great Depression. The manufacturing was moved from Connecticut to Arkansas, and from New York to Alabama. Nevertheless, the company took on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and suffered from an increasingly diminished reputation among the commercial market.
The commercial ammunition market is now bigger than it’s ever been. Popular and common rounds can be purchased at just about any big box retailer in a state with a high degree of gun freedom. Smaller mom and pops have a smaller selection, but if what you need is common enough, you can get it there. Online retailers like us cater to virtually every ammunition need, from the common to the incredibly niche and obscure. And whatever the commercial market doesn’t cater to, handloaders and wildcatters can make.
It’s important to note that when reading the history of commercial ammunition manufacture in the United States and abroad, the commercial market takes a definite backseat to the military. Indeed, the downturns in military spending are a key factor in the downturn of American ammunition manufacturing in general. As unfortunate as it is to read, it’s simply the honest truth that the needs of the military shape the needs of the overall ammunition market in the 20th and 21st Century.
Wildcat cartridges, sometimes referred to as simply “wildcats,” are custom-designed cartridges – meaning they are not mass produced, but instead made by individual shooters. The purpose of a wildcat is the cultivation of some attribute not sufficiently present in a commercially available round. Wildcats aren’t great for law enforcement or military purposes, but they aregreat for hardcore shooting aficionados, handloaders looking to take things to the next level, and gunsmiths who want to homebrew ammunition for their homebrew weapons.
The number of ways that a round can be wildcatted is theoretically endless, as there are thousands of wildcat cartridges created and available for gunsmiths and handloaders with a “can do” attitude. A wildcat round could be built from scratch from the ground up, but most are commercially modified. The equipment for reloaders and gunsmithing can frequently be found through the same distributors, which is another reason why shooters who are into one are frequently into the other. The wildcatting hobby is, unsurprisingly, concentrated in the United States.
A Brief History of Wildcat Cartridges
The term “wildcat” is derived from the same source as the other meaning of the term – a labor strike not authorized by the union brass. Wildcatting probably began after the American Civil War, when the .30-06 was considered by most shooters to be the only round that a hunter was going to need. American ingenuity and innovation, however, quickly decided that something more could be made out of the materials at hand.
In the late 1800s, Charles Newton was perhaps the first American to leave his profession (in his case, law) out of a desire to spend all of his time wildcatting. Along the way, he developed a number of rounds that became indispensable for shooters of his era. He tuned the .30-06 into the .25 Special and 7mm, which were the raw materials that crafted the 25-06 and .280 Remington. Newton wanted to build rifles more than anything, but circumstances beyond his control eventually shut down his business. In the end, he was the man who lit the fire of wildcatting in the United States – and many were more than willing to pick up where he left off.
Some of the first names to follow in his wake are legends among wildcatters in the know. These are names like Harvey Donaldson, J.E. Gebby, Grosvenor Wotkyns, John Sweaney and J.B. Smith. By the 1940s, Parker “P.O.” Ackley changed the wildcatting game by making small adjustments to rounds that greatly improved their overall performance. The most famous of this era, though, was Roy Weatherby, the son of Kansas sharecroppers.
Roy was earning $200 a week at the Automobile Club of Southern California in San Diego, which was a seriously solid wage back in those days. When the shop was closed, however, he used a lathe and a drill press purchased at Sears to make his own homebrew ammunition. Among these was the .220 Rocket, built off of a Swift parent cartridge.
Wildcatting developed as a way for the amateur shooter to tailor rounds for their individual purposes. This was commonly to comply with caliber or bullet weight permitting regulations for specific game, though performance also drove the rise of wildcatting. Metallic silhouette shooting is a popular field for wildcatters, as many competitors seek to adapt rifle rounds they can fire through their pistols. Autopistol hunters and competitors have also used wildcatting as a means to improve feeding.
In the last 30 years, wildcatting has taken off as a common man’s hobby – resulting in a lot of great, innovative rounds as well as many that are not so great. At the end of the day, it’s the chase for a better round that matters.
Main Features Wildcatters Seek to Develop
Higher velocities: This feature is selected for by either reducing the caliber of a round or increasing the capacity of the case.
Increased energy: Increasing the capacity of the case or the caliber increases the overall energy of the round.
Increased efficiency: Shortening the case, reduction of the case taper or increasing the shoulder angle all result in increased overall efficiency, which means increased accuracy.
Greater consistency: Tinkering around with the weight, diameter or velocity can increase the consistency of a round, which likewise leads to improved accuracy.
Methods of Altering Wildcat Rounds
Increased case length: When the case length is increased, more propellant can fit inside. This is what transformed the .38 Special into the .357 Magnum – with the latter having three times the energy. It’s much easier to create a new case from scratch than it is to modify an existing one (commercially produced rounds). It’s possible to modify existing cartridges through stretching them out, but this is a very advanced form of wildcatting requiring highly specialized tools.
Cold forming: A heavily lubricated case is carefully forced into a reloading die for the desired caliber. This can only be used to reduce the overall dimensions of the round.
Fire forming: This is actually a rather ingenious method of wildcatting, whereby a parent case, or case partially formed through cold forming, is fired out of the desired firearm using only a light load of powder and bullet. Sometimes fast-burning powder is topped off with Cream of Wheat, creating a specialized blank that will expand the size of the case.
Rim modifications: Highly precise turning is required to modify a rim, making this another wildcatting modification primarily done by commercial enterprises. Most rim modifications remove the rim entirely or make a rimless round into a rebated one. This allows for larger rounds to be loaded into the weapon than the action was designed for.
Trimming to length: Both cold forming and fire forming come with the same problem: The case is generally still too long for the purposes the wildcatter is looking for. So the case has to be trimmed down to the appropriate length, which is a standard reloading procedure.
Changing the shoulder angle: This is a means of making the casing more closely resemble a standard cylinder, allowing for a more efficient burn. Moving the shoulder back requires cold forming, while moving the shoulder forward requires fire forming.
Case taper reduction: A hot forming procedure whereby a cartridge is made into more of a standard cylinder, similar to changing the shoulder angle.
Changing the Case Diameter: Also known as “necking up” or “necking down,” this is the most common method of wildcatting. It changes the range of bullets, which can be loaded into the case. That significantly increases the velocity, power or wind resistance of a round. It is the most common method of wildcatting because it is relatively easy and also so versatile.
Necking back: This cold forming operation reduces the overall case capacity, making rounds more appropriate for shorter barrels. It is useful when trying to change a rifle round into something more appropriate for a pistol.
Blowing out: A fire-forming variety of wildcatting a round that increases case capacity by moving the shoulder forward.
Each of these methods requires a different set of equipment to execute, so don’t think that because you can do one you can do them all. Some companies catering to the hobby offer special dies designed specifically for the purpose of making wildcatting easier. Even if you’re looking to wildcat an unusual round, these companies generally have these dies available for special order. What’s more, some are very simple, albeit powerful, while others take extensive training and have a very small margin of error. As with any hand reloading, be very careful and err on the side of caution. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll end up learning the hard way.
Notable Wildcat Cartridges
It makes sense once you hear it, but it might surprise you to find out that there are more wildcat calibers than there are commercially available rounds on the market. To make a list of all the wildcat cartridges of the world would be a book, not an article. However, there are some wildcat cartridges that are representative of the field in general and are worth mentioning:
Thompson/Center Ugalde: This is an entire family of wildcat rounds. Necking up .223 Remington cartridges to accept larger bullets is the main modification. These were created for the Thompson Center Arms Contender single shot pistol. The basis of this is the Contender pistol. Because of its bolt action, all that is required for a caliber change is the changing of a barrel. Variants include .30 TCU (.308 caliber), 6mm TCU (.243 caliber), 7mm TCU, .25 Ugalde, also known as .25 TCU (6.35 mm) and 6.5mm TCU (.264 caliber, really a 6.7 mm bullet).
.22 Eargesplitten Loudenboomer: Perhaps one of the craziest wildcat cartridges ever made, this was specifically designed to set a world record for firing at over 5,000 feet per second. It failed to do so, topping out at 4,600 fps. This is a modified .378 Weatherby Magnum cartridge case necked down to .224 calibre. The round is primarily a curiosity without any practical applications.
6MM PPC: The 6mm PPC (Palmisano & Pindel Cartridge), commonly known as the 6 PPC, is a centerfire rifle cartridge prized for its accuracy. At up to 300 yards, it’s one of the most accurate cartridges on the market, which makes it ideal for benchrest shooting, where it finds almost exclusive use. The accuracy is made possible thanks to its barrel of a frame. This aggressively necked-up round is based on the .22 PPC, which is in turn a modification of the .220 Russian round.
Wildcatting Around the World
Wildcatting is most popular in the United States, which isn’t surprising considering the gun culture and degree of gun freedom in the U.S. However, there is one other country where the hobby of wildcatting ammunition is relatively common: Australia. While gun grabbers were mostly successful in eliminating private firearms ownership in Australia, gun ownership was not completely eliminated. Wildcatting still persists, albeit in an extremely niche circle of die-hard participants.
One of the cool things about wildcat cartridges is that they tend to be regional in nature. What works for hunting local varmints in South Carolina might be useless in Australia – where wildcatting is generally used for making better hunting rounds for game like deer and kangaroo. Nearly every Australian wildcatter is operating off of the .303 British round, thanks to the widespread availability and popularity of these after the Second World War. What’s more, there is an abundance of inexpensive Australian Lee–Enfield MkIII military rifles capable of firing them. Surplus rifles are often re-barrelled into .257 caliber, also known as the 303-25.
Wildcat Rounds on the Commercial Market
Some wildcat cartridges are so good that the market can’t help but pick them up and start making them on their own. Typically, this requires a commercial weapon manufacturer to make a firearm with a chamber to accommodate the round. This can be a tipping point for a wildcat cartridge. Word spreads that the round is ideal for some purpose, then a company begins manufacturing an appropriate firearm, then the cartridge is effectively no longer a wildcat round, but a standard commercial round.
Some former wildcat cartridges that became standard commercial rounds include:
.22 CHeetah: This was originally a 308 BR benchrest round, until wildcatters began necking the round down for a flatter trajectory. It’s one of the most effective varmint rounds within 300 yards. Wichita Arms and Shilen Rifle Company both manufacture weapons specifically for this round.
.303/25: This is one of the Australian rounds we talked about above – a .303 British that has been necked down to fire a .25 caliber round. Primarily used in pest and varmint control, the round is largely obsolete, but still popular among a group of collectors and enthusiasts.
.454 Casull: This is an extremely powerful round developed from the Colt .45 specifically for big game hunting. For years, Wyoming-based Freedom Arms was the only real manufacturer of this round. However, due to its popularity and its power, Ruger and Taurus began manufacturing firearms chambered for this round in the mid-1990s. In 1998, SAAMI released its first specs for the .454 Casull, which meant that it was no longer a wildcat round.
7-30 Waters: People have been wildcatting this round out of .30-30 Winchester ammunition since the 1890s. Wildcatters wanted to improve the performance of this lever-action round, making it much faster than the parent round without sacrificing much in terms of bullet weight.
How to Get Started With Wildcatting
You’ll likely need to read several books before fully understanding how to make the best wildcat cartridges in your home. However, we can give you some information so that you can decide whether or not wildcatting is something you want to learn more about and pursue further.
The first question is whether you want to start making wildcat rounds of someone else’s development or if you want to start coming up with your own improvements. The latter is a far more involved task and one that requires gunsmithing know-how if you ever want to actually fire the rounds – not to mention, you’re going to have to accept trial and error as part of the process. If you’re just making something someone else has already developed, you’re going to have a much easier time.
The good news is that there are programs that provide theoretical outcomes of potential rounds. Two of these programs are QuickDesign and QuickLOAD – programs used by wildcatters to see what their rounds are going to do when fired in the real world. This allows you to get a look into what your dream round will perform – or not perform. An example of how programs like this can save you time and money, is that they allow you to make crucial changes in your experimental ammunition before you start actually making the rounds. This also provides a safer way of checking to see if your pet design is actually going to work when fired.
Most of the equipment needed for wildcatting is the same as what you need for reloading. Anything you need beyond that depends on what kind of ammunition you want to make and what processes you want to use to make your rounds. You may need additional equipment, but your hand-reloading gear will have you off to a good start.
Is Wildcatting Ammo Worth It?
This is one of the big questions you’ll run into early on, and the answer is mostly a function of two other questions: First, do you absolutely need (or at least really, really want) the features provided by your customized ammunition? And second, do you enjoy the process?
Both of these questions will provide you with the answer to whether or not you’re better off just buying wildcat ammunition from a small provider or skipping it altogether and just using standard, commercially available rounds.
Don’t look at the hobby of wildcatting as a way to save money, or you’ll likely find yourself frustrated. Instead, look at it as a way to spend more time enjoying your firearms hobby, while getting a better feel for the ammunition you use. When approaching wildcatting this way, the frustration will become part of the fun. At the end of the day, the best part about wildcatting might not be improved ammunition, but rather what you learn about something you already love.
What follows is a work in progress so please feel free to respond with ideas, reactions, etc. Last week I published a New York Times op-ed in which I called for the regulation of guns based on their lethality as a more efficient and logical way to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ Because otherwise we run into a dead end when someone like the Orlando shooter acquires gunslegally and then uses them for a bad end.
What I am proposing is that that persons who want to own highly-lethal weapons do more than simply pass a background check. This is not the Canadian or the European approach, which imposes stiff regulations on just about every kind of gun. Instead, it borrows a page from the ATF which currently approves applications for importing guns based on whether the particular model is judged to be a safe, ‘sporting’ gun or not.
So what I have done is create four different categories of lethality: concealability, caliber, ammunition capacity and flexibility (e.g., how quickly a gun can be reloaded or made ready to fire), with the guns that score highest total being the most lethal and therefore requiring a greater degree of regulation in order to be bought or owned. Next week I am going to publish a detailed study covering lethality measurements for every kind of gun, but today I thought I would give you a little preview of how a lethality scorecard might actually work.
For this exercise I chose nine different gun models currently manufactured by Smith & Wesson, including two standard revolvers (586, 67,) one very concealable revolver (351PD,) two target pistols (SW22, 41,) two full-size pistols (M&P 40, 1911SC,) and two very small pistols (Shield, BGA360.)
Here are the pictures and lethality scores for each gun. Remember, the higher the score, the more lethal the gun:
Model 586, 357 magnum revolver, 6″ barrel, LETHALITY – 17
Model 67, 38 special revolver, 4” barrel, LETHALITY – 16
Model 351 PD, 357 magnum revolver, 2” barrel, LETHALITY – 21
Model 1911SC, 45acp caliber, 4” barrel, LETHALITY – 22
Model SHIELD, 40 S&W caliber, 3” barrel, LETHALITY – 21
Model BGA380, 380acp caliber, 2” barrel, LETHALITY – 19
And the winner is – the M&P 40 pistol, which happens to be Smith & Wesson’s standard gun carried by police. The reason it gets the most lethal score is because it holds more than 15 rounds of a very powerful cartridge; in fact, the only cartridge more powerful in the above list is the 357 magnum, and while the 351PD revolver only holds 5 rounds of this extremely lethal ammunition, the gun scores high on the scale because the ammo is very powerful and the gun is very small. Let’s not forget that lethality is not just a function of the amount of ammo loaded into the gun; it’s also based on how easy it is to carry the gun around.
Notice that the BGA380 gets a score that is not in the range of the bigger guns because while it is very concealable it also loads with only a moderately powerful round. But Smith & Wesson also markets a version of this gun with an integral laser, which means that you don’t have to aim the gun at all. Just pull the trigger halfway and the laser lights up; now you’re playing a video game with a real, live gun. And I have decided to award 3 points to gun with integral lasers, which means the laser model of the tiny BGA380 would almost match the lethality of the full-size M&P.
The lowest lethality score was awarded to the Model 41, which is a beautiful, hand-crafted target gun designed specifically for sport and competitive shooting at the range. But the barrel length makes it very difficult to conceal, and hence I don’t consider it to be an extremely lethal gun.
Over the next few days I am going to publish similar lethality lists for other handgun manufacturers plus rifles and shotguns as well. Feel free to offer suggestions or comments so that I can tighten and improve my work.
Everybody knows that the United States was formed by settlers who moved from East to West. But whether it’s Ronald Reagan or Half-n-Half, what starts in California usually then moves back East. Which is why when a citizen’s ballot initiative to limit magazine capacities and ammunition sales in California was first announced back in January, the NRA threw an especially big fit because they know that if this kind of measure can be passed in our most populous state, then gun-control legislation can pop up anywhere and no amount of Capitol Hill noisemaking can necessarily hold the line against such reforms.
The California initiative is particularly interesting because, for the first time, it is aimed (no pun intended) not just at the regulation of guns, but the regulation of ammunition as well. And for all the talk about gun violence on both sides, what is rarely mentioned is the fact that while gun ownership is more or less regulated in all 50 states, the control of ammunition is usually left entirely undone. For example, despite a strongly-held belief among many GVP advocates to the contrary, most internet gun sales involve a background check before the buyer can actually take possession of the gun. But in most states that same buyer can purchase an armory-full load of ammunition for that same weapon and there is no requirement that such purchases be tracked or reported at all. The Aurora shooter, James Holmes, for example, amassed a stash of more than 6,000 rounds, much of it bought online.
To a certain degree the California initiative follows from ordinances that were passed in Los Angeles and Sacramento which require that ammunition purchasers identify themselves in face-to-face transactions with ammunition sellers, and that the latter keep records of everyone to whom they have made a sale. The problem, of course, is that these laws are only useful to law enforcement engaged in an investigation after-the-fact; they really don’t do much to prevent ammunition from getting into the wrong hands before it’s used in an improper way. The new ballot initiative, known as “The Safety For All Act,” would require a background check for all ammunition sales, making California the first state to impose the same requirement for ammunition purchases that exist for the purchase of guns.
Frankly, if I were the NRA, I’d be freaking out too. And I would be particularly freaking out right now because the folks who are spearheading the effort to put this issue on the ballot have just announced that they have collected the necessary 365,880 signatures to put the item before statewide voters this Fall. Actually, they are going to submit over 600,000 signatures, because like all citizen initiative campaigns, signatures on a petition are one thing, valid signatures are something else. But I get the clear sense that putting this issue before the voters come November is really a done deal.
You know, of course, that the NRA will pull out all the usual 2nd-Amendment stops to try and defeat this bill, but in a funny kind of way they are hoisted by their own petard. Because the NRA doesn’t let a single day go by without reminding the world that they represent the most law-abiding citizens on God’s green earth; namely, the folks who under law (a law that was supported by the NRA) are allowed to own guns. So if the government imposes the same legal requirements on ammo that it imposes on guns, why should any good-guy citizen (or non-citizen, for that matter) have a problem with this law?
This ballot initiative is also going to test one other, heartfelt NRA argument, namely their self-promoting nonsense that they are a true, grass-roots movement whereas the other side is an artificial creation of Mayor Mike and his big bucks. Let’s see how that one flies in the Golden State – it sure didn’t work when I-594 was passed in a state right up Interstate 5.
I visited Smith & Wesson for the first time in 1978, came up to show my face and get the sporting goods VP, a nice gentleman named Del Shorb, to increase our wholesale allotment for the following year. S&W was riding high back then, couldn’t ship enough 44-magnum ‘Dirty Harry’ revolvers, the newly-developed stainless steel guns were in demand, and everything appeared to be rosy for the iconic gun-maker whose brand name was probably as well-known as Coke.
This was before the American gun market was invaded by European pistols, in particular Beretta, Glock and Sig, and literally overnight the fortunes of S&W began to ebb. Things went from bad to worse when the company was purchased by a British investment group, Tompkins, who then entered into a disastrous agreement with the Clinton Administration, which led to a boycott which almost led to the company’s demise. Eventually it all got sorted sorted out, the Clinton deal disappeared, a new ownership/management team took over and the company’s fortunes began to move forward again.
Yet despite the run-up in sales during the Age of Obama, gun companies like S&W know that tough times could lie ahead. For one thing, every national election poses a risk that a pro-gun person will be sitting in the White House, which means that the fever to acquire guns before they are all ‘confiscated’ will die down. For another, try as they might, gun companies find themselves selling most of their guns to people who already guns, and at a certain point even the most diehard gun enthusiast decides enough is enough. Which means that to maintain market presence and profits, publicly-owned gun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson need to think about selling something other than guns.
If you want to know what S&W is thinking, take a look at their new investor presentation that was distributed at SHOT. It’s a glossy, 45-page catalog which may or may not presage an offering of new stock, but what caught my eye was the basic strategy statement which says the company intends to “expand organically and inorganically into adjacent and complementary markets.” Which means either buy other companies or develop new products from within companies that you already own.
The possibility that S&W might acquire another gun company, Savage Arms, was the subject of an article in the Wall Street Journal this week. Savage is part of Vista Outdoor, a collection of companies created by ATK, a major defense contractor who cobbled together guns, ammunition and outdoor sporting accessories with annual sales above $2 billion which is now on the block.
If S&W were to buy Vista, the company would immediately expand into all kids of adjacent and complimentary markets, because in addition to Savage, a leading manufacturer of long guns, the deal would also catapult S&W into a premier position in ammunition products, since Vista’s major holding is Federal Ammunition, whose presence and branding in the ammo market is huge.
The only problem in this strategy, however, is that none of these products will be able to sustain the performance of the last several years if something happens to slow or reverse the upward trend in gun sales. Few of the Vista brands can stand on their own outside the gun market, and shooting accessories only move off the shelves when consumers buy a gun.
What is most interesting about the investor’s presentation are several glossy pages devoted to new products from Smith & Wesson itself. Except not a single new gun product is actually new. The 22-caliber shooter has been around for fifty years, the AR rifles have new accessory rails, the concealable Shield pistol has a ported barrel which makes no difference to performance at all.
The big run-up in gun company revenues doesn’t reflect new products or new customers. It reflects what has always driven gun sales – fears that guns will be taken away. Try to build a multi-billion consumer-product company based on consumer fears?
In the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, public opinion polls appeared to show widespread support for strengthening gun laws that would make it more difficult for ‘prohibited persons’ to gain access to guns. In particular, support was strongest for an extension of the NICS background check system to cover most secondary transfers of firearms beyond the initial, counter-top transfer that is covered now. It was this public sentiment which led to the crafting of such legislation, known as Manchin-Toomey, which nevertheless fell short of the votes needed to move the bill through the Senate in April, 2013.
One of the post-Newtown polls showing wide, public support for expanded background checks was conducted by researchers at the Bloomberg Public Health School at Johns Hopkins University, and now that I’ve mentioned the unmentionable, those readers in the pro-gun community will please do everyone a favor and keep their comments to themselves. The bottom line from this survey was that gun owners and non-gun owners expressed similar degrees of support for universal background checks, prohibitions on ownership for persons convicted of violating domestic restraining orders and mandatory sentences for gun traffickers. Where significant differences appeared between the two groups, however, involved ‘bans’ on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines; the word ‘ban’ being toxic to gun owners but much less concerning to those who don’t own guns.
The Bloomberg group has just released a new poll which, in terms of methodology and sampling, more or less replicates the same poll that was published in 2013. It will shortly appear in the journalPreventive Medicine, but I was able to examine an advance copy of the text. The authors note that in the intervening two years since their last survey, public opinion appears to have shifted away from more gun regulations and is now swinging towards stronger support of ‘gun rights.’ But comparing such data to the more specific policy-oriented questions which comprise this new survey is really oranges versus apples, since such phrases as ‘gun rights’ and ‘gun control’ are simply too vague and too loaded to explain much about public opinion at all.
The new Bloomberg survey shows that there remains a basic bedrock of public opinion that expanding background checks to secondary gun transfers is a good thing to do. In 2013, support for this measure among gun owners and non-gun owners was above 80%, both numbers shifted only slightly in the current survey and the difference between gun owners and non-gun owners was negligible at best. On the other side of the ledger, i.e., banning assault rifles and high-capacity mags, there was again a decisive difference between gun owners who said ‘no’ and non-gun owners who said ‘yes,’ although in this case the percentage of non-gun owners who favored weapon and ammunition bans appears to have slipped.
What I find significant is that 45% of gun owners in both surveys support bans on the sale of assault rifles and high-cap mags. Researchers who focus on policy issues traditionally look for majority opinion as a guide to what may or may not be possibly changed in the public domain. But the fact that slightly less than half of all gun owners support the ban on assault rifles is a finding which needs to be considered on its own terms.
I can’t think of a single issue that has generated more noise and more hype in the gun community than the issue of assault rifles over the last several years. From the phony attempt by the NSSF to dress up these guns as ‘modern sporting rifles,’ to the prancing around by Colion Noir, the industry has done everything it can to promote these guns as akin to motherhood and apple pie. That nearly 50% of gun owners don’t buy this nonsense should give pause to those who still regard the NRA as a behemoth when it comes to influencing public opinion about guns. To me, it’s more like a case of the emperor without clothes.