June 22, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
Federal ammunition celebrates 100 years in business in 2022, but if it weren’t for a forward-thinking Minneapolis businessman named Charles Horn, Federal might be nothing more than a footnote in Anoka, Minnesota’s history. Founded in 1916 by brothers Lewis and Harry Sherman, the original Federal factory—known then as the Federal Cartridge and Machine Company—opened with a goal of producing 175,000 shotshells a week and capturing lucrative government contracts. None of those contracts materialized, and only a handful of shotgun shells were produced by the time the factory was shuttered in 1920.
Two years later, Charles Horn of the American Ball Company in nearby Minneapolis was looking for a company to manufacture paper tubes to hold air rifle ammo when he came upon the remains of the defunct Federal Cartridge and Machine Company. Horn intended to buy the machines needed to construct paper air rifle ammo tubes—a tube design that’s still in production today and is familiar to anyone who has ever owned a BB gun—but instead he purchased the entire company.
Federal began selling shotshells, rimfire ammunition and air rifle shot in the 1920s, and thanks to Horn’s leadership, the company continued to grow. The brand grew so much, in fact, that Federal finally did earn a government contract in 1941 to construct and manage production at the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant in Minnesota (TCOP).
TCOP would be manufacturing centerfire ammunition, so Federal, which had only produced rimfire and shotshell ammunition at that time, sent a handful of employees to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, where they learned to load centerfire ammunition. TCOP provided .30, .45 and .50 caliber ammunition, and by the time the plant was deactivated, it had produced more than 5 billion rounds of ammunition—far more than the goal of 100 million rounds set at the beginning of the war.
TCOP provided Federal with capital and machinery to expand its ammunition operations, and since the employees had experience loading centerfire ammunition, it seemed only natural that Federal would expand into that sector of the ammunition market. As early as the late 1950s, internal company memos indicate that Federal was in late-stage testing of its centerfire products, and in 1963, the company offered their first commercial centerfire hunting ammunition.
Twelve popular rounds were offered initially: .222 Rem., .243 Win., .270 Win., 7x57 Mauser, .30-30 Win., .30-06, .300 Savage, .303 British, .308 Winchester, 8mm Mauser, .32 Win. Spl. and .35 Rem. All these rounds, except for the .222 Rem. and .243 Win., were only available with Federal’s Hi-Shok jacketed softpoint bullet, which advertised a “heavy jacket drawn thin at the nose” for reliable expansion.
In the 1960s and 1970s, plastics became important components in manufacturing. Molded plastics could replace more expensive, heavier and heat-sensitive materials. In 1971, Federal began packaging its centerfire rifle ammunition in plastic cartridge holders that were molded so they could be pulled into two halves, and each one of those plastic carriers was equipped with clips to attach to the shooter’s belt.
Federal launched its Premium line of centerfire ammunition in 1978, which were initially loaded with Sierra boattails. In 1989, amid the “big bore war,” Federal introduced its Premium Safari ammo in calibers such as .375 H&H Mag., .416 Rigby and .470 Nitro Express. In 1992, Federal entered into an agreement with Texan Jack Carter to sell Carter’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullets, with some modifications, and later his Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer Solid bullet.
Four years later, Federal introduced High Energy rifle loads, which improved the muzzle velocity of some centerfire cartridges by as much as 200 feet per second (fps). Premium varmint ammunition was added to the line in 1997, and that same year Federal added Premium and Gold Medal brass to the list of reloading components they offered.
By the year 2000, Federal’s Premium line of centerfire rifle ammunition was offered with bullets by Barnes, Trophy Bonded, Sierra, Woodleigh and Nosler in dozens of calibers, and in 2005, the company added a new hunting bullet of its own—Fusion. With its electrochemically bonded core, Fusion ammunition was durable enough to ensure consistent penetration. Despite its long history of ammunition production, Federal didn’t have a single centerfire cartridge that bore its name until the 2006 release of the .338 Federal, a joint venture with Sako.
In 2008, the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC) received an update which included the addition of a boattail profile and polymer tip for higher ballistic coefficients. Known as the Trophy Bonded Tip, this bullet offered the rugged design of the original TBBC with improved terminal ballistics. Over the past decade, Federal has continued to add advanced hunting bullets to their line, including the Trophy Copper lead-free bullet and Woodleigh’s Hydro Solid. But perhaps the most impressive of all Federal hunting bullets in recent memory has been its Terminal Ascent.
Representing the next step in the TBBC family line, the new Terminal Ascent bullet offers best-in-class ballistic coefficients with a bonded bullet design and a Slipstream polymer tip. The new tip design initiates expansion at lower velocities—an important characteristic on long-range hunting bullets. The bonded core design also ensures deep penetration on tough game at high velocities, making Terminal Ascent one of the best all-around hunting bullets on the market today.
In 2020, Federal also announced the launch of its Custom Shop. This precision ammunition is loaded to customer specifications with a variety of different bullets. Federal’s Hunting bullets have come a long way in the last six decades, but the company continues to produce better hunting bullets that outperform ammunition from just a decade ago. It’s hard to say what might happen in the next century, but so long as there’s game to be hunted, Federal bullets will remain the premium option.