May 07, 2022
By Brad Fitzpatrick
There’s fierce competition among today’s ammunition manufacturers to produce the best defensive handgun loads. Federal’s handgun ammunition is among the most advanced, and bullets like its Hydra-Shok and HST consistently perform well in FBI protocol testing. As a result, Federal has been awarded contracts with law enforcement agencies, and many concealed-carry permit holders rely on the consistent performance of these bullets for personal defense.
What modern handgun enthusiasts may not know, however, is that the concept of “defensive handgun ammunition” is a relatively new concept. In the mid-20th century, when Federal first began producing handgun ammunition, many law enforcement officers carried sidearms loaded with soft lead bullets. Barrier penetration and ballistic gel tests were rarely performed. It was generally accepted that any bullet with sufficient energy would stop an attacker.
Federal didn’t begin offering centerfire handgun ammunition until 1963, but despite the brand’s relatively late start compared to established brands like Remington and Winchester-Western, Federal has advanced defensive handgun ammunition development perhaps more than any other brand. Here’s a look at how Federal redefined the defensive handgun ammo market.
In the 1920s Charles Horn worked for the American Ball Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. American Ball produced ball bearings for machines, but after learning that neighborhood kids were sneaking into the company’s scrapyard to find projectiles for their air rifles, Horn decided American Ball might make more money selling pellets than bearings. He was correct, but there was a major problem: Horn didn’t have a good way to package his air rifle projectiles.
Horn searched for a company that could produce paper tubes to hold air rifle shot, and that led him to nearby Anoka, Minnesota, and the Federal Cartridge and Machine Company. When Horn arrived at Federal in 1922, the factory had been idle for two years. The Federal factory had been built in 1916 with the goal of producing 175,000 shotshells a week, but executive turnover, poor manufacturing practices and the lack of a distribution network virtually bankrupted the company by 1920 when production ceased.
Horn thought the machines used by Federal to produce paper shotshell hulls might be converted to produce paper tubes for air rifle shot. His intention was to purchase those machines and move them to Minneapolis, but the asking price of the defunct Federal Cartridge and Machine Company was so low that Horn eventually purchased the entire factory, and in 1922 it was reincorporated as Federal Cartridge Company.
Horn’s first order of business was to develop a distribution plan. Larger brands like Remington controlled trade channels, so Horn drove from town to town throughout the Midwest in his Buick selling his ammo in barber, doctor and dentist offices and feed stores. Horn’s guerilla sales tactics helped keep Federal afloat, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the brand continued to grow and expand.
The biggest reward for all of Horn’s hard work, though, came in 1941 when the U.S. government came knocking and Horn was selected to oversee the building a massive government ammunition factory in anticipation of World War II: the Twin Cities Ordnance Plant, or TCOP.
Federal manufactured air rifle and rimfire ammo and shotshells, and since the company had no history of centerfire ammunition production, several Federal employees were sent to Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia to learn to manufacture centerfire ammo. Those employees returned to Minnesota and assisted in the production of .30, .45 and .50 caliber centerfire ammunition.
During the four years that TCOP was activated for World War II, the plant was supposed to produce 100 million rounds. By the time TCOP was deactivated on V-J Day (August 15, 1945), more than 5 billion rounds of ammo had been manufactured there.
Operating TCOP during the war provided Federal with skilled labor, new machines and facilities, and lots of capital. The next step for the brand, naturally, was to begin producing centerfire ammunition.
According to internal company memos, handgun ammunition was being developed as early as 1959. In 1963 Federal released two commercial handgun loads—.45 ACP and .38 Special—in its Monark ammo line. The .45 ACP round fired a 230-grain full-metal-jacket bullet at a muzzle velocity of 850 fps while the .38 Special fired a 148-grain lead wadcutter bullet at 770 fps.
Both were listed as match loads. Federal also offered a 158-grain .38 Special load that year—the first Federal handgun ammunition specifically designed for and marketed to law enforcement. Throughout the 1960s Federal’s handgun ammunition continued to expand, adding several cartridge offerings, including .25, .32 and .380 Auto and 9mm Luger.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Federal also offered its first .357 Magnum load, which drove a jacketed softpoint bullet from the muzzle at 1,550 fps. The bullet design was a step forward in personal defense and law enforcement bullets because it offered improved weight retention with better expansion and more efficient energy transfer than a full-metal-jacket bullet.
In 1983 Federal purchased the rights to the Nyclad bullet design from Smith & Wesson. Nyclad bullets were constructed with lead cores and nylon coatings that reduced barrel fouling and lead particles in the air—important for indoor ranges—but the coating also changed the way these bullets performed when they struck their target.
In April 1986, five FBI agents were wounded and two more were killed while trying to apprehend two violent criminals in Miami, Florida. The shootout would change law enforcement tactics forever, but it also prompted a closer look at bullet performance and gave rise to “defensive ammunition.”
The FBI wanted ammunition that could penetrate barriers and stop a threat immediately, and Federal provided that when it unveiled the new Hydra-Shok bullet. With a skived copper jacket and lead center post, the hollowpoint Hydra-Shok bullet proved to be effective in FBI protocol testing. The center post prevented cloth or tissue from jamming into the bullet’s nose and reducing penetration and expansion, and the skives in the copper jacket ensured consistent and controlled expansion.
The Hydra-Shok offered a level of performance never seen from a defensive pistol bullet. In 1990 Hydra-Shok ammo became available on the commercial market. Hydra-Shok was also the first Federal ammunition to fall under the Premium line. And in 1997 Federal launched its first Personal Defense handgun ammunition, which was loaded with Hydra-Shok bullets.
In the early 2000s, Federal released a new and improved version of the Hydra-Shok bullet to law enforcement. Known as HST, this bullet performed even better on FBI protocol tests. With the rise in popularity of concealed carry, Federal launched its Low-Recoil Personal Defense in 2004, which was more manageable to shoot from small, light pistols.
In 2007 Federal announced the first handgun cartridge to bear the brand’s name, the .327 Federal Magnum round for revolvers, which offers ballistics similar to a .357 Magnum with less recoil and muzzle blast while providing increased cylinder capacity. Four years later the company released Guard Dog, its first expanding full-metal-jacket defense bullet for the civilian market.
Starting in 2015 HST ammunition was available on the consumer market, and a year later the company introduced HST Micro, designed for modern short-barreled defense pistols. 2016 was also the year the company introduced its Syntech line of ammunition, which features a total synthetic jacket—a modern take on the Nyclad bullet of years gone by. In 2020, Federal released a ton of new products, including Punch—the company’s newest self-defense load designed specifically for home defense and concealed carry.
In 2020, Federal purchased Remington ammunition, and that year marked the beginning of the largest ammunition shortage in American history. Federal employees worked around the clock to keep pace with insatiable demand.
As we hit 2022 and recognize Federal’s first 100 years in business, it’s interesting to note how far the company has come in a relatively short amount of time. 100 years ago Charles Horn was selling shotgun shells to local dentists from the trunk of his Buick, and 59 years ago, the company produced its first-ever centerfire handgun cartridge—hoping to compete with more established brands. Today, Federal is a major player in the ammunition market and continues to revolutionize self-defense bullets. It’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the next 100 years.