This article, featured in its November issue, is replicated on our website with permission from The Minnesota Legionnaire.
By Tim Engstrom
ANOKA — Shannon Culver of Elk River retired from the military 10 years ago after serving 18 1/2 years in the Minnesota Air National Guard. She has been at Federal Premium Ammunition for eight years now.
In her prior job as a staffing supervisor for a nursing home in New Hope, she was let go because she was too direct — a trait common, and typically appreciated, among veterans. She had been a master sergeant (E-7) and knew how to supervise people.
“They said I didn’t ‘fluff my language’ well enough,” Culver said.
She was an unemployed veteran for six months. Through a friend, she found Federal. There, being direct is a good thing.
“Working at a place with a lot of veterans has a lot of camaraderie,” Culver said. “It doesn’t matter what branch you are, you are still part of our family.”
Federal’s ammunition plant in Anoka has 1,500 employees, of which more than 10 percent are veterans. Federal, owned by Vista Outdoors, is the winner of the Employer of Veterans Award in the large company category (201 workers or more) from The American Legion Department of Minnesota.
Dennis Angell, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, was the senior supervisor of operations before retiring four years ago. He’s been asked to help the plant hire hundreds of additional employees as Federal increases production.
After all, there is a nationwide shortage of ammunition. Between June 1 and Oct. 23, Federal hired more than 250 employees. Almost 20 percent of the production staff is new, and about 30 percent of the new hires are vets. The company still is hiring and encourages veterans to apply.
Angell is proud of Federal’s track record of hiring veterans and donating to veteran causes. He’s also proud that Federal, founded in Anoka as Federal Cartridge Corp. in 1922, remains non-union.
“Federal is the most unionized non-union shop you can find,” he said. “It is run like a union without all the union dues.”
When he was working full-time, Angell had the staff forward hiring applications from veterans to him and Shotshell Plant Manager Scott Collier.
“He and I would look at it because veterans have military attributes that a human resources person might look past,” he said.
Culver, 46, first was hired as a temporary staffer, a way to get experience. A couple of months later, she became full-time. She started in rimfire as a charger operator, then she moved to centerfire as a material handler. Now she is a mechanical adjuster for a conventional loader of shotshells.
She found out Sept. 15 she has breast cancer. She is going through chemotherapy and expects surgery will take place in the spring. Because she had to cut off her hair, three co-workers — all men — cut their hair in support and more Federal employees are planning to do the same.
“I like it here a lot better than where I was,” Culver said.
How the ammo is made
Senior Director of Operations Erik Carlson said he wants to assure people that the plant has ramped up production. Shifts work 24/7 to respond to the nationwide shortage of ammunition.
“We’re making it. It’s on its way,” he said.
The Anoka plant has 700,000 square feet of enclosed space and sits on a 175-acre campus. Every 10 hours another semi pulls up filled with lead, and eight to 10 semis depart with ammunition daily.
Carlson stood before a black-and-white photo from the World War II days, when the plant was making ammo for the war effort.
“The fundamentals of making ammunition have not drifted from what it was in those days,” he said.
Angell said to think of the plant as three connected buildings:
Carlson said 85 percent of what Federal sells are 9 mm, .357 and .38. However, the company has a fourth area — the custom shop, where workers make custom ammo, often for antique guns or specialty rifles.
“It’s literally craftsmanship at work,” he said.
And the fifth area is the employee store, where workers can buy Federal clothing, water bottles, ammo, hunting gear and other products.
Federal has contracted customers, such as the military, police organizations or government agencies, among others, and it has its commercial retail products, sold in stores across the country, Carlson said.
The lead is the start to the production process. All of the lead is from recycled sources — batteries, construction sites, metal dealers. It comes in various alloys of antimony, which determines how pliable the lead is and what sort of round it will be used in.
With machines, the lead is pulled into tubes, cut and formed into bullets.
As most veterans know (but non-vets read this publication, too), the bullet is only the tip of the round. It is the projectile.
The word “cartridge” means the same as round. A cartridge has the bullet, a case (or shell, usually made from brass), a propellant (usually gunpowder), a rim (pretty much the bottom) and a primer (which, when struck, ignites the propellant).
And even in these parts, there are smaller parts, such as the battery cup, primer cup and anvil in the primer. Turn a centerfire round over, look at center of the bottom, and you see the little primer cup in the middle. Inside the primer cup sits the anvil, which crushes the primer mix that fires the round. The primer cup and anvil are encased in what’s called a battery cup.
When you tour the plant, you see precision machines making all of these big and little parts, and there are more machines that put them together or punch grooves into the rims or heat the brass to give it less shine, if that’s what the contractor wants.
Some of the machines are built from scratch, such as one that puts the lube on the tip of a rimfire round. Lube provides consistency shot to shot by providing a barrier between the bullet and the bore.
Cartridge rotary loaders keep the shells moving as they put the various parts together, and you see these precision loaders in all parts of the plant.
Some loaders do one at a time, but a new 9 mm pistol loader at the plant can load 500 at a time using a special tray.
Accuracy and safety are huge in the firearms community. If you are a police officer or a military member, your weapon firing could save your life. If you are a hunter or a target shooter, reliability is key to improved performance.
Accuracy and safety are key at an ammunitions plant, too, Carlson and Angell said.
For example, they showed a loader for .45 cartridges. The machine weighs each one. All the parts are the same weight, so the only variable is the powder. If it detects the weight is off, it rejects the cartridge.
At the 9 mm pistol packaging machine, Carlson and Angell showed an employee checking for quality before the machine is packed. The loader has a camera, photographing each and every cartridge, before they are packaged.
As the tour went on, it was clear each type of ammunition had humans and computers double-checking the quality.
“Every cartridge is quality-checked by a packer and a camera,” Angell said. “They make sure the primer is not upside-down or sideways or the bullet backward or any other problems.”
A “day code” goes on every box and case. It tells what day the ammo was made and which shift, down to which loader machine was used and who the packer was.
“When it comes to quality, we are selling to the military and law enforcement, when that round has got to perform, it’s got to perform,” Angell said. “The rest of us reap the benefit of that level of quality.”
Culver operated a shotshell dial loader. She fed the machine the material, dry powder, pouch and shot. It loaded the Size 6 shot, crimped the shells, then kicked them into an elevator and down a ramp for her to inspect.
2020 Employment and Education Commission Awards for Minn.
Employer of Veterans Award
Small (50 or fewer employees)
DeGeus Tile & Granite Inc., Rochester
Nominated by Kasson Post 333
Employer of Veterans Award
Large (201 or more employees)
Federal Cartridge Co., Anoka
Nominated by Anoka Post 102
Employer of Veterans Award
Medium (51-200 employees)
No winner this year
Enhance the Livings of Disabled Persons Award
Rise human-services nonprofit, Spring Lake Park
Nominated by 5th District
About the awards
The winners in Minnesota are selected by the Department of Minnesota Employment Committee. The chairman is Carl Moon of Zimmerman Post 560.
The awards — the plaques actually come from National — were unable to be presented at the Department Convention and Fall Conference because of cancelations, but they will be presented in other ways. Anoka Post 102’s Lori Allert presented Federal’s award on Oct. 23 at the ammo plant.