For Sig Sauer, building a state-of-the-art ammo plant required a whole new approach
E. W. Bliss was a manufacturer of heavy equipment (power-stamping presses and the like), founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1867. It has long been out of business. So, why, you might ask, will you find one of its vintage machines on the brass line at Sig Sauer’s brand-spanking-new ammunition factory in Jacksonville, Arkansas? A factory that was designed—according to Daniel Powers, president of Sig’s ammo business—to be a state-of-the-art ammo plant created from “the ground up with a clean slate” to use the latest in efficient production techniques?
Because Powers is no dummy, and he knew that those old Bliss machines, once properly retrofitted with modern software controls, would work splendidly with Sig’s new high-tech machines, some of which he personally designed.
Another question that might occur, given the competitive nature of the ammo business, is why Sig Sauer is in the ammo business at all? The answer to that question is supplied by Bud Fini, Sig Sauer’s executive vice president.
“Why did we feel it was necessary to design and build a new ammo plant? Well, there were two reasons. First, as a manufacturer of firearms, we shoot an awful lot of ammunition while testing and developing our products. Millions of rounds per year. And we found that the ammunition we purchased on the open market was not up to our standards.”
Think, for a moment, about the magnitude of that problem. You’re spending precious resources to develop high-quality firearms, and you don’t know if function issues are the result of a design or production flaw on your part or the ammo you’re using in testing.
“We realized it wasn’t the firearm,” Fini says. “It was the ammunition. And the only way to get the quality of ammunition we wanted was to make it ourselves.
“Second, Sig is an international company. We do a lot of business overseas with governments, military, and police, and those people have become accustomed to what a lot of people have become accustomed to—one-stop shopping. Consumers like to go one place for a complete system.”
That rationale dovetails into the first.
“If they [government, military, police] do a tender for a firearm and someone else supplies the ammunition, who do they go to if they have a problem? Is it an ammunition problem or is it a firearm problem? Selling complete packages solves the problem.”
One last question. Why should a retailer carry Sig Sauer ammo? What’s the benefit?
“I’ve been in the industry for 42 years, and I’ve worked with or for a number of manufacturers,” Fini says. “I find Sig to have the highest customer loyalty of any company I’ve ever worked for. People are truly dedicated to the brand.”
Fini believes a smart retailer can take advantage of that brand loyalty. “I think a retailer’s sales ability increases when he tries to give someone a corresponding product made by the same manufacturer.”
In other words, if a customer purchases a Sig Sauer firearm, the retailer should be able to put a box or two of Sig ammunition in front of that customer and make that additional sale.
There’s also something else at work here: a company ethic that prizes quality above all else. “At Sig, we do things a little differently,” Fini says. “We don’t buy other people’s inventions or companies and re-brand them. We start from a clean sheet of paper and we build it from the ground up because we think we can build a better product.
“Jacksonville started with a completely clean slate. The building was a former warehouse, and that allowed us to custom-design the facility exactly the way we wanted. That gives us an incredible competitive advantage. And it gives the retailer who carries Sig ammo along with other Sig products a competitive advantage in a highly competitive marketplace.”
Proving the Theory
Sig Sauer made the decision to manufacture its own line of ammunition in 2012. By early 2013, ammo was rolling off the line in a 25,000-square-foot plant in Kentucky. It wasn’t an ideal site, but it was a start.
“Kentucky proved our theory, that we could make our own quality ammo,” says Powers. “We started with five products, and within a year were producing 26.”
What became very apparent, very quickly as it turned out, was that the Kentucky facility was woefully inadequate to meet Sig’s long-term needs. It didn’t even have enough room for a brass line, a component for which Sig wanted full control. Sig not only needed a facility large enough to house those old Bliss warhorses, it also required a site that could accommodate the manufacturer’s ambitious plans for growth. The Jacksonville ammo plant covers 70,000 square feet, leaving plenty of room for expansion. In addition, the company purchased another 43 acres of adjacent land.
“A clean slate and a new site required new thinking and a new way of doing things,” Powers says. And that “clean slate” concept allowed Sig to incorporate on-site testing facilities into the original design in Jacksonville. “We couldn’t shoot on-site in Kentucky,” he says. “Here, we have six ranges on-site, and we can shoot indoors, in controlled circumstances. It saves us a lot of valuable time.”
The ammo plant also has a climate-controlled room where specs can be checked. For example, during my visit, a technician was checking the runout of selected casings. Here, again, you will see a blending of the old and the new. The stout gauge stands were from the 1940s, but they were equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation, all of it tied into computers and iPads.
Another room is devoted to making ballistic gelatin. The hot-water tank where the gelatin is dissolved and the refrigerators where the blocks are stored are precisely controlled for temperature. In this way, Sig engineers know they will have a consistent and unvarying medium into which to shoot. Testing for FBI protocols is across the hall, limiting the distance the gelatin must travel. Doing so also saves a great deal of time, further enhancing the efficiency of the facility.
This attention to detail extends to the components sourced from other manufacturers. “We work with various powder and primer manufacturers and test 50 to 75 different loads of every powder and primer for overall performance before selecting the combination that meets our goals for each particular round,” says Powers. “Similar care is taken when selecting the best brass from various sources, and we are moving toward making our rifle brass in-house.”
Precision and Consistency
Powers likes to say, “We consider ourselves to be an engineering company. Right now, the plant employs 72 full-time workers, 10 of whom are engineers.”
He’s proud of that ratio. “We spend more on R&D than any other company,” he says.
Here’s just one example of that philosophy in action. Sig engineers are obsessed with ignition consistency, as they believe, rightly, consistent ignition helps produce consistent accuracy. So, they designed and built a proprietary machine that could precisely fashion the flash hole that would help deliver that consistency.
These telling details also help explain the overall design of the plant. The engineering team can get to the line quickly and easily, and the testing areas are just off the main floor. Powers believes the layout of the factory lets his team be “more nimble,” which helps lower the cost of the final product. But to Powers, the most important aspect of the new ammo plant just might be quality.
“Here, we can control quality right from the beginning.” And that’s a great place to be.
Currently, Sig Sauer ammunition is available in the following configurations. Pistol: V-Crown (JHP): .380 Auto, .38 Spl., 9mm, .357 Sig, .357 Mag., .38 Super +P, .40 S&W, 10mm, .44 Rem. Mag., .44 S&W Spl., .45 Auto, and .45 Colt. SIG FMJ: .380 Auto, .38 Spl., 9mm, .357 Sig, .357 Mag., .38 Super +P, .40 S&W, 10mm, and .45 Auto. Rifle: Match Grade Open Tip Match (OTM): .223 Rem., .308 Win., .300 Win. Mag., 300BLK Subsonic, 300BLK Supersonic, and 6.5 Creedmoor. Hunting: Sig HT: .223 Rem., .308 Win., .300 Win. Mag., and 300BLK Supersonic.
—Slaton L. White