ATK: Ammo for Uncle Sam, and for Us, Too

If you are an American shooter, chances are you have done business with Alliant Techsystems, even if you did not realize it at the time. If you have bought ammo from Federal, Fusion Ammunition, CCI/Blazer/Speer, Estate Cartridge, or Black Cloud, you have bought from ATK. If you have scopes or accessories from Weaver, Blackhawk!, Simmons, Redfield, Eagle Industries, or RCBS reloading supplies, you have bought from ATK.

ATK only became its own company in 1990. Its parent company, Honeywell, decided to “spin off” all of its defense and security businesses into a new company. Since Honeywell had been building national defense related products for the government since WWII, this was a big deal. Alliant Techsystems set up shop in Minnesota and instantly became a major player on the corporate world stage and in the years since they have slowly acquired dozens of smaller companies under their corporate umbrella, growing larger and larger.

The companies building ammo and accessories for the civilian market are actually only a fraction of what ATK does. The majority of their work is in aerospace and national defense. One of their companies builds the vast majority of solid fuel rocket engines in the U.S., from little ones that launch Sidewinder missiles to big ones used by NASA. ATK companies also build parts for the satellites that those big boosters launch. Sensors used in aircraft patrolling our borders are made by ATK’s defense oriented companies, and they have even developed a self-contained, remote controlled 25mm autocannon called PAWS that fits on a pallet and can be mounted anywhere from the side door of a cargo plane to the back of a Humvee. Yes, we want one too.

ATK’s largest responsibility regarding national defense is running the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Missouri. Back in WW2, the U.S. ran six small arms ammo-manufacturing plants, but Lake City is now the only one left. The government still owns the plant, but ATK has operated it since 2001. That makes ATK at Lake City the sole source for 99% of the 5.56 NATO, 7.62 NATO, and .50 BMG ammo used by every branch of the U.S. military. How much ammo do they make? Operating at maximum production capacity for the last few years, Lake City has managed to crank out an average of about 1.4 billion, yes BILLION, rounds a year, and still they barely meet the demands of fighting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In May 2011, the US Army decided that they really liked the 100 million rounds of M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round ammo that ATK had built so far. ATK had helped develop the new round, which uses no lead in its copper and steel bullet construction. The Army was impressed with its superior stopping power, especially at extended ranges, and its improved barrier penetration. They signed a new $488 million contract for ATK at Lake City to crank out this latest generation of 5.56 ammunition, along with more badly needed 7.62 and .50 cal ammo for our troops.

There are some concerns about Uncle Sam putting all of its ammo production eggs in one basket at Lake City. Although ATK is working on a $242 million modernization project there, it will not actually result in an increased capacity to make more ammo than the plant currently produces. Producing 99% of our military ammo in one place has physical risks as well; although the plant is well guarded and safety rules strictly followed, a terror attack or industrial accident could potentially cripple America’s ability to wage war. The primers used in making the military ammo also contain a less obvious national security risk—of the 13 chemicals used to make the primer compound, 10 of them are imported from outside the country. For example, four of the chemicals can only be found in China, and two can only be found in Mexico. If either of those countries were unwilling, or unable, to export these chemicals to us in the future, we would need to come up with a new way to make primers. However, solving these issues is not up to the private company doing what the government tells them; it is up to our policymakers.

ATK is the company trusted by our military to make the billions of rounds of ammo needed by our troops around the world. ATK’s parent company, Honeywell, was one of the early adopters of the “Six Sigma” quality control process, in which 99.99966% of products manufactured are expected to be free of defects. Put another way, this means 3.4 defects per million products made. The ATK subsidiaries building products for the civilian market are held to the same standards, and as a result, their quality is recognized throughout the industry. When making your next high-quality ammo purchase, do not be surprised if the brand you choose turns out to be an ATK-owned company.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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