Considering what it is today, few of us would guess the humble beginnings of Hornady ammunition. Hornady has been an industry leader in premium ammo innovation for the last 20 years with products such as the .17 HMR, .204 Ruger, LeverRevolution, Critical Defense, Critical Duty, Superformance and Precision Hunter, just to name a few. (Full disclosure: I retired from Hornady in 2017.)
The Frontier’s Past
Hornady’s entry into the ammo world in 1964 was far more inauspicious than what the company currently had to offer. In 1949, Joyce Hornady started Hornady Manufacturing to answer the need for accurate bullets for demanding shooters. The company quickly garnered a reputation for producing accurate and dependable hunting and varmint bullets.
Hornady was well established in the shooting and reloading world by 1964, so Joyce made the decision to bring the company into the ammunition world. He was up against very stiff competition from the “Big Three”: Federal, Remington and Winchester. He gambled that Hornady’s high quality and accurate bullets would sell in loaded ammo.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. was ramping up its involvement in Vietnam, and the Cold War was at its peak. To support U.S. requirements and allies around the world, production of military small-arms ammunition was at a high. At the time, the .45 ACP was still the standard-bearer military handgun caliber of the U.S. The 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester) was still relatively new to the military, but was already in the process of being replaced by the new 5.56 NATO (.223 Remington).
The .30-’06 Springfield and .30 Carbine were being produced in large quantities to supply the still-in-service M1 Garands and M1 Carbines of the South Vietnamese army and other countries. It’s no wonder that Hornady’s first offerings in ’64 were military-surplus cartridge cases loaded with Hornady bullets. They initially included the .30 Carbine, .308 Win. and .30-’06 Springfield. Joyce chose to name his new ammunition line “Frontier.”
The Frontier line of cartridges slowly began to grow. They also added other popular commercial ammunition of the time. Hornady sourced cartridge cases for their commercial rounds from other ammo industry companies. These cartridge cases carried the Frontier headstamp. By 1972, the Frontier line of ammo had grown to include the 9mm Luger, .38 Special, .222 Rem., .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., .270 Win., 7mm Remington Magnum, .30 Carbine, .30-30 Win., .308 Win., and .30-’06 Springfield.
Frontier ammunition continued to grow through the 1970s and ’80s as more and more calibers were added to the Hornady line. Cartridge cases purchased continued to be sourced from outside suppliers and headstamped with the Frontier name. In the late 1980s, Hornady assumed responsibility for its first industry-standardized Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) cartridges with the 10mm Auto and .220 Swift.
The long and short of the story is by being the company responsible for standardizing and introducing a new cartridge to SAAMI, there also came a responsibility to the industry to provide the standards and specifications for the cartridge. This included chamber specifications, as well as reference and firearm-proof ammunition.
In the early 1990s, Hornady began to produce small quantities of its own cartridge cases, and in-house production of their cartridges made up a small fraction of what was being loaded into ammo every year. At the time, all locally produced cartridge cases bore the “HORNADY” headstamp, and each cartridge case sourced outside the company retained the “FRONTIER” headstamp. This was done so that the source of the cartridge case could quickly be identified. But by the mid-to-late 2000s customers were beginning to be confused by the sourcing of Hornady ammo because it was being loaded with two different headstamps. They wondered if there were differences between the Frontier and Hornady headstamped ammo. Through in the early to mid-2000s, Hornady continued to produce more and more of their own cartridge cases using the Hornady headstamp.
In 2009, the decision was made to have all cartridge cases, no matter the source, headstamped with HORNADY. The 2009 decision marked the end of the “Frontier” name, with the exception of Hornady’s Cowboy Action loads. By early 2010, Hornady was producing nearly all of their own cartridge cases. The humble Frontier ammunition had grown into one of the most successful brands on the market.
Frontier at the Present
The saying that “all good things must come to an end” is not necessarily true. In 2018, Hornady brought back the Frontier name in a big way. The brand was on firm footing in the premium and niche segments of the ammo market, and Hornady became known for innovative and high-performance bullets and ammo, such as the new ELD family. However, Hornady had virtually no presence in the lower price-point segment; This was the domain of Federal, Remington and Winchester, all of whom have high-volume, low-cost ammunition lines. In 2016, Hornady made the decision to compete in the Big Three’s price-point category and entered by reintroducing its Frontier line of ammunition.
Hornady teamed up with Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP) to use its excess production capacity for production of Hornady’s new line of Frontier-branded ammo. Loads were offered in .223 Remington, 5.56 NATO and .300 Blackout. Today, LCAAP’s production machinery is capable of producing millions of cartridges per day, per machine. They load Hornady’s cartridge cases, and package the ammunition in a series on the same machine.
Hornady provides the projectiles to LCAAP for loading Frontier ammo rather than the standard military M855 or M856 projectile. The .223 Rem. and .300 Blackout are loaded to SAAMI specifications. The 5.56 NATO cases and propellant are made to military specifications using Hornady bullets loaded on LCAAP’s high-volume machinery. This high-production rate significantly lowers production costs, and the savings are passed on to the customer.
The teaming arrangement with LCAAP also provides ammunition loaded with high-strength mil-spec cartridge cases and a crimped primer along with mil-spec propellants.
Hornady offers loads with their own production-equivalent versions of the M193 55-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) and M855 62-grain FMJ. The real plus here is that Hornady offers a large range of bullet weights and styles to cover just about anything you’d want to do with an AR-15; from varminting to plinking, to law enforcement training. Bullet styles are available in FMJ, hollowpoint (HP), soft point (SP) and boattail hollowpoint (BTHP) match. Offered bullet weights in the 5.56 range from 55- to 75-grain, and .223 Rem. loads range from 55- to 68-grains. The .300 Blackout is offered with a 125-grain FMJ bullet.
All bullets are manufactured by Hornady with their usual high standards for quality and accuracy. It will be difficult to find another line of ammo at this price point that matches Frontier’s quality and range of bullet weights and styles.
Here, a short discussion of the difference between 5.56 NATO and .223 Rem. is in order. The 5.56 NATO came first, and the .223 Rem. was a commercialized 5.56 round with a redesigned throat and freebore in order to produce better accuracy for a commercial cartridge. The 5.56 has a longer and larger-diameter throat and freebore that allows the projectile to jump further to the rifling. The 5.56 also operates at higher pressure than the .223.
The .223 has a smaller diameter and shorter throat and freebore with less jump to the rifling than the 5.56, which gives the .223 an edge in accuracy. Because of these differences in the throat and freebore, you should not fire 5.56 NATO in a .223 Rem. chamber. This will cause elevated pressures that can pierce primers and damage your firearm. It is safe to fire .223 in the 5.56 because the longer throat of the 5.56 causes a pressure and velocity drop.
Another significant difference in the two is that the 5.56 uses a 20-inch pressure- and velocity-test barrel as opposed to the 24-inch test barrel used for the .223 Rem. This is why you may see lower velocities listed for 5.56 with the same bullet weight as the .223 despite the 5.56’s higher operating pressure. Velocities listed are from the standard-length test barrels.
At The Range
For this article, I tested Hornady Frontier 5.56 NATO loadings with the 55-grain FMJ, 62-grain FMJ and 68-grain BTHP Match. I fired five, five-shot groups at 100 yards with each load through a Windham Weaponry 16-inch M4-style carbine and a 4X optic. All loads functioned flawlessly and had ejection patterns that were consistent. All spent cases dropped within a small area. The 55-grain FMJ load did not seem to like the fast 1-in-8-inch barrel twist. I found the 62-grain FMJ and 68-grain BTHP match loads to be reasonably accurate. They were significantly more accurate than what I have come to expect from M855 and M193 ammo, and knockoffs, through my gun. The new Frontier line should have a load that will satisfy most shooters needs in a low-cost round for just about any application and AR-15 configuration.
As good as the Hornady Frontier line of ammo is, I would look for it to continue to expand and include new bullet weights in each caliber. For those of us who are 7.62 fans, wouldn’t it be nice to have a a .308 Win. load that was of higher quality and produced better accuracy than the M80 Ball round? And maybe match and hunting-style offerings at very competitive prices?
Hornady has done an excellent job of honoring the roots of the Hornady ammunition product line with the reintroduction of the Frontier brand. This new Frontier ammo carries on the brand’s legacy of high-quality, trouble-free performance, and good accuracy at a very attractive price. You’ll have a hard time finding a low-cost line of ammo with as many offerings and of better quality than Hornady’s Frontier.