June 21, 2018
By Tom Beckstrand
No one was more skeptical of polymer-cased ammunition than I. My first experience with this type of ammunition occurred more than 10 years ago with another attempt at replacing brass. To say that I was "unimpressed" is an understatement. I remember that I could squish those black plastic cases in my hand without much effort, and I could press the projectile into the case or pull it out of the neck with my fingertips. I couldn't believe anyone would spend money on ammunition like that.
Since then, my opinion of polymer-cased ammunition changed after visiting the ammunition facility of True Velocity, Inc. It's located in the great state of Texas.
What is coming out of True Velocity has a good chance of eventually dominating the ammunition market and making brass unnecessary or altogether obsolete. Only time will tell, but these new cartridges with cases made of polymer are lighter and more consistent than any other factory ammunition I've tested. The significance of this product introduction takes some time and effort to fully appreciate.
Ammo goes on a diet.
The first and most obvious difference between brass-cased and polymer-cased ammunition is a weight reduction of up to 40 percent that comes as a benefit with polymer. For the average consumer, this savings might not have as much of an effect, but saving weight has a far-reaching impact on our military.
Kevin Boscamp, the chief executive officer of True Velocity, once told a Pentagon purchasing officer, "I'll give you all the ammo you want, just give me 40 percent of your transportation savings." Think about that for a minute. Taxpayers everywhere should rise for a standing ovation! Unfortunately, the Pentagon has a hard time thinking in those terms.
Putting ammunition on an aircraft is a tremendously expensive endeavor. Whether it's sending ammo by the pallet for use overseas or the compliment every aircraft needs to keep its own guns onboard fed, ammo is heavy. Weight cuts down significantly on the amount of time any aircraft can stay in the air because it gobbles up fuel. Fuel and maintenance costs add up quickly when you have the number of aircraft that resides in Uncle Sugar's stable.
While most of us are not overly concerned with the weight of ammunition as it relates to aviation, the ground-pounder should pay attention. A typical loadout for any soldier on the ground is seven, 30-round magazines, for a total of 210 rounds carried. That's a dangerously small load for urban operations, but I'll stick with military doctrine for this example.
Switching nothing but the ammunition to True Velocity's 5.56 NATO product allows the same soldier to carry 300 rounds at the same weight. Of course, sticking with the 210-round loadout would be considerably lighter, allowing the same soldier to carry more water or mission-essential equipment.
Any infantry or special operations veteran who reads this will immediately grasp the magnitude and can appreciate the savings. For those who aren't as familiar, let me share the old saying: "Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain." Carrying weight for miles makes the guy humping it conscious of every ounce.
Another important advantage of True Velocity's ammunition is the way it handles heat. Heat is the nemesis of every firearm. High temperatures rapidly accelerate wear by softening the material doing the work. When you combine high pressure from firing with heat, parts start breaking quickly.
The best example of why heat in the chamber is bad comes from the AR-15 and M4. When those rifles fire and begin extraction, residual pressure remains in the chamber. That pressure creates a binding force on the bolt's lugs. It gets worse the higher the chamber pressure and shorter the gas system.
Rifles currently issued to U.S Special Operations are based on the M4. Many have 10.3-inch barrels with carbine-length gas systems. That length of gas system is shorter than what Jim Sullivan and Eugene Stoner designed. It's hell on the bolt in these carbines. Adding insult to injury is Picatinny Arsenal's horrific idea known as the M855A1 featuring 63,000 PSI chamber pressure.
As bad of a combination as is the above, the U.S. Army and any AR shooter can mitigate the parts failure that comes with such high pressures by reducing heat in the chamber. Enter True Velocity's approach to the polymer case. Parts that don't get hot last much longer than parts that do.
A polymer case is an insulator rather than a conductor. When the cartridge fires, the case contains the heat and pressure and directs it all down the barrel. Instead of super-heating brass that then heats the chamber around it, the only heat the entire barrel sees is what's found in the bore. Heat will certainly move from the barrel around the bore back into the chamber area, but keeping the heat out initially will reduce how quickly the AR bolt heats up, thereby prolonging its life. The way this ammunition manages heat should appeal to military and high-volume shooters alike.
There is no magic in ammo.
Good ammunition starts with a consistent case. For ammunition to be accurate, it must have concentricity, consistent internal volume and identical flash holes through which the primers fire. Like any product, both design and manufacturing contribute to the overall quality.
The way a cartridge case is normally made is by drawing or extruding a small and thick brass cup into a tube by applying pressure over a die. The cup gets smacked by tooling that causes a controlled morphing into the tube shape. After two or three good whacks over a progressive series of dies, it's long enough to be trimmed into a cartridge case. I have seen some incredibly sophisticated brass manufacturing that has used this process with great success. The downside of drawing brass is that it's very hard to control dimensions. Specifically, case wall thickness can vary as the brass gets pushed into the shape of a tube. Variations in case wall thickness result in variations of internal capacity. Capacity variation causes velocity variation and that makes bullets string vertically on the target.
True Velocity starts their manufacturing process with a steel case head that gets a polymer overmold. The mold forms everything but the case's shoulder and neck. Case thickness variation is held to .0003 inch, which is incredibly precise. A second mold process forms the shoulder and neck. Later, the two components join to create one complete case. Molding the shoulder and neck as separate pieces allows for consistent case thickness that's unattainable any other way that I'm currently aware of. True Velocity's finished cases then move on to be loaded as ammunition.
I've seen a lot of manufacturing, and the word "sophisticated" doesn't begin to describe what I saw at True Velocity's facility. Everything from the case manufacture to loading of the ammunition was automated. The footprint of all manufacturing and loading equipment measured 2,500 square feet. That same equipment can load a projected 30 million rounds in a year. It's amazing to me that so much ammo can come be created in such a tiny little space.
During my tour, there are more quality checks than I could keep up with. One of the standouts was the primer inspection process.Every single case passes under cameras that check to make sure the primer is perfectly centered inside the case. Each primer has to be seated to the right depth, sit directly above the flash hole and show no signs of degradation (i.e., no stains, tarnishes, etc.). The process happens so fast you could never do it with an unaided eye, but cameras and computers watch and record. Primed cases that don't make the cut drop out and into a bin automatically.
The radical design and draconian adherence to manufacturing excellence yields a white, polymer-cased round that functions similarly to its brass-cased counterpart. However, True Velocity's efforts have created ammunition with performance characteristics unlike any ammunition that has come before. The light weight and heat mitigation yield obvious advantages to both military logisticians and troops, as well as all civilian shooters. Stuffing some of True Velocity's ammo into everything from a belt-fed machine gun to a precision rifle provided me with some enlightening and practical hands-on experience.
I spent the good part of a morning doing accuracy testing with an Accuracy International AXMC rifle chambered in .308 Winchester. I tried everything I could think of to make this ammunition fail — and it didn't. The best five-shot group at 100 yards measured .33 inch.
Most telling for me was the chronograph data that I recorded on a LabRadar. The five-shot string I measured had an extreme spread (ES) of 8 feet per second (fps) and a standard deviation (SD) of 3.7. Those are exceptionally low numbers and evidence that all the effort in creating such a consistent case was worth it.
With the ammunition doing well in both the accuracy and chronograph departments, I shifted my focus to see if I could get a gun to choke. My first choice was FN's Mk 48 belt-fed machine gun chambered in 7.62 NATO.
The Mk 48 has a cyclic rate of 700 rounds per minute. It was the most cartridge-abusive platform available to me at our test range. Since the bolt speed is so fast, cartridges get jerked around and shoved aggressively into the chamber. The Mk 48 gobbled up an entire 50-round belt without issue or pause.
True Velocity is also working closely with Dillon Aero. They used Dillon's M134 Minigun to fire thousands of rounds for several months. The M134 is also chambered in 7.62 NATO and fires 3,000 rounds per minute. The standard loadout on a vehicle equipped with an M134 is 9,000 rounds, so the True Velocity ammunition yields a 240-pound weight savings per basic load. The M134 reliably cycled the ammunition, a claim that no other polymer-cased ammunition can make.
A worrisome trait about the M134 is the way it can cook-off live rounds with brass-cased ammunition. A cook-off occurs when a cartridge sits in a hot chamber and spontaneously fires because the powder inside the case becomes hot enough to ignite. Dillon has a 1,500-round test they run on the Minigun and brass-cased ammunition will cook-off after sitting in the chamber anywhere from 3 to 60 seconds. Dillon recorded a 20-percent lower bore temperature using True Velocity ammunition (thanks to the case insulating the chamber), so they ran a 2,200-round test on the ammunition. Dillon had to wait 5 minutes before one case got hot enough to melt — but the bullet never left the barrel. The absence of cook-offs in a Minigun should bring a welcome sigh of relief from special operations soldiers and aviators alike.
United States' Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been aggressively monitoring the individual health hazards associated with shooting thousands of rounds per year. SOCOM first became aware of the problem when soldiers working and training in shoot houses tested positive for dangerously high lead levels. SOCOM's testing showed that 30 percent of the toxins any shooter is exposed to came from the gases emanating from freshly fired brass. Arsenic, cyanide and a bunch of nasty stuff is used to make copper and brass products. Super-heating brass in a chamber causes those elements to burn out of the brass for up to an hour after the cartridge fires. Those gasses accumulate in shoot houses and indoor ranges where patrons gain exposure. True Velocity indicated that none of this is a problem with their ammunition.
To sum up this exclusive process, True Velocity's ammunition is light, accurate, consistent and robust. It can survive use in everything from belt-fed machine guns to Miniguns. While the ammunition will likely be fielded by the military before it hits the commercial market, I predict that soldiers and civilians alike will enjoy the benefits of reliable polymer-cased ammunition in the very near future.
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