I had the good fortune to travel to Jacksonville, Arkansas, in early 2017 to visit SIG Sauer’s new ammunition factory. SIG Sauer had been producing ammunition for a few years, most notably in Kentucky, and I was very curious as to the reason for the switch to a brand-new plant. Hopefully, I could get some questions answered during the one-day tour.
The representatives from SIG Sauer pulled out all the stops for several industry writers and me; I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with some writers whose work I had read for years. It was apparent before we even set foot on the new property that SIG Sauer took this venture seriously and wanted to put the best foot forward with some heavy-hitter names in attendance.
After an introductory dinner, social hour and a good night’s sleep, we all boarded a bus from the hotel and took a quick drive out to SIG’s new ammunition plant.
Writers were first given some background regarding why the new facility exists. Then, we were all divided up into groups and scheduled to visit different parts of the facility in a roundrobin fashion, allowing each writer some individual time to review different aspects of the vast facility and have some one-on-one time with the in-house subject matter experts.
FROM THE GROUND UP
To put SIG Sauer’s ammunition factory into context, one must remember that SIG is one of the most renowned international firearms companies in the world. Being a “top dog” means that the company must constantly improve, refine and innovate. A lot of testing goes into the production and creation of SIG’s legacy firearms, as well as its newer offerings.
SIG engineers are constantly looking at how to make their firearms perform at their best; what they realized is that there are a lot of variances across ammunition brands, calibers, loads and platforms. The amount of inherent ammunition variance thus presented the possibility of skewed reliability results in firearm performance—and that possibility was unacceptable to SIG.
To address this, SIG fell back on the old adage of, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
SIG Sauer’s Executive Vice President of Ammunition and Special Projects Bud Fini explained that SIG wanted to position itself as a “one-stop shop.” He went on to emphasize further that with the development and production of SIG’s own lines of ammunition, it gave itself a clean slate—that is, there were no deadlines for development, and the company could really take its time to refine its processes and ensure all of its own internal requirements were met.
How better to ensure quality control than to be the one to make the ammo itself? SIG aimed to make its ammunition cleaner, more competitive and of better quality than what was presently on the market, ensuring its ammunition and firearms testing were of the highest possible consistency and quality.
Upon taking the tour of the facility, it became immediately clear that everything down to the last detail was excruciatingly well thought out. The plant was generously sized, with plenty of room to grow and change inside the structure itself. Modular walls and large, open spaces on the plant floor meant that as production capacity increases, SIG’s factory layout can change and adapt to demand as well.
Nothing is left to chance, and the physical layout of the facility is designed to maximize efficiency. Delivery docks are located close to the heavily armored powder storage area. The powder storage area is located close to the proper area on the production line, with a direct corridor to shorten travel and delivery time.
The modularity of the facility layout, as well as the production capacity the plant is capable of, means that even though the facility is huge, it is also very agile, nimble and adaptable to ammunition production needs. Plant staff explained to me that SIG can change caliber production very quickly according to production demand; it requires only 30 minutes of down time to shift production from one caliber to another.
This high dedication to efficiency results in a robust production output. SIG maintains six to eight months of ammunition inventory in addition to the daily production output, which is substantial in itself. In short, the SIG ammunition factory is a production powerhouse.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW
The streamlined, yet bustling, factory floor is a marvel of cutting-edge technology. However, the production machines— the heartbeat of the factory—are literally relics. According to Plant Manager BJ Rodgers, 6.5 Creedmoor ammunition is assembled and created using machines that date back to 1953, while other rifle and pistol cartridges are made with machines dating back to the 1940s. All the machines, however, are retrofitted and updated (in many cases, with customized computers and components—some of which we were not allowed to photograph).
It was amazing to watch sourced brass cups go through extrusion, tumbling, more forming, primer pocket drilling, more tumbling and multiple redundant quality checks to verify headspacing, squareness and centricity. One room is specifically set up to test the uniformity of the casing walls, themselves, at key stress points. The casing is set in resin and cut in half, and the cross-section of the casing is minutely pierced at specific stress points to measure the hardness uniformity throughout the case.
SIG also made a commitment to Jacksonville: At the time of my tour, it employed 72 employees and 10 engineers. Despite the melding of current and legacy technology, people are what drives the company. On the assembly floor, scores of employees were busy operating machines, feeding boxing/ packaging machines and loading casings into metal trays for powder loads and bullet-seating processes.
The loading station was particularly interesting; employees hand-sorted cartridge casings into metal trays, visually and physically inspecting the trays prior to them being prepped for loading. The human eye, along with a proprietary system, ensured the loading process was precise and immaculate. In fact, during the ammunition assembly process, if tolerances deviate outside of 0.25 to 0.50 percent, the entire assembly line is stopped and systematically and methodically backtracked to locate the point of origin for the defect before assembly proceeds.
An additional round check occurs during boxing, and every box’s overall weight is checked before complete boxes of ammunition are transported for final delivery packaging. In addition, the quality control employees arrive an hour before shift workers do. They run complete diagnostics on assembly machines prior to the start of production to set up the team for as smooth a day as possible. Nothing is left to chance.
One of the more informative stops of the day was visiting the ballistics testing portion of the factory. I was privileged to spend some time with Chief Ballistician John Ervin.
The fanciest production facility in the world means nothing if the ammunition doesn’t work as designed. Rounds are consistently tested during the production and quality control stages; however, rounds must also be tested to verify they will perform as anticipated.
This is where John’s expertise is crucial. SIG’s factory has several stations to test round performance, consistency and velocity. These stations range from 100-yard tubes for shootthrough to a unique pistol range consisting of a bullet trap with a constant waterfall of liquid medium that cascades down it. This station is designed to safely capture not only the round, but also the particulate from the impact.
In order for rounds to be accurately measured for ballistic performance, SIG tests its ammunition in lab-like surroundings, with as many controls and precise measurements as possible. For example, SIG boasts that it produces and goes through more ballistic gelatin in a year than the entire United States government. No small claim! If consistent testing is to be achieved, everything—right down to ballistic gelatin consistency—must be controlled. SIG solved that problem by choosing to produce its own ballistic gelatin in house.
Ballistic gelatin has a shelf life. The longer it sits, the more moisture evaporates from the gelatin block, which changes the consistency, size and density of the block over time. This variable can affect round penetration and potentially skew crucial measurements, resulting in inconsistent or inaccurate performance outcomes.
John walked me through the production process of the gelatin blocks—which was impressive, to say the least. Gelatin is carefully measured out, mixed, poured, set and refrigerated. Each block of gelatin is marked with a date and time stamp so the ballisticians know exactly when the block was produced, as well as if it is used within the appropriate time frame. SIG’s ammunition factory has the capacity to produce 12 blocks of in-house ballistic gelatin an hour, meaning that testing capacity is never slowed down due to lack of gelatin blocks and additional protocol media to shoot through.
I observed John shoot SIG’s 9mm V-crown rounds through multiple media—gelatin blocks alone (to measure penetration protocols), as well as several layers of clothing, auto glass and drywall. All indicators demonstrated excellent performance through all media as measured.
The one-day tour was a whirlwind, and I had information flowing out of my ears by the end of the day—not all of which is encapsulated in this article.
Fast forward to August 2017, and I had another unique opportunity to spend two days at the esteemed SIG Academy in Epping, New Hampshire. I was there—again, with another group of industry writers—to attend an event that showcased SIG’s MCX VIRTUS platform.
During those two days, I spent my time shooting SIG’s 5.56 and 300 BLK (both subsonic and supersonic) ammunition through various VIRTUS configurations. Without a doubt, SIG’s ammunition is a winner— consistent, accurate and clean, from multiple target engagements ranging from as close as 50 yards out to 750, both through semiauto and full-auto platforms.
SIG’s ammunition is the real deal, and I would be very confident using it in multiple scenarios. I experienced no ammunition-induced malfunctions throughout the high round-count experience, and I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to buy it for my own personal use.