Ammunition 2.0

In a special interview with IsraelDefense, senior executives of Vista Outdoor outline the new trends in the world of firearms ammunition

Photo: IDF

In an operational reality where terrorists present an immediate threat to civilians at city centers and crowded public places, a prompt response capability is required in order to neutralize the threat. One of the primary elements in a scenario of this type is the ammunition. Whether the firearm in question is a handgun, a rifle or a sniper rifle, the ammunition constitutes a primary factor in the ability to neutralize the threat. "If you are a security agency, you will normally come to us with special requirements regarding your ammunition," explain Jason Vanderbink and David Leis of the Vista Outdoor Company in a special interview to Israel Defense.

The Vista Outdoor Company has been doing business in Israel for a number of years through the North-East Technologies (NET) Company, selling ammunition to the IDF, the Israel Police and various defense/security organizations. The company was founded about three years ago, having spun off from the US-based Orbital ATK Company (presently Northrop Grumman) and has a sales turnover of about $2.5 billion. The Vista Outdoor Company operates three ammunition manufacturing plants in the USA with a joint production capacity of billions of rounds per year.

Controlling the Supply Chain  

"The FBI, for example, buys all of its ammunition according to dedicated specifications," they say at the Vista Outdoor Company. "There are several ways to manufacture ammunition, with some of the differentiation stemming from the materials used in the process. We manufacture a substantial part of the ammunition components. We purchase the gunpowder from a third party, but overall we maintain strict quality control over the entire chain of supply. Our ammunition complies with military standards, including standards for sniper ammunition.

"Clients come to us with specific requirements for their ammunition, looking for specialized ammunition for different threats. In the FBI, they investigate every shooting incident, including the removal of bullets using post-mortem surgery in order to investigate the effectiveness of the ammunition used. Each such incident produces a report, and as a client, they keep presenting new requirements all the time. The local police forces in the USA want to buy whatever the FBI buys. The reason has to do with investments in research. The local police force of a state does not have the budget capabilities or the professionalism of the FBI.

"The federal police is just one example. We sell to 75% of the homeland security market in the USA. We have contracts with the FBI, US Border Patrol, US Marine Corps and US Special Forces. In Europe, we cooperate with special police forces in France, Britain and other European countries, and in Israel, we cooperate with the YAMAM (Israel Police’s counter-terrorism unit)."

Company sources explain that the requirements for dedicated ammunition are the result of different threat profiles. Police forces, border guard/patrol forces or specialist military units – each one of those forces deals with different threats. The requirements for the ammunition include desirable range, desirable temperature scale, reduced flash for night operations and other requirements. "In the early 2000s in Iraq, we realized that the standard ammunition of the US Army was not suitable for high temperatures. Numerous ammunition problems had a negative impact on the effectiveness of the bullets, so we developed ammunition capable of operating within a broad temperature range," They explain at the Vista Outdoor Company. "Another aspect is the introduction to the battlefield of night vision devices. These products have become more accessible to military forces and security organizations, which resulted in a demand for ammunition with reduced flash. This ammunition should enable the warfighter to continue fighting without blinding him. We have reached a situation where the ammunition produces almost no flash. A police force presented a demand for bullets capable of penetrating car windshields, including reinforced/secured windshields. It is extremely difficult to engage a target behind a windshield while the vehicle is in motion, and we managed to develop a dedicated bullet especially for this purpose. Another type of bullet we developed for a certain police force is less frangible on impact."

Realistic Training Ammunition: Painful but not Lethal

One of the products the company manufactures under a patent is Force-on-Force type ammunition. This dedicated training ammunition is loaded like normal ammunition with no modifications to the firearm. When these rounds hit the target person, they paint the point of impact and cause pain. In this way, the training troopers can experience enemy fire realistically, including the pain, without risking their lives. According to the Vista Outdoor Company, the YAMAM and the IDF are major Israeli clients for this product. Along with their Force-on-Force ammunition, Vista Outdoor also developed dedicated training ammunition for handguns that does not require cleaning like standard ammunition, while costing the same as standard ammunition.

Another content world in which US police and military forces are keenly interested is the need to deal with light protective vests designed to provide protection against edged weapons. In the last few years, terrorist and criminal organizations have acquired a variety of vests from this category, which makes it difficult to neutralize the threat with the first round. "The first ammunition caliber we addressed was 9mm handgun ammunition. Ammunition capable of penetrating light protective vests is available, but it will also penetrate anything behind the attacker. A shooting incident of this type will result in substantial collateral damage that is undesirable both politically and legally," they explain at the Vista Outdoor Company.

"We invested many years of research in attempts to find a solution to this challenge and came up with a bullet that penetrates the protective vest on the one hand, without causing collateral damage on the other hand. If you fire it at a human target that wears no protection, it will not go through that target. We test our ammunition using special ballistic gel that simulates the human body and enables us to test the effect of the bullet. This ammunition is ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) controlled, but it was authorized for sale in Israel and a few other countries.

"Along with the reduction of collateral damage, the US Army sought ammunition that will penetrate the frame of an AK rifle slung on the attacker's shoulder. A standard 9mm round will not penetrate this frame, but the bullet we developed will. The penetration depth is about 30 centimeters, so the bullet can hit vital organs from any angle and penetrate a light protective vest and almost any other obstacle on the attacker's person. We have a client who wanted the bullet to go through a solid wood door. We tested the bullet at a range of 35 meters, which is the engagement range of a handgun. We adapted the same technology to the 300 Blackout ammunition, which travels at a relatively low velocity of about 300 meters per second. Such a round normally fails to penetrate hard obstacles. We obtained good results in tests even from a distance of 450 meters. Our objective is to adapt this technology to other calibers as well. At the same time, we are developing ammunition that would penetrate ceramic bulletproof vests while inflicting minimum collateral damage."

Green Ammunition

A new trend in the field of ammunition is the demand for bullets that have no adverse effect on the user's health. When a firearm fires a round, it emits gases, some of which are toxic and might be hazardous to the user's health – mainly during training indoors. One of the chief contaminants is lead, which most primers and bullets contain.

"It took us 12 years of development to come up with a lead-free primer that would not adversely affect operational effectiveness. In the past, such a primer would have affected the accuracy of the bullet, retained moisture and reduced the service life of the bullet, in addition to being significantly more expensive," they explain at the Vista Outdoor Company. "Now, we managed to come up with mass-produced lead-free and stable ammunition. We started with training ammunition and moved on to operational ammunition within the past four to five years. To reach these results, we had fired in our trials millions of rounds in order to compile a solid statistical database. We provide police and homeland security agencies with lead-free sniper ammunition and are currently considering the future inclusion of our new primers in hunting ammunition as well."

In addition to 'green' ammunition, the people of the Vista Outdoor Company noted other development trends. One of them is the response to a demand by the US Army for sniper ammunition to ranges exceeding 1,500 meters, especially for combat operations in Afghanistan. There is also a demand for new calibers between 5.56mm and 7.62mm, and various Special Forces units are currently testing other new calibers. Another trend involves reducing the weight of the ammunition and firearms for the benefit of the warfighters, who currently carry numerous technological systems. Another activity the people at the Vista Outdoor Company are currently considering involves dedicated ammunition for attack UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles). The people of the company would not comment on this subject, and stated instead, "We are investing in the directions where the market is heading."

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