A Short History of National Match Rifle Ammunition
By Hap Rocketto
By Hap Rocketto
A rifle can be no more accurate than the ammunition with which it is loaded; therefore the search for the best ammunition is a life long pursuit for any shooter. Until recently serious service rifle shooters were more limited in choice because ammunition for the most important matches of the year, regional Excellence-In-Competition (EIC) Matches and the various team and individual matches that make up The National Matches, was issued on the line.
Any shooter who was seriously pursuing the Distinguished Rifleman Badge or Presidents Hundred Brassard would try to obtain and shoot as much of the government manufactured ammunition as possible to firm up zeros for 'Leg Day'. Until the advent of the 7.62mm M852 Match ammunition, which uses a 168 grain hollow point boat tailed bullet, the 173 grain solid point boat tailed bullets used in the 30 Caliber Match M72 and the 7.62mm M118 ammunition were hard to come by and this made handloading a National Match equivalent cartridge virtually impossible.
In 1975 the National Trophy Individual (NTI) Match at Perry cost just $7.00, and that also covered one night's lodging in a hut and three meals at the Mess Hall. The actual entry fee of the match was but $2.00 if you were not billeted on post. In 1990 the cost of the NTI was still low; only $9.00. By 1993, just three short years later, the NTI entry fee had risen almost 400% to $38.00. The rise reflected a charge for the 50 rounds of ammunition needed to fire the National Match Course. No longer a subsidized item, ammunition for the NTI costs now run $20.00 (40 cents per round) for 30 caliber and $25 (50 cents per round) for 7.62mm cartridges.
In 1995 changes in public law reorganized the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and the Office of the DCM. Now, no longer a part of the Department of The Army, but a public corporation, much like the Postal Service, the DCM has had to adjust. The change had its good and bad sides. On the positive side, the funding for the DCM is no longer a political football. However, the DCM has had to become a self-supporting agency and, to that end, prices for DCM services and commodities, such as ammunition, have risen accordingly.
Several factors have changed the complexion of the ammunition issue to some degree. The first is that the expense and difficulties involved in shipping ammunition to regional EIC matches caused the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) to modify match regulations to allow competitors to provided their own ammunition, either handloads, commercial loads, or National Match, at their own discretion. Secondly, the M-16, for which there is no National Match cartridge available, has become increasing popular in EIC competition because a rule revision that allows the M-16 shooter to 'roll their own' ammunition has made an accurate cartridge a reality. Finally, 7.62mm National Match M852 ammunition is now loaded with commercially available 168-grain hollow point boat tailed bullets. This makes it feasible to handload a cartridge that is both superior and cheaper than National Match ammunition. This chain of events makes it appear that National Match ammunition may become less important to a shooter chasing Distinguished in the future than it has been in the past.
Since 1907, when Section 4312 of Title 10 of The United States Code established the National Matches, there has been an ongoing search for quality service rifle ammunition. Frankford Arsenal produced the first National Match ammunition in 1908. The bullet was the 1906 uncannelured 150-grain flat-based spitzer. This bullet would be the standard for ammunition loaded through 1919.
Match ammunition for the National Matches was selected competitively from groups fired with samples sent to the government. Winchester Repeating Arms Corporation, United States Cartridge Corporation, and Frankford Arsenal were the suppliers during these years. The intent of the Army, through this process, was to both acquire an accurate cartridge while educating the manufacturers in the intricacies of mass production as they were taught how to navigate the government's paperwork labyrinth.
There were both intrinsic and economic reasons for the munitions manufacturers to attempt to vie for the contract. Along with the prestige of winning the competition for the most accurate ammunition went the award of a contract for several million rounds of ammunition. This insured continued employment for the workers and, in the case of the commercial firms, fatter dividend checks for the stockholders. During the early years there was no attempt to specially mark this ammunition. The best lot was designated for match use and shipped to the National Match site. The remaining ammunition was placed in the supply system for the use of troops in the field.
The method used to determine the quality of National Match ammunition is that of mean radius. Ten shot groups are fired from machine rested heavy barrels and the center of impact of the group is determined. From that point of reference the distance of each bullet hole is measured and then averaged. The resulting number bears no exact relationship to group diameter since that is a function of shape. However, a rule of thumb states that the group size at 600 yards will be slightly larger than the product of the mean radius and three.
For an example, in 1966 7.62mm samples had a mean radius of 1.76 inches indicating a group size of about six inches at 600 yards. This is just equal to the X ring on the present 600-yard MR target series and five inches smaller than the V ring on the old five-ring target. Each year, during the late fifties and sixties, service rifle shooters eagerly awaited The American Rifleman to read 'The Dope Bag' column containing the specifications of that year's National Match. Of great interest was the 270 round facsimile composite target that always accompanied the article and gave an excellent graphical portrayal of the ammunition's capability. In 1966 the facsimile target for the 7.62mm cartridge of lot LC12065 showed all 270 shots well within the ten ring with 242 of them in the X ring, which subtends just one minute of angle, bearing out the rule of thumb.
Changes to the ammunition began in 1919 when the Frankford Arsenal FA 70 priming compound was first used in the FA Number 26 primer. 1920 saw a change of bullet when a 170-grain flat based jacketed bullet was introduced in an attempt to reduce metal fouling the barrel of the rifle. This experimentation showed some promise so it was continued into the next year's production. This action resulted in the notorious 'Tin Can" bullet in 1921.
Townsend Whelen commanded the facility at Frankford and had developed a tinned cupro-nickel jacket that was thought to reduce metal fouling. Up to this time shooters were required to treat rifle barrels with a solution mixed from Ammonia Persulphate, Ammonia Carbonate, 28% Stronger Ammonia Water, and water. Officially it was Ordnance Department Metal Fouling Solution but more commonly it was known as "Ammonia Dope". Using it was a nasty and time consuming process that, when improperly done, would ruin a rifle barrel in just a few minutes. In an effort to reduce the metal fouling and avoid a disagreeable cleaning task, most shooters carried a small container of grease with which they coated the bullet prior to shooting. This was all well and good as the grease accomplished its purpose. For many years shooters in Great Britain have successfully used a parsimonious application of grease on the old .303 military cartridges to prevent metal fouling. Today that process has become so refined that some shooters, on both sides of the Atlantic, use just a carefully applied, prudently small, smudge of lubricant on the juncture of the neck and bullet.
Whelen's plated bullets and the cartridge cases were dissimilar metals. This resulted, over time, in the two components becoming cold soldered together. This binding increased the normal force needed to pull a bullet from 50 or 60, pounds to over 300 pounds, with some instances recorded as high as 600 pounds. Unless used sparingly and with care, the sticky grease could easily pick up debris and carry it into the rifle's chamber. Residue was inevitably left in the chamber and excessive grease build up may have been a contributing factor in causing the normal chamber pressure of about 51,000 pounds per square inch (PSI) to rise to alarming and dangerous levels of 75,000 PSI. With a clean chamber the neck of the case had enough room to expand and the bullet could be released. If the interior of the chamber were coated, and the diameter decreased, the space available for expansion was reduced allowing the pressure to build up to a level more than the rifle could handle. There are reports of bullets being found down range with parts of the neck of the case still attached.
Once the cold soldering problem was discovered warnings were published to advise competitors not to grease the bullets for fear of exacerbating the situation. However, these pleas fell on many deaf ears, probably caused by old habits and not the primitive ear protection of the day. Shooters who used the cartridges dry found that they were accurate and caused no damage. Some competitors that did not heed the warning, and used grease in excessive amounts or contaminated with grass or dirt, often found themselves with poor scores or, worse yet, an occasional wrecked rifle.
The possible danger of the high power community's use of incorrectly greased bullets caused the authorities to withdraw, and scrap, the remaining ammunition out of concern for the safety of the shooter. This was not the first time that greased bullets were considered dangerous and withdrawn from service. In 1857 Seypoy troops of the Old Indian Army mutinied when given bullets that they believed were lubricated with animal fat, the use of which would have caused them to break dietary laws or lose caste. Seventy-five years later the jury is still out as the controversy simmers about just what part, if any, grease may have played in the National Match ammunition woes of 1921.
In 1922 Frankford began loading ammunition with another new bullet. Continuing attempts to reduce metal fouling resulted in a 170 grain 6 degree boat tailed bullet that was jacketed with gilding metal to reduce metal fouling. Guilding metal is a hard alloy containing about 90% copper and 10% zinc. Its introduction solved both the metal fouling problem and served to help the boat tailed bullet maintain its stability in the bore. The switch to a boat tailed shaped projectile was a result of studies which indicated that the design was ballistically superior to a flat tailed bullet. The boat tail design allows the bullet to retain velocity longer, have less bullet drop, and deliver greater energy at long range than the flat based design. In addition the flat-based bullet required greater precision in manufacture to have a consistent concentric base-bearing surface. A concentric base-bearing surface is essential to stabilize a bullet. The boat-tailed design negated this manufacturing requirement while still providing the required concentricity. This attempt proved successful and has been continued in following years.
1924 would mark the last year that Hercules HiVel powder was used. Dupont's Improved Military Rifle (IMR) powders proved superior to the old standby and became the powder of choice. The bullet still was jacketed but the boat tail was changed to 9 degrees. The ammunition produced that year proved to be the most accurate of the .30-06 shipped by Frankford until 1962. The 1924 ammunition was also the first to bear the NM headstamp, FA NM-24.
The 1925 National Match ammunition was excellent. It marked the adoption of the M1 bullet, with a nominal weight of 172 grains and a 9-degree boat tailed shape, which is still used in M118 Special Ball. Dupont IMR 1147 powder filled the cases with the venerable FA Number 26 primer providing the spark to launch the bullet. There would be no matches held in 1926 as money was not appropriated and 1925 National Match ammunition would be used in 1927. In 1928 and 1929, ammunition would be produced, and be successful, in much the same manner.
In keeping with the concept that National Match production was to be a testing and development process for ammunition the 1930 production lot was used to test a new noncorrosive-priming compound. The insidious effects of the potassium chlorate in the reliable FA 70 priming compound meant that rifle barrels had to be scrubbed with boiling water after each shooting session or face almost immediate rusting. The staff at Frankford developed a noncorrosive primer that was to be field tested in 1931. However, in order to use it, the cartridge cases had to be Berdan primed, as opposed to the traditional boxer priming used with the FA 26 primer.
The two types of percussion primers, Boxer and Berdan, are very similar in concept but different in execution as both rely on the priming compound being placed between the firing pin and a metal anvil. When the firing pin strikes the metal shell of the primer, it pinches the priming compound between the shell and a metal anvil. The resulting friction detonates the highly volatile priming compound setting off the powder charge.
The Boxer primer, developed in the 1860s by Major Edward M. Boxer of the British Army, is manufactured as a separate unit and inserted into the cartridge case. It contains both a metal anvil and the priming compound that explodes and allows flame to pass through a single vent hole to the powder charge. This method is viewed as much safer and simpler because, as a separate component, it does not require excessive accuracy in manufacture, as does the Berdan primer.
The Berdan primer was developed in 1870 by Colonel Hiram Berdan, a United States Army Ordnance Officer. The primer that bears his name is an integral part of the cartridge case because a boss in the primer pocket of the case serves as the anvil. Two vent holes allow the flame to ignite the powder charge. Because the Berdan primer does not need an anvil it is capable of holding more priming compound that suited the needs of the new bulky noncorrosive compound.
For reasons unknown, the Berdan primer, developed in the United States, enjoyed a greater popularity in Europe and it is still used extensively there to this day while the British designed Boxer primer is the primer of choice in the United States.
The ammunition worked quite well and was even more accurate than the 1924 production run. It was subjected to a summer long test by the service teams and this proved to be fortunate. During summer training it was noticed that cases were showing evidence of excessive pressures and blown primers. The reason was believed to be the effect upon the priming compound of the unusually high temperatures at Camp Perry that year. As a result the ammunition was more carefully examined and then withdrawn from service. An alternate lot, prepared with the FA 26 primer and the headstamp FA 30, was quickly shipped to Camp Perry.
This unfortunate development delayed the general introduction a noncorrosive primer because there was hesitation to risk arming combat troops with a cartridge that could be rendered unfit by climatic conditions. Although there were some small production runs of noncorrosive ammunition for automatic weapons during World War II, it would not be until 1949 that noncorrosive primers would begin to be introduced on a regular basis. Beginning in 1953 all GI ammunition, with the exception of some lots of armor piercing and FA Match, would be noncorrosive. The last use of the corrosive FA Number 26 primer was in the FA Match of 1957.
The remainder of the pre war National Matches and regionals, held from 1931 to 1940, were fired with specially selected M1 bullets and cases, headstamped NM, using the standard powder load. National Match ammunition was ordered for 1941, using the M2 bullet, however the work was stopped within weeks of startup because production lines were needed to produce ball ammunition for more urgent military needs. For all intents and purposes production of National Match ammunition ceased after 1940 because of the United States involvement in both World War II and the Korean War and it was not resumed until 1957 when it was again produced and designated as T291.
Prior to World War II the ammunition was packaged 20 rounds to a box in four five round stripper clips. When production resumed the traditional 20 rounds of ammunition were packaged in the now familiar partitioned pasteboard box. In 1958, 30 Caliber National Match was designated as M72 and manufactured at Frankford until 1961. From 1962, until the production of National Match .30-06 ceased, the ammunition was fabricated at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant.
The M1 Garand had been introduced to shooters at Camp Perry, in 1939, so it was with the M14 rifle’s debut. This new selective fire rifle, bearing a strong family resemblance to its predecessor, is chambered for the 7.62mm NATO cartridge and was adopted by the Army in 1957. It would soon be seen on the line at the National Matches and the production lines at Lake City would soon be churning out National Match ammunition to feed the new kid on the block.
The 7.62mm Match M118 cartridge was first approved for production in August of 1964 with the earliest runs produced at Frankford Arsenal. Since Frankford's closing Lake City has taken over all production, giving the ammunition its nickname of 'Elsie'. No relation to the Borden Company's 'contented cow', this homophonic simply refers to the cartridges’ head stamp, 'LC'.
Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, located 17 miles east of Kansas City, Missouri, was opened in 1941. It was one of the first government owned but contractor operated, ammunition plants to come into existence as the United States prepared for World War II. It presently covers almost 4,000 acres of land with all of the necessary buildings, ranges, and infrastructure required to produce small arms ammunition from 5.56mm to 20mm. It was briefly shut down in 1945. It was soon reopened and it has produced billions of rounds of ammunition for combat, competition, and training during its 55-year history.
Match cartridges have carried two headstamp notations in addition to the year of manufacture and the location. Some are marked 'NM' and others 'Match'. While all ammunition is manufactured to the same specifications, from time to time it was the practice to exercise additional care in the manufacture of the ammunition specifically earmarked for Camp Perry and the National Trophy Matches. These cases carry the 'NM' headstamp and are often packed in boxes that indicate that they are for use at Camp Perry. That ammunition was shipped to Camp Perry for issue on the line. The remaining stocks, head stamped 'Match', were delivered to the various military services and the DCM for use in training, service championships, other specific military needs, and EIC matches. More recently this practice has stopped and all ammunition carries a 'MATCH' headstamp.
The 1957 run of match ammunition at Frankford was boxed in a buff colored cardboard container with a red white, and blue printed label affixed to it. The label was the first use of the eagle logo superimposed upon the word match in red hollow block letters. The year and Frankford Arsenal also appear on this side. The top of the label carries the familiar "DISPOSAL OF EMPTIED CARTRIDGE CASES MUST BE MADE AS PRESCRIBED BY ARMY REGULATIONS". The obverse states that there are 20 cartridges of "CALIBER .30 MATCH” The lot number bullet weight and velocity are also noted. This box style would continue until 1962 when the now familiar white cardboard box appeared when production moved to Lake City.
The introduction of 7.62mm was heralded by a 1964 production run at Frankford using the familiar buff box design. The cartridge was designated as XM118 with a velocity of 2550 feet per second. The next year Frankford produced the ammunition with the buff box design and the cartridge's new designation of M118 while Lake City's 1965 white box design interestingly enough indicated that the contents were XM118.
M118 Match began rolling off of the production in white boxes. The year of production was noted by either having the year printed in red over the eagle logo or having the lot number, which first two numbers usually mirrored the last two of the year, stamped on the front just below M118. While this ammunition was a fine cartridge, it was impossible to stop shooters from tinkering with it to improve accuracy. As the military had the most ample supply of the ammunition the search for an extra edge started with them. For some time it was popular to take a pliers type reloading device and break the bituminous seal between the neck and the bullet in the belief that this would make the force needed to separate the bullet from the case more uniform. This was, of course, against the rules when the ammunition was being fired in an EIC or National Match.
Another tack taken by shooters was to pull the 173-grain bullet and replace it with a 168-grain hollow point boat tailed bullet. This modified ammunition proved better than the factory product and became very popular for use by military shooters in NRA matches. Like breaking the seal, replacing the bullet violated section 4-19 of the 'Rules and Regulations for National matches and Other Excellence-in-Competition (EIC) Matches' which forbids the alteration of the issued ammunition in any way. For reason lost to history this reworked ammunition became known as 'Mexican Match." This particular innovation was to influence a dramatic change in National Match ammunition.
In late 1979 and early 1980 rumors were ricocheting through the service rifle community about a new match cartridge to be issued that was a duplicate of the Mexican Match. There was a buzz of excitement at the ammunition issue points during the 1980 National Matches when the green metal cans were broken open and shooters were issued, for the first time, pasteboard boxes containing "20 CARTRIDGES 7.62 MM, PXR-6308 LOT LC-80F300S111 1980 NATIONAL MATCH BULLET 168 GRAINS VELOCITY 2550 FPS". A buff colored printed label covered the traditional white LC box. The top carried the usual disposal directions while the back side told that the contents were "SPECIAL MATCH CARTRIDGES FOR USE IN COMPETITIVE MATCH SHOOTING NOT TO BE USED IN COMBAT” The hollow pointed bullet, so accurate in competition, is forbidden, by the Geneva Convention, for combat use. To further identify the cartridge there was a cannelure that ran around the circumference of the case a short distance up from the base. There was much concern among the civilians that the shallow grooves would weaken the case and make it useless for reloading. The concern was not great enough to stop them from snatching up the gleaming bottleneck cylinders, almost before they stopped bouncing and steaming, from the dew dampened grass.
The ammunition proved very popular and was produced in 1981 as 7.62mm Match XM852. The LC boxes were still covered with a paper label but this one was in the traditional colors of red, white, and blue. However the familiar eagle had been dislodged from his perch and the word 'MATCH' was found in large hollow block letters on the back. The warning had been changed to "ATTENTION-THESE CARTRIDGES ARE FOR MARKSMAN AND COMPETITIVE SHOOTING-NOT FOR COMBAT USE-". In 1982 the ammunition was designated as M852 but still issued in a box with a paper label. By 1984 the new ammunition was packaged in its own Lake City box. The outline of a center fire cartridge, with an anachronistic round nosed bullet, faces nose down on each end flap. By 1991 the white box, American Eagle logo, and the case disposal message had passed into history, replaced by a plain brown box that carried a simple black frame on its front that enclosed the words, "20 CRTG. 7.62MM MATCH M852 NOT FOR COMBAT USE", on three lines, and a stamped lot number while the end flaps retained the round nosed cartridge motif.
In the mean time the M118 had not been forgotten. In 1983, when the M852 came out in its own LC white box M118 was relegated to a 20 round white box with a pasted over label. A black border surrounded the "7.62 MM NATO SPECIAL BALL M118" printed on the face while at the label bottom was the manufacturer, Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. A year later it could be found nestled in a new brown box. No longer the darling of the competitive shooter, it is still in the military supply system for training and combat use. The old match ammunition had served both competitive shooters and military snipers well. Still a good cartridge, it has found its niche and is destined to be around a long time.
Folk tradition holds that the buffalo was American Plains Indian's equivalent of the modern day shopping center. From the great woolly beast they took all the supplies that they needed to conduct their daily life. It is said that they used every part of the animal from nose to tail. Shooters have much the same relationship with National Match ammunition. The bullet and powder provide holes in the target as close to the center as the shooter can hold, the expended brass is reloaded, the empty wooden crates are reassembled and used to hold collected brass, put into use as makeshift stools, and serve as waste baskets on the line and in the huts. The wooden end panels are pressed into service as field expedient writing desks to hold scorebooks or scorecards.
Wise competitors save a few empty boxes in the shooting stool for a discarded box placed in the bottom of a shooting jacket pocket keeps a full box placed on top readily available so that while shooting off hand the ammunition is conveniently at your finger tips, rather than hiding deep in the pocket. On a rainy day a carton, with an end cut off, serves to protect the front sight blacking until it is time to shoot. When the targets come out of the pits a quick flick of the wrist discards the empty box as the shooter slides into position. About the only thing that might be recycled, and isn't, is the used primer but you can rest assured that there must have been at least one part of the buffalo that the Indians couldn't, or wouldn't, use also.
National Match ammunition has been a part of the shooting scene for the better part of this century. For those seeking to earn the Distinguished Rifleman Badge or a Presidents Hundred brassard National Match ammunition is like the Maltese Falcon in Dashiel Hammet's famous short story of the same name, it is "the stuff of which dreams are made". Economic and political circumstances have effected its production and distribution over the years and while its primer, bullet, and powder have changed the National Match cartridge remains the standard by which competitive ammunition is measured
National Match Ammunition, by Ray Meketa
Lake City M118 Special Ball Ammunition, by Ray Meketa