The following article by Ray Meketa is an excellent history of U.S. National Match rifle ammunition from the late 19th Century through the 20th Century and even into the 21st Century; we are very grateful to him for sharing it with our readers. We have previously featured Hap Rocketto's seminal work on this topic and Meketa's short piece on M118 Special Ball ammunition and this article continues in that vein. Ray has done an outstanding job of preparing this article which was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the IAA Journal and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the International Ammunition Association, Inc. For those with a greater interest in cartridge collecting, we highly recommend the IAA's website at www.cartridgecollectors.org . Every picture in this article can be enlarged by clicking on it.
U.S. National Match Rifle Ammunition
By: Ray Meketa
It didn’t take long for the Army brass to realize that the issue rifle was just as accurate as the specially made, and expensive, Long Range Rifle. Additionally, any increase in accuracy over the regularly issued 45-70-405 cartridge was found to be attributable to the 500 grain bullet rather than to the lengthened case or to the 10 additional grains of powder. They concluded that any rifle that a soldier had to use in battle was good enough for target practice and ordered that future competition be confined to service guns and service ammunition. With less than 200 of the Long Range rifles having been manufactured, the project was terminated.
By the mid 1880s the purse strings were loosened and the Army initiated a program of regular target practice for troops in the field. Competition shooting was recognized as a legitimate military activity and the standard 45 caliber rifles and 45-70-500 service ammunition were used by Army teams in both national and international competitions. The military value of marksmanship was finally beginning to sink in.
In 1903, Congress established the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP) and the National Matches. At first limited to the military services using service rifles and ammunition, the program was soon expanded to include all members of the Armed Forces, National Guard, reserves, and civilians. The matches became an official function of the U. S. Government, first managed by the Department of War and later the Department of the Army. Competition consisted of both individual and team matches conducted at local, regional, and divisional levels, culminating in the National Matches at an appropriate range - now Camp Perry, Ohio. When competing in National Trophy (NT) or Excellence In Competition (EIC) Matches, cartridges would be issued on the line and no other ammunition was allowed.
The first matches held under the new programs included Army and Navy teams using the 30-40 Krag and service ammunition. The pre and post-1900 Krag ammunition, loaded with nitroglycerine based smokeless powder and cannelured 220 grain round nose bullets, was anything but match quality. It was nearly as wind sensitive as the 45-70, large groups at even the shorter distances were common, and constant cleaning was required otherwise fliers would occur with frustrating frequency. Many rifle teams continued to use the familiar 45-70-500 rifles, seeing no clear advantage in the new Krag rifles and ammunition. Dissatisfaction led to tests with different powders and bullets. Improved nitrocellulose type powders and smooth, un-cannelured, bullets helped to reduce barrel erosion, fouling, and group sizes. Barrels with different rifling types were tried. So called “Match” cartridges were issued several times between 1903 and 1907 but they were little better than regular service ammunition and, at times, even worse. These changes to improve the 30-40 were each partially successful, but even in combination they couldn’t transform it into a competitive cartridge.
The use of the Krag in competition was short lived. In 1903, the new clip-loaded Springfield bolt action rifle and the .30-03 cartridge were adopted as the Army standard. The cartridge used a new rimless case but fired the same 220 grain round nose bullet at velocities not much different from the old Krag. It was not a very good cartridge, often being out shot by the Krag. The cartridge was soon improved by loading a 150-grain spitzer bullet in a slightly shortened case at higher velocity, and the existing rifles were re-chambered accordingly. The Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906 was born.
The first commercial contract was awarded in 1909 to the U.S. Cartridge Co. (USC Co 3 09). Those cartridges duplicated the 1908 Frankford Arsenal cartridges. In 1910 specifications called for the cartridges to be manufactured to service standards, using crimped-in bullets with cannelures. Tests showed that this resulted in a small loss of accuracy but it would be several years before this requirement was relaxed. The contract that year went to Winchester (WRA Co 2 10). Winchester won again in 1911 (WRA Co 2 11). No matches were held in 1912, and U.S. Cartridge Co. won again in 1913 (USC Co 3 13). This proved to be the last year of commercial contracts and all subsequent National Match ammunition was manufactured by Frankford Arsenal.
At the outbreak of World War I the United States remained neutral, but the hostilities soon led to a reduction or cancellation of most competitive shooting and match ammunition production. There were no matches in 1914. In 1915 and 1916, Frankford Arsenal produced special lots of regular 1906 ball ammunition that were designated for limited National Match use (FA ? 15 and FA ? 16). There were no matches in 1917 and only limited matches were held in 1918 using standard war-quality ammunition. 1919 saw the resumption of cartridge production for the National Matches, albeit nothing more than selected lots of service ammunition (FA 19). 1919 was also the first use of the FA 70 priming compound and the last year of the flat base, 150 grain, cupronickel M1906 bullets in competition. A new phase in the development of the Cal .30 National Match ammunition was about to begin.
At the end of WW I the Army had huge stockpiles of service ammunition on hand and the manufacture of new ammunition could not be justified - except for the National Matches. Thus, the matches became the testing ground in a continuing effort to improve competition cartridges in particular and military ammunition in general. Innovations and experiments with cases, bullets, powders, and primers would be the norm rather than the exception.
Except for a few local and regional events, most matches were cancelled from 1941 through 1952. When the full National Match program resumed at Camp Perry in 1953, there was no standard for match ammunition. One lot with the M1 Type bullet was loaded for slow fire matches, but for the most part, selected lots of M2 Ball were issued for the next four years (FA 53, TW 54, FA 54 and FA 55). Coming from war-quality stocks, accuracy was not very good (3 inch to 5 inch 600 yard mean radius).
Cases Headstamped LC 78 NM
USMC G4 Ammunition
I have specifically listed those headstamps that a collector is most likely to encounter. But readers should be aware that others do exist. At least two lots of T291 cartridges with an LC 57 MATCH headstamp were manufactured and designated for practice. Additionally, Cal. .30 unprimed cases with LC NM headstamps and late 1970s dates, LC 78 NM, along with boxed M1 Type bullets, are well known. It’s believed that these components were furnished to the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) and the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) for sale to shooters wishing to hand load cartridges for use in matches. Turning to the 7.62 MM, International match cartridges from 1958, 1959 and 1960 also carry the MATCH headstamp but they have no National Match association.
The National Matches are not the only high-power rifle tournaments held in the U.S. or overseas. Formal shooting competitions at the longer distances have been held for more than 150 years. Most are civilian and private or quasi-public in organization. In the past, U.S. military rifle teams and individuals participated in many of these events using arms and ammunition supplied by the Government. Between 1900 and 1960, Frankford Arsenal produced thousands of rounds of special match ammunition for Olympic, Palma, Pan American, and other International matches. Headstamps usually reflect the particular shooting discipline for which they were intended. The major ammunition manufacturers such as Winchester and Remington competed for government contracts into the mid 1920s and continue to produce special match ammunition, some of it hand loaded, to this day. Another U. S. Government entity, the Army Marksmanship Unit, created in 1956, produces both match grade rifles and ammunition for use by service teams and individuals that participate in both the National Matches and other events around the world. Describing these many and varied special match cartridges is far beyond the scope of this article and I leave that for someone else.
This article opened with a description of the lack of financial aid and political support for competition shooting and it ends on the same sad note. In 1996, public law reorganized the NBPRP and DCM into the Corporation for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and Firearms Safety (CPRPFS) and the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP). Now a public corporation, CPRPFS maintains only a minor relationship with the Department of the Army and reimburses the U.S. Government for all costs incurred in transferring government arms and ammunition to civilians. With little public interest and with no Federal appropriations to depend upon, program emphasis has shifted from the traditional National Matches to “serving youth through gun safety and marksmanship activities that encourage personal growth and build life skills.” Supported almost exclusively by the National Rifle Association and thousands of shooters, the National Matches will go on but it’s doubtful if we’ll see another Government cartridge with a National Match headstamp.
[I have shamelessly borrowed from the following references. Since most of the information is very objective, it was not easy to keep from crossing the line into plagiarism. After all, how many ways are there to describe a bullet or a headstamp? I also depended heavily on my own collection and notes from 50 years of competitive shooting, and remembrances of other shooters that I know. But, any errors or omissions are mine alone. And finally, an article such as this opens the writer to the double risk of including too much information, or too little. I hope I have struck a comfortable balance. rm]
Hackley, Woodin, Scranton - History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition, 1967-78
Hatcher, Major General Julian S. - Hatcher’s Notebook, 1947
Lewis, B.R. - The Cal. .30 Cartridge in Match Competition, 1969
Punnett, Chris - .30-06, 1997
Rocketto, Hap - A Short History of National Match Rifle Ammunition, 1995
Sharpe, Philip B. - Complete Guide To Handloading, 1937