Recently, I traveled to Lewiston, Idaho to visit the Speer factory. Readers who like to get the bottom line upfront: I carry Speer G2 in my defensive handguns.
This tour only reinforced what I already knew.
The Speer G2 cartridge is the highest scoring cartridge in the history of the FBI protocol. Its consistency and efficacy has been proven time and time again. If your agency needs to have personal and visual proof of this performance, simply get a hold of them and host a ballistic workshop for regional LE agencies. A team will shoot ballistic gelatin right in front of you.
The Speer factory in Lewiston has existed since 1943. Vernon Speer found that there was a scarcity of bullets for reloaders during WWII. As I understand it, Mr. Speer was using discarded .22LR brass to make jacketed bullets.
Lewiston is beautiful. I had an opportunity to take a brief hike along the Salmon River, stopping at strategic intervals where I looked at pocket water and planned which weight rods would best to attack the pocket water. Just across the street from the main Speer plant is the Snake River, whose reference I recalled from the journals of Merriweather Lewis. On a personal note, I am planning my exodus from California and Idaho is high on my list of free states. Lewiston is definitely a consideration.
Fast forward from 1943 to 2019: Speer now has 3 facilities, which cover around approximately 900 acres and 350,000 square feet of manufacturing. Much of which is right along the banks of the Snake River and Speer proudly discusses their efforts toward protecting the environment and keeping the region beautiful for the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts.
CCI/Speer Senior Operations Director Bill Mackleit gave me the tour. As we walked through the facilities, it was immediately apparent what drives the success of the business model. The facilities were manned by hundreds of employees, Mackleit knew everyone’s name and something about them.
Jared Hinton, the Communications Coordinator who arranged this tour, asked me if there would be any reader interest in rimfire operations, considering I write for this magazine. I explained that there is always an interest in using rimfire cartridges for sub-caliber training (something I’m working on for a future article).
Anyone who knows me knows that I like to run bullets through ballistic gelatin. I have a little experience here, but not at the same level I experienced during this tour. It just confirmed that G2 is a predictable, reliable cartridge.
Unlike many ammunition manufacturers, Speer manufactures every component of their ammunition. They make their primers, brass, bullets and do all of the plating operations in house.
As I walked through the area where brass is formed in several stages, first with forming dies, then equipment that cuts the case head and extractor rim, I was fascinated with the precision of the process. Gold Dot brass is plated, which adds to their corrosion resistance and lubricity.
Since Speer manufactures their own primers, including precision forming the cups and anvils, they do something unique with law enforcement ammunition: during primer manufacture, priming cups are placed in the manufacturing plates which hold an array of primers in the various stages of the process. The priming compound is added, then the primers are assembled. In traditional processes, the plates holding arrays of primers are inverted to continue the process. In Speer LE Ammo manufacturing, the primer is only inverted once, at the time the cartridges are loaded. This process decreases the amount of handling and eliminates points that could decrease overall reliability.
I spent a little time in the loading area for Gold Dot cartridges. This area of the factory line has several monitors suspended near the plant area. The monitors are real-time checks from the engineering department, indicating the consistency of tested ammunition. That’s right, real-time checks. Ammunition is pulled from this line at a rate of one round per manufacturing plate. That round is cataloged and inspected. The inspection includes firing loaded ammunition for velocity and consistency in ballistic gelatin and completing the cataloging.
The real-time ammunition inspection includes a camera inspection and a physical inspection. I’m sure that those working on the lines don’t see it as I do, but it was fascinating. The camera looked at every single round. The people working on the line looked at every single round. Each plate, not each lot, had a series of inspections. Overall, their line has 24,000 checks per day, every day.
The Gold Dot room
I thought 24,000 quality checks per day was thorough until Bill Mackleit took me to the Gold Dot room.
The God Dot room is really a tribute to law enforcement service. You see, this ammunition gets a 300% inspection. This is the final inspection area, after all of the manufacturing checks.
Nothing leaves this room as a finished product without the inspector’s signature on the case. For Speer Law Enforcement products, it’s personal.
I consider myself fairly well versed in ammunition manufacture, on a much smaller scale. After I received permission to look at the rejects to attempt at noticing any defects. I was given a handful of cartridges and started humming “One of These Things (Is not like the others)” to myself. They all looked pretty pristine to me. I really would not make it in the Gold Dot room.
Gold Dot bullets were named after they were first designed and tested. It wasn’t until they were fired into ballistic gelatin did someone look straight down at the now expanded projectile and notice the concentric Gold Dot.
Cartridge manufacture has always required the balance between adequate penetration and expansion. One of the primary things that cause a bullet to fail, especially after shooting it through a barrier, is the separation of the lead core and its jacket. There are several methods manufacturers used to keep the lead core and the jacket together. These methods include soldering the lead to the jacket, which is usually made of copper, gluing the lead core into the jacket, canneluring the jacket so it squeezes the lead core. We call these mechanical bonding methods because they rely on some sort of device or action that keeps the two things together.
Speer has a completely different take on bonding. They plate their bullets, using a proprietary Uni-Cor method. This creates a bond at the molecular level, making it impossible for the lead core to separate from the jacket. Speer actually acquires bulk led alloy to their specification, then extrudes it into a wire that allows them to precisely control the weight of the lead core.
The plating process is slow, but it allows the manufacturer to control every aspect of the jacket, including thickness, and what part of the bullet plates faster, and therefore is thicker.
After the Uni-Cor process, each bullet goes through a series of dies that shape the final product. These dies are engineered to create a controlled expansion, yet keep the projectile together after barrier.
Once the bullet is completed, the finishing touch is the application of elastomer in the tip. The elastomer is designed to cause the bullet to expand in any media. The hollowpoint of a bullet tends to fill up with whatever media it strikes, especially things like wood fibers, clothing fibers, and building materials. Once filled, the behavior of that bullet is unpredictable. Most of the time, bullets begin to behave like solid points, over-penetrating in its intended target. Speer uses a proprietary elastomer that will cause the bullet to perform in the same manner in most media. This was actually a pretty fascinating area for me because I always wondered if the consistency and the amount that goes into the hollowpoint made that much of a difference. It does, and Speer uses a specific formula for a specific bullet.
I have been testing cartridges through ballistic gelatin for years. I don’t do the full FBI protocol, because ballistic gelatin is expensive, and testing even a single cartridge takes a while. However, I have tested enough cartridges to recognize a good one. Engineers David Ketelsen and Blake Huddel walked me through the FBI Protocol testing. I know the engineering team probably finds testing bullets all day quite mundane, but I salute them on behalf of the Thin Blue Line. Remember the real-time monitors on the manufacturing line? These guys are part of the quality control, plus their data is essential to product development.
The FBI Testing Protocol requires that bullets are fired through calibrated ballistic gelatin, under laboratory-like conditions. They are also fired through bare gelatin, heavy clothing, steel, plywood, wallboard, and auto glass and scored based on the performance through these barriers.
Since the scoring is based on performance in the human body after these barriers are overcome, ideal penetration receives a higher score than over penetration: 12 inches to 13.99 inches is 1 point, 14 inches to 15.99 inches is 10 points, 16 to 18 inches is 9 points. The difference in penetration amongst these barriers for a single type of cartridge is calculated in standard deviation. In the FBI protocol, the standard deviation can change significantly between different types of barrier material. If the results amongst different barriers vary, calculated in standard deviation, the product loses points. Some cartridges perform extremely well in wallboard and bare gelatin, but when they hit steel, they perform like a solid point. If there is a difference of several inches between where the bullets come to rest, they lose points.
If the bullet retains 100% of its weight after the barrier, the point score is 10. As the retained weight becomes a smaller percentage, the score is lower. Anything below 81.9% of the original weight of the bullet is a “0”. Points are scored for penetration, expansion, and weight retention. The total number of calculated points that a cartridge can have is 500. At this time, no single cartridge has achieved 500.
The Speer G2 Cartridge (Speer LE Gold Dot G2 Duty Handgun, known as “G2”) has placed within 40 points of the FBI protocol. While many cartridges can achieve some of the attributes that earn high scores, no one comes this close. In the world of duty cartridge manufacturing, this is unprecedented.
Visiting CCI/Speer was one of the most interesting factory tours I have ever had. Their deep respect for law enforcement was the takeaway.