Interview with Jeff Hoffman, President of Black Hills Ammunition

Interview with Jeff Hoffman, President of Black Hills Ammunition

ABOVE: Jeff Hoffman adjusting his scope on a Lewis Machine & Tool LM8MWS 7.62x51mm rifle as he engages targets out to 850 yards. Notice the box of Black Hills Ammunition 7.62x51mm 175gr OTM at his elbow.

In the world of high quality military ammunition, the name Black Hills Ammunition is on top of the list. Not for building standard issue ammunition but for the specialized ammunition used by Special Forces and SEAL units. Jeff Hoffman is the one on the speed dial for the U.S. Special Operations Command when they need a custom load for a specific purpose.

Small Arms Defense Journal was granted an interview with Jeff Hoffman, the man behind the highest quality ammunition in the U.S. arsenal. His story is of an industry practitioner who worked his way up by his bootstraps from working a Dillon press as an employee to him and his wife Kristie owning one of the most successful munitions manufacturing companies in the U.S.

SADJ: What was your first experience with firearms?

Hoffman: The first one that I remember, specifically firearms as in burning gun powder and not with things like BB guns was my grandfather and father taking me to the range and teaching me to shoot a .22 rifle that was a Winchester Model 74. And I remember it being just magic to be able to be in one spot and create an effect in another spot with that rifle. I was hooked right there.

SADJ: You have a background in law enforcement, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Hoffman: I made friends with the local cops when I was in high school and it was interesting. I was more interested in walking uptown and hopping in a patrol car and going on patrol then I was on going out to drink beer. I spent a lot of time in a patrol car and thought that this was fun. I didn’t know what to do for a profession so for lack of something better I thought I really enjoyed what I had seen of law enforcement, so when it came time to go to college by default I took up criminal justice. I graduated with a degree in criminal justice and got hired by the Rapid City Police Department in 1979. Actually, prior to that, I had interned in my home town when I was 19 years old.

I believe I was the youngest cop in the history of South Dakota. I had to get a special dispensation from the Standards Commission to be a cop at 19. I wasn’t even old enough to be in a bar except by wearing the uniform. It was kind of funny when I went in front of the Standards Commission the Chief of Police from my hometown went with me and vouched for me so that I could get hired with him. His recommendation said “Jeff’s good in a bar fight.” That was a long time ago and I don’t think that same recommendation would get you hired as a cop now, but at the time my primary recommendation was that I was good in a bar fight.

As a Deputy Sheriff sniper, Hoffman trains with various weapons depending on the conditions. Here he uses a telescopic stock version of the Mk12, Mod1 he designed his Mk262, Mod1 ammunition around.

But after interning and getting my degree I came to Rapid City. I was hired by Rapid City Police Department and worked for them from ’79 to ’82 and then had an opportunity to get into business – the predecessor to this business. And so then I switched to the Rapid City Police Department Reserves, because once you’re a cop it’s hard to quit being a cop, so I stayed on as a reserve. And then a year later I switched to the Sheriffs Reserves. I served in that capacity until earlier this year when they made me a regular deputy. So basically I’ve been doing law enforcement for something like 35 years.

SADJ: Did you have any particular specialty in law enforcement?

Hoffman: Yup, I’m a sniper. I’ve been on the Special Response Team since 1989 as a sniper. For the past eight years or so I’ve been the sniper element leader for the Special Response Team. In 1989 my sergeant on the Sheriff’s Department stopped down to work and said – when I say “work” I mean Black Hills Shooter Supply, which was the company that was a predecessor to this. It started as Black Hills Shooter Supply. He stopped down to the work and said, “Hey Jeff, we’re starting up the warrant service team, do you want to be a part of it?” And I said, “Certainly, that sounds like fun. I’ll do anything. I’ll carry gear or whatever you need me to do. I spent my life on the phone negotiating things, I could be a negotiator.”

At the time I was a competitive pistol shooter and I said “I could be an entry guy. I’m pretty good with a handgun.” And my sergeant looked me in the eye and said, “You’re not listening to me. I want you to be a sniper and you’re gonna be my sniper.” And I said “okay.” And at that point I dedicated myself to studying sniping, becoming a real student of sniping in the martial arts sense, you never master it you’re always a student. So that’s what I’ve done for the past 25 years.

SADJ: When did you enter the gun business?

Hoffman: Black Hills Shooter Supply started in September of 1981. Kristi and I bought in to that company in March of 1982.

When I had joined the police department they found out in pretty good order that I could shoot pretty well – my grandfather taught me to shoot – and I could shoot a pistol pretty well and never had any problems qualifying. They asked if I wanted to join the pistol team and I said “sure”. I hate losing, so since I was then on the pistol team I had to win, and to win you had to practice, and to practice you had to buy ammo.

And so, I was buying ammo from our local range master who was making it on a progressive machine in his basement. And this range master one day in 1981 said, “I’m tired of police work. Do you think I could make a living making ammo full time?” I said “No.” He didn’t listen to me, fortunately, and he started the company that became Black Hills Shooter Supply. And I started working for him immediately cranking a Dillon. That was my third job. I was a police officer, also I was working security at the Hilton Hotel, and my third job was making ammunition. And as much as I cranked that Dillon along with all the other part-time officers that were doing it, we could never catch up.

I would make ammunition during the day and at night I would ship ammunition, and I realized that I was wrong and there is a big market for this. And I remember clearly thinking that I wished I had a piece of this and then later on like most businesses, that business needed some additional cash flow, so Tom, the principal owner of Black Hills shooters Supply, offered to let Kristi and I to buy into the business. To make a long story short, in March of ’82 we bought into Black Hills Shooter Supply, and we ran along in that business until October of 1988. At that point the business had two primary product lines: we sold components, brass, bullets and powder and we also sold loaded ammo. At that point a business decision was made to split the sheets. Kristi and I took the manufacture of ammunition and our former partner took the sales of components and we split the companies, and now we became Black Hills Ammunition.

SADJ: When did Black Hills Ammunition open their door?

Hoffman: Black Hills Ammunition was formed in October of `88. And since then we’re still sole owners and we’ve grown and done pretty well.

SADJ: What was your first major contract?

Hoffman: That would be the Army Marksmanship Unit in 1996. We had a gentleman by the name of Mike Harris call up and suggest that we bid on this bid. I said “I don’t know anything about military business.” And he said “I do. I’m a retired Lieutenant Colonel. I know all about this and I can help you win the bid.” And I said, “Well what do you want out of it?” He said, “I want 3%.” And I thought that was a pretty good deal, 3% of some business that we didn’t already have. And so we bid on it and surprised ourselves by winning the bid. By winning the bid it wasn’t just saying that you could do it, but you also had to provide samples. They tested our stuff. They had impossible specifications.

Jeff Hoffman is not your typical business executive. He is a master of his craft and can be seen any day on his 1,400 yard range in South Dakota honing his long range shooting skills.

The specifications, ballistically, were impossible to meet, and I told them that. We provided the samples and I explained to them that you can’t get that kind of velocity with that bullet in this cartridge without exceeding pressures. This ammunition meets your specifications for performance but it’s over the specified pressure. And they said “Yeah, we know but we wanted to see what we could get.” And we were able to save them 10,000 pounds of pressure plus provide a very accurate round that was designed for 600 round target shooting.

We provided the round that gave them the desired accuracy at an acceptable price to them and that was our first contract with the U.S. Government, the Army Marksmanship Unit in 1996. From that we didn’t realize how significant that was but we later learned that the rest of the world, all of the military units, watch the AMU to see what they do because they’re the best funded and they have very good shooters. So about three years after that all of the other Marksmanship Units have come to us and said “You do the Army stuff, would you also do stuff for us?” So by ’99 we had the Navy, Army and Marine Corps were all buying from us, and I believe also the Air Force was also buying from us.

SADJ: At the time that you did this how many people did you have working for your company?

Hoffman: Probably 25 or 28.

SADJ: Can you tell our readers about the development of the Mark 262?

Hoffman: We can. In about 1999 the Navy came to us and said “We’re designing a new 5.56mm precision rifle. It’s basically an M16A1, accurized, scope sighted, suppressed, and we need ammunition that’s accurate and effective at 600 yards.” And I said “We could do that. I know that we can meet your accuracy requirements because we’re already doing that for AMU. I don’t know anything about the performance levels – the combat effectiveness of 5.56mm at 600 yards, but I know that we meet the accuracy requirement. So we started working with them.

We submitted the ammunition that we’d been making for the AMU and then we set about making it a combat hardened cartridge, instead of .223 Rem brass we went to 5.56mm brass. We increased the charge. We modified the propellant. We’ve also modified the projectile. The brass has been modified to make it better. And ultimately, the result of that is what we have now the Mark 262 Mod 1. I’ve greatly condensed a decade of development and refinement in the cartridge in that short recital. But we went from AMU ammunition to Mark 262 Mod 1.

SADJ: Can you explain the differences between the Mark 262 mod 0 and the Mark 262 mod 1?

Hoffman: The primary difference is the addition of the cannelure, that’s what distinguished mod 0 from mod 1. We also, along the way, have gone through several generations of propellant, and mod 0 has a different propellant than mod 1 does.

SADJ: With the amazing popularity and success that the Mark 262 has had, can you tell our readers about how you were able to bridge the gap between combat reliability and match accuracy in a combat rifle round?

Hoffman: When the military came to us to produce this the primary requirement was an accuracy round, and we knew how to make accuracy. Primarily you get accuracy by careful selection of components well suited to the task. In this case the bullet that we ultimately ended up with was a Sierra 77 Matchking, a very accurate bullet. And then you assemble those carefully selected components with extreme care. For example, in Mark 262 mod 1 it has one lot of brass – for every ammo lot it’s composed of component lots that are single lot of product. One lot of primers, in one lot of brass, with one lot of propellant and one lot of bullets assembled on a single line machine in one continuous run. What we’re doing there is eliminating variables, and by eliminating variables you end up with very uniform ammunition, and carefully tested at every stage of production. So if you’re using good components, good accurate bullets, assembling them with extreme care, that’s what will give you the accuracy and the
uniformity required.

And then along the way we’ve had to do things to combat harden it like we had the brass specially produced, we had to modify the brass to do what it does from the original Winchester brass to the brass that we later went to. We had to have the brass modified. We had to have a cannelure added to the bullet, which Sierra was reluctant to do. We went through several generations of powder, ultimately ending up with a propellant that was designed specifically for this application. Those things combat hardened a
marksmanship round.

SADJ: Can you tell our readers the difference between a boat tail match hollow point and an open tip match?

Hoffman: Primarily it’s terminology, but it’s terminology that means something. Most people, when they look at a boat tail hollow point they say that you can’t use that, it violates the Geneva Convention. First it’s not the Geneva Convention that they mean to be talking about, it’s the Hague Convention. Secondly, the U.S. is not a signatory to the Hague Convention; however, we abide by its terms in accordance with the U.S. Government’s interpretations of it.

The Hague Convention basically says that you cannot use a bullet which unnecessarily deforms or is intended to cause unnecessary harm or suffering. The U.S. Judge Advocate General (JAG) has addressed these concerns specifically with this bullet and with some prior open tip match bullets to answer those concerns. Basically open tip match is the U.S. Military terminology for a boat tail hollow point that’s designed for accuracy purposes. The hollow point is not there in any way to cause the bullet to deform, fragment or do anything.

The bullet is designed specifically for accuracy, and the design of it is there only because that’s the most accurate way to produce an accurate bullet. In the case of the Mark 262, that hollow point does nothing to enhance terminal effect. When you recover any bullet fragments from a gelatin test you can find that little nose, which some people would call a hollow point, still perfectly closed shut in the recovered gelatin, which demonstrates the JAG ruling in this regard is absolutely correct. The “hollow point” does nothing towards terminal performance. Rather than argue about types of “hollow points,” JAG uses the term OTM, Open Tip Match to denote a bullet that has the core inserted from the front and the tip then formed to create a superior bullet from the
accuracy standpoint.

SADJ: Do you manufacture a civilian version of the Mark 262? And, if so, what are the differences between the commercial Mark 262 and the military version?

Hoffman: After word got out about us making the Mark 262 there was an extreme civilian demand for it. It was incredible. But the only way that it was available to the civilian market was the ammunition that we would pull from our military runs. We have a very detailed inspection process; every round of ammunition is hand inspected. And we would pull off ammunition that had the slightest cosmetic defect, and it would not go to the military. That ammunition was functionally perfect, would perform exactly the same in every performance category but it just wasn’t quite as pretty because it might have a very slight scratch or a very slight dent on it. We would sell those as cosmetic seconds.

Black Hills Ammunition produces ammunition of the highest quality for the nation’s most elite warriors. Shown is 5.56mm Mk262, Mod1 ammunition being manufactured and then off to the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana where it will get deployed to Special Forces anywhere in the world.

There was always an incredible demand for those. People would call up and say, “When are you going to run more seconds?” Well, we don’t run seconds; it’s a byproduct of production and inspection. But there was such a demand for it that we cleared it with the military, talked to them and they said “Jeff, this is your product that you designed and you can sell it if you want.” And I said, “We won’t use the Mark 262 name but we’ll sell it.” That’s the reason why our commercial ammunition doesn’t say Mark 262. Legally, we would be entitled to because we produced the ammunition but I didn’t think it was right. I considered it a military term. So we sold it as 556-77 and we started offering the exact same product. The only difference is it’s not subjected to all of the military acceptance testing, because it’s not going to the military, but all the same care in production is there.

Just recently we’ve had to make one other slight change because there’s an international powder shortage going on right now – a propellant shortage. Part of it is due to the extreme demand in the industry, and part of it’s because one of the overseas plants had a minor explosion. Nobody was hurt but that plant happened to be our Mark 262 propellant. We had to give priority at that point to the military so we had to use a substitute propellant recently for the commercial 5.56mm. It gives the same performance but we believe in being absolute transparent. The current production commercial ammunition does not use the standard military Mark 262 propellant, but it gives the same performance levels.

SADJ: Can you tell the readers about your involvement with the M118 LR PIP program?

Hoffman: Some years ago a military unit came to us and said, “Jeff, we want you to improve the M118LR.” And I said, “What do you mean improve?” And they said, “You know, make it better.” At that time I didn’t have a specific task on how to improve it, so I started looking at it and seeing how you could improve it. Could you give it a longer range, higher velocity, better BC bullet, push it faster? And in our testing with the weapons supplied with that unit, I really honestly couldn’t find a way to make it better at that time. It was shooting minute of angle out of a semiautomatic weapon. It was performing very well. I couldn’t find a way to make it better.

Every time that we tried to improve the performance by shooting it faster or using heavier bullets we would run into some sort of a problem. And one thing I learned is there are some semiautomatic weapons out there that will drop primers even with ammunition perfectly within proper pressures, so there was a limitation there. You couldn’t simply increase the pressure and have it work. And so, I told them at the time that I don’t see a way to improve it. This is good ammunition.

And then a civilian trainer working with one of the top military units came to me and said, “Jeff, you need to know where to look. You need to improve temperature insensitivity, because at difference ambient temperatures the current M118LR provides too much variation and velocity, and at long distance that’s a problem for the snipers.” And he said also that lot to lot uniformity needs to be improved. So I did some testing and confirmed what he said. I learned that the propellant really could be better, and I submitted a letter to that effect to Naval Service Warfare, Crane, Indiana, and they started on a program to improve it.

And that program ultimately resulted in AB39, which is produced by Federal and it’s a much better product than the original M118LR. We competed on that contract. We didn’t win that one and that’s okay. We feel a certain amount of satisfaction in being a part of a program that improved the performance of the ammunition for our warfighters. We don’t have to win all of them. We’re happy just to be able to contribute. And if we win them then we’ll take that too.

SADJ: As of 2014, who would you say is your biggest customer?

Hoffman: The U.S. government.

SADJ: What sets Black Hills Ammunition apart from the rest of the manufacturers? What makes you guys shine above the rest?

Hoffman: We are responsive, agile in responding, very precision oriented, willing to take on R&D projects for things that, frankly, other people look at and think it’s a real pain in the ass. We’ll take those programs. At last count we have something over ten different national stock number items where we’ve developed them for the U.S. Military, because the DOD came to us and said we need something that will do this. So we set about trying to do that particular task. I think that and the absolute dedication to quality.

One thing we like about military businesses is the military has high standards and they don’t care whether you make a profit on something as long as it’s the best value for the government, as long as you’re providing them something that is better than anybody else would give them and it’s a fair price. They don’t begrudge you making a profit on it. You contrast that with law enforcement – you know I come from a law enforcement background and I love cops, but frankly most law enforcement agencies don’t have good specifications but they buy on low bid. What that means is they constantly get the cheapest thing that’s offered to them, and that’s why we’re not real strong in law enforcement. But that’s why we are real strong in the military. The military has very high standards and we don’t have to compete against the cheapest thing that anybody can make.

SADJ: How does Black Hills diversify its product line?

Hoffman: We sell direct to gun shops. We have avoided the distributor dealer marketing simply because ammunition is a competitive market. We find it works best for us to sell direct to the dealer so we sell direct to the various gun shops. We also sell direct to law enforcement agencies. We sell a lot of ammunition to the U.S. gun manufacturers and some of the foreign gun manufacturers for their function test ammunition and for their proof test ammunition, which some readers may not know what proof is. Proof is ammunition that is intentionally overloaded by a certain amount, and the gun manufacturers will fire one of these rounds through every weapon with the thought that if there’s a flaw in the weapon then it will be discovered early before that weapon is shipped from the plant.

It’s very high specification and it falls in the category of one of the niches that I enjoy, stuff that other people think is too much of a pain in the ass. It’s very high specification. It has to be done right. We’ve adopted that market and we make a large amount of the proof ammunition that the gun manufacturers in this country use. So we have those three categories: the dealers, the law enforcement agencies, the gun manufacturers, and then finally the U.S. Military.

SADJ: For your commercial line you have hunting ammunition and you have cowboy action ammunition. So you have other types of ammunition as well rather than just standard, military and law enforcement type ammunition?

Hoffman: Right. We try to provide something that in any of the categories there is significant demand for. We have training ammunition, self-defense ammunition, long range precision ammunition, premium ammunition for the big game hunter, marksmanship unit ammunition for the military and combat ammunition.

SADJ: Do you do much international business?

Hoffman: Some. Our exports are handled by APEX – Austin Sheraton and he does handle some export business for us. It’s not huge but that’s okay, because we’re extremely busy doing the U.S. business. Frankly, a lot of our export business goes to friendly foreign nations where our special forces will go train with those units and those units look and say, “What do you have there? I need some of that. How do I get that?” And then those units will come to us. A lot of advertising for export sales is actually through U.S. Special Forces contacts.

SADJ: Does Black Hills manufacture any of their own components?

Hoffman: No, we’re an assembly plant. We don’t manufacture any of the components. We don’t make brass, primers, powders or bullets; but we have very good relationships. We’ve got relationships that go back two and three decades with companies. It’s interesting in this business because so many people look at it and say, “How can you be good friends and industry partners with other people that should be your competitors?” This is a very close-knit industry. We’ve got relationships going back with Hornady all the way to 1981, personal relationships. We’ve got relationships with Sierra that almost go back that far, with Hodgdon, with Ramshot Powder Company. We have relationships that are decades old and there’s a lot of trust there. And those companies will work with us.

We have no engineers on staff. We know how to make ammunition. But when we need something special, a change in projectile, for example the Mark 262, when we needed a different brass, we went to Winchester and told them we needed a brass that will put up with this, and they went to work on it, and gave us that brass. When we needed a special propellant we went to Ramshot Powders and they went to their manufacturer and had that manufacturer specifically manufacture a powder that would do exactly what we needed done.

When we needed a cannelured Sierra MatchKing bullet, they didn’t cannelure MatchKing bullets. MatchKings were thought of as a perfect accuracy bullet, and by adding a cannelure the fear was they would damage the accuracy of it. We convinced them to put a cannelure on it. We didn’t lose any accuracy. The actual specs are not releasable to the public, but I can tell you that we shoot 300 yard groups of ten shots that are always sub-minute angle. You can’t damage accuracy very much and maintain that kind of an accuracy standard. We’re not talking three shot groups, we’re talking ten shot groups; and I’m not talking a hundred yards, this is at 300 yards. I think we’ve eliminated that concern that you’re going to damage the accuracy by adding a cannelure to the bullet.

SADJ: You’ve spoken previously about your quality control process. Can you explain what your quality control process is and how it exceeds what you would find in the industry?

Hoffman: Our quality control is a process. It’s not one step. At every point in production, as you saw earlier in your tour, we have an inspection process at every step. When we order product it’s from someone that we trust in the industry. We don’t shop around and jump around to what’s cheapest in the market. We’ve got long term suppliers who have standards, and we receive certifications from them with our shipments showing that the product meet those standards. And then when it shows up at the door, we pull samples. We have inspectors that start sampling it. As soon as the pallet shows up they start tearing stuff apart, sit down with their calipers and gauges checking stuff, because even the best vendor can make a mistake, so we check it there. And as you saw when the operators are running the machine they’re constantly inspecting the product that’s going in, as well as inspecting the ammunition that’s going out. And then everything that we shoot and produce is shot every day for pressure and velocity. And then in addition to that it goes to a hand inspection process where every round is hand inspected. We have a lot number system. Here’s one more example, the lot numbering system will allow us to track what machine produced it, what operator was running the machine, who the inspector was, and the date. And from that we can go back and see who set the machine up, who double checked it, how often was it checked during the run, what were the components used, what was the pressure and velocity of that ammunition and were there any changes made during the run.

So at any time if someone calls up and says, “Jeff, I have a round that didn’t perform the way I expected it to,” I can go back and access all of our records right down to the day that it was produced and tell you everything about that ammunition. That degree of quality control and responsibility leads to quality. Everybody that touches that along the way knows that their signature is on that box of ammo because of that lot number. It allows us to go back to who inspected it, who produced it, who set the machine up. Everybody shoulders the responsibility for making sure that the ammunition is as good as it can be.

SADJ: How many people do you have working for you today?

Hoffman: 76 I believe.

SADJ: Where do you see Black Hills Ammunition in the next decade? What are your future goals?

Hoffman: We will continue producing ammunition that is good as we can make it, and selling as much as the market wants to the extent that we can. Ever since 9/11 of 2001 we’ve been in a backorder situation except for one year. So it’s hard to meet the market demand but we’re doing the job as best we can.

SADJ: Thank you very much.