Making a New Caliber
Every time we announce a new caliber we’ve put into production, we get hundreds of calls, emails, and social media comments asking why we didn’t go a different direction – why that caliber and not their favorite caliber?
First, some background on what it takes to develop a new caliber.
In our shop, one production line consists of 22 different machines, laid out in the shape of a “U.” The raw material, which in our case is a brass cup, goes into machine number one. And out of machine number 22 comes the finished casing.
Depending on the caliber, it can require us to design and produce up to 100 different pieces of specific tooling to make a particular casing. The tooling that actually forms the casing as it moves through each machine we call “Forming Tool.” A new caliber, in a new family, can require as many as 50 pieces of new forming tooling. This is distinct from “Material Handling” tooling. Depending on the caliber, it can require us to design and produce about 45 or 50 different pieces of material handling tooling also. So, each piece of caliber-specific tooling must be designed by our engineer, then sent out for quote, then ordered, then received, then tested. Much of the tooling is made from carbide. Carbide is expensive, with long lead times.
Caliber development is an “Iterative” process.
The tooling used to form the brass into a casing has to be exactly correct, oftentimes to within a quarter of a thousandth of an inch. Keep in mind that a typical human hair is about 2 thousandths of an inch in diameter. So, the tooling needs to be correct to within 1/8 the thickness of a human hair. If it is not, the casing neck wall may be too thick or too thin. The inside mouth diameter (ID) of the case can be wrong. The loaded neck diameter could be incorrect. Or any number of other dimensions can be off.
Moreover, it’s possible to get the tooling exactly right to make a casing that is ideal dimensionally, but when you run it, it produces a 20% scrap rate. Well, good casing or not, if the scrap rate is too high some of the tooling needs redesigned.
For these reasons, the first iteration of tooling rarely produces casings that are what we call, “Best Vision,” that runs with an acceptable defect rate. So, after each proof-of-concept run, we analyze which specific tooling, on which machine, isn’t doing what we need, redesign those pieces, send them out for quote, order them, and wait the few months necessary for the updated version to show up.
When we were newer in this business, it sometimes took our caliber development guys two or three extensive iterations to produce a casing they regarded as best vision. Now that we’ve done it so many times, some tool packs they get on the first iteration. Other times they must do some minor tweaking on a few different pieces of tooling to get dimensions exactly right. That all pertains to typical bottleneck casings – no belt, no rim, no double radius shoulder. However, getting the belt exactly right on belted magnums took a distressing number of iterations. Also, getting the rim exactly right on our first rimmed casing took a few extra iterations.
If we already have a tool pack in that family
Some calibers group into families. For example, the .243 Win, .260 Rem and 7mm-08 Rem are all in the .308 Win family. They each can be made using the same cup and the same material handling tooling because they are so similar in size. Since the head diameter of each is the same, they all use the same Heading tooling. Calibers in the 30-06 family include the .270 Win, the .280 Rem, the .280 AI and of course the .25-06. The point is, once a casing manufacturer has the tool pack to make one member of a family, it is relatively easy to make the other members. Think 6.5 Creedmoor, 6 Creedmoor, .22 Creedmoor and even a .25 Creedmoor.
If we need a new cup
As of May 2022, Peterson Cartridge has finished “Tool Packs” to produce 47 different calibers. (If we make two versions of a caliber, one with a large rifle primer pocket and one with a small rifle primer picket, we count that as one caliber.) A few of those 47 we have not run yet. We are waiting for space in the Production Calendar to put the tooling on. As mentioned, the raw material we make our casings from is a brass cup. Some cups are usable to make several calibers. Different casing sizes require different size cups. You can imagine that the cup to produce a 6BR is much smaller than the cup to make .338 Lapua. Other calibers are so unlike anything else we make, that they require their own cup. To make our 47 different calibers requires us to have about a dozen different cups.
If making a particular caliber requires us to develop a new cup, that is a whole other ordeal. We buy our cups from cup manufacturers. Just like it takes a specific tool pack to make casings, it also takes a specific tool pack for cup manufacturers to make a cup they never have made before.
The cup manufacturer’s tooling development is also an iterative process. So, think about the steps. We send a drawing for a new cup design to the manufacturer. They take their first best guess on tooling needed to make our cup, then order the tooling. When it arrives, they schedule run-time to do their proof-of-concept testing. Oftentimes their first iteration doesn’t produce a cup that exactly matches our drawing. So, they reorder tooling, wait for that version to arrive, then schedule time for another test run.
In the end they get a cup that matches our print. They send us a sample quantity. We schedule run-time to test our tooling with this new cup. If it doesn’t produce casings correct to within our tolerances, we redesign our cup drawing and send it to the cup manufacturer to start all over. If either of us are bad at our first guesses this process to prove out a new cup design can take one to two years.
If we don’t need a new cup
When we decide to come out with another caliber, if we have a cup we believe will work, the process goes like this:
- We order our first iteration of tooling. That takes three to four months to arrive.
- During the following month we find time to test the tooling.
- If a couple pieces need revised, we order those. They take another three to four months to arrive.
- If we are confident in the tooling, we will skip doing more proof-of-concept testing and schedule a first production run. That could take place within a month.
- The newly produced casings must wait their turn to go through the Inspection department. That could take three or four weeks.
So, all told this adds up to about 10-months from the time we order the first tooling to the time casings are sitting on our dock ready to ship to our distributor. As was mentioned above, if we need to develop a cup, that could add one to two years to the process.
At any given time, we have several calibers in development. We maintain a Caliber Development Schedule and a Timeline document for each individual caliber that shows what stage each of the projects is in. We learned early on not to discuss what calibers we have in development, because it is so difficult to predict when they will be out and available. Our goal is to not disappoint customers who are eager for the new caliber. And that’s hard to do when development time can vary so much.
One of the painful things about making a new caliber, beside the cost to develop and purchase all the new tooling, is the down time on our manufacturing equipment that otherwise would be running existing tool packs to make casings we could sell today.
As new tooling arrives for a new caliber, it must be tested. We refer to these tests as proof-of-concept runs. To prove out the new tooling we must remove the tooling from each machine which is currently running another caliber. It can take more than a 12-hour shift to get a cup far enough around a cell to determine if the tooling works. We do all our change-overs and testing on day shift. So normally, at the end of a proof-of-concept shift, we must call off the night shift. Then the next day is spent pulling off the test tooling and reinstalling the caliber that was running. So, it is common to lose three or four shifts of run time per each test event. And most new tool packs take a few test events.
Every day a line is running it produces tens of thousands of dollars of sellable casings. Our lines run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, the lost revenue from downtime associated with testing normally exceeds the cost of new tooling.
During ammo shortages, like the one we are in now, component manufacturers are driven to produce more product faster. Since the advent of COVID and the start of this shortage, we have slowed down new caliber development and redirected our engineering folks to work on manufacturing process improvements – like most everyone else in the industry. We still have calibers in the Development Schedule. We’re just moving down the Timelines a little slower.
Now, as to why come out with this caliber, and not some other one?
As discussed above, one of the considerations regarding making a new caliber is, would it be in an existing caliber family. Another is, do we already have a cup that will work. And we always consider, will it work with existing material handling tooling.
A larger consideration though, is would this potential new caliber be in our wheelhouse. We think of our niche as extremely consistent, brass rifle casings, designed for long-distance shooters. So, we are predisposed in favor of calibers for competition shooters like the precision rifle series (PRS) folks, the extreme long range (ELR) shooters, and, also, long-distance western hunting.
But ultimately, the answer to why we chose to make the caliber we are releasing now, is almost always because you, our customer, have requested we make it. People call us, email us, see us at trade shows and request different calibers all the time. We like that. We pay attention to your requests. We track which calibers folks are asking us for the most. We listen to you. We value your input. And even though our customer service guys aren’t at liberty to say, there is some likelihood we are currently working on the caliber you hope we bring out next.