Small Arms Ammunition

SIC 3482

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing ammunition for small arms having a bore of 30 millimeters (1.18 inches) or less. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing ammunition, except for small arms, are classified in SIC 3483: Ammunition, Except for Small Arms; those manufacturing blasting and detonating caps and safety fuses are classified in SIC 2892: Explosives; and those manufacturing fireworks are classified in SIC 2899: Chemicals and Chemical Preparations, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

The first two decades of the twenty-first century were marked by increased sales for small arms and small arms ammunition manufacturers. Ongoing controversy over gun laws helped to boost sales and interest in shooting sports, as did concerns about self-defense. The industry saw large numbers of first-time gun buyers in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s and early 2010s, and the increase in ownership of small arms has driven sales of ammunition.

Most of the ammunition made by manufacturers in this industry was sold to private consumers. However, the U.S. Army was a major market for this industry, requiring about 300 million rounds each day by 2005. Specialized niche products also helped to promote sales for the industry, including top-end, high-performance ammunition, "cowboy-action" loads, and light recoiling ammunition targeted for the growing market segment of female gun consumers.

About 260 establishments were engaged in manufacturing ammunition for small arms having a bore of 30 millimeters (1.18 inches) or less in 2010, according to Dun & Bradstreet. Total industry sales reached $196.6 million that year, with industry-wide employment of 3,673 workers. States with the highest concentration of establishments in this industry were Texas and California (23 each), Florida (20), and Georgia and Virginia (10 each). The top producing state based on revenues was Missouri with $58.2 million.

Organization and Structure

Ammunition producers manufacture both cartridges and shells. The two types of cartridges used in rifles and pistols are rimfire and centerfire. Rimfire cartridges are comprised of a soft lead bullet, a case most often made of brass, and the smokeless propellant (powder). The priming compound is spun into the rim of the case, and, when the firearm's firing pin strikes and indents the rim of the cartridge, the priming mixture ignites and in turn ignites the propellant--hence the name "rimfire." Centerfire cartridges differ from rimfire cartridges in that a separate primer is seated in the base or head of the cartridge. When struck by the firing pin, the primer ignites the propellant via the flash hole in the base of the cartridge, therefore the name "centerfire."

Prior to the Civil War, both large- and small-bore rifle and pistol cartridges were rimfire. In the post-Civil War period, however, more powerful cartridges began to be developed. These cartridges reached subsequently higher pressures and thus required case heads too thick to be indented by a firing pin. The centerfire ignition system solved this problem and was still used in the same configuration in the 2000s for high-pressure cartridges. Shotgun shells are also centerfire but are made up of a paper or plastic cylinder with a brass base or head. The shell is filled with powder followed by a cupped plastic wad filled with birdshot or much larger buckshot. While birdshot may be made of either lead or steel, buckshot is always made of lead. Federal law mandates that all duck and goose hunting be done with steel shot. It has been found that wildfowl accidentally ingesting spent lead shot while feeding are subject to lead poisoning. Shotgun shells also may be loaded with a single heavy slug, which in various configurations is made of lead or a lead alloy. Slugs are used both in law enforcement and for hunting big game, such as deer. In addition to cartridges and shells, the small arms ammunition industry includes the manufacture of BBs and pellets, which are most commonly fired from spring- or pneumatic-powered pistols and rifles.

Rimfire cartridges were typically 0.22 caliber and used in rifles and pistols designated as "small-bore." Their share of small arms ammunition shipments increased approximately 85 percent from 1992 to 1997, accounting for 13 percent of total shipments. In 1997, centerfire rifle cartridges showed the largest decline in that period, falling from the top to the fifth position in the seven categories of ammunition. By 1997, these cartridges accounted for only 12 percent of market share, a drop from the 21 percent market share they held in 1992. Centerfire pistol cartridges, including cartridges such as the 0.44 Magnum that could be interchanged between pistols and rifles, increased market share 26 percent by 1997, second in sales only to shotgun shells, which accounted for about 22 percent of industry shipments. Shipments of industrial shells and cartridges, air gun ammunition, and percussion caps, as a group, fell markedly from 18 percent in 1992 to about 10 percent in 1997. Other major sectors of the industry in 1997 included components (wads, shot cases, bullets, and bullet jackets), with 19 percent of shipments, and primers, with 3 percent of shipments.

Consumers and Trade Representatives.
Three industry and consumer groups represent ammunition interests in the United States. Most ammunition industry executives are affiliated with the National Shooting Sports Federation (NSSF), which promotes hunting and target shooting. The NSSF's sister organization, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI), sets voluntary national standards for ammunition and firearm design. These groups rarely participate in political lobbying efforts, although ammo producers have traditionally donated money to support game populations and preserve hunting areas. The third and best-known organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA), is heavily involved in lobbying efforts, most of which are of interest to ammo manufacturers and users.

An Obscure Industry.
The high-profile firearm industry receives large amounts of press and is often the target of state and federal regulatory initiatives. Ammunition makers, however, operate in relative obscurity, with little publicity, regulation, or outside analysis of the industry.

One reason the industry has such a low profile is that most of its products are homogenous, resulting in a commodity-like business environment that is not dynamic. In addition, the largest producers in the industry are owned by massive conglomerates that view ammo operations as relatively small sideline businesses.

Background and Development

The use of gunpowder to propel projectiles dates back to fourteenth century Europe. Iron darts with brass fittings were mounted on shafts, much like crossbow arrows of the time. The shaft held the gunpowder and was wrapped with leather to keep gases from the burning powder from leaking out of the sides of the shaft. During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, armies experimented with a variety of projectiles. Gunpowder was used to fire rocks in the 1300s, although metal balls became the ammunition of choice by the 1400s. Hot shot, or heated metal balls, added a deadly twist to this technique.

The advent of rifled barrels following the American Revolution created a demand for new types of bullets. Although barrels were being rifled as early as the 1500s in Germany, it was not until the late 1700s that this manufacturing technique became popular. Long spiral grooves or rifling cut into a barrel's inner surface causes a fired projectile to spin on its axis, imparting ballistic stability and greatly increasing the firearm's accuracy and range. Because elongated projectiles benefited most from the rifling technique, elongated bullets grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, gradually replacing the solid lead ball. All pistols and rifles manufactured in the 1990s and 2000s had rifled barrels, but shotgun barrels were not rifled.

Muskets, which fire rounded lead balls and similar projectiles, were dominant in North America until the end of the Civil War. Post-Civil War expansion to the West, however, created a market for heavier and more powerful firearms. Buffalo hunters needed long-range rifles, and settlers on lonely farms needed repeating firearms such as the Winchester lever-action rifles. The cartridge technology of the 1990s originated in this era and consisted of an elongated bullet enclosing powder and primer in a brass cartridge. The cartridge was powerful, virtually oblivious to weather, and could be used in repeating firearms. This technological breakthrough quickly spelled the end of the muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle of Daniel Boone fame.

Winchester rifles, Colt revolvers, and other famous weaponry created markets for a variety of new ammunition during the westward U.S. expansion. The widespread use of smokeless gunpowder, which was perfected in the late 1880s, hastened the ammunition industry's growth. Most important, advances in ammunition and firearms during both World Wars broadened the scope of the industry to include specialized ammunition for automatic weapons and other new firearms.

In addition to a huge demand for ammunition by the military, ammunition producers in the United States enjoyed a large market for hunting products during the twentieth century. Not counting times of war, hunters remained the largest consumers of all types of small arms ammunition throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Industry Conditions from 1970 to 1996.
Following steady growth in commercial sales during the first half of the twentieth century and during the 1960s, the general public's demand for ammo began to slip in the 1970s. Although military consumption provided sporadic boosts in sales, the industry's core market, hunters, stagnated.

Stalled growth in hunting impeded the expansion of profits for some manufacturers throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. After Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, however, an increase in ammo sales to the military boosted revenues. Profits were further buoyed by an increase in target shooting. By the mid-1980s, the military consumed nearly 30 percent of industry production, and handgun and target shooters had become the primary growth market for manufacturers.

To boost profits, small ammo producers began raising productivity, selling through new marketing channels, and offering new niche products. In the 1980s, manufacturers invested an average of $25 million per year in production facilities, a very low investment compared to most other industries. Despite that low figure, industry employment fell from about 7.4 million to 6.3 million workers during the decade, even though overall production increased.

Winchester, for instance, installed computer-controlled cartridge loading machines that allowed the company to produce 9 mm cartridges and other popular ammo at a rate of up to 450 units per minute. Despite industry efforts at low-cost, high-volume production in some areas, most manufacturers still used some very old production techniques. Even at Winchester factories, many low-volume products in 1993 were still loaded at rates of 40 to 60 per minute using machines the company acquired in 1931.

Along with moderate productivity gains, producers benefited from new marketing channels in the early 1990s. Discount stores, such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, accounted for 30 to 50 percent of commercial sales by 1992. In addition, mail-order catalog sales became an increasingly lucrative distribution method. One of the largest ammunition catalogers, AcuSport Corp. of Ohio, increased mail-order sales from $30 million in 1988 to more than $75 million by 1992.

As the mid-1990s approached, the export market became an area of potential growth for industry competitors. Productivity gains realized in the 1980s allowed U.S. producers to stem an influx of cheap import ammunition from Brazil and the Far East during the 1980s. Exports already accounted for more than 10 percent of total U.S. production in the early 1990s. Foreign producers captured less than 20 percent of the U.S. ammo market by 1992, and import growth seemed to have stabilized.

Increasing Regulation.
Despite measures aimed at controlling the manufacture and sales of guns during the 1990s, the small arms ammunition industry remained loosely regulated. Congress, with the support of the NRA, succeeded in banning certain types of "cop-killer" bullets, designed to penetrate bulletproof vests. That ban represented the only legislation ever passed to directly limit the sale of small arms ammunition.

New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed legislation in the early 1990s to ban the sale of 9 mm, 0.25 caliber, and 0.32 caliber ammunition, which accounted for 50 percent of the bullets fired at police officers. He also tried to pass legislation making many pistol cartridges prohibitively expensive. Moynihan was unsuccessful at both attempts. Critics argued that such laws could not be enforced and would have a negligible effect on crime. Nevertheless, the Clinton administration indicated support for similar types of legislation.

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Brady Bill, which called for a waiting period for handgun purchases and required local police authorities to conduct an investigation before issuing a permit to purchase a handgun. Because of a general fear of crime and social and civil unrest, however, the sale of handguns and the military-style assault rifles that were still legal skyrocketed, along with ammunition for these arms. Many such firearms and ammunition were in short supply, causing a booming business among gun stores, distributors, importers, and manufacturers.

Spurred by 1994 Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, pro-gun grassroots organizations began active campaigns to promote gun safety and shooting activities. In an attempt to increase its membership of young males, the 4-H Clubs of America formed a Shooting Sport Committee, which developed a shooting sports program in cooperation with various manufacturing interests. By mid-1996, the program had spread to chapters in 38 states. The Boy Scouts of America revived many of its shooting sports programs and began laying the groundwork for a nationwide Young Hunter Education Challenge. The NRA continued its "Eddie Eagle" firearms safety program and played a major role in "right to carry" legislation at the state and local level. In 1996, South Carolina became the 31st state to pass such legislation.

Driven by fears of the Y2K bug and the threat of increased regulation by the federal government, sales of small arms and small arms ammunition boomed in the late 1990s, after a mid-decade slump following a sales boom in 1994. The Wall Street Journal offered anecdotal evidence of huge sales increases in 1999 with a story about the small Los Angeles manufacturer U.S.A. Magazine, which was widely known to gun control proponents for its controversial products and marketing tactics, and which predicted a 50 percent increase in sales over its $10 million in 1998. Retailers reported increases in 1999 sales of up to 112 percent, reflecting a "stampede" of first-time gun buyers.

Moderate growth began in 1997 as wholesalers, retailers, and buyers began to deplete excess inventory following the 1994 boom. In 1998, sellers and consumers finally needed new supplies, continuing the upswing. Targeted marketing and consumer demand for more specialized and technologically advanced products also enhanced sales.

Despite slow growth in the area of hunting, the strong economy of the 1990s, changing demographics, and increased leisure time all combined to spur sales of top-end hunting ammunition. So-called "cowboy-action" ammo also contributed to sales, marking one success in the gun industry's effort to project a more family-friendly image. Cowboy-shooting competitions took place at Wild West festivals and often involved elaborate costumes, and the sport appealed especially to women. Black Hills, Winchester, and Hornady were among leading manufacturers of dedicated cowboy-action ammunition.

Despite a ban on the controversial Black Talon expanding bullet made by Winchester, production of high-performance specialty ammo continued to be strong even during the sluggish mid-1990s, supported by a solid market in personal protection. Winchester replaced the Black Talon with another expanding bullet, the less controversial SXT. Bullets popular with law enforcement, such as Federal's Hydra-Shok, were also popular with consumers. Personal protection also drove the market for gender-specific products. In 1998, Federal and Winchester were among small ammo producers who developed light recoiling ammunition, designed for women concerned with losing control of their handguns due to heavy recoil.

During the 1990s, the industry continued to battle increased government restrictions, the threat of which contributed to the increase in sales for the industry. The Clinton administration continued the work begun with the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban by pressing for further regulations and increased enforcement for current laws. On November 30, 1998, the federal government approved the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a national database containing names of individuals banned from buying weapons, as required by the Brady Bill. Although frustrated retailers complained about delays and downed computer systems, the effect on sales was minimal.

A more serious threat to the industry than legislative regulation was from judicial decisions. In early 1999, a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, found that 15 of the nation's largest gun manufacturers were engaged in negligent distribution and marketing of guns. "In the past, gun companies have defeated lawsuits charging that they made defective guns or objects that were inherently dangerous, but the Brooklyn suit was the first to take a broader perspective and charge them with negligent marketing," said a CNN report.

According to CNN, gun industry attorney James Dorr said that it was unfair to "hold the manufacturers of a lawful, legitimately sold product responsible for acts of outlaws who are totally outside their control.... The case is simply wrong." In a Time article, Adam Cohen wrote that the Brooklyn case won because it was built on an innovative theory, saying: "It argued that gunmakers should pay for injuries from illegally obtained guns because their distribution practices let guns fall into the hands of criminals. The suit exposed a netherworld of gun trafficking, including the 'straw buyers,' who resell guns to minors and convicted felons, and the 'iron pipeline' of illegal guns that flows from states with lax gun laws, like Georgia, to states with tough ones, like New York." Following the success of the Brooklyn suit and a wave of large settlements in the big tobacco lawsuits of the late 1990s, several other cites initiated their own lawsuits or expressed the intent to consider doing so.

The gun industry also went to court to combat regulations proposed by Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. In early 1998, the American Shooting Sports Council filed suit in Boston to protest restrictions that it claimed were a "back-door approach to gun prohibition," according to Richard Feldman, ASSC's executive director.

The industry found additional support from a Republican Congress that was generally hostile to further gun control. In 1999, the Senate ignored a request from the Clinton White House to close a gun show "loophole" allowing certain sales of guns without background checks, instead expanding the loophole to include pawnshops. Pro-gun activists also declared victory when President Clinton announced a national gun enforcement initiative in early 2000, seeking a record $280 million to step up enforcement of current gun laws. According to the NRA, this approach to crime prevention follows the path pro-gun activists have recommended all along.

Industry watchers have long noted that gun control debates generally have a positive impact on sales. The Wall Street Journal reported in 1999 that "the gun market historically booms whenever consumers perceive a threat that regulations will make it harder to obtain firearms or their accoutrements." Moreover, most attempts at regulating firearms leave ammunition untouched, while most attempts to regulate ammunition have failed. Ironically, the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban was a boon to makers of clips. According to The Wall Street Journal, "A customer who in years past might have bought an extra 18-round clip with his Glock, for a total of 36 rounds, today has to buy three extra clips to match that firepower."

The Internet proved to be a controversial venue for guns and ammunition sales. Online sales in general went through the roof in the late 1990s, but concerns about controlling sales caused some sellers to change course. eBay, the Internet's leading auction site, reversed its policy in 1999 and halted the sale of weapons and ammunition after sharp criticism. Because each state had its own laws regulating the sale of firearms, online sellers found it difficult to comply with regulations. Others have found the Internet to be a way to flout gun laws. For example, U.S.A. Magazine used its web site to advertise high-capacity clips that were illegal to manufacture but not illegal to sell. Mass market retailers like Kmart and Wal-Mart, which accounted for up to half of sales in 1992, began to decrease their stock in guns and ammunition. In 1998, Shooting Industry announced that "The industry must find an outlet to replace sales lost in the mass market."

Gun and ammunition sales soared in the days following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, as people once again prepared for the unexpected and looked for a sense of control and security. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a 21 percent increase in required background checks for gun purchases in the months following the attacks. In Maryland, where gun ownership was curtailed by strict gun laws, gun sales were up 50 to 75 percent in early October 2001. Ammunition companies responded to the events of September 11 by working on the development of a bullet that could be safely used on an airplane. The object was to make a bullet that would disintegrate on contact with a hard surface to eliminate ricochet, thus allowing pilots and security personnel to be armed in flight.

Although the rise in gun sales in the years following September 11, 2001, eventually leveled off, the sales of ammunition steadily increased. The industry shipped $888 million in products in 2002 and $1.21 billion in products in 2005. By the middle of the decade, small arms ammunition was rising much faster, driven in part by the need from the U.S. Army, which had to replenish supplies after the war with Iraq began. Quality was as important as quantity to this end market. In Business News, Paul Kern, commander of the Army Materiel Command, explained: "Our ammo has to work, at 40 below zero or 140 degrees."

The development of lighter, faster, and more accurate premium bullets ignited the interest of gun and ammunition enthusiasts. According to Terry Wieland of Sports Afield, "The new bullets hold together beautifully, retaining a high percentage of their original weight for maximum penetration. There is no need to go to the heaviest and longest bullets to achieve such performance. The virtues of the new premium bullets complement the capabilities of the new short magnum cartridges to create a combination that renders just about every conventional magnum cartridge obsolete."

In the late 2000s, small arms ammunition manufacturers held 63.8 percent of total industry share, employed 5,062 workers, and shipped products totaling $187 million. Shotgun ammunition (empty, blank, or loaded) manufacturers constituted 9.3 percent in market share, generating $15.5 million in shipments. Based on revenues, shot steel ammunition manufacturers also exhibited strong demand with shipments totaling $13.1 million.

The U.S. Treasury Department, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau reported an estimated 12 billion rounds of ammunition were purchased between November 2008 and November 2009, compared to the average 7 to 10 billion rounds of ammunition purchased annually. In fact, tax revenue from ammunition sales advanced 49 percent during the first half of 2009, compared to the same time frame in 2008. Ammunition manufacturers found themselves working at full capacity in an attempt to keep up with demand, following a nationwide ammunition shortage spurred by the election of Barack Obama. Gun owners were worried about taxes being added to ammo as well as new laws that could affect production of ammunition, and firearms and related products, including ammunition, flew off the shelves of U.S. retailers.

Current Conditions

According to Dun and Bradstreet, a majority of the establishments in this industry in 2011 reported manufacturing small arms ammunition in general and recorded a combined revenue total of $147.6 million. Companies that focused on specific products (30mm and below) included those that manufactured bullet cores, cartridges, pellets and BBs for pistols and air rifles; shotgun ammunition; lead shot; steel shot; and cartridge cases. Of these subcategories, shotgun ammunition accounted for the highest percentage of sales, with $14.3 million, followed by bullet cores ($8.6 million), lead shot ($6.1 million), and steel shot ($5.4 million).

The future of the industry was dependent on various conditions, including the state of the firearms industry in general. According to Andrew M. Molchan, director of the Professional Gun Retailers Association, as reported in the Dayton Daily News in August 2011, "gun sales have steadily increased nationwide in the last six years following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning gun bans in major cities, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., on the grounds they violated the Second Amendment." The article also pointed to the increase in FBI background checks for gun sales, which increased from 8.5 million in 2003 to 14.4 million in 2010. Other reports, such as that by market research firm IBISWorld in August 2011, noted some challenges ahead, such as the potential increase in competition from imports.

Industry Leaders

Remington Arms Company Inc. of Madison, North Carolina, was the only maker of both fire arms and ammunition in 2011, and it was the leading small arms and ammunition dealer in the nation. The company posted revenues of $168.2 million with 2,275 employees in 2010. The company acquired rival Marlin Firearms Co. in 2008 for approximately $47 million. Other leaders in this industry included Hornady Manufacturing of Grand Island, Nebraska; Nosler Inc. in Bend, Oregon; and Alliant Techsystems Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Most of the companies in this industry in the early 2010s were small, with about 90 percent employing fewer than 25 workers. Larger companies (those with more than 25 workers), however, accounted for more than 70 percent of all employees in the industry. Several companies focused on producing specialty cartridges, construction industry products, and reused rounds.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, employment in the small arms ammunition industry dropped steadily throughout the 1990s but rose again in the 2000s. In 2005, there were 8,242 employees in the industry, up from 6,740 in 2002. Of these, 6,741 worked in production and earned an average hourly wage of $18.52. By 2008, however, employment had dropped again to 5,616, and Dun and Bradstreet reported only 3,673 people directly employed by the industry in 2010.

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