How does H&N make pellets?
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Improvements at the molecular level
- Pellet shapes and head sizes
- No lookie!
- Process management
- More than just pellets
- Olympic target pellets
- Quality assurance and packing
- On to shipping
Back on August 10 we looked at how JSB makes pellets. Today we will look inside the H&N factory and see how they do it.
Improvements at the molecular level
“If we want to improve the making of pellets, we have to do it at the molecular level.” Those words were spoken to Dr. Robert Beeman when he toured the H&N factory in the 1980s. As a major buyer of their product, Dr. Beeman got to look inside the operations of manufacturers like Haendler & Natermann Sport GMBH (H&N). They told him at that time that with all the technical controls on the process of making pellets, any future improvements would have to come at the molecular level.
Of course you never want to say never, because the passage of time can prove you wrong. And what we have learned over the past 25+ years is that, while manufacturing processes may have reached a practical limit, there are still things that can be done to forge ahead with the quality of pellets. Pellet head sizes and body shapes are just two factors that come to mind.
Pellet shapes and head sizes
H&N has been innovating with pellet shapes and head sizes for a long time. Let’s look at one of their products The H&N Rabbit Magnum is a heavyweight hunting pellet that’s suited to powerful precharged rifles. Its weight helps it extract good energy from the more powerful PCPs like the AirForce Condor, the Escape and the Hatsan BT65. These rifles are real thumpers that need heavy pellets to achieve all the power they can, and pellets like the Rabbit Magnum are the way to do it.
And, speaking of head sizes, I found when testing the H&N Baracuda Match in certain air rifles that the difference of 0.01MM in head size made all the difference in the world, as far as accuracy goes. The Baracuda pellet was developed in the 1950s for a ether-injected fuel-air rifle (the Weihrauch HW EL54 Baracuda) that was too powerful for conventional pellets, but in the 21st century it works fine in the magnum guns we have today.
Like Crosman and JSB, the folks at H&N do not permit us to look at the actual pellet-making process. I do know that their 43 employees work 6 days a week 24 hours a day inside the 30,000 square-foot plant.
What I can tell you is they do swage (squeeze together in dies) the pellets they make. They make those precision dies right there in-house in a toolroom that’s located inside the facility. Nobody outside the company gets to look at even a part of the pellet-making process.
First they run the lead wire they plan using through a wire drawing machine that holds the finished dimension to 0.01mm, plus or minus one-hundredth of a millimeter. This wire will become the small blanks or preforms from which the pellets are made.
The lead wire is heated to 430 degrees F before being drawn through a die to 0.01mm tolerance. The finished diameter is measured by laser for accuracy.
Once sized and inspected, the wire is then fed into one of the many swaging machines, where the pellets are made. While H&N won’t allow us to look inside the machines I can tell you each machine produces 2-5 pellets every second. The pellets are checked for tolerances right after they are made. Oversize and undersized pellets are not permitted to pass on.
This wide view of the H&N plant floor shows many of the swaging machines in operation.
This view of the plant from the other direction shows a little more detail of the swaging machines.
They manage sales, accounting, production and inventory with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that reveals inside details of the operation in real time. They use a KANBAN system to visualize workflow and critical paths in the production process. KANBAN is a logistics management tool that modernizes manual tools such as PERT to optimize Lean manufacturing and Just in Time (JIT) inventory control.
I get excited when I see companies actually using management tools like this, because I taught this kind of planning and process control to the Department of Defense for many years. Collectively it is called Japanese Management and was developed by several U.S. visionaries to boost this nation’s efficiencies during WW II. Now it’s used to win economic wars in the business world. It allows a company like H&N to compete on a level playing field with a company many times its size.
More than just pellets
We think of H&N as a pellet maker, but did you know they also manufacture firearm bullets for both handguns and rifles? They also make round balls that we see in the airgun world, though they have a separate product line of balls for muzzle loaders. And they manufacture shot. So those swaging machines are getting a workout!
Their bullets are swaged from lead. Many are copper-plated and some that are for target use are coated with plastic! These latter are meant to be shot at velocities below 1,050 f.p.s., making them perfect for wadcutter bullets used in the finest target pistols. Of course we are more concerned with the making of pellets, so let’s get back to that.
Olympic target pellets
One of the all-time top target pellets is the H&N Finale Match pellet. Made in weights for both rifle and pistol, this pellet is seen on the World Cup circuit as well as at the Olympics. I have had both rifles and pistols that shot this pellet better than any other, but you have to test each gun to find that out.
Each production lot is tested at 10 meters and 50 meters — depending on the pellet design. H&N Finale Match pellets are tested with several different rifles and pistols. Their name is on the line with these competition pellets and they cannot afford to let quality slip.
Every lot of pellets is tested before the lot is produced. Finale Match pellets are tested with several different airguns.
After the pellets are produced they are sent through a cleaning process that removes oil and flashing. Then they are dried while still inside the machine. After that, it’s on to packaging and shipping.
This machine washes and dries the pellets after production. It also removes any flashing. Be careful — it’s hot!
Quality assurance and packing
After washing the pellets go to packaging. All but the competition pellets are packed automatically. The Finale Match line are inspected and packed by hand. They seem to use a tool that looks very much like the Speedy Pellet Inspector that we will be looking at soon.
Pellets for hand inspection are scooped onto an inspection plate.
Then each pellet is looked at by the inspector. This process is no different than the one we have been talking about with the Pelletgage and Speedy Pellet inspector.
On to shipping
Given those two powerful process management software tools H&N uses, the pellets don’t spend a lot of time at the plant after packaging. This is a prestige manufacturer whose entire production output is barely keeping up with demand. So their warehouse isn’t full of dusty tins waiting to be shipped. Instead, they strive to maintain sufficient stocks of pellets their customers will order.
Pyramyd Air is a distributor for H&N, so they try to keep stocks of every type and caliber of pellet they sell. Sometimes, though, the demand exceeds the supply and customers have to wait for their order to be filled. That’s why I recommend that you buy several tins each of the pellets you use, so you will never run out.
There are just a few makers of premium pellets and H&N is one of them. You have seen me test with them countless times in this blog and they usually came out on top or very near to it. Now you have peeked inside the plant that makes these iconic pellets and perhaps have a better idea of what is behind them.
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