Hornady: Building Of America’s Premium Bullet Manufacturer

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Hornady truly is solely dedicated to building accurate, deadly, dependable bullets.

The economics of the firearms business can be summed up with this analogy: Do you want to sell dogs or dog food? For Hornady, the answer was simple: ammunition. After all, all firearms need ammunition … and they always will.

The Hornady ammunition story began because Joyce Hornady saw a need in the firearms industry emerging after World War II. He thought a lot of shooters, like him, would need a good bullet to reload. He knew he was right long before the banks did, and he forged ahead with his dream.

The Dream Begins

From the beginning, Joyce Hornady made it clear to the world that his business would be brave, daring and practical. Fueled by his core values of building “accurate, deadly, dependable” bullets, Hornady Manufacturing Company continued to grow.

Where Hornady began. The company started off as a dream and grew into a reality.
Where Hornady began. The company started off as a dream and grew into a reality.

Hornady’s climb to success wasn’t an easy one, however. In 1981, with the Hornady brand well-established and growing, its founder and leader, Joyce Hornady, along with Hornady engineer Edward Heers and Hornady customer service manager Jim Garber, was killed in a tragic plane crash while on the way to SHOT Show, which was held in New Orleans that year.

Few businesses, no matter how well-run, can survive the loss of their visionary leaders. But, this wasn’t just any ordinary business; it was the Hornady family business. And thanks to the sound parenting and leadership of Joyce Hornady, his dream didn’t die with him. Rather, it grew stronger, brighter and more innovative than ever.

After the Tragedy

According to Hornady’s historic records, here’s what happened next:

Joyce Hornady started his business in 1949 in Nebraska. Decades later, Grand Island, Nebraska, is a Hornady town.
Joyce Hornady started his business in 1949 in Nebraska. Decades later, Grand Island, Nebraska, is a Hornady town.

“After the immediate shock and grief abated somewhaat, a giant question remained. What was to happen to the company? There were those who doubted it could survive the tremendous loss of its first and only leader. That was not the belief of Marval Hornady (Joyce Hornady’s youngest son, Steve’s, wife). The family needed to regroup, and so it did. Steve Hornady became president and Marval the chairman of the board. Daughter Margaret Hornady David and her husband, Don, left careers at Polaroid to become vice president and chief engineer, respectively. A new era had begun.”

Today, Steve Hornady is the leader of his father’s dream. Together with his family, Steve has grown Hornady into the “largest independently owned maker of bullets, ammunition and tools in the world.”


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Behind the Hornady Brand

A success story such as Hornady’s shouldn’t be ignored, so Gun Digest sat down to talk with Steve to find out what Hornady is like behind its brand.

Joyce Hornady’s love for bullets was rooted in his lifelong love of hunting and shooting.

Before his unfortunate death in 1981, Joyce Hornady spent a lot of time in the laboratory testing bullet designs.
Before his unfortunate death in 1981, Joyce Hornady spent a lot of time in the laboratory testing bullet designs.

“My father was an avid pistol and varmint shooter pre-World War II. Obviously, with the war, it became difficult to enjoy his recreation,” Steve explained. “He worked with Vernon Speer—who had a machine shop in Lincoln, Nebraska—to develop a way to make varmint bullets out of spent .22 rimfire cases.”

From this foundation, Joyce combined his ballistically inclined engineering mind with a strong entrepreneurial spirit at the end of World War II. He realized that after the war, thousands of American soldiers would be returning to hunting and shooting.

“Post-World War II, he and Vernon continued making more bullets for handloaders and selling them by mail order,” Steve continued. “Dad and Vernon eventually went their own ways. Dad bought surplus bullet-making machinery and started making his own bullets, starting with a .30-caliber, 150-grain Spire Point.”

As Hornady grew, Joyce’s goals remained simple, genuine—and tangible to shooters.

Steve Hornady has embraced his family’s rich tradition in hunting and shooting by traveling around the world after all kinds of wild game.
Steve Hornady has embraced his family’s rich tradition in hunting and shooting by traveling around the world after all kinds of wild game.

“I don’t know that Dad had any specific goals, other than to try to make really good bullets and keep serving the market,” Steve pointed out. “Naturally, that led to growth, and I think he simply enjoyed the process of trying to do more.

“We started making ammo with surplus fired .308 and ’06 brass, because Dad felt people really wanted to shoot his bullets but didn’t want to handload.

“From the very beginning, our premise was that our bullets were what made our ammo. We didn’t have ammo production numbers to meet; we had bullet accuracy specs to meet—and that made all the difference.”

‘Honest’ Bullets

Hornady built its brand purposely and has always remained centered on Joyce’s fundamental desire to provide the world with a good, honest bullet.

According to Steve, “We’ve built our brand by simply doing the right thing for our customers. We always pursued what we thought would be a good idea and not necessarily what would bring the most revenue. We didn’t go after high volume by lowering our standards, and we didn’t go after high revenue by setting high prices. We did make bullets Dad thought customers would want or need—even if it didn’t make economic sense (for instance, the .458-caliber, 500-grain FMJ).”

Joyce Hornady hunted with the bullets he created.
Joyce Hornady hunted with the bullets he created.

I once met Steve at a SHOT show, and it didn’t take me long to see he was a feisty and honest—but fair-minded—businessman. He struck me as the kind of guy who’d have my back in a bar fight. That kind of loyalty is exactly what I’ve seen in the performance of Hornady bullets; that is, they’re there when you need them, and they offer simple, reliable performance.

A Hornady 154-grain Interlock (7mm-08) that I handloaded took my first black bear in Maine, and other Hornady bullets have cleanly taken countless whitetails, mule deer, coyotes and a Wyoming pronghorn. The bullets work because that’s the way Joyce Hornady first designed them. And Steve and his family have continued Hornady’s bullet-design genius based on several lifetimes of well-established pedigrees of success hunts around the world.

Meet Steve Hornady

Aside from his family influence, what else has helped shape both Steve and Hornady?

According to Steve, “I’ve been in this biz now for almost 55 years. I started mowing lawns at the factory when I was 15, and I’ve been here ever since. As a result, there have been quite a few people I’ve learned from … . They’re not in any particular order: my father and mother, of course, Larry Steadman, Jim Lagiss, Jim Devere, Larry French, Charlie Dunkin, Arlen Chaney, Bob Delfay, Jerry Bersett, Bob Scott, Ted Rowe, Bob Behn, Tom Gura, Jack Durrett, Larry Barnett—and many more—but you get a pretty good idea.”

Steve (right) and son Jason Hornady with a bull moose they took using Hornady ammunition.
Steve (right) and son Jason Hornady with a bull moose they took using Hornady ammunition.

When asked about his hunting and bullet design success, Steve pushed the spotlight aside and instead shined it on his father and the rest of the Hornady family.

“I appreciate the compliment, but I don’t think I’m particularly keen or possess any specific expertise,” Steve said. “I think I’ve probably adopted my parents’ sense of simple fairness in how we treat our staff, our customers and the shooters. We’re still trying to make the best products we can and not use marketing “BS” to convince the shooter. Rather, we convince the shooter by delivering the product. It’s being validated every day by winning matches and providing more and more performance to consumers, law enforcement and military.”

Looking Toward the Future

The next set of questions I asked captured Steve’s personality and Hornady’s “boxer” mentality.

Gun Digest: With regard to the ammunition industry, where have you seen manufacturing and sales succeed and fail, versus that of your own product? 

Steve Hornady: I think I’ve seen mistakes by others; some are still [making mistakes]. I’m not going to say which ones … because I want them to continue.”

GD: Have there been milestone choices other manufacturers have made that you disagreed with?

SH: Ah, yup! And I’m glad they did and are still doing so.

GD: If so, what were they, and why did you go a different direction? 

SH: Nunya! (I can only assume that this was Steve’s shorthand for “None of your business!”)

GD: Like any firearms industry company, Hornady must endure and balance external influences and factors. Which ones have impacted Hornady the most? Politics? Labor costs? Manufacturing skill sets? Technology? COVID-19?

SH: Well, all, to some degree. Starting in the late 1980s, as our ammunition business was growing, it became evident that it was going to be self-limiting to rely on the very same companies that were our competitors for our cartridge brass. That got us started making our own brass. The technology and manufacturing skills were things we didn’t possess and had to learn—sometimes, the hard way—what to do.

Today, we’re pretty darned good; and, of course, that’s allowed us to innovate with cartridge design—not trying to make the most bad-ass powder burner, but to deliver the best bad-ass performance. In this case, I use “accuracy on target” and “performance” interchangeably. It’s not how fast you can push a bullet; it’s getting that bullet to go where it’s supposed to go, each and every time.

As for the industry, I certainly don’t need to remind everyone of the forces out there that are trying to “get us.” It’s not paranoia when a candidate for president says he’s coming for your guns or an activist billionaire commits a fortune to build a coalition to drive our industry into the ground. There are literally millions of people who don’t understand the basic fundamental principle of self-defense, both personally and as a bulwark against an adventurous government. They’re sheep.

In Front of and Behind the Hornady Brand

Steve’s vision for the future of Hornady is close to its present.

“I think I want the brand to be what the brand is perceived as now,” he said. “We build the very best ammo—and at competitive prices. We supply premium products across the board, even in ‘commodity ammo’ categories (.223 FMJ and 9mm, for which we load our bullets and not some generic cheapie). Hornady’s business continues to grow. The Hornady family, its employees and, ultimately, its brand have leadership in place to carry the company forward through the next few generations.”

Steve Hornady with a Cape Buffalo he took in Africa. Hornady began in 1949 with Steve’s father, Joyce.
Steve Hornady with a Cape Buffalo he took in Africa. Hornady began in 1949 with Steve’s father, Joyce.

What does Steve have planned for tomorrow?

“I think we’ll continue to improve both what we build and our ability to deliver it at a competitive price,” he said.

So, what is Hornady behind the brand? It’s the same as it is in front of it. The Hornady brand isn’t a marketing scheme; it’s a mirror that reflects almost 100 years of bullet-making ingenuity started by a man who was willing to bet on himself when the banks didn’t believe in his dream. And that’s about as American as you can get, folks.

The bottom line is that Steve and the entire Hornady family want customers to know that when they choose Hornady ammo, “they’re getting the commitment of everyone here to deliver the very best we know how to do.”

And, what Hornady best knows how to do is build “accurate, deadly, dependable” bullets.

For more information on Hornady Manufacturing, please visit hornady.com.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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