SAAMI: 90 Years of Setting Standards
Date: Aug 30 2017
Most folks who shoot or reload ammunition have heard of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, Inc., or SAAMI, but few know how it came about or the extent of its support for the firearm and ammunition manufacturing industries. When I came to my current position in 2011, I soon learned there was a lot about the organization that I didn’t know. Digging through the archives, a treasure trove of documents were found that included letters, blueprints for cartridges and chambers and designs for test equipment dating back more than 100 years. I also learned that some of SAAMI’s past history has been lost. With 2016 being the ninetieth year of SAAMI’s existence, I felt the organization’s story was worth telling.
SAAMI’s mission statement defines its reason for being: “To create and promulgate technical, performance and safety standards for, and commerce in, firearms, ammunition, and components.” In 1913, as the storm clouds that led to World War I were gathering in Europe, the War Department of the United States encouraged U.S. factories producing military arms and ammunition to establish a way to exchange technical information. The resulting organization played a vital role in the lead‐up to the war and became even more important after the U.S. declared war on Germany in the spring of 1917. In May of 1918, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of Commerce endorsed the organization’s purpose as being “worthy of continuance during postwar conditions,” and the group was registered as the Society of American Manufacturers of Small Arms and Ammunition (SAMSAA). It remained active until the early 1920s when, for reasons no longer known, it was allowed to lapse.
The mid‐1920s were interesting times for arms and ammunition industries. Smokeless powder had replaced black and semismokeless powders in practically all sporting ammunition, and that led to safety concerns about the shooting public’s understanding of smokeless powder’s higher performance level compared to black and semismokeless. At the same time, the Commerce Department was pressing Congress to recognize that WWI had created strategic materials shortages of brass, copper and lead, and those shortages were hindering many U.S. industries. Also, the warehouses of ammunition makers and distributors were stocked with more than 4,000 different shotshell loads and 350 different centerfire rifle and pistol loads. Concerns about product safety and inventories of obsolete and nearly obsolete ammunition, coupled with the scarcity of strategic materials, highlighted the need for the revival of some sort of body to administer standards.
In 1925 Congress, acting through the Commerce Department, requested the industry to revitalize the small arms and ammunition society that had existed during WWI. In January 1926, representatives of all smokeless powder producers, every major ammunition loading company and most major makers of firearms founded a successor group, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute. The first major project carried out by SAAMI was a major reduction of obsolete, and nearly obsolete, black-powder and semismokeless powder loads for both shotshells and metallic cartridges. When that undertaking was complete, shotshell loads had been reduced by 95 percent and metallic cartridge loads by 70 percent.
Today, SAAMI’s membership is comprised of 48 companies whose principal business is the design or manufacture of firearms, ammunition or component parts – or in some cases, all three. SAAMI’s major role is serving as a technical body of the firearms and ammunition manufacturing industries, but it also has performed other functions. Early in its existence it even played a significant role in wildlife restoration. By the 1920s, market hunting, habitat loss and nonexistent or inadequate statutory protection had reduced populations of America’s game animals to an alarming level. Recognizing how critical the situation had become, SAAMI took steps to save our wildlife resources. In 1928 it funded game surveys conducted by Aldo Leopold in nine midwestern states and underwrote publication of a book‐length summary of the surveys. Leopold went on to become the acknowledged father of modern wildlife management, and SAAMI was instrumental in bringing about the 1933 publication, his foundational textbook, Game Management.
From 1931 through 1935, SAAMI financially supported the Clinton Game School in New Jersey, which graduated 145 of the first technically trained wildlife management professionals employed by federal and state wildlife agencies. In 1933, the federal government imposed a 10 percent excise tax on firearms – a levy that evoked no cheers from gunmakers or shooters. After all, this was in the depths of the Depression, when the $3 excise tax on a $30 shotgun was a sum that would put a considerable amount of food on the family table.
Originally, the excise tax went straight into the federal government’s general fund, but the 1937 Pittman‐Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act mandated that the excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition should be used for wildlife restoration. SAAMI’s executive committee was instrumental in gaining the support of shooters, hunters and politicians to ensure passage of the Pittman‐Robertson Act, with the efforts of Winchester‐Western’s John Olin having been particularly notable in securing that result.
Today the primary work of SAAMI is developing technical standards for the design and manufacture of sporting arms and ammunition. SAAMI’s mission is guided by a small professional staff of four who manage the daily affairs of the institute and coordinate the activities of a number of strategic committees. The principal committee is the Joint Technical Committee (JTC), consisting of the technical representatives of the 32 SAAMI member companies that hold voting status. The JTC meets twice yearly, first in January and again in June, but technical task forces or working groups may convene throughout the year if circumstances warrant. The JTC has three sections: firearms, ammunition and muzzleloading. While each section is tasked with overseeing the proposal and ongoing maintenance of standards relative to its manufacturing sector, the JTC brings all the sections together to discuss technical issues affecting multiple sections, such as the introduction of a new cartridge and chamber design. It is essential that both the ammunition and firearms sections review and approve new designs and their operational characteristics to ensure the functional safety of both the ammunition and the firearms that use it.
SAAMI is an accredited standards developer of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). As such, it coordinates collection and distribution of technical data among its member companies and to the industry at large through the publication of American National Standards. SAAMI currently sponsors five American National Standards developed by the Product Standards Task Forces of the SAAMI Joint Technical Committee. Four of the five standards deal with ammunition: Z299.1, rimfire ammunition; Z299.2, shotshell ammunition; Z299.3, centerfire pistol and revolver ammunition; and Z299.4, centerfire rifle ammunition. Those standards establish dimensional and performance criteria and recommended testing processes and procedures for ammunition and proof loads. Topics addressed include cartridge and chamber nomenclature; velocity and pressure standards; primer and primer pocket specifications; technical drawings of cartridges and chambers; reference ammunition characteristics and use; setup and qualification of ballistic laboratory test equipment; velocity and pressure test barrel technical drawings; and firearm proof test loads.
The fifth standard, Z299.5, “Criteria for Evaluation of New Firearms Designs under Conditions of Abusive Mishandling” establishes protocols for drop testing, exposed hammer testing, jar‐off testing and rotation‐fall testing. Each standard is subject to approval by the canvassing and consensus vote of materially interested parties representing product end users, government agencies and departments, independent materials testing laboratories, non‐SAAMI member companies and independent consultants and experts in the field. Upon canvass approval, the standard is submitted for affirmation by the ANSI Board of Standards Review. The ANSI‐SAAMI standards are continually reviewed and updated on a five‐year rotation to reflect changes in technologies and manufacturing practices.
Velocity and pressure testing and reference ammunition are two standards topics that exemplify the cooperative nature of the JTC’s work. Up until about 1940, shotshell velocities were measured over a 40‐yard range. Then SAAMI member Remington Arms developed a radio frequency coil system that could measure shotshell velocity over a range of just 3 feet. Other member companies assisted in debugging the system, and the technology was made available to the whole ammunition industry. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the industry’s transition from the Boulengé chronograph to photoelectric screens and electronic quartz‐counter chronographs. The distance required for capturing rifle and pistol velocities has been reduced from 150 feet to 25 feet. The shorter distances have drastically reduced the construction costs of ballistic laboratory ranges. Infrared detector screens and Doppler radar technology are currently being developed to their full potential.
In the late 1850s, a constantly repeatable means of measuring chamber pressure was devised. It depended on the use of copper or lead “crusher” rods. A port was drilled through the chamber wall of a pressure‐testing barrel, and a steel piston was placed in the port. A small copper or lead crusher rod was then placed between the piston and a retaining anvil. Upon firing, chamber pressure on the piston drove the crusher rod against the anvil, compressing it by a certain amount. Crusher rods were previously calibrated in a testing machine under various pressure loads, and the corresponding compression was measured and recorded in a “tarage table.” Comparing the compressed length of the copper crusher rod from the pressure barrel to a corresponding length in the tarage table produced a reading in copper units of pressure or (CUP). Due to mechanical and metallurgical delays in the response of the piston and crusher rod to pressure forces, pressure readings were considered to reflect only 80 to 85 percent of actual peak pressure.
Chamber pressure is currently measured by a piezoelectric transducer system that is less labor intensive and much more accurate than the old crusher method. The current system is the product of a 10‐year, joint‐development project conducted by SAAMI and the instrumentation industry. The piezoelectric transducer works on the principal that a quartz crystal, when subjected to pressure, generates a minute electrical charge proportionate to the level of pressure being applied. The transducer, with a quartz crystal inside, fits into a port in the chamber wall of a pressure barrel. When the cartridge is fired, pressure on the transducer squeezes the quartz crystal, creating an electrical impulse that produces a pressure reading on a digital display in pounds per square inch (psi). Transducers provide much more accurate pressure measurements, and that can be of great help in evaluating new cartridges and firearms. Most pressure measurements of shotshell, rimfire and centerfire rifle and handgun ammunition is now done with transducers.
Reference ammunition is highly consistent in both velocity and pressure. It serves as a baseline whereby ammunition makers can assure that their products conform to SAAMI parameters for critical performance characteristics, pressure and velocity. It’s also used to evaluate the reliability of pressure‐test barrels, chronograph systems, transducer calibrations and ballistic laboratory equipment setups and operating procedures. Reference ammunition assures that commercial ammunition offered by one maker performs in a manner comparable to that which is offered by another maker, a circumstance that gunmakers and shooters alike ought to find comforting. Each lot of SAAMI reference ammunition is subject to regularly scheduled testing throughout the life of the lot. Ballistic labs submit velocity and pressure‐test results to my office, and the data is analyzed and compiled using statistical confidence factors and inclusion limits established by ANSI‐SAAMI standards. The results are published in periodic assessments that are readily available to SAAMI members and to nonmembers by subscription.
SAAMI’s Joint Technical Committee has also worked to standardize cartridge and chamber specifications. At one time, if a manufacturer sought to make either guns or ammunition to match what was being produced by another manufacturer, the only course was to purchase several firearms, a quantity of ammunition and begin measuring. Considerable time and expense were devoted to establishing proper dimensions, but now SAAMI can supply drawings of both cartridges and chambers that provide exact maximum and minimum dimensions. SAAMI protocol requires that a chamber conforming to minimum specifications must accept and function properly with a cartridge of maximum specifications.
SAAMI has developed a proof‐testing system that has unquestionably resulted in safer firearms for the shooting public. The institute’s industry-established proof levels have withstood scrutiny and the test of time, although compliance with them is purely voluntary. SAAMI’s voluntary compliance is sometimes compared to the operation of its European counterpart, the Commission Internationale Permanente (CIP). The standards of CIP are government‐enforced. SAAMI is an accredited standards developer for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and ANSI is the sole American representative and founding member of the International Organization of Standardization, commonly known as ISO. ISO’s mission is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in a global marketplace. The ANSI‐SAAMI standards are recognized and utilized worldwide with many military and law enforcement procurement contracts requiring vendor product compliance with ANSI‐SAAMI standards.
Although SAAMI was created by congressional request 90 years ago, there was no provision for government funding. Therefore, all of SAAMI’s operations are paid for by the dues of member companies, which is quite different from Europe’s CIP. The European agency began on a treaty basis, but at a 1969 convention, eight member nations voted to convert the treaty into law that mandates compulsory proofing and approval. Proofing is conducted at government‐established regional proof houses. Most CIP operations are paid for by government, but some funding is derived from commercial activities of the individual proof houses. Both SAAMI and CIP aim to create and maintain standards that ensure the safety, function and performance of firearms and ammunition. Sometimes much is made of the fact that CIP standards bear the force of law while SAAMI standards are voluntary, but the threat of liability lawsuits lends considerable impetus to voluntary compliance.
Since 1972, the American firearm and ammunition industries have not been subjected to control by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. That’s a privilege that is not taken lightly. Continual improvement and updating of the ANSI‐SAAMI standards is essential to maintaining SAAMI’s worldwide status as a recognized authority in the field of ammunition and firearm manufacture and testing. ANSI‐SAAMI standards are the heart of significant cooperative relations between SAAMI and many federal and state agencies that use ANSI‐SAAMI standards. SAAMI and CIP are working to develop internationally recognized standards. The goal is to share technical data on new cartridge and chamber designs submitted to either agency. SAAMI and CIP are also working closely to coordinate their pressure‐testing programs.
SAAMI’s JTC is a forum for industry‐wide consideration of technical problems. It also provides an opportunity for communication and interaction with peers from other companies, sometimes including joint planning and execution of special test programs. Ideally, committee members are people involved in product design or quality control at their respective companies. Committee members discuss subjects of nonproprietary nature to obtain opinions, reactions, suggestions and possible solutions to technical issues from knowledgeable, experienced personnel from other companies.
Technical standards are the core of SAAMI’s mission and are of the most interest to shooters, but I would be remiss not to mention the other committees under SAAMI’s umbrella. The Legal and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Logistics and Regulatory Affairs Committee and the International and United Nations Committees all make significant contributions to the interests of SAAMI members. The Legal and Legislative Affairs Committee, for example, is responsible for tracking – at both state and federal level – developments in product liability law and legislation that affect the interests of SAAMI members.
The SAAMI Logistics and Regulatory Affairs Committee (commonly called SLARAC) works to shape both international and domestic transportation and storage regulations to facilitate worldwide distribution of SAAMI members’ products. Education is a key function, and SLARAC is dedicated to providing science‐based information to regulators. The committee also keeps SAAMI members up to date on applicable changes in regulations. SLARAC’s direct involvement in developing a “limited quantity” exemption for sporting ammunition and propellant powders and primers saves shooters millions of dollars annually in transportation charges.
Over the years, SAAMI has been very involved in international treaties and accords that might adversely affect shooters and the gun and ammunition industries worldwide. SAAMI is an accredited United Nations Non‐Government Organization (NGO) with Consultative Status. For the last 25 years, SAAMI has provided the UN with technical information related to the products of SAAMI members.
SAAMI’s goal is to be the technical resource for decision‐makers who influence international policies on sporting small arms and ammunition. Since SAAMI has at its disposal the technical knowledge of the manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, it is in a unique position to provide factual and reality‐based information. For nearly 100 years, SAAMI has been dedicated to ensuring the safety and performance of the ammunition and firearms available to American shooters. As passionate shooters themselves, SAAMI’s Board of Directors, staff and committee members are committed to continuing that dedication to shooters for the next hundred years.