A true Aussie champion - The Ballantine Ammunition Company

Lionel Swift

It’s a rare pleasure these days to find a fully Australian manufacturer with 30+ years history.

Ballantine Ammunition is one and this article will cover points of interest to shooters and hunters, including some history of the company and its predecessors. I’ll also look at the manufacture of 12 gauge ammunition, high quality lead shot in general and Ballantine lead shot in particular.

In the beginning

Mark Ballantine was an electrical engineer with Siemens in Australia, later becoming Australian Trade Commissioner to Sweden, who combined his love of shooting with his engineering skills at Eley Ammuntion in Deer Park, Victoria, then a division of ICI. Soon, ICI split their ammunition and chemical divisions - ICI continuing to make commercial explosives - and formed an IMI division to continue ammunition manufacturing under the Eley ‘Ammunition’ title.

Subsequently the IMI division was split again and Eley Ammunition manufacturing discontinued, the machinery and equipment used to make rifle and shotgun ammunition sold off. The .22 ammunition equipment went to the Philippines, the 12g wad manufacturing presses to another Victorian firm and the 12g cartridge-filling machines to a New Zealand company.

Mark bought the lead shot and clay target manufacturing section and obtained three Vacini cartridge-loading machines from Italy. He then leased an area from IMI in Deer Park producing 12 gauge ammunition and targets, first under the previous Eley brand before choosing Champion as a brand name famously used ever since. After IMI required the use of that space he moved the entire plant to an industrial property he owned in Laverton North.

This monumental task took a year principally due to the shot tower and 4.5 tonne capacity lift along with the grading tables and rumbling machines, also weighty steel structures.

One of the main men producing lead shot for Eley Ammunition was John Sawczak, a tool maker trained at Nettlefold manufacturing in Sunshine. He became head of the lead and shot plant and clay target production at Eley and continued this role with Ballantine, assisting with the move to Laverton, and today is production and factory manager.

Mark’s son Tim, like his father, was a keen clay target shooter and came to work at the plant eventually becoming CEO after his father’s death. Tim became a highly successful trap shooter in both DTL and Trench and was an Australian team member in the latter.

Manufacturing process

High quality shot is the basis of good ammunition and good shot requires very pure lead which Ballantine buys in ingots (97+ pure) with 14 per cent antimony incorporated, the antimony content reduced to the required 6 per cent during melting.

The harder shot reduced ‘flyers’ to the extent that patterns at 45m changed from 80 per cent of shot in a 1m circle to almost 100 per cent. The harder shot suffering less distortion through the barrel is perhaps the most important factor affecting quality of shot patterns.

Ballantine shot is polished in graphite then checked for being perfectly spherical and precisely graded before being loaded into cartridges, the quality acknowledged by both home reloaders and large ammunition companies. Winchester Australia initially made their own shot using a towerless process known as the ‘short drop’ system involving only a 30mm drop into hot water (hence no chilling). After a few years they bought all shot from Ballantine, acknowledging the quality of the product and eliminating one of their own manufacturing procedures.

The tower is the most important part of shot manufacturing and several attempts have been made to short circuit the process but none have produced the consistent quality of a 55m drop. The larger the shot size the higher the drop required and BB is the largest shot which can be drop formed from any height. The most common shot size (7.5) would require only half this height but when committed to all sizes from BB to 10, all shot is dropped from the top.

There are only three of these historic towers still standing in Australia, one incorporated inside the modern Melbourne Central complex in Latrobe St as a heritage curio, another in Clifton Hill near the entrance to the Eastern freeway and the third on the outskirts of Hobart, a popular tourist attraction with museum.

The Ballantine tower (ex-ICI and IMI) is of bolted steel girder construction which enabled it to be dismantled, transported and reassembled - but not without incredible difficulty. The thousands of original steel bolts were not galvanised or plated so had rusted in place and had to be cut through individually. With a high capacity lift and heavy melting pots at the top of the tower, along with heavy steel frame components, the tower was by far the most demanding part of the move.

Shot production

There are six steps in the sequence of quality shot production. 1: Lead ingots are lifted to the melting pots at the top of the tower. 2: Shot is melted in a four-tonne pot and a continuous run may be up to 15 tonnes. 3: Molten lead is fed through a graded sieve (with holes smaller than the required shot size) and dropped through a 55m pipe to avoid wind distortion into a water tank at ground level (hence the term ‘chilled’ shot). Each precision hole in the sieves must be hand cleaned with a tiny drill, under a magnifying glass, after each pour.

4: Shot is collected from the water tank and dried in a heated air stream. 5: It’s then rumbled in graphite for polishing before being lifted to a mezzanine floor and fed down a series of sloping glass tables, each separated by an air gap over which non-spherical shot will not ‘jump’. Rejected shot is collected as scrap and remelted with a future batch. 6: The shot is fed through perforated rumbling bins for grading, as although it has been proved spherical the size of each pellet may not be precise. The small percentage of reject shot at this point is also collected for re-melting. The shiny perfectly spherical polished shot is then stored in bins ready for the hoppers above the cartridge-loading machines.

Lead wire manufacture

Larger shot than BB, such as AAA and SG, cannot be drop-formed but requires swaging or moulding using a lead wire swaged to appropriate diameter (for AAA shot the wire diameter is 5.6mm but several diameters are produced). The final stage is automatically pushing the lead pellet from the remaining strip after stamping.

Because of the purity of lead and consistency of manufacture several customers buy various diameters of the lead wire. One interesting customer is Woodleigh Bullets, a small but world-renowned Australian firm owned by Geoff McDonald, based near the Murray River and whose customers include several large US and some African companies. The Ballantine lead wire is chopped and swaged as a slug to fill their projectile jackets.

Powder

From the outset Ballantine has used Vectan, a French powder highly regarded worldwide, three different Vectan powder specifications used for various weights of shot and velocity. A graphic indication of the powder quality is there’s almost no residue left in the barrel after firing several rounds of Champion ammunition.

Cases and primers

Pre-primed Fiochi cases have been used for many decades although currently Nobel Sports cases are used. All are parallel striated tubes with  brass coated steel bases, changing from 8 point to 6 point crimping some years ago.

Cartridge production

There are three Italian Vacini brand machines operating in three safety bays, each adjustable to load-specific shot and powder weights. The following sequence describes the machine’s four operations in line form - the primed case is dropped into the first stage; powder is pneumatically charged into the case and the air used is previously dried by refrigeration; the appropriate sized wad is placed in the cartridge and the shot charge dropped; the filled case is crimped in the familiar star pattern and the edge rolled.

Load choices

Of interest is that shot charges larger than 36 must be dropped in two stages. The additional components for this are to hand but not used in the current line of Champion cartridges. The three Vacini loading machines often operate simultaneously, each producing a finished cartridge every second, and have done so since their installation more than 30 years ago, a tribute to their design, manufacture and maintenance.

Most popular loads

The velocity offered in 12 gauge shot shells worldwide has increased over the years, typically from 10,000 to 11,000fps in the 1950s to 13,000fps or more today. But Ballantine have noticed a slowing of this trend and the largest demand currently is for their ‘low recoil’ round, a very popular and effective target load of 1325fps at muzzle (1250fps at 1m). Cartridge shot weights range is 21, 24, 28, 32 and 36 grams.

Like the low recoil round, the 21 gram load is becoming very popular with juniors and target shooters in general, when they realise pattern is more important than weight. It’s also one of the quietest shotgun loads available. Note that most reputable manufacturers rate their velocities at 1m from the muzzle which can cause problems with comparisons.

Components

For decades Ballantine has supplied components including powder, shot, wads and percussion caps to reloading enthusiasts through Australian gun shops and the demand continues to this day.

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