Black Hills Ammunition (BHA) makes outstanding ammo because Jeff and Kristi were hungry. What does hunger have to do with great ammo? Well, “If ya know, ya know,” and I did not know, but I thought I knew. So, you’re in good company if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about yet. So, here’s what I mean. I knew BHA made good ammo, but I had no idea how much of an understatement that was and how personal it is to them. If you’ll allow me to elaborate, I think you’ll learn a lot. I know I did.
Much has already been said, shown, and proven about their products (see links throughout the article). So today, we’ll concentrate on the family and fidelity behind the brass and copper curtain at Black Hills Ammunition.
During my interview with the BHA owners, Jeff and Kristi Hoffman, they told me they often have military and police customers contact them directly to make customized cartridges for their specific needs. In conjunction with those requests, come countless stories, very personal stories, of how their products have literally saved the lives of their military, police, and civilian customers. You can read a few publicly shared stories by clicking on their Testimonials page.
You can watch an extensive interview of Jeff Hoffman by the Gun Talk clan by clicking here. One aspect of my interview with Jeff and Kristi that inspired me was how often the words, “Passion”, “People”, and “Product” came up.
I don’t think I’ve heard this word used more often than during this interview. And, after listening to Jeff and Kristi for a few hours and seeing their facility, I realized that it ain’t no gimmick…it’s genuine.
Here is where we make the connection between hunger, passion, and ammo. When asked “What inspired you to start this company?” Jeff said, bluntly and without hesitation, “hunger.” He said they were a young, married couple that was barely surviving on a cop’s pay of $4.67/hour. In fact, things were so tight, that their weekly food budget for both of them was $20!
While working for the Rapid City, SD Police Department (RCPD), Jeff joined their pistol team. This came naturally to him because of his competitive nature and disdain for losing. And, as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Therefore, since he now needed lots of ammo and did not have lots of money, he needed to reload. Fortunately, at the age of 14, he already learned that valuable skill from his grandfather. Can you see where this is going? However, that is not to say that Jeff shot his own reloads exclusively, he also bought remanufactured ammo; and a LOT of it!
As another consequence of his hatred of defeat, whether on the range or on duty against a bad guy, he placed a tremendous emphasis on extensive training and practice (no, they are not the same thing). In order to train and practice sufficiently, he bought a case of ammo with every paycheck. You read that right; not a box…a CASE. So, how did a guy with a $20 weekly food budget manage to satisfy his hunger for ammo? (I apologize for the dad joke; well, sort of.) He prioritized.
Jeff ensured the first check he wrote every pay period, which was for about the same amount as their grocery bill, went toward ammunition. He bought ammo even before paying the mortgage, car loan, and food. Now, for all you married bucks out there, you’re probably asking how he got the Mrs. to allow him such an ammo allocation. Jeff said that it was because he explained to her that his proficiency with his weapon may be the determining factor if he comes home or not. Needless to say, Kristi authorized the ammunition acquisitions.
During this time, the RCPD Range Officer (RO), who was loading Jeff’s competition ammunition, asked Jeff if he thought he could create a successful business by manufacturing ammunition full-time. Almost before the RO finished his question, Jeff replied, “No!” No more…no less. Just, “No!”
Disregarding Jeff’s advice to the RO, his friend, Tom, created Black Hills Shooters Supply (BHSS), which was the original name of what is now Black Hills Ammunition. Are you seeing a possible connection here?
Well, let’s connect those dots. Needing more money, Jeff immediately went to work for Tom at BHSS. This job was in addition to his job as an RCPD officer and as a hotel security officer. Later, Tom offered Jeff to buy into BHSS. Think you got it figured out? Maybe not. Let’s continue…
Knowing nothing about business, Jeff initially respectfully declined. After some time and encountering even more “necessity” from both a struggling family and Tom’s now-failing ammunition company, Kristi told Jeff, “Well you DO know a lot about guns and ammunition, and I know business. I think you should reconsider Tom’s offer.”
With his wife’s encouragement, Jeff now told his friend “Yes.” Nearly immediately after uttering the “Y” word, Jeff actually broke out in hives. And, before the hives even subsided, he informed his sergeant of his decision and his intent to leave the RCPD. If that wasn’t enough stress, next came the part where they had to beg for money.
All the banks wanted collateral, of which the 23- and 25-year-olds had none. So, Jeff asked his father for a $12,000 loan. To which, his father replied, “No.” But, he would co-sign a loan for them and put up his semi-truck as collateral. As it turned out, this was better as it helped the young couple build their own credit and sort of “burned the bridge” to the possibility of failure. Because, if they failed, Jeff’s father would lose his rig. They called this their “sink or swim” moment.
The next thing they knew, they were co-owners of BHSS with five other partners. During the next few years, the company went through several partner changes; culminating in 1988 when it came down to just the Hoffmans and Tom. This was the primordial soup from which Black Hills Ammunition emerged.
Jeff and Tom decided to bifurcate (okay, that was my one 50-cent word) the business, or in terms I can understand, they split it in two. One business would pursue individual components and one would engage in complete cartridges. Can you guess which was which? As a mark of the importance the Hoffmans place on personal relationships, they still contract with his friends’ component business for some of their needs.
While reflecting upon their story, Kristi said, “Everyone should be broke once.” She believes it helps people appreciate what they have and the work it took to get it.
Both Jeff’s and Kristi’s parents were ranchers. So, it wasn’t too unusual when Kristi’s father loaned money to her, at the age of nine, to buy a calf. He ensured she had her own checking account and guided her through all facets of caring for a living animal while teaching her the ins and outs of business. She cared for her calf until it came time to sell it. At which time, she paid off all debts to her father and kept the rest as profit. She said she greatly appreciates that experience as it taught her a lot about economics and the rewards of hard work.
The Hoffmans provided their two now-adult daughters with similar experiences in their childhood. The girls participated in the day-to-day operations of the business. They incrementally got more and more involved as they grew. One of them worked in the marketing department for a few years before moving on to find her own path. Both daughters are now married and each of those families owns their own businesses based on their own passions.
When asked if it bothered them that their children did not choose to stay in the family business, the Hoffmans said that they are genuinely pleased that their children chose to branch off. They wanted their children to learn about hard work and follow their own passions. By doing so, they got to experience their own challenges and their own pride in overcoming those challenges so they could reap their own rewards.
Knowing how the couple taught their daughters to survive on their own, their answer to the following question should only be a surprise in its simplicity. “What has been your greatest challenge for the business?” Naturally, they answered, “Surviving.”
They explained that knowing little about running a business, they should have gone bankrupt several times. And had it not been for hard work, perseverance, and a strong, helping hand from God, they would have. Jeff commented, “The harder we worked, the ‘luckier’ we got.”
He offered the following story as an example. A state police officer, in charge of procurement for his department, called Black Hills Ammunition several years ago and said (paraphrasing), “We need 700,000 rounds of the 9mm ammunition you sent as samples, and we need them now.” As BHA was a fledgling company at the time, Jeff told him that they will do it, but it will take some time. The officer told him (paraphrasing again), “I have faith that you can do it quicker than you think. To help you get it done, we’re paying you in advance.” Jeff asked the officer why he trusted them so much. He said, in no uncertain terms, that he had complete confidence in their ability to do what they said they’d do. Needless to say, the gargantuan order was successfully fulfilled, and they had another satisfied customer.
While that order was very large and challenging at that point in their business’ history, now it would seem relatively straightforward. These days, it is not uncommon for BHA to fulfill military orders for millions of rounds.
Another challenge for the company has been the recent ammo surge. Jeff and Kristi both agreed that it is the biggest and longest lasting they’ve ever seen. They survived several other similar situations, but none of which lasted this long or were as severe. They have worked overtime and outrun the current logistical supply chain capabilities. As with previous supply issues, the current situation has them fighting to meet customer expectations vs what is actually possible.
Disappointing customers can, and often does, mean losing customers. While no one can make everyone happy, BHA grapples with, as does virtually every other business these days, doing all they can to fulfill the needs of as many people as possible.
The Hoffmans estimate a years-long, industry-wide “hangover”, meaning there will be ongoing challenges in balancing supply and demand for quite some time. It is this balancing act that causes many businesses to go under both on the “way up and down”.
While keeping promises and taking care of people is paramount, Jeff reminds us that “profit” is not a bad word. If they did not make a sufficient profit, they could not stay open. If they did not stay open, their employees, customers, and supporting/supported businesses would be forced to go to a competitor that did make such a profit; thereby worsening the situation at all levels of the industry and community.
And, to touch on the competition in the industry, the Hoffmans noted that it is not typical business competition. They said they achieved their success with “relationships and reputation”; within their own sphere of customers, suppliers, and employees, as well as those of their competitors. To illustrate the importance of this concept, Jeff made two points. “You live and die by your reputation in this industry” and, “You accomplish more with friends than without friends.”
As such, BHA is often approached by military units and police departments that say they need a new cartridge that can do A, B, and C, they need X number of them, they need them in Y number of days, and they can pay $Z per round. While most companies raise obstacles and issues, Black Hills Ammunition raises its hand and says, “We’ll do it!”
So, you can see how much “passion” has helped the Hoffmans and their business survive, in addition to all their employees, their families, and surrounding establishments. Passion kept Jeff, Kristi, and their family alive, by allowing them not to starve. That same passion has also kept others alive by providing them with ammunition that meets, and often exceeds, their requirements so they can defend themselves and those they are charged to protect.
But, passion alone doesn’t make ammo. It takes people, too. The Hoffmans took their passion and turned it into the successful business it is today by putting people first.
Black Hills Ammunition presently employs over 70 people with an average employment time of about 12 years. The person that has been with them the longest has been a part of the BHA family for 33 years! Many of the past staff have retired from the company and most of the current craftspeople are over 50 years old with a total of about 250 years of military service.
Now that you know the employment statistics, stand by to learn the rest of the “people” side of the business. For starters, you can get acquainted with the people of Black Hills Ammunition by visiting their Video and Staff webpages for names, photos, and videos.
Jeff and Kristi place a tremendous amount of importance on everyone’s health. Portions of the benefit plan for each employee are a physical fitness program that includes set times to stretch and move, optical care (it doesn’t take much imagination to “see” how this is also directly important to the substantial product inspection aspect of the business), and a lead contamination avoidance and examination system. This helps the people individually and, by extension, the company as well.
The Hoffmans also put a great emphasis on ensuring the staff knows their mission is to “solve problems”, not just make ammo. They are encouraged to make suggestions and voice concerns immediately. If issues are not addressed promptly and effectively, both morale and product quality can suffer.
Speaking of morale, Jeff offered that clear and simple rules are essential. Their basic rules are: show up, be nice, treat everyone with respect, and do not gossip/“stir the pot”. These rules help them to run an exacting, but fair business.
To bolster esprit de corps, they hold “Pig Outs”, which are what everyone else calls “Pot Lucks”. Furthermore, Kristi ensures every person gets a dinner-plate-sized cookie on their birthday. Workers are also given time off for significant family events/issues and everyone chips in when anyone needs assistance of any kind.
Other evidence of the emphasis they place on people is that they pay for employees to eat lunch on site. Doing so not only fosters camaraderie, it also enables a more efficient and safer work environment. They take safety very seriously at Black Hills Ammunition. As such, they have adopted umpteen (the younger readers may have to look that word up) security measures.
Because of their extensive external efforts to keep their people and product safe, they have had a few people come to their building in an attempt to “turn themselves in”. If you look at photos of the exterior, you can see why someone might get it confused with a nearby detention facility. What makes this even more interesting is that this building, that some people think is a minimum-security jailhouse, was once a dairy processing plant.
The Hoffmans’ passion for the people and work keeps them close by. As a matter of fact, the longest time they have been away from work was 10 days, and that was nearly 30 years ago. The only reason they were gone for that “long” is that one of their children became ill while on vacation and had to make daily trips to the doctor’s office.
It is difficult to discuss people working together without mentioning the word “team.” This came to mind while listening to Jeff and Kristi share their stories with me because the two of them exemplify the concept. Jeff is the technical “yin” to Kristi’s personnelist “yang”. He knows and remembers a vast quantity of numbers, photos, and characteristics of their cartridges. She knows and remembers the names of every staff member, their birthdates, their families’ names, when they came on board, etc.
Perhaps it is this combination that enables them to create an atmosphere so conducive to quality ammunition, and thankfully so. Because, according to Jeff, “We know these guys. It’s not just a job. We make combat ammo to save lives.” Troops and officers whose lives they’ve saved often share their deeply personal stories with the members of the BHA family. Each such story proves they did their job right. Many of those people stay in contact with them and even introduce their own family members to the people who made the ammo that literally saved their lives.
One illustration of this personal fidelity comes from a BHA cartridge creator. Her son was in the military and stationed in an active combat zone. Every time his unit received a fresh shipment from Black Hills Ammunition, he eagerly inspected each box for his mother’s inspector number to ensure he got the ammo his mother inspected.
On a bit smaller scale, they demonstrate their propensity toward personal interaction on their Contact Us webpage: “We want to get to know our customers and understand their specific needs. Your call will be answered by a knowledgeable and friendly customer service representative, not some automated machine.”
Now that we know how important passion and people are to the process, let’s get to the noise makers…their products.
While Black Hills Ammunition specializes in ammunition for military and peace officers, they offer a vast array of rounds for civilian defense, hunting, and loads for authentic cowboy action shooting as well. You can browse their entire commercially available selection by viewing their Ammunition page. To find a dealer near you, call them at (605) 348-5150.
You can get a lot of details, reviews, and videos of their products by checking out the Gun Talk website. If you’re someone who is not familiar with all the terms and acronyms, which I was not, checking their Glossary page will help.
Now, if you please, allow me to share with you how BHA utilizes passion and engages people to “build sharper swords for our warriors.” While most other companies start with the product, BHA takes a different approach. Knowing how they naturally lend themselves to making a superior product, they start with their passion and people.
Jeff dropped another one of his knowledge nuggets when he told me, “Wisdom comes with understanding what you don’t know.” This was evident when it came to creating cartridges for all the Cowboy Action shooters begging them to help. He knew very little about this type of ammunition. And, as the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) did not exist when many of these cartridges were developed, there were a lot of variations to consider, such as powder charges, chamber pressures, bullet diameters, etc. Solving these problems was critical because their loads had to not only fit the various black powder and smokeless firearms of various time eras, but they also needed to be safe and accurate. Currently, they offer a baker’s dozen (you young’uns might have to look that up, too) different Authentic Cowboy Action loads that can be found here.
The experience Jeff has garnered in his years with the police department and sheriff’s office, including 27 years as a sniper and reserve officer - up to just 5 years ago, serves the company well. Some ways it helps is by significantly cutting communication time and mitigating misunderstanding while “solving problems”, lending credibility to the company in the eyes of their customers and enabling them to anticipate and fix issues before anyone else even knows they exist.
From his personal experience, Jeff learned that malfunctions are more likely to happen in combat than on the training range, and with much greater consequences. Therefore, it is critical for their product to be safe, accurate, and dependable. So, they ensure every single round produced by BHA is hand inspected by people who realize that lives depend upon it.
At the same time, they are making this exceptional ammo, they are also looking to innovate. When asked what he thought their most innovative product was, Jeff responded with a two-part answer. He said it was important to differentiate between rounds developed for military and civilians.
He believes one of their most innovative civilian cartridges is the HoneyBadger™; which they define as a “solid copper, non-deforming projectile with wide, sharp flutes”. You can view their entire lineup of this ammunition by checking out their HoneyBadger™ webpage. Recently, there has been an exciting addition to the lineup! More on this in just a bit.
You can watch an excellent video of the BHA facility, its president, and a demonstration of why their HoneyBadger™ works so well, even in .380, by watching this Guns & Gear video here. By the way, I got to meet Justin Evans, the Lehigh ballistician (dang, that’s a cool title!), who worked with Jeff in the joint Lehigh/BHA development of the design. He truly is just as much of a “fun geek” in real life as he seems on TV. Click here for a video demonstration of the HoneyBadger™ performance through a barrier, affectionately referred to as the “Mark 1 Model 2 x 4”.
While naming the product line, they discovered the HoneyBadger™ name was already trademarked for a different product. Their attorney contacted the trademark owner to ask if they could buy it. It turns out the Hoffmans already knew the owner. Because he already knew Black Hills Ammunition’s reputation, the trademark owner offered to just give it to them for no charge. Jeff respectfully declined the “gift” and made an in-kind counteroffer to compensate him. That offer was graciously accepted.
Okay, here we go…the “newborn” addition to their HoneyBadger™ family is…wait for it…are you ready for it? Drumroll, please…10MM! Yes! Not a joke! 10mm HoneyBadger™! This is the new round we talked about earlier. They even made sure the artwork on the box is PDC (Pretty Dang Cool)!
Would you like some “Intellectual Ammunition” (hat tip to Tom Gresham for that phrase) to start the next “What’s the best round?” free-for-all? Click here to learn "7 Reasons The 10mm Is the Best Pistol Caliber".
Another commercially available cartridge they are particularly proud to have created is the round known as the MK 262 MOD 1-C. In 1999, the US Navy requested them to create a round for their “special” units that had very specific specifications (try saying that fast three times). Hang on while I throw out a couple of bones for ballistics geeks who love numbers. It is a 77 Gr, 5.56mm cartridge with a velocity of 2750 FPS and 1293 Ft. Lbs. of energy. Not enough numbers? Try this…Each commercial (“-C”) lot must pass a very strict accuracy test: “10 groups of ten shots each at 300 yards. No lot will ship unless it shoots sub 2″ groups (.64 MOA maximum/10 shot groups)”. You can check out a video review of this round here.
Now, as for their most innovative non-commercially available product, Jeff said this was a hard one to pick. There are many custom rounds they develop for the military and police agencies that would qualify, some of which they cannot discuss. However, two rounds they can kind of talk about are the one they developed for the “Special Purpose Rifle / SPR”, which later became known as the “Mark 12 / Mk12” (an accurized, suppressed scope-sighted, M16A1 built at NSWC-Crane). That round is the military MK262 Mod1. It is similar to the MK262 MOD 1-C (the “-C” means “Commercial”) mentioned above but built to military specifications. It is still the only precision 5.56mm round in the US military. Another military round mentioned is a custom 5.56 frangible (RRLP- Reduced Ricochet Limited Penetration) round designed for shoot house training and operational situations requiring the same performance characteristics.
As we’re wrapping this thing up, I realized how difficult it is to determine in which category some of these points belong as they often blur together. It’s kind of like trying to define the difference between an SUV, MPV, CUV, and all their subcategories. Hopefully, that helps explain why I placed these final points at this point. Do you get my point?
The Hoffmans started Black Hills Ammunition not knowing much about business at all. However, since they did “understand what they didn’t know”, they started studying successful business principles extensively. One of those principles is efficiency.
Learning about efficiency has helped them in ways you might not consider at all when you think about ammunition manufacturing. While pondering ways to mitigate “bottlenecks”, Jeff noted several of these obstacles in their business. So, they made a relatively small monetary investment in eight microwaves, six refrigerators, several water fountains (they are not called “bubblers”, by the way), coffee pots, and restrooms. At first glance, that may seem silly, but after reflecting on it for a bit, it makes sense. Now, they don’t waste time waiting in line for anything dealing with food and drink, either “pre-” or “post-production”, if you catch my drift.
Other business principles that serve them well are housekeeping, safety, and constant evaluation. As you can imagine, these are especially valuable in the testing facility.
Directly related to passion and product, BHA was the first in the industry that noted an issue in the testing process dealing with cartridge temperatures. It had gone unnoticed before because the established testing process was “good enough”. As you can guess by now, “Good enough” is not good enough for BHA, so after Jeff asked “what if”, they tested the testing process over and over. Eventually, they developed industry-wide changes to the ammunition testing process to ensure greater reliability of not just their ammo, but all others, as well.
Yet another business principle they adhere to is “documentation”. Jeff and the BHA team keep binders upon binders upon binders just for ballistic testing. Here’s a side note for all you “detail-oriented” folks – those binders are organized in a very “militaristic” manner, ensuring everything is in its place and can be quickly and easily found.
Still another principle in their business is “quality assurance”. As part of their constant attempt to upgrade their ability to produce amazing ammo, they recently invested over $1M in equipment just to check the brass and projectiles before assembly.
Since quality is so critical, every single round is inspected by hand with well-trained human eyes and ears. A round that is not built exactly right sounds different from the rest. Then, after all that human inspection, the rounds are also weighed as another step in their quality control process.
Here comes another “people” aspect of their product. Because this high level of human interaction with the product is not innate in most people, most employees start in packaging. While performing that part of the process, they receive constant training and evaluation to move up to the next position, and so on, and so on. The evaluation of the people responsible for the quality of the product includes, but is not limited to, personality and disposition to ensure they are capable of giving and taking constructive criticism of the process, product, and personnel.
Personal connections and accountability continually fuel Black Hills Ammunition’s passion for providing praiseworthy products to proficient people to predominantly project proven power. Okay, that might be laying the alliteration on a bit thick, but the point remains prudent and precise.
Now you know how hunger sparked one of our country’s premier ammunition manufacturers. Along the way, hopefully, you also learned at least a little about how Jeff and Kristi Hoffman and the crew at Black Hills Ammunition integrate passion, people, and product to make outstanding, life-saving ammunition.
It’s been a pleasure sharing my BHA experience with you. I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the brass and copper curtain of Black Hills Ammunition. I certainly did.
“IT’S NOT JUST BUSINESS…IT’S PERSONAL!”, Jeff Hoffman, Black Hills Ammunition ~ Scott
Scott is a liberty/responsibility minded, retired enlisted military dude who is relatively new to the benefits of being involved in firearms, hunting, self-reliance/defense, and politics. As such, his understanding of how these things interrelate and strengthen every American is constantly evolving. These experiences fuel his passion for not just "gun rights", but for ALL rights and what it takes to defend them.