By: Ray Meketa
The history of U.S. Military National Match ammunition is a long one, spanning more than 100 years, but its beginnings can be traced back even further. In the mid 1870s the newly organized National Rifle Association of America invited regular Army individuals and teams to participate in formal competition held at its Creedmoor Range in New York. Army marksmen were very interested and eager to compete but neither Springfield Armory nor Frankford Arsenal were able to supply arms or ammunition due to a lack of funding. The U.S. Civil War had left the country deeply in debt and the Congress was in no mood to approve appropriations for seemingly frivolous activities such as “target shooting.” And so, under the cover of producing an experimental “sniper” or “long range” military rifle for use on the wide-open far western frontier, the first such rifles and ammunition were manufactured in 1879. The rifle was the well known 45 Caliber Springfield “Trapdoor” with competition type modifications, including a vernier tang sight and a spirit level front sight. The cartridge was a specially made copper case, loaded with 80 grains of black powder and a 500 grain bullet. Unofficially called the Lengthened Chamber Cartridge or, officially, the 2″.4 Case, the cartridge is known by collectors today as the 45-80-500 Sharpshooter.
It didn’t take long for the Army brass to realize that the issue rifle was just as accurate as the specially made, and expensive, Long Range Rifle. Additionally, any increase in accuracy over the regularly issued 45-70-405 cartridge was found to be attributable to the 500 grain bullet rather than to the lengthened case or to the 10 additional grains of powder. They concluded that any rifle that a soldier had to use in battle was good enough for target practice and ordered that future competition be confined to service guns and service ammunition. With less than 200 of the Long Range rifles having been manufactured, the project was terminated.
By the mid 1880s the purse strings were loosened and the Army initiated a program of regular target practice for troops in the field. Competition shooting was recognized as a legitimate military activity and the standard 45 caliber rifles and 45-70-500 service ammunition were used by Army teams in both national and international competitions. The military value of marksmanship was finally beginning to sink in.
In 1903, Congress established the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice (NBPRP) and the National Matches. At first limited to the military services using service rifles and ammunition, the program was soon expanded to include all members of the Armed Forces, National Guard, reserves, and civilians. The matches became an official function of the U. S. Government, first managed by the Department of War and later the Department of the Army. Competition consisted of both individual and team matches conducted at local, regional, and divisional levels, culminating in the National Matches at an appropriate range – now Camp Perry, Ohio. When competing in National Trophy (NT) or Excellence In Competition (EIC) Matches, cartridges would be issued on the line and no other ammunition was allowed.
The first matches held under the new programs included Army and Navy teams using the 30-40 Krag and service ammunition. The pre and post-1900 Krag ammunition, loaded with nitroglycerine based smokeless powder and cannelured 220 grain round nose bullets, was anything but match quality. It was nearly as wind sensitive as the 45-70, large groups at even the shorter distances were common, and constant cleaning was required otherwise fliers would occur with frustrating frequency. Many rifle teams continued to use the familiar 45-70-500 rifles, seeing no clear advantage in the new Krag rifles and ammunition. Dissatisfaction led to tests with different powders and bullets. Improved nitrocellulose type powders and smooth, un-cannelured, bullets helped to reduce barrel erosion, fouling, and group sizes. Barrels with different rifling types were tried. So called “Match” cartridges were issued several times between 1903 and 1907 but they were little better than regular service ammunition and, at times, even worse. These changes to improve the 30-40 were each partially successful, but even in combination they couldn’t transform it into a competitive cartridge.
The use of the Krag in competition was short lived. In 1903, the new clip-loaded Springfield bolt action rifle and the .30-03 cartridge were adopted as the Army standard. The cartridge used a new rimless case but fired the same 220 grain round nose bullet at velocities not much different from the old Krag. It was not a very good cartridge, often being out shot by the Krag. The cartridge was soon improved by loading a 150-grain spitzer bullet in a slightly shortened case at higher velocity, and the existing rifles were re-chambered accordingly. The Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906 was born.
An immediate effort began to develop high quality rifle ammunition and Frankford Arsenal produced the first match ammunition in 1908 (FA 2 08). The bullet was a cupronickel jacketed, un-cannelured, 150-grain, flat-based spitzer loaded to a nominal muzzle velocity of 2640 fps with Pyro DG powder in the new M1906 case. The 1908 National Matches saw the first use of the new M1903 Springfield Rifle using the new Frankford Arsenal ammunition. By 1909 virtually all existing records had been broken. A large share of the credit went to the new rifle and ammunition. A new era of military rifle competition was underway.
By 1909 it was decided to select future match ammunition based on competitive trials of samples submitted by the major commercial manufacturers and by Frankford Arsenal. The intent was to acquire the most accurate ammunition available while educating the manufacturers in the details of mass production of huge supplies of military ammunition. The prestige of winning was not lost on the likes of Winchester, Union Metallic Cartridge Co, United States Cartridge Co., and Peters Cartridge Co. The likelihood of contracts for millions of rounds of future production was certainly a big incentive for them to participate.The first commercial contract was awarded in 1909 to the U.S. Cartridge Co. (USC Co 3 09). Those cartridges duplicated the 1908 Frankford Arsenal cartridges. In 1910 specifications called for the cartridges to be manufactured to service standards, using crimped-in bullets with cannelures. Tests showed that this resulted in a small loss of accuracy but it would be several years before this requirement was relaxed. The contract that year went to Winchester (WRA Co 2 10). Winchester won again in 1911 (WRA Co 2 11). No matches were held in 1912, and U.S. Cartridge Co. won again in 1913 (USC Co 3 13). This proved to be the last year of commercial contracts and all subsequent National Match ammunition was manufactured by Frankford Arsenal.
At the outbreak of World War I the United States remained neutral, but the hostilities soon led to a reduction or cancellation of most competitive shooting and match ammunition production. There were no matches in 1914. In 1915 and 1916, Frankford Arsenal produced special lots of regular 1906 ball ammunition that were designated for limited National Match use (FA ? 15 and FA ? 16). There were no matches in 1917 and only limited matches were held in 1918 using standard war-quality ammunition. 1919 saw the resumption of cartridge production for the National Matches, albeit nothing more than selected lots of service ammunition (FA 19). 1919 was also the first use of the FA 70 priming compound and the last year of the flat base, 150 grain, cupronickel M1906 bullets in competition. A new phase in the development of the Cal .30 National Match ammunition was about to begin.
At the end of WW I the Army had huge stockpiles of service ammunition on hand and the manufacture of new ammunition could not be justified – except for the National Matches. Thus, the matches became the testing ground in a continuing effort to improve competition cartridges in particular and military ammunition in general. Innovations and experiments with cases, bullets, powders, and primers would be the norm rather than the exception.
1920 saw a change of bullets when a 170 grain, flat base, cupronickel design was introduced. This was accompanied by a slight reduction in velocity and the first use of the new Dupont Improved Military Rifle powders (FA 20). In 1921 this same cupronickel bullet was tin plated in an attempt to reduce metal fouling and increase barrel life – this was the notorious “Tin Can” ammunition (FA 21 R). Loaded into conventional brass cases, the dissimilar metals tended to become cold soldered resulting in a measurable increase in bullet pull. This seemingly caused dangerous pressure spikes, and reports of an occasional wrecked rifle. It was later determined that the cartridges were as safe and as accurate as any other. The real culprit was the shooters’ unauthorized practice of applying a liberal coating of grease to the bullet; an old trick to reduce bore fouling and the need for frequent and time consuming cleaning. But by the time that was determined, the remaining Tin Can cartridges had been withdrawn and scrapped, and the arguments became moot.
During the early years there was no attempt made to specially mark or otherwise identify the Match ammunition. The best lots were simply designated for shipment to the National Match site. Less accurate lots were made available to National Guard units and to other organizations and clubs for local matches and for practice. Remaining amounts were placed in the supply system for use by troops in the field. 1921 was the first year in which individual National Match cartridges could be identified by bullet appearance (tin plating) and by observing the headstamp, as in FA 21 R. The “R” indicated that the case was manufactured with a hard anneal specifically for rifle use in general and match rifles in particular. In later years more descriptive headstamps as well as boxes bearing the National Match label were used.
In 1922 Frankford Arsenal began loading National Match ammunition with a new bullet: a gilding metal jacketed, 170 grain, 6-degree boat-tail design (FA 22 R). Its use was more or less experimental and was aimed at improving ballistics at the longer distances as well as solving the metal fouling problems of the cupronickel jackets without resorting to tin plating. Even though a boat-tail bullet is harder to make, the ballistic advantages gained due to its shape amply justify any manufacturing difficulties. Another innovation in 1922 was the use of nitroglycerine-based Hercules HiVel #2 powder, an experiment that would last only three years. The 1923 cartridges were a duplication of the 1922 issue; only the headstamp was changed (FA 23 R).
1924 was a milestone year in National Match ammunition production. The bullet was changed to a 172-grain, 9-degree boat-tail; another experimental design evolving from Frankford Arsenal’s efforts to increase the long range effectiveness of light machine guns. The National Matches offered the perfect opportunity to evaluate various boat-tail angles and the 9-degree bullet proved to give the best performance of all that were tested. The design would remain the match standard for the next 58 years and the service standard (M1) until 1939. The 1924 ammunition was one of the most accurate match cartridges ever made, giving a 600-yard mean radius of only 2.26 inches, a record that would last until 1962. The case was also the first to bear the NM headstamp (FA NM- 24).
The 9-degree boat-tail bullets were manufactured in two styles, the 172 grain M1 (cannelured) and the 172-173 grain M1 Type (smooth). The M1 Type was used in 1924, 1925, 1929, and 1930 National Match ammunition production. The M1 bullet was loaded in 1928 and in all years between 1931 and 1940. After WW II, the M1 Type was used in all National Match ammunition. Even though most references list the pre-WWII bullets at 172 grains and the post-WWII bullets at 173 grains, they are essentially the same bullet. Lot to lot manufacturing tolerances will usually result in variances far greater than the nominal one grain official difference.
1925 marked the return to Dupont’s Improved Military Rifle (IMR) series of powder, an old standby that had proved superior to others. It would remain the standard until the last National Match cartridge left the line at Frankford Arsenal. No other changes were made (FA 25 R). No matches were held in 1926. In 1927 the remaining stocks of 1925 ammunition were issued. In 1928 selected lots of standard issue M1 ball ammunition were used (FA 28), but they proved to be so inaccurate that it was decided to resume manufacture of match ammunition for the following year. In 1929 a regular lot of National Match was produced. It had a crimped primer and a distinctive headstamp including three stars which shooters quickly dubbed the “Three-Star Hennessy” cartridge, a reference to a popular adult beverage of the day (FA * NM* 29*).
In 1930 a new non-corrosive primer was used in the National Match lot for that year (FA 30 R). The chemical composition of the pellet was such that more mixture was required than the Boxer primer cup could hold and so Frankford Arsenal turned to a Berdan type cup and anvil to accommodate it. During preliminary firing in preparation for the National Matches, the ammunition exhibited exceptional accuracy. However, when the matches began, it appeared to develop high pressure; therefore, in the interest of safety, it was immediately withdrawn. Another lot with a conventional primer was quickly substituted (FA 30). It was later determined that the pressure signs were actually the result of unusually high temperatures at Camp Perry but, as it was during the Tin Can cartridge episode, it was too late to correct an unwise hasty decision. The perfection of a non-corrosive primer would have to wait. Today, both the Tin Can and Berdan primed match cartridges are considered very collectible.
From 1931 through 1940, all ammunition manufactured by Frankford Arsenal intended for National Match use exhibited virtually identical characteristics: 172 grain, 9 degree boat-tail, M1 bullets at 2600 fps, loaded with IMR #1185 powder. The 1931 ammunition appears to be standard M1 (FA 31), and, except for 1934 when none was produced, all others bear the traditional National Match headstamp (FA 32 NM to FA 40 NM). It should be noted that match ammunition has to be manufactured in advance of planned events, but there were times when matches were cancelled for one reason or another, usually because of a lack of funds. Even though there were no National Matches held in 1932, 1933, and 1934, ammunition for those first two years was still manufactured and used in local and regional tournaments, and for practice.
National Match ammunition for 1941 was ordered to be loaded with the 150 grain M2 bullet; a change that would have been a giant step backward in accuracy. Fortunately, all work was quickly stopped because production of standard ball ammunition for military needs took precedence, and while there is some evidence that cases with the FA 41 NM headstamp exist, none have been found.
Except for a few local and regional events, most matches were cancelled from 1941 through 1952. When the full National Match program resumed at Camp Perry in 1953, there was no standard for match ammunition. One lot with the M1 Type bullet was loaded for slow fire matches, but for the most part, selected lots of M2 Ball were issued for the next four years (FA 53, TW 54, FA 54 and FA 55). Coming from war-quality stocks, accuracy was not very good (3 inch to 5 inch 600 yard mean radius).
In 1956 a small lot of special ammunition was prepared to commemorate 50 years of Frankford Arsenal production of the Cal. 30, M1906 (US FA 1906-56). Teams at the National Matches were issued the ammunition to compare with the current M2 Ball issue. Favorable reports led to the decision to the reintroduce Frankford Arsenal Cal. 30 National Match ammunition. 1957 was the first year of production of the new cartridge designated the T291 (FA 57 MATCH). Loaded with 48 grains of IMR 4895 behind the 173 grain, 9-degree boat-tail M1 Type bullet, it gave a muzzle velocity of 2640 fps. It was standardized as the M72 in mid-1958 (FA 58 MATCH). Some 1958 boxes will be found labeled as T291 and others as M72. Specifications for the 1959 and 1960 lots were unchanged (FA 59 MATCH and FA 60 MATCH). By 1960, production capacity at Frankford Arsenal had been so reduced that it could not satisfy the demand so the decision was made to transfer all production to Lake City. 1961 was the last year of Frankford Arsenal Cal. .30 National Match ammunition production and the first year of limited Lake City production (FA 61 MATCH and LC 61 MATCH).
In 1962 the manufacture of all Cal. .30 M72 Match ammunition was transferred to Lake City Arsenal, soon to be renamed Lake City Ordnance Plant. Between 1962 and 1966, two distinct headstamps were used: LC NM and LC MATCH. Those marked NM were manufactured with extreme care, special attention to detail, constant inspections, using the best bullets available, and loaded in quantity only after rigorous testing (LC 62 NM to LC 66 NM). Those marked MATCH were manufactured to the same specifications but without the additional care and testing and were placed into the regular distribution system for all other matches, training, practice and other uses (LC 62 MATCH to LC 66 MATCH). None of this is meant to imply that any of the National Match ammunition was made to anything but the highest standards for accuracy; all of it was extremely good but special efforts were taken to make some even better. The LC 62 – 66 NM ammunition was the most accurate Cal .30 National Match recorded to that date (average 2.16 inch 600 yard mean radius) but because test procedures were changed along with the transfer of manufacture from Frankford to Lake City, it may not be valid to directly compare accuracy results between the two facilities.
By 1965 the National Matches were dominated by the new M14 rifle and 7.62 MM cartridge. Production of the Cal. .30 National Match ammunition at Lake City was greatly reduced and the last lot of M72 NM officially designated for the National Matches was made and issued in 1966. Sufficient stocks remained for both the 1967 and 1968 National Matches. Production of M72 MATCH continued on a limited basis to fill the few requests for that caliber and to provide cartridges for practice (LC 67 MATCH and LC 68 MATCH). Many boxes of 1967 and 1968 ammunition can be found with the headstamp out of time with the box label indicating a desire to use up all remaining stock on hand.
When the 7.62 MM NATO was standardized in 1954, there was no Match loading among the cartridges. Starting in 1956, International and Olympic Match ammunition (T275) using the new case was developed by Frankford Arsenal. Adoption of the M14 rifle in 1957 made it clear that National Match ammunition in that caliber would be required to eventually replace the Garand rifle and Cal. .30 M72. The T275E4 cartridge was slightly modified to permit magazine use in the M14 and, in 1963, was loaded by Frankford Arsenal and Lake City Ordnance Plant as the XM118 (FA 63 MATCH and LC 63 MATCH). Loaded with the same 173 grain M1 Type match bullet as its predecessors, the first lots used WC 846 Ball powder which was then standard for the service ammunition and delivered 2550 fps velocity at 78 feet. The powder was soon changed to IMR 4895, the cartridge was adopted as the 7.62 MM MATCH M118, and full scale production began at Lake City.
Another name change took place in 1964, to Lake City Army Ammunition Plant. As it was with the M72, two headstamps and two manufacturing processes were used for M118 between 1964 and 1967 (LC 64 NM to LC 67 NM and LC 64 MATCH to LC 67 MATCH). All later lots of M118 bore only the MATCH headstamp (LC 68 MATCH to LC 82 MATCH), and can be found loaded with either IMR 4895 or WC 846. The accuracy of the M118 NM exceeded even the 1962 – 1966 M72 NM. The 600 yard average mean radius fell to a remarkable 1.82 inches. In 1965, Frankford Arsenal produced its last M118 National Match cartridge (FA 65 MATCH).
The M118 was an adequate match cartridge but there was no way to stop shooters from trying to improve it. Any changes to the cartridge were forbidden by the rules if the ammunition was being fired in the National Trophy or Excellence-In-Competition Matches; but when used in other matches, modifications such as breaking the waterproofing seal or even replacing the bullets were common. Altered cartridges with Sierra 168 grain MatchKing bullets came to be known as “Mexican Match” and the positive benefits of the changes were not lost on the Army. By the late 1970s word on the street was that a new official match cartridge with these same improvements was about to be introduced. The rumors were confirmed at the 1980 National Matches when shooters were issued boxes of the new prototype ammunition: 7.62 MM, PXR-6308, loaded with Sierra 168 grain hollow point match bullets to a velocity of 2550 fps (LC 80 SP). In 1981 the new cartridges were designated XM852 (LC 81 NM), and in 1982 adopted as 7.62 MM MATCH M852 (LC 82 NM and LC 83 NM, and LC 85 MATCH to LC 96 MATCH). M852 cartridges can also be identified by a shallow cannelure around the case a short distance above the base. The old reliable IMR 4895 was the only propellant used in M852.
Cases Headstamped LC 78 NM
When the M852 began rolling off the production lines, the M118 did not go away quietly. The last lot was produced at Lake City in 1982 but some remaining stocks with older headstamps were re-boxed with 1982 labels and lot numbers and issued for practice, and for match use when the new M852 was not available. Because the Judge Advocate General (JAG) would not permit the use of hollow point bullets in combat (the boxes of M852 are so marked) the Army found itself without a sniper cartridge. In 1982 the M118 was reintroduced as a tactical round with crimped and sealed primers, boxed as 7.62 MM SPECIAL BALL M118, and designated for sniper use, (LC 82) (see related article on Special Ball). By the time the JAG reversed his decision it was too late to use the M852 in the 1st Gulf War and snipers employed there were left with only the M118SB.
The long awaited M852 proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. The 168 grain bullet, with its short 13-degree boat-tail, was a modified International Hollow Point that gave very good accuracy out to 600 yards but was found lacking at longer distances where velocity went trans-sonic and suffered a significant reduction of accuracy. Sierra designed a new 175 grain bullet with a longer boat-tail at the time-proven 9-degree angle that overcame those deficiencies. Inspired by the USMC G4 ammunition, and financed by USN Special Ops, the new bullet was first loaded as a developmental round with WC 750 ball powder to 2700 fps (LC LR 95). This caused pressure problems when used in the M14 rifle in hotter climates and so it was eventually down-loaded to 2575 fps, to both reduce pressures and to match the trajectory of the older match cartridges and the sight settings of most match and sniper rifles.
USMC G4 Ammunition
It is now loaded as the 7.62MM LONG RANGE M118 (LC LR 96 to LC LR 09). Neither the boxes nor the cases bear any reference to match use; only the un-cannelured hollow point bullet suggests a National Match connection. ATK Lake City (Alliant Techsystems) advertising calls it the M118, 7.62mm, Special Ball: Long Range, which only adds to the confusion. It can be argued that it is related to the M118 and M118SB but it is, in fact, a completely new cartridge, a combination combat/sniper/match loading with un-crimped bullets and primers, loaded with Alliant Reloder 15 powder.
In the 1990s events occurred that would seal the fate of the M852 in particular and the National Match ammunition in general. The first was the increased use of the M16A2 rifle and the 5.56×45 cartridge as a competitive match combination. Second, because there was no official 5.56mm Match cartridge, a rule change permitted shooters to furnish their own ammunition for that rifle. In 1993, changes in match rules allowed all competitors to provide their own ammunition, either handloads, commercial loads, or National Match, at their discretion. This made government produced National Match ammunition less important than it had been in the past. Most matches not requiring issued ammunition found experienced shooters using their own match-quality handloads and new shooters using commercial offerings. While some shooters, even today, continue to use the current crop of M118 LR, they are in the minority and may soon disappear from the scene forever.
I have specifically listed those headstamps that a collector is most likely to encounter. But readers should be aware that others do exist. At least two lots of T291 cartridges with an LC 57 MATCH headstamp were manufactured and designated for practice. Additionally, Cal. .30 unprimed cases with LC NM headstamps and late 1970s dates, LC 78 NM, along with boxed M1 Type bullets, are well known. It’s believed that these components were furnished to the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) and the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) for sale to shooters wishing to hand load cartridges for use in matches. Turning to the 7.62 MM, International match cartridges from 1958, 1959 and 1960 also carry the MATCH headstamp but they have no National Match association.
The National Matches are not the only high-power rifle tournaments held in the U.S. or overseas. Formal shooting competitions at the longer distances have been held for more than 150 years. Most are civilian and private or quasi-public in organization. In the past, U.S. military rifle teams and individuals participated in many of these events using arms and ammunition supplied by the Government. Between 1900 and 1960, Frankford Arsenal produced thousands of rounds of special match ammunition for Olympic, Palma, Pan American, and other International matches. Headstamps usually reflect the particular shooting discipline for which they were intended. The major ammunition manufacturers such as Winchester and Remington competed for government contracts into the mid 1920s and continue to produce special match ammunition, some of it hand loaded, to this day. Another U. S. Government entity, the Army Marksmanship Unit, created in 1956, produces both match grade rifles and ammunition for use by service teams and individuals that participate in both the National Matches and other events around the world. Describing these many and varied special match cartridges is far beyond the scope of this article and I leave that for someone else.
This article opened with a description of the lack of financial aid and political support for competition shooting and it ends on the same sad note. In 1996, public law reorganized the NBPRP and DCM into the Corporation for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and Firearms Safety (CPRPFS) and the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP). Now a public corporation, CPRPFS maintains only a minor relationship with the Department of the Army and reimburses the U.S. Government for all costs incurred in transferring government arms and ammunition to civilians. With little public interest and with no Federal appropriations to depend upon, program emphasis has shifted from the traditional National Matches to “serving youth through gun safety and marksmanship activities that encourage personal growth and build life skills.” Supported almost exclusively by the National Rifle Association and thousands of shooters, the National Matches will go on but it’s doubtful if we’ll see another Government cartridge with a National Match headstamp.
[I have shamelessly borrowed from the following references. Since most of the information is very objective, it was not easy to keep from crossing the line into plagiarism. After all, how many ways are there to describe a bullet or a headstamp? I also depended heavily on my own collection and notes from 50 years of competitive shooting, and remembrances of other shooters that I know. But, any errors or omissions are mine alone. And finally, an article such as this opens the writer to the double risk of including too much information, or too little. I hope I have struck a comfortable balance. rm]
Hackley, Woodin, Scranton – History of Modern U.S. Military Small Arms Ammunition, 1967-78
Hatcher, Major General Julian S. – Hatcher’s Notebook, 1947
Lewis, B.R. – The Cal. .30 Cartridge in Match Competition, 1969
Punnett, Chris – .30-06, 1997
Rocketto, Hap – A Short History of National Match Rifle Ammunition, 1995
Sharpe, Philip B. – Complete Guide To Handloading, 1937