Imagine 500,000,000 shotshells. That’s five hundred million. A five with eight zeros. That’s about how many shotshells Maxam makes each year, and chances are you haven’t even heard of the company. But you may have shot Rio, Kemen or Vinci shells. Maxam makes those for the US market. UEE/Maxam has made shells for PMC, Clever, Federal-ATK, Remington and many others. With the US shotshell market at around 1.1 billion shells per year, Maxam’s brands are approaching 100 million of those. The rest of the manufacturer’s shotshell sales are worldwide. It also sells components to many other shell makers.
Maxam is the new name for the old UEE (Unión Española de Explosivos, or Spanish Explosives Union). It all started in 1872, when Alfred Nobel, “Mr. Dynamite,” founded La Sociedad Española de la Dinamita, headquartered in the Basque town of Galdácano in the Spanish Pyrenees near Bilbao. In 1896 Nobel’s company joined others to form the UEE. The purpose was to develop explosives for the nearby iron-ore-mining industry and other concerns. For the next 100 years UEE continued to make things that went bang, boom, thump and wham. Shortly after the millennium, UEE began to develop worldwide. This led to the name change to Maxam in 2006.
Today Maxam is a multinational industrial group with more than 6,000 employees and production facilities in 40 countries. The company’s products reach more than 100 countries on five continents. Maxam makes everything from the explosives used to widen the Panama Canal to wind-powered electric turbines. Its main shotshell production sites are in Spain, with smaller production facilities in England and the US. The British works used to be the Eley shotshell facility. The US shotshell manufacturing site is located in Tennessee in the old Accurate powder facility.
Last spring I was visiting some shotgun makers in the Basque country of northern Spain, so it made sense to drop in on nearby Maxam and have a look. On a trip like this, the town of Bilbao is a great place to stay. It has been much modernized since its years as a gritty Bay of Biscay industrial port. The better hotels are first class, and the food is the healthy Mediterranean Diet blend of olive oil, fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl and, of course, hearty Spanish Rioja red wine. After dinner each evening I enjoyed walking in the park near the Bilbao Guggenheim museum and listening to the jazz concerts.
Patrick Thomas, the Maxam export manager in the US who was in Spain at the time, picked me up in the morning for the short drive to nearby Galdácano, where Maxam manufactures most of its gunpowder. Nobel and UEE started making powder there in the late 1800s, and the little town grew up around the industry. The town’s crest contains a crossbowman to show the arms connection. The plant entrance is barred and guarded. The security is more than casual, as well it might be.
Actually, there isn’t really a gunpowder plant as such. It’s a 1,250-acre steep mountainside plot of many small buildings linked together by 25 miles of road. In some ways it looks more like a managed forest, complete with deer and wild boar. But that’s the way it is with gunpowder. You want to spread things out just in case something does go suddenly wrong.
Each powder operation is separately housed in its own small concrete building designed with one weak wall to direct any explosion away from the other buildings. The powder-making process seems pretty basic at first glance. It’s the quality control that gets technical.
Maxam’s shotgun powders are all single base. That means that the main ingredient is nitrocellulose. Double-base powders use a blend of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. The advantage of a single-base powder is said to be that it burns cleaner and it is a little easier to make with great accuracy. Double-base powders are said to have a bit more energy for their weight (so you use a touch less powder) and to be a little more stable in temperature and humidity changes. Frankly, with careful formulation and coating, differences today are slight either way.
Maxam does make double-base powders for other purposes, but I’ll concentrate on how the single-base shotgun powders are made. The nitrocellulose comes from another Maxam division. It looks like cotton candy, but there is nothing sweet about it. It’s very unstable, so it is mixed with water for stability during transportation. At the plant site the water is replaced with alcohol, and then the nitrocellulose is squeezed into large cakes like big white cheeses in order to drive out the liquid.
The dried cakes are then put in a mixer with solvents, dye and potassium nitrate. The solvents and potassium nitrate determine the burning rate by increasing surface area. Gunpowder needs a lot of surface area to burn properly. Continuing the food analogy, when this cycle is complete the mixture looks like bread dough.
This dough is then forced through a sieve to form spaghetti-like strands. After air-drying, these strands are cut into flakes. Now things are starting to look like gunpowder. It’s the size and shape of the individual powder flakes that govern the burning rate of the finished product. Maxam makes both disc- and square-grained powders, depending on use. The powder in the Kemen target shells I disassembled is of the disc type.
But it’s a long way from being over. The powder flakes are now given a hot-water bath to remove the potassium nitrate. This etches the surface of each grain and increases surface area to further facilitate burning.
The mixture is again dried, but this time in a series of steam-powered automated vacuum-drying drums. Great care is taken to avoid the buildup of static electricity and the very immediate and unfortunate consequences thereof.
Finally powdered graphite is added to the dried gunpowder. Graphite gives it that gray color. It’s there to inhibit static electricity and aid flow characteristics. Numerous powder batches are blended together to provide a consistent product, and then the excess graphite is sifted out and the gunpowder is ready to be put in containers for shipment to the loading plant or to worldwide customers.
The quantity of powder produced is staggering. The plant has a capacity of 1,500 metric tons per year and has been averaging 1,300 for the past four. That’s approaching 3 million pounds of powder. The plant runs 24/7 five days a week, and during the busy season of May through August it runs all week. The bottlenecks are in the drying processes, as they take longer. About 60 percent of the powder is used in Maxam’s own plants; the rest is sold worldwide.
Maxam is one of the world’s few vertically integrated shotshell makers. Most shotshell brands purchase various components from large companies like Maxam. As Thomas explained, Maxam’s vertical production gives the company complete control over the process and does not force it to rely on suppliers with variable product. It also gives Maxam a competitive pricing advantage. That said, occasionally it will outsource hulls and wads in 28 and .410 due to the low volume.
Maxam’s primer-making facility is in a large building in the powder-making complex. Unlike the powder process, primer production is highly automated and seems very modern. It had better be, as the facility makes about 700 million primers per year. The production line looks like a small river of flowing brass. Quality control is critical, as we all know what doesn’t happen when a primer fails to ignite. Computers do a lot of the primer quality control, but the final check is by human eye as the primers are packaged in trays.
With lunchtime upon us, we crossed the courtyard, with its three red-tile-roofed buildings housing the executive offices, past the 100-year-old church built on the plant grounds, through the guarded entry, across the railroad tracks at the entrance, and into a nearby upstairs restaurant. The food was fresh, natural and delicious, with a fitting emphasis on nearby seafood and vegetables.
After lunch we took a half-hour drive to Maxam’s main shotshell factory, in Nanclares de la Oca. A second smaller loading plant is located near Barcelona. Nanclares de la Oca is about a 35-mile drive due south of Galdácano over modern roads that descend from the steep Pyrenees into flat farming country. The cartridge factory is quite large, set amid wheatfields and with its own access road.
Just how does Maxam manage to load a million shotshells a day? Automation, pure and simple. I didn’t see all that many workers on the production floor, because the impressive machinery was doing the work.
As mentioned, Maxam’s shotshell production is a vertical operation. The company makes everything except the shot. Like many American shotgunners, I reload at home, so I was familiar with the basic process of assembling components. But not with a process of this scope.
Things start with the production of the shotshell case. Maxam uses the tubular Reifenhauser hulls, not compression-formed cases. The Reifenhauser hull production line was immense. There are seven extruding lines, each more than 65 yards long. Powdered plastic goes into the head of the line, dye is added, the mixture is heated and extruded into a never-ending tube, and then the tube is cut to hull length. It’s all in one continuous machine. Base wads have their own machine line, as do the shot wads.
Huge rolls of brass-plated steel are fed into machines that punch and form the shotshell heads. They pour into large bins to await attachment to the Reifenhauser tubes and base wads.
Other machines stamp the three main primer parts—case, cap and anvil—which are sent to the Galdácano powder complex for loading with priming compound and returned to Nanclares de la Oca for insertion.
The shotshell components are made in one building, but the actual loading takes place in another. Most of the standard 12- and 20-gauge shells are loaded on the most modern computerized Italian machines. These are the same machines used in the Tennessee plant. I was told not to be more specific than that and was not permitted to take detailed pictures of those machines or of some other production lines. The shotshell market is very competitive, and Maxam feels that it has an edge over its competitors that it doesn’t wish to share. The machinery was neat, though. And lightning fast too. Even the packaging and stacking of the completed flats was fully computerized.
Most subgauge and some specialty 12-gauge loads are loaded on older machinery, to which I did have access. Here there was more of a personal touch and a slower pace, but it was still lightning fast compared to my humble MEC loader.
I was interested to hear which Rio shells are the most popular in the US. In target loads it turns out to be the 2-3/4-dram 1-1/8-ounce loads at 1,150 fps and the 1-ounce 3-dram loads at 1,280 fps. The top-selling game loads are 3-3/4-dram 1-1/4-ounce No. 7-1/2s and 8s, then the 3G-dram 1-1/8-ounce No. 7-1/2s and 8s. Finally there is the 2I-dram 1-ounce 20-gauge load, again in No. 7-1/2s and 8s. My guess is that most of those small-pellet game loads are used for doves, but in the past I’ve had excellent luck using the Rio 1-ounce 20-gauge shells on quail.
Like any home reloader, I was curious about the shot that Maxam used. When I got home, I disassembled and crush-tested the No. 8 shot from some of my Kemen Premier Super 28 loads. I found that they were softer than similar-size premium Remington STS Target pellets and about the same hardness as those of the less-expensive Remington Sport Loads. I was told that Maxam uses 3-percent-antimony shot in its target loads. That’s a bit lower than the 5-percent used in the premium Remington and Winchester target loads.
Antimony, used to harden the shot, costs about three times what lead does, so it becomes a cost/benefit matter. But antimony content is only one aspect of shot quality. The way it is dropped is also important. Maxam feels that its shells have a good balance of performance and economy. The performance I’ve seen from my Kemen shells certainly supports this. Hunters should also remember that the larger a pellet is, the less antimony content matters, because the increased pellet size limits distortion.
I did not observe steel shot being loaded, but Maxam does sell a range of steel shells for both targets and game. Its Eley branch produces a line of bismuth shells in England, and Maxam hopes to introduce a new bismuth brand called Venatum in the near future.
The final stop of the trip was at the ballistic testing lab where quality control is carried out. Maxam uses three separate computerized piezo-electric pressure barrels along with sophisticated chronographs measuring at one and 10 meters. The lab also is equipped to pattern shells. It’s surprising how little it takes to throw off shell performance. Powder amount is obvious, but even a crimp that is shallower or deeper than the norm may change velocity and pressure. Wads also play an important role, as does primer brisance. Everything works together and must be closely monitored when you crank out a half-billion shells a year.
I enjoyed my trip and learned a lot. Shotshells are big business, both here and abroad. Since everyone pays the same price for the lead, metal and raw plastic, you have to give a lot of credit to Maxam’s Rio and Kemen brands for striking a good balance between affordability and quality.
Bruce Buck is a Contributing Editor for Shooting Sportsman.
- By: Bruce Buck