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Hornady founder took chances

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Hornady history

Steve Hornady speaks Sunday afternoon to a crowd at Burlington Station during the Hall County Historical Society's "Voices from the Past" series. Hornady talked about the history of the Hornday family and how it built Hornady Manufacturing to what it is today. (Independent/Zach Mayhew)

People in Grand Island and across the country know the name Hornady Manufacturing as a highly successful ammunition and reloading company.

But fewer know of the many other unsuccessful business ventures undertaken by the late Grand Island entrepreneur Joyce Hornady. Those ventures included land leveling, a neon sign business and cattle ranching in Montana, said Steve Hornady, Hornady’s son and current president of Hornady Manufacturing.

“The problem that my father had is that money burned a hole in his pocket,” Hornady said. “He didn’t have any fear of debt. He didn’t have any fear of going in and taking chances.”

But that same lack of fear is what led Joyce Hornady to buy surplus ammunition presses after the end of World War II to make bullets for varmint hunting, to buy land west of Grand Island to expand what started as a downtown business, and to later expand into the reloading industry by buying out a Lincoln firm and moving it to Grand Island.

Steve Hornady detailed the history of the Hornady Manufacturing on Sunday at the Burlington Station during a “Voices from the Past” presentation hosted by the Hall County Historical Society.

Hornady said his father was an active shooter before World War II. When the war broke out, the elder Hornady was 35 and too old for active duty, so instead he came to Grand Island in 1942 to teach shooting and to train guards at the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant.

During the war, when supplies were scarce, the elder Hornady figured out a way to redraw a 22-rimfire cartridge case into a bullet that he could load into centerfire ammunition and go varmint shooting.

With robust populations of prairie dogs and rabbits, varmint shooting remained popular after the war and Joyce Hornady figured there could be a business in that. He partnered with Vernon Speer, who had equipment at a machine shop in Lincoln, and the two produced ammunition under the “Speer Hornady Bullets” name.

But when Speer moved to Idaho and continued ammunition production without Hornady, Hornady went on his own way by finding Grand Island venture capitalist Fred Abrahamson, who provided the funding for Hornady to purchase surplus military ammunition presses and open a shop in 1949 at the northeast corner of Fourth and Walnut.

“The first few years were fairly lean,” Hornady told the audience of about 75. “They started out making a 30-caliber, 150-range firepoint bullet, which we still make today and is still one of the most popular ones that is in our line, and people wanted to handload it.”

In the later 1950s, Hornady Manufacturing began to prosper as the company was becoming more known through advertising in American Rifleman. In 1958 Joyce Hornady decided to buy land west of Grand Island, outside the city limits, which many people laughed about at the time because it was so far away.

“Now you look at where we are and we’re completely surrounded by the city,” Steve Hornady said.

His father built the manufacturing plant there, which has expanded numerous times, including in 1972 when Joyce used his cattle ranch proceeds to buy out what had been Pacific Tool and Die in Lincoln from the Henkle and Joyce Hardware Co. Pacific Tool and Die had been in the reloading business and Hornady moved all that reloading equipment to Grand Island in 1972.

Hornady bought more surplus military equipment — cleaning machines and hardware — most of which remains in production today, Steve Hornady said.

“The very first bullet press my dad owned, is in our factory and is still making bullets today,” he said.

Steve Hornady had dropped out of college to become a cowboy on his father’s Montana ranch, but when that was sold he returned to Grand Island and began working at the plant.

As brass became difficult to get during the Vietnam War, Hornady said partnerships were made with competitors, who also become customers, to aid one another in the production process.

“Today we make bullets for all the other ammunition companies in the United States — Winchester, Remington, Federal, CCI — are all customers of ours, very good customers of ours,” Steve Hornady said.

But the toughest times were still ahead. On Jan. 16, 1981, Joyce Hornady and two up-and-coming Hornady Manufacturing executives were killed in a plane crash in Louisiana. That’s when Steve Hornady consulted with his older sister, Margaret Hornady, who was living in Massachusetts and working for Polaroid, about what to do.

The siblings rejected the idea of selling the company at a fire-sale price and decided to forge ahead, keeping the firm in the family.

Margaret Hornady-David returned to Grand Island to take over administrative duties, including human resource work. Her husband, Don David, headed up engineering for Hornady.

“We trumbled along, we survived, we didn’t screw up,” Steve Hornady said. “That was our basic premise — just don’t screw it up.”

The company continued to profit and grow. After investing more in engineering and research, Hornady came out with a superior rimfire rifle cartridge known as the .17 HMR that captured national attention in the shooting industry as “the little cartridge that could.”

Steve Hornady said Hornady Manufacturing hit an employment peak about two years ago at 750. It now has just more than 700 employees and has expanded its worksites from the Old Potash Highway manufacturing site his father built to also include the former Leon Plastics building in Alda, which serves as a stand-alone reloading plant. Hornady Manufacturing also bought land in the former ordnance plant and has a powder storage facility there, as well as a testing lab.

About eight years ago Steve Hornady’s son, Jason Hornady, joined the company as a marketer. Steve said he invited his children to come back and join the company if they so desired after they turned 30 and tried other careers on their own.

“I didn’t care particularly about whether we built a dynasty or whether the business went on forever,” Steve said. “But mostly you hope your children will be happy, you want them to have a happy life and that’s all I wanted for my kids. If they found something that they really loved to do and that is what they really wanted to do, they should do it.”

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