On New Year's Day in 1981, Jason Hornady's mother, Cheryl, received a kidney transplant. With Cheryl still hospitalized, Jason's father, Steve, decided not to join his father, Hornady Manufacturing founder Joyce Hornady, company engineer Edward Heers, and customer service manager Jim Garber, who were traveling to New Orleans to pitch their ammunition line at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, an annual outdoor-sports industry convention. On January 15, the company plane crashed in fog just short of the New Orleans runway. All three were killed.
Steve questions if somehow something would have been different had he been on the plane.
"I don't know if me being there would have changed circumstances, that it might not have happened that way," he said. "Who knows?" Jason sees it differently. Had his father been on that plane, he said, "We would not be talking here today."
"Here" is his office in the 145,000-square-foot Hornady ammunition-manufacturing facility in Grand Island, Nebraska, down the hall from his father's corner office at the front of the building.
"I absolutely love it here," Jason said. "I've walked around this place since age three. I knew at that age this is what I wanted to do." Not that the Hornady name gave him a free pass.
"I told my kids if they wanted to come into the business, there'd be a job for them, but not until they are 30," said Steve. "I told them to go do something. I'd love to have them come back, but what I want them to do is have a happy life. That's all you can hope for your children. I'm not trying to build a dynasty, something that will live on for decades after I'm gone."
But he's glad Jason is back, after working as a sales rep and a sales manager in the outdoor industry for more than 15 years.
"Of my sisters, Meighan and Elizabeth, and cousins, I happened to be the one to pursue coming back," Jason said. "I was past the threshold Dad had set, and we talked once in a while about my coming back. It got serious a couple times but usually got unserious when we talked about the pay cut I'd have to take. Then there was an opening in sales and marketing, and my daughter was a year away from starting school.
My wife, Ellen, said to us one Fourth of July, 'You two better figure this out because once our daughter starts school, I'm not moving.' So I took a 50-percent pay cut and came back." That was 2006.
The Dynamic Duo
Steve and Jason have similarities and differences. Both are quick to smile, quick to joke. Steve has a wry, quiet sense of humor; Jason's is more obvious, more out front. Steve has a close-cropped gray beard; Jason sports stubble. They both have dogs rescued from shelters. Steve reads magazines; Jason books. They both list the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven as a favorite. Steve can quote dialogue from it; a lot of lines.
They both mention mule deer hunting as a favorite. They are competitive. Jason says his dad is a better rifle shot, but "put a shotgun in our hands and I'm going to whip him." Steve says he is "a fairly adequate rifle shooter," but, yes, Jason can beat him now in shotgun, "which pisses me off."
"When I shot trap with my dad, I had the advantage of younger eyes, reflexes, and stamina," Steve said. "I knew Dad was frustrated, not that I was beating him, but because he wasn't doing better. Now I know exactly how he felt."
They both like talking to customers, friends, fellow shooters, hunters, and, especially, employees, whom they consider family. Employees receive annual retirement and cash bonuses equal to a third of their salary. All employees — janitors, line workers, executives — receive the same percentage.
Steve said he can still run a couple machines on the floor, but most are computerized now and beyond him. "Oh, I could learn," he said. Jason holds up his hands. "They don't let me touch anything with a motor," he said. "The joke is these [waggling his fingers] are for typing and dialing. If you want to see a machine shut down, just let me near it."
"Jason has always been a natural people person," Steve said. "Even as a little boy he'd be talking to people. He wasn't shy or hanging on his mother's skirts. He was never like that. He was always out front, and that has stood him well and is good for our company."
Jason said Steve is "so intelligent it makes me mad sometimes. He's pretty sharp. We'll start talking about a situation with machines or delivery or how to sell something, and he'll just throw something out, and I'll go 'How did you know that?'
"He's a good guy. He comes across as gruff and cranky, but in the end he cares more than he'll let you know. He'll argue with a stump, and he'll argue that he doesn't like to argue.
"But, he's never fired me. I've quit a couple times, but he doesn't know I quit, and he's probably fired me a couple times I don't know about. In general, we have a pretty good time.
We don't always see eye to eye, he thinks I spend money like it's from a money tree out back.€¦" Smiling, he stops himself.
A Family Affair
Family is deeply rooted, living just under the surface. Asked to share a favorite story about his father, Steve's usual ebullience drifts away. There is a long pause. He takes a deep breath. "I don't know," he said, quietly. "That's a hard one to answer." He paused, thinking. "We had good times. We were friends, even though we had some knockdown, drag-out fights. I'd be arguing about something I thought we ought to be doing, and he'd laugh and say, 'Well, I must have done something right.'
"I'd tell him, 'You're the CEO. You can tell people what to do,' and he'd go — and this phrase drove me crazy — 'A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.' At the time, I didn't appreciate it a bit; today I do."
Jason was 10 when his grandfather died. "I remember him as soft-spoken, very mechanically inclined," Jason said. "I remember I'd be his wadfeeder, putting wads in his shotshell reloader. If I missed a wad, shot would go everywhere and he'd mutter."
His grandfather, called "Poppy," also gave him rides on the front bar of his Schwinn three-speed bicycle. He didn't drink or swear, but Jason remembers being at bat during a Little League game, "about to strike out for the fourth time," when from the stands he heard his grandfather yell, "Hit the damn ball."
What would Joyce think of Jason today? "He'd shake his head at my style," Jason said. "There's a company rumor that when he was really involved in sales, he put K-Mart on hold. No one put K-Mart on hold. I'm more about sales and promotion than he would have preferred, but he'd be impressed how much stuff we make."
Steve called his dad "semi-unflappable."
"I never saw him get worked up or particularly distressed," he said. "He had supreme confidence in himself. Not arrogance — he was just confident he would work it out."
Steve and Jason talk proudly of the past. Tears welling in his eyes, Jason reached for a tissue. "I apologize," he said. "I get emotional when I talk about this stuff." Steve sits in his father's chair in his father's office, the far wall a map of the world, a zebra hide on the floor, awards and trophies on the wall, including some of Steve's "two and quarter" Grand Slams of sheep.
(Many of Joyce's hunting trophies are displayed in the atrium, as are Steve's. Jason "is starting to squeeze some in here and there.") A framed photograph of Joyce hangs behind the desk. "I make sure I have him looking over my shoulder to remind me from time to time, 'Don't get too big for your britches, boy,'" he said.
A Legacy Continued
The crash was a staggering blow. The cause never fully determined. Both Joyce and Ed Heers were pilots, but no one knows.
Hornady Manufacturing was founded in 1949 because Joyce, a hunter and avid pistol shooter, believed he could produce ammunition with better performance than military surplus rounds used by sportsmen after World War II.
During the war, Joyce, too old for active service, was a marksmanship instructor for the National Guard training unit at the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant (six miles west of the Hornady facility). After the war, he opened a sporting goods store and in his basement reloaded practice ammunition for Nebraska State Troopers.
Always in search of more accurate ammunition, Joyce and Vernon Speer, machinist friend and fellow competitive pistol shooter, who later founded Speer Bullets, converted a salvaged linotype press into a machine that could redraw bullet jackets from empty .22-caliber cases and then form finished bullets.
Joyce's father, Harvey, a Methodist pastor, died when Joyce was three. His mother, Mary, raised Joyce and his siblings, Frances and Keith, all named after prominent Methodists of the day. As soon as they were old enough, the Hornady children pitched in by working newspaper and milk routes.
In 1930, Joyce met Marval, then working at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Joyce was selling dental supplies. They married in 1934. "He was always a salesman and a good one," Marval said in a 1998 interview.
Joyce earned his pilot's license at age 55, telling Marval he'd always wanted to fly. Flying expanded Joyce's hunting range: Alaska, Lower 48, and Canada. Then, the accident.
A friend offered to run the company, but Marval said no. Would she agree to community leaders heading the company? No, she said, the family will run it. The family and company regrouped. Steve, who had joined the company in 1970, became president; his sister, Margaret, became vice president; Margaret's husband, Don David, chief engineer.
Marval, called "Baba" by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, was chairman of the board. She worked until age 90, ultimately handling insurance matters for employees. "She was defender of all," Jason said. "She wouldn't hesitate to take up the fight for anyone in her flock." She died in 2015 at age 102.
Joyce's motto was "Ten bullets through one hole." How will Steve be remembered? He said: "If anything, 'He built on the legacy of the family and helped guide the company into the next era.'" Jason takes a lighter approach: "I want my tombstone to read, 'He was fun in hunting camp.'"
There's a fourth generation in the wings. About five years ago, Jason asked daughter, Abby, now almost 15, what she wanted to do when she grew up. She said, "I want to run sales and marketing at Hornady." He then asked his son, Alex, now 12, what he wanted to do. He said, "Work for her."
Abby has since gone through a progression of career ideas. Alex, a shooter in his own right, is pretty sure he wants to work there.
Whatever their choice, they'll get this message: Not until you're 30.
Notable Hornady Milestones
Developed original machine that drew bullet jackets from spent .22-caliber casings, then formed finished bullets, when other companies used multiple machines.
Secant Ogive — Developed by U.S. Army ballisticians, this aerodynamically efficient bullet configuration became a signature profile of Hornady bullets.
InterLock Bullets — Outer jacket features a ring embedded in the bullet core, ensuring the core and jacket are locked in one piece during expansion to retain mass and energy.
XTP Pistol Bullets — Handgun bullet popular with hunters and target shooters because of accuracy and performance.
A-MAX, V-MAX, Z-MAX — Polymer-tipped bullets for hunting, varminting, and putting down zombies.
LEVERevolution — Polymer tip allows use of aerodynamic bullets in tubular magazines. Lever-action aficionados are still giving a standing ovation.
TAP — Tactical ammunition designed to deliver reliable and consistent performance.
Critical DUTY and Critical DEFENSE — Feature-rich law-enforcement and self-defense ammo, respectively, with polymer-filled hollowpoint for improved performance.
.17 HMR — Wildly successful rimfire ammo developed by necking down .22 Magnum case to take a .17-caliber bullet; delivers varmint-punching flat trajectory.
6.5 Creedmoor — Developed as the first factory-loaded match cartridge, it evolved to bring precision-based performance to hunting.
ELD-X and ELD-Match — With patent- pending heat-resistant tips that don't melt or deform in flight, promising improved long-range accuracy.