Until his retirement, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Lemke worked mostly overseas, serving as a foreign area officer and liaison with the military leadership in his host countries. His primary mission was to train and equip each country’s security forces to combat narco-terrorism.
Little did he realize that experience would lead to his next career.
“One of the most common requests I received for U.S. government assistance was for single-use ammunition,” he said. “It was surprising at first, because as far as I knew at the time, all ammunition was single-use. You shoot it and it’s done.
“But what was happening with these countries was that the narco-terrorists would often outgun the public security forces. The result was the ‘good guys’ would have to retreat, leaving behind all their spent brass. The ‘bad guys’ would then collect it all up and reload it,” he said.
“It’s very easy to cast lead bullets; primers are extremely small and easy to smuggle across borders. And propellant, though not made in every country, is pretty easy to come by, especially when many of these groups have no qualms about using fireworks propellants in their ammunition.
“In essence, by leaving reusable shell casings behind, they were helping the terrorists reload.”
Lemke started asking how the U.S. could help and learned there were no good answers.
“I learned that there had been several attempts to make ammunition out of different materials, but none in a single-use format,” he said.
Finding the solution
The dilemma was still on his mind when Lemke retired from the Army and went to work for Daniel Defense outside Savannah.
“After spending some time working for Marty Daniel, which was very good experience, I decided to embark on my own program to try to answer this need of public security forces,” he said.
Lemke founded PolyCase Ammunition in Pooler in 2012 in the midst of an upheaval in the industry. The resulting ammunition shortage made getting materials nearly impossible for small companies. A planned February 2013 start had to be postponed until early this year, but the young company has been making up for lost timesince then.
“At the time I started PolyCase Ammunition in 2012, my entire focus was foreign, aimed at international militaries,” he said.
Instead, what Lemke and investing partner Josh Keller discovered was that and much more.
Today, PolyCase’s new Inceptor ammunition products, featuring injection-molded copper and polymer bullets, integrate advanced design, materials and manufacturing technologies to create what well could be the next big thing in small arms ammunition.
“What we found in the research and development phase of creating single-use ammunition was that we could not only make single-use ammo, we could produce it in such a way that held up to the stress of firing. There was no visible difference in the polymer cartridge case after firing, even though - by design – it’s slightly expanded and can’t be reloaded,” he said.
“That makes it sturdy enough to appeal to a much wider group of consumers,” Keller said.
Along with the single-use aspect, Lemke discovered additional benefits to the new design.
“It’s highly accurate and much lighter,” Lemke said. “There is less wear and tear on the weapon because plastic is naturally lubricating.”
After developing their patent-pending plastic cartridge, the next step was to develop the ideal bullet for it.
“We can use off-the-shelf bullets in this cartridge design, but we found it would be much more efficient for us to employ our polymer injection technologies to make our own bullets, custom-designed for this cartridge case,” he said.
Using engineering designs similar to that of precision injected molded parts for high-performance cars, PolyCase came up with innovative ammunition that is lightweight, non-toxic and works equally as well in single-use and reusable cartridges.
In fact, its versatility is one of its main selling points. Early on, the team realized its new injection-molded bullets load just as easily in brass casings.
“We are able to use essentially the same molds to produce bullets for brass casings and bullets for our polymer casings,” Lemke said.
A major advantage of PolyCase technology is that it uses no heavy metals in its production.
“One of our goals was to make ammunition that is as efficient and effective as conventional lead-core ammunition without the harmful byproducts associated with heavy metals,” Lemke said.
That’s important because at least two dozen states have enacted laws banning lead-based bullets for hunting and the U.S. military has announced plans to phase out lead ammunition by 2018.
The lack of heavy metals in manufacturing its ammo also exempts PolyCase from federal regulations attached to facilities that use lead in their production process.
“It makes us much leaner and more efficient,” Lemke said.
In fact, production has been fine-tuned to the point of averaging only a half-pound of spoilage for every 500 pounds produced.
At the heart of the company’s production facility off Artley road in Pooler are two 80-ton injection molding machines capable of producing 90,000 bullets in an eight-hour shift. The company has added 10 new hires to handle the increased capacity.
“The last two years have seen up and down swings in the ammunition market unlike anything the industry has experienced in recent history,” Lemke said, adding that PolyCase has been able to weather the market upheaval due to its unique manufacturing process.
A new approach
“We are an injection molding company at heart,” he said. “Because we are approaching ammunition from a different point of view, from the drawing board up to the finished product, we are able to carefully consider so many aspects of how this product is made and how it works.”
That flexibility, he said, is the primary driver of PolyCase’s current growth trend.
“The shooting public is looking for something new that improves on existing technology in terms of performance,” Lemke said. “We get great feedback from shooters about the accuracy and low recoil of our ammo. And then, when they realize it’s also lead-free, we have customers for life.”
The company’s patent-pending lead-free projectiles are currently offered in .380 Auto, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, and .45 Auto caliber, with plans to introduce rifle calibers in the first quarter of 2015.
“We really have two distinct lines of business,” Lemke said. “We started off making the polymer cartridge cases a few years ago to address the single-issue, and now we are making our own projectiles as well.
“You can count on one hand the number of U.S. ammunition companies that make both projectiles and cases. That puts us in good company with the pacesetters in this industry.”
But it’s the lead-free aspect that has Lemke and Keller excited for the future.
“To produce a line of lead-free ammunition that that has reliability, pinpoint accuracy and extreme performance is a revolution in projectile design,” Keller said.
“There are several major munitions companies that are starting the look at this as a significant game changer.”
ON THE WEB: Polycaseammo.com
Photo 1: A PolyCase Ammunition employee pours the completed bullets into a container. PolyCase makes eight different bullet sizes, which are all polymer based and lead free.
Photo 2: PolyCase makes their bullets by a precision injection molding process that allows for different shapes and designs to be created.
Photo 3: Rachel Bright inspects bullets and loads them into trays at PolyCase Ammunition. In an 8-hour shift, PolyCase can make 90,000 bullets.
As 2014 comes to a close, the Savannah Morning News, Business in Savannah and savannahnow.com continue the tradition of profiling companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment during the past year.
The Business in Savannah staff chose the honorees from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community members, utilizing broad criteria — from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.
Tuesday: Newcomer of the year – Service Brewing
Today: Manufacturer of the year – PolyCase Ammunition
Thursday: Business advocate of the year
Friday: Entrepreneurial business of the year
Saturday: Retail business of the year
Sunday: Small business of the year