This is an article written by Kevin Crank for AllOutdoor.com. Crank is a wildcatter, meaning that he makes wildcat cartridges. Wildcat cartridges are customized versions of commercially available cartridges, usually designed to enhance some performance characteristic of the original cartridge. These alterations produce measurable differences in ballistic performance, and he reached out recently to find out whether or not the designs were patentable.
My colleague Russ and I were debating the merits of new cartridge design when Russ asked a question that I knew I just had to find the answer to: can a wildcat cartridge designer copyright, patent, or otherwise protect a cartridge design?
Russ’s question hit me like a truck. As a wildcatter myself, the fear of an idea being stolen and sold by someone else haunted me. So the moment I could, I forged ahead to find the answers we were after. It was a short quest.
In no time at all I came across Patent Attorney Ben Langlotz, proprietor of GunPatent.com. Langlotz is with some of the top firearms companies in the industry, and the logos of his clients make the website as colorful as the jersey of a top competitive shooter. This man has been around the block with many major players in the firearms industry.
Feeling fairly confident that he knows his stuff, I emailed him these questions.
His response was: “Maybe, but usually not. Most new cartridges are merely changes to dimensions with no real patentable breakthrough. A patentable breakthrough would be something like being the first guy to neck down a cartridge or to use a belt for headspacing a rimless cartridge.”
The patenting of a design as a modification on something that already exists is very hard to defend. But only if the modifications are small, such as the 4 millimeter difference between 38 Special and 357 Magnum.
Take Hornady’s 17 HMR, for example. It’s based on a 22 rimfire case, necked down to .17 caliber, but based on a case longer than the standard rimfire. These are all existing specifications. But Ben was able to get it patented by arguing that the use of an unusual case length went beyond an obvious choice, buttressed by the fact that the sales success of the cartridge suggested that if it were obvious, someone would have done it before.
That was a victory, but this process is colored with a lot of uncertainty. A thing to remember: every patent is its own situation. Case by case, you can never be sure whether or not it will be approved.
So can a cartridge be patented? The answer is “yes,” but only if you have enough evidence to support it.
Can the inventor make a profit while keeping the price low enough to make it widely available (and therefore popular)? From what I learned, it’s all about the deal you make.
In other words: If you can convince an ammunition manufacturer that your design is worth investing in and if you’re willing to take a humble cut of the pie, then I think it’s doable.
But is it worth the trouble? Should a wildcatter be content to shoot his or her own cartridge and leave the headaches to others, or should we strive to make our creations available to the masses?
What do you think?