The Medal of Honor sits on a wooden display at The Institute of Heraldry at Fort Belvoir, Va.
How QA Experts Make Sure Military Medals Make the Grade
When you think of the U.S. military, you realize there are a lot of pins, medallions and other metal-based items that can adorn a uniform. But have you ever thought about the work that went into making those products? It's a lot of effort that the tiny team at The Institute of Heraldry on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, pulls off flawlessly.
Not only do its employees create the emblems and insignia, they also conduct quality assurance checks to make sure the products are worthy of the institutions they represent.
So, what exactly goes into quality assurance testing on medals, pins and other metal-made items? It turns out, a lot.
An employee at The Institute of Heraldry holds a steel die that shows the stamp of the Medal of Honor cut into it.
Making the Mold
Once a design is created, approved and certified, U.S. manufacturers partnering with the institute cut steel block, stamp-like molds known as dies to very specific specifications using drawings provided by the institute. Those master dies are kept at the institute and are used to make their designs into physical items.
"It has the insignia cut into it. That goes into a big press that will literally squeeze a piece of brass and transfer the image to that brass, the base medal of any insignia," said Tom Casciaro, chief of the institute's technical and production division. "But because of the pressures put on this die in that machine — sometimes it's 100 tons per square inch — if the steel alloy is not properly tempered, it'll break. It'll literally just shatter."
Quality assurance employees at The Institute of Heraldry use a Shore D durometer to test the hardness of epoxy, which is the plastic-like material found on items such as pins.
So, before the manufacturer-created dies can be used, they must be heat treated and sent to the institute to see if they pass muster. After an initial physical inspection, the dies undergo two tests: the Rockwell hardness tester and something called a "depth gauge." The Rockwell hardness tester does exactly what you might expect — it evaluates the hardness of the steel alloy to make sure it's not too hard or too soft when it strikes the brass of the medals it will mass produce.
"There's always that sweet thing in the middle where it's malleable a little bit because, when [the die] strikes that brass, just for a fraction of a second, [the brass] becomes liquid," Casciaro said. "But then it becomes super dense, so you need the die tempered just right to be able to handle that. … if it's too hard or too soft, we'll send it back and have them retreat it."
Dies are also tested on the depth gauge. Also known as a dial indicator, this test measures how deep the image of an insignia is cut into the die down to the hundredths or thousandths of an inch. If various areas of the design aren’t cut to a certain depth, the die goes back to the manufacturer.
If the dies pass both of those tests, they're good to go! But the manufacturers aren't in the clear yet.
Testing the Product
Samples of the finished metal-based products, such as medals and pins, also undergo testing via something called an X-ray spectrometer. It tests the composition of the products to make sure the manufacturers are using the correct metals. For instance, 99% of all insignia the institute creates is made of red brass. That's a composite of 85% copper and 15% zinc. So, when one of those items is run through the X-ray spectrometer, it'll let the experts know if that is, in fact, the material from which the medal is made.
Two other tests metal insignia may undergo are the Shore D durometer and the plating thickness tester. The Shore D durometer is a hardness test for the epoxy, which is the plastic-like material found on items such as pins. All institute-certified manufacturers get their epoxy from the same company, which provides the colors that are certified to match those chosen by the institute. The plating thickness tester is for medals and items finished with nickel or gold. Like the spectrometer, it uses X-rays to make sure there's enough of the intended metal on the product.
If those items pass, great!
But wait. There's more.
The Institute of Heraldry creates steel dies that are used to make various medals and other metal insignia for the Armed Forces and U.S. government organizations.
Additional Testing Measures
When it comes to pins, the institute pulls at their posts (the pointy part) to make sure they're welded on properly. It also tests 22 medal finishes — from oxidized matte to super shiny — to make sure the manufacturers know how to produce those correctly, as well.
Then, there are the products at the base military clothing stores and exchange shops as well as checks on random products at the manufacturers. A small team of the institute's experts goes to these locations to do a visual inspection of the products. If they find anything to be suspect, they'll take it back to the institute for more detailed testing using the methods above.
So there you have it. If you've ever received a medal or a pin from your service branch, or bought something similar on base and wondered if it's well-made or a knock-off, you can rest assured that it’s certified to the highest possible standards.