Where is the ammunition?

Industry insider talks about current shortage

In the ammunition industry, according to an insider, the shortage is due to a combination of supply and demand issues. (Noah Galilee for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Across the country, hunters, sport shooters and citizens concerned about home or self-defense are scrambling to purchase ammunition, contending with empty shelves and long backorder lists. In the Cullman area, customers are lining up outside stores for a chance to purchase a two-box limit of just about anything they can get their hands on, and not always succeeding even at that.

The Tribune has visited gun and pawn shops across the region to observe business. At one shop, the manager said, “I can sell you a pistol, but I can’t sell you any ammunition for it.” At another shop, a customer walked in and asked for 9mm cartridges; the first response of the manager and other customers was laughter.

The Tribune spoke on Wednesday with an ammunition manufacturing industry insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, and who painted a picture of an industry overwhelmed by current consumer demand and plagued by the shortage of crucial components.

He told The Tribune, “It is, in fact, in short supply.”

The insider pointed to surging firearm and ammunition sales since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and a scan of FBI background check numbers shows that the FBI conducted 39,695,351 gun buyer background checks in 2020, 11 million more than in 2019, which was itself the all-time record year.  Last year started close to normal on monthly reports, but the numbers began to spike in March with the beginning of shutdowns across the country.

Numbers for January 2021 are not yet available, but the insider noted that demand for ammunition has risen even more since the contentious November 2020 election gave pro-gun control Democrats charge of the White House and both houses of Congress.

In the ammunition industry, according to the insider, the shortage is due to a combination of supply and demand issues.

He said, “We are swamped with business. Many years ago, there was a spike in business- this was approximately 2014- and this is like three times that amount of inquiries. We are probably over a million rounds behind in ammunition.

“Remington went bankrupt, and so there’s less supply of ammo. And everybody- it’s the toilet paper syndrome. Everybody is scrambling around to buy primers (the cartridge component which, when struck by the firing pin, causes the detonation of the gunpowder); there are no primers available. Remington was a primer manufacturer, so there’s part of what has created the shortage.

“We had this peak in business, let’s call it, for .22 long rifle rounds back a few years ago. Well, it’s 9mm cartridges now. People literally are buying anything they can get their hands on. They used to be very particular about which 9mm bullet, which 9mm weight of bullet they would buy. Now, it’s ‘I’ll take anything you can send me.’ 

“There is no cartridge case shortage, there’s no bullet shortage; we’re behind on bullets, too, but it’s not like primers. There will be a point in time that this industry does not have primers to make ammunition from, to put into ammunition. And, shoot, you can’t produce the product that the customers desire if you can’t make the stuff go bang. You can get plenty of powder; it’s primers that’s in short supply, as well as loaded rounds.

“Loaded rounds are still being manufactured, but you just can’t find primers, hardly. It’s universally known between hand loaders and also (commercial manufacturers). There is a problem getting primers from overseas, as a matter of fact. There’s millions upon millions promised, but they never show up.”

The insider told The Tribune that, due to the explosive nature of primers, not many manufacturers are willing to take on the task of production. He did, though, note an industry rumor that Remington could resume production “in the near future,” but could not say with certainty that a steady and reliable U.S. source for primers will be found any time soon.

Why the buying frenzy?

The COVID pandemic has already been cited as a major contributing factor to the surge in gun and ammunition sales over the last year, but politics may be taking the lead now.

“People are scared to death,” said the insider. “That’s what drives bullet and ammunition and gun sales. When people are no longer afraid, they are not as likely to buy. They will buy everything they can borrow money to afford, and they’ll bury it in their backyard, if they’re scared. And when they are not afraid anymore, they’ll start using what they bought in excess. And it’s just like flipping a light switch: the demand goes away. The industry just kind of dries up.

“If you haven’t heard this, this is a well-known cliché in the industry. It’s called the ‘Trump slump.’ And the Trump slump was when people were not afraid anymore. You know, probably, that Hillary (Clinton) and Obama were the best marketers of ammunition that there’s been in a long time, all the way back to Bill Clinton’s day, and when the Democrats held both houses of Congress and the presidency. Well, it’s back to that point. They have, essentially, both houses and the presidency now.”

A growing fear, according to the insider, is that federal legislative or executive action could cut off access to supplies like ammunition and firearm magazines, and that increasing taxes on firearms could put purchases out of reach of many would-be buyers.

The insider concluded with a statement about the ammunition shortage that will not put the minds of hunters and sport shooters at ease, at least for the moment: “It is not expected to end any time soon. But there is a somewhat universal attitude toward it, and that is ‘Nobody has a crystal ball.’ So, it’s just the situation that we have. It’ll be different in the future.”

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W.C. Mann