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Shell shock: Ammo shortage bites industry

The U.S. shortage is a result of record-setting demand for firearms in 2020 combined with pandemic-related strains on manufacturing and shipping.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Spokesman-Review.

While last year’s toilet paper panic during the grip of the pandemic was disturbing, at least it was brief. Meanwhile, a nationwide ammunition shortage continues to impact shooting facilities, hunting trips and even law enforcement agencies – with no end in sight.

Shooting industry insiders say a combination of fear stemming from social unrest, COVID-related manufacturing restrictions and political shifts had contributed to the ammunition shelves in sporting goods stores being mostly bare.

Dedicated shooters appear to be perpetuating the problem as they snap up and hoard nearly any handgun, rifle and shotgun ammo that becomes available.

Sharp Shooting Indoor Range & Gun Shop in Spokane started feeling the impacts about 16 months ago, said Jeremy Ball, co-owner.

“We’re still not completely reopened, and it has absolutely nothing to do with COVID,” he said. “We’re closed 21 hours a week that we’d normally be open because ammo across the board is in short supply.”

Independence Indoor Shooting, a shooting range in Meridian, Idaho, outsourced its ammunition, relying on overseas suppliers, said Media Marketing Manager Michael Newgen. The U.S. shortage is a result of record-setting demand for firearms in 2020 combined with pandemic-related strains on manufacturing and shipping, he said.

For a couple weeks, the range limited sales of certain ammunition but has not had to restrict sales for several months, Newgen said.

“Right now is just a really big game of catch up,” he said.

Hunters found a dearth of turkey loads when the spring gobbler seasons opened in April. What showed up on shelves at Sportsman’s Warehouse in Spokane, for example, was gone quickly, even at $33 for a five-pack of 3-inch 12-gauge shells.

Some regular shooters at Landt Farms Sporting Clays west of Spokane are conserving their personal supplies of target loads by scaling back training, sometimes going half rounds (50 targets) rather than shooting the full course, owner Sally Scott said.

The Washington State High School Sporting Clays Tournament was held April 30 at Landt Farms, but some teams had to drop out because they couldn’t find or afford enough ammunition.

“The Reardan coach was begging and borrowing to come up with enough components to reload,” Scott said.

Even law enforcement agencies are feeling the impact of the shortage, said Mike Furrer, a competitive shooter and coach in Spokane who knows several police officers through shooting events. “Police always have enough ammo for the fight,” he said, “but the issue is making sure they have enough to be highly trained for the fight.”

Spokane Police “anticipated shortages and proactively ordered ammo,” said Julie Humphreys, department spokeswoman. “We are rationing ammunition during training as order shipments have slowed,” she said. “But we have the stock we need.”

Patrick Orr, public information officer with the Ada County Sheriff’s Office, said that the agency has seen minimal if any impact from the ammunition shortage. Orr said that while there has been a slight increase in ammunition prices in certain areas, Ada County Sheriff deputies use the majority of their ammunition on the practice range and so far they are well stocked.

“As of now, the short answer is that we’re doing OK,” Orr said.

It’s normal for competition shooters to plan for shortages and stockpile ammo that performs well in their guns, Furrer said. When he observed the commitment his daughter was making as a junior shooter around 2006, Furrer started stocking up on enough ammo to keep her training up through high school and the 2008 Olympic Trials.

“We were in the game and looking forward,” he said. “I bought 15,000 rounds of the ammo she shoots and stockpiled it.”

Amanda Furrer piled up enough brass in six years to build a monument. She placed third in the 2008 USA Olympic Trials and later qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Ammunition shortages are not new, Mike Furrer said.

“We had a run on supplies during the Clinton and Obama presidencies” Furrer said. “When the left gets a political advantage, it triggers gun and ammunition buying by people who fear firearms restrictions might be coming. But the current shortage, with another liberal president compounded by all the COVID restrictions and last summer’s riots, is the worst shortage I’ve seen.”

Social media is rife with blame for the government and the shooting industry, prompting Jason Vanderbrink, the president of ammunition for Vista Outdoor, which includes Federal Premium, CCI (in Lewiston), Speer and Remington ammunition companies, posted a YouTube video to put some of the conspiracy theories to rest.

“Federal (has) made more hunting ammo this year than we have in the 99 years of our company,” he said. “Certainly that wasn’t enough. We understand that.”

No industry can be totally prepared for a sudden unprecedented surge in demand, said Jason Hornady of Hornady Manufacturing ammunition company.

“In the past year we’ve had a half-dozen events that have driven sales of firearms,” he said in Guns & Ammo online on May 3. “The industry has done a pretty good job; estimates are that every manufacturer is up 30 to 50%. The reality is: No one can afford to have an extra, idle factory sitting around waiting for these scenarios.”

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he’s concerned about finding ammunition for fall hunting seasons, even though he has a direct link to manufacturers NSSF, based in Connecticut, represents gun makers and promotes shooting sports.

“I wish I could give you better news, but we are going to be dealing with this dearth of ammo for the foreseeable future,” he said last week. “Some manufacturers are saying maybe for the next two years.

“Remington came back online in Arkansas, and that’s helpful, but all the manufacturers have been working as hard as they can to make as much ammo as they can and it’s still not enough.”

NSSF officials say the shortages are the result of a combination of booming demand caused mostly by the COVID 19 lockdowns and social unrest. Oliva said that a record 21 million firearms background checks for gun sales were conducted by the FBI in 2020 – including 8.4 million for first-time gun buyers.

“The previous record was 15.7 million gun sales (checks) in 2016,” he said. “The number was 13.2 million in 2019.”

He said 8.5 million firearms have been sold this year through May 31, up from 8.1 million sold during that period in the record year of 2020.

“Everybody who buys a gun also buys ammunition,” he said, adding that if each of the 21 million firearms sold in 2020 went out the door with just 50 rounds of ammo, that would amount to more than 1 billion rounds in addition to the shooting consumption of the many millions of guns already out there.

While the FBI background checks on gun sales help keep a tally on firearms numbers, no one knows how much ammunition is out there – or who has it or for what reasons.

The 57-year-old gunman who killed nine transit workers in San Jose, California, this spring had stockpiled about 25,000 rounds of various types of ammunition for a dozen firearms, according to Santa Clara County sheriffs who searched his house after the attack.

And the Internet is smoldering with hints that some groups and individuals in the United States are arming for the potential of a civil war.

The NSSF dismisses the conspiracy theories that the federal government is diverting production for its own ammunition stockpiles, and Oliva notes that the military has its own supply line.

“It’s about demand,” he said. “There’s plenty of copper, lead and gunpowder to keep factories working at capacity. They have enough primers now. All the parts are there, but they can’t keep up with the unprecedented demand.”

Ammo that becomes available often is selling at prices two to three times higher than ammo sold two years ago, he said. “Again, it’s the law of supply and demand.”

A group of friends enjoying a “men’s trip” vacation through Western states scheduled a round of sporting clays at Landt Farms last week much as they would a round of golf as they visited the Spokane area. They said they had to scramble and shop in several towns to find enough shotgun shells for the five of them to fire at 100 targets apiece.

One of the men said he paid $18 for a box of 25 target loads.

Sporting clays, which is done outside where social distancing is easy, has been a popular diversion during the pandemic, Scott said, but not as popular as it could have been.

“People new to the sport have had trouble finding ammo,” she said. “They were buying or borrowing anything they could find, assuming any shells would work. We had to put signs up saying no steel shot. It’s harder than lead and does more damage to facilities and patterning boards and it’s more likely to ricochet off rocks.

“No regular shooters would use steel or No. 2 lead shot or beat themselves up with (more powerful) hunting loads, but we had a lot of new shooters and spouses – they had time on their hands – and they were desperate for ammo because the competitive shooters had already stocked up on target loads.

“Now even the competitive shooters are running short. We’ve tried buying from Italian manufacturers, but they’re backordered, too.”

Tracy Wright, a competitive shooter and sporting clays coach, said he has had nearly 50% fewer students because they couldn’t access ammo.

“It’s just starting to become more available,” he said, noting that some shooters are desperate. “I shoot 500 to 1,000 targets a week when I’m getting ready for an event, so I personally consume 25,000 to 30,000 shells a year.”

Before the pandemic, Bryan Tafoya, who coaches his teenage son, Ben, and others in the Spokane Junior Rifle Club, paid $275 to $300 for what he thought was plenty of 500-round cases of premium match-grade .22 ammo for Ben’s small-bore competition needs. As Ben improved last year and qualified for the 2021 Junior Olympics, he stepped up his training.

By the time Tafoya realized he had nearly exhausted his ammo supply, they couldn’t find any more to purchase.

“I contacted manufacturers and distributors and told them my kid is shooting at a national-class level and I’m desperate for ammo, is there any place you can point me to get some? I was told, ‘No, we’re sorry; there’s none to be had.’

“Finally, after searching the Internet, we found a person who as getting out of the sport and was willing to sell 500 rounds for $1,000. I was glad to get it.”

Tafoya said the financial sacrifice is worth the investment in his son’s development. The discipline taught in competitive shooting has been a positive factor in Ben’s maturity and ability to focus on tests and get good grades at school, he said.

Dan Durben, USA Shooting coach, said last week that “at the Olympic level our sponsors – Eley for my National Rifle Team – have done a good job of preparing and keeping us with an adequate supply of ammunition for training and competitions.

“Keep in mind that I am working with a very small number of the best athletes in the world, so it’s not as difficult finding enough ammunition for them as it is for the millions of hunters and recreational shooters out there.”

Jay Waldron, National Shotgun Team head coach said Federal, a sponsor, has provided enough ammunition to keep Olympic shooters training, but he acknowledges that up-and-coming shooters have not been so lucky in the past year.

“There has been a severe pinch put on nonteam members to secure ammunition,” he said.

Oliva’s son works at a Cabela’s store.

“He says they don’t know what days ammunition will show up and when it does come in, it’s gone within hours,” he said.

Shooters are networking and calling friends when they hear of a store getting a shipment.

The Cabela’s store in Post Falls had a truckload of ammo delivered the Friday before Memorial Day “and it was all gone by Monday,” a clerk in the gun department said. “It’s totally random when we’ll get another shipment. You just have to keep checking in.”

That’s why shooters want to buy as much ammo as they can when they find it, Oliva said. “It’s a cascading effect. Many retailers are limiting how much they’ll sell an individual customer, but the demand is still off the charts.”

Sharp Shooting has taken ammunition from the retail side of the business to make it available to new shooters taking classes, Ball said.

“It’s not good for our bottom line, but it’s part of our commitment to the long-term importance of having safe gun owners,” he said.

“Ammo availability may get even more complex since the most popular calibers in America shift through the year,” Ball said. “In summer, manufacturers begin tooling to hunting calibers and shift shotgun shells to steel shot that’s required for waterfowl hunting. In my opinion, hunters will be the next group to be pinched with an ammo problem.

“There might be some unpleasant surprises for hunters who walk into a store as they always have in September to buy ammo for their seasons.”

This article was first published in The Spokesman-Review.