Good as Gold. Popular cartridges such as the pictured .223 Rem, 9mm, 5.56 NATO and a number of hunting calibers are tough to find due to shortages of components used to make them and heightened demand, both resulting from recent pandemic conditions. Simonson Photo.

By Nick Simonson

What outdoor product has a higher hold rating than Bitcoin? What is getting pricier than a 1960s-era Mickey Mantle baseball card as collectors take stock of their youth-based memorabilia? What is seeing a run unlike anything we’ve recently witnessed, beyond perhaps Charmin and Cottonelle last March? The answer to all three of these questions is ammunition; and that is due to a number of factors tied to the ongoing pandemic.

Pandemic Supply Problems
Foremost, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has rippled through a number of strata which affect the ammunition industry. First, with having a lower number of individuals available to work early on in the event, the labor force which produces ammunition was reduced for a period of time. Second, transport of goods, particularly gunpowder which often comes from overseas as part of the ammunition supply chain, was also limited by travel and transport restrictions put in place by various governments. In conjunction with a scarcity of brass, a key component in the creation of coins which are also experiencing a shortage and causing a heightened demand for the material, and an increased demand for lead, many of the basic components required for ammunition simply don’t come together as easily as they did a few years ago following the last ammunition shortage in 2013. It is not likely that shipments will arrive in amounts to fill shelves to capacity any time soon, and dealers predict a return to normal levels is several years off as popular calibers and even powder for reloading are sold quickly, sometimes within a few hours of arrival, even with per-customer restrictions in place.

“It’ll be a few years…the shelves are stripped” says Darryl Howard, owner of Double H Gun Shop in Bismarck, N.D., on when things will return to normal in light of the current ammo supply, “I usually have about three or four feet of shelf front for 30.06 and two feet of .243 in different brands and loads and bullet weights, but we’ll be very fortunate to have a choice or two of 30.06, which is crazy,” he continues, suggesting hopefully that hunters’ options will expand throughout the summer and into the fall of 2021 as production ramps up on increased component inputs.

A Jump In Demand
The pandemic and related social uneasiness that went with it, or in some cases the unrest from events which simply coincided with it, also resulted in the purchase of more firearms, particularly by first-time owners. Estimates based on early numbers coming out of 2020 show new gun ownership increasing by anywhere between seven and ten million Americans. While a good deal of these purchases were personal defense-related in reaction to social threats real or perceived in a time of stress, others came about as people explored self-sufficiency, the locavore movement, and hunting and shooting sports as a way to get outside during quarantine, as both activities were exempted in many state stay-at-home orders. On this front too, Howard’s numbers through December of 2020 reflect the national trend with sales of handguns, rifles and shotguns up across the board over the previous year, with some firearm varieties outselling last year at a pace of 60 to 70 percent. Accessories such as optics and holsters are also selling well. Beyond the demand on popular calibers for handguns and rifles, even the shotgun ammunition market is tightening up and posing a challenge to spring and summer shooting sports programs and potentially the market for field loads heading into autumn.

With the spring season of the USA High School Clay Target League starting next month, concerns are growing that the ammo shortage may affect the program which saw incredible growth during the pandemic, due to the activity being a school-sanctioned sport which could be practiced through its socially-distanced nature despite the ongoing restrictions in many states. As spring sports were canceled outright at the outset of the pandemic, and only a handful of activities opened in the fall nationwide, many students sought extracurricular engagement in clay target shooting. However, with the ammunition shortage also impacting production and supply chain distribution of target loads, coaches are scrambling to secure their team’s stockpile of shells for this spring.

“We’ve had probably two dozen emails [from coaches] saying that if they can’t find ammunition in the next six weeks, they probably can’t participate,” said John Nelson, President of the USA Clay Target League, on how the ammo shortage is impacting the organization’s high school and college leagues across the country, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg: “there literally is a plea for help to try and get these kids involved, and our position has always been that with as many new kids that are coming through this league – especially with the pandemic that shut things down last year – it would be a horrible shame to turn these kids away because of an ammunition shortage,” he concludes.

A New Normal
While some try to game the system and circumvent restrictions – recruiting family members and friends to grab per-person allotted boxes of ammo at certain retailers – most shooting sports practitioners and hunters know the factors at play or get a better understanding when the supply situation is explained to them by owners like Howard. Above all, he stresses that the industry will likely get through it without any Black Friday-type melees when limited shells do hit the shelves, and there will still be opportunities to load up.

“You don’t have to shoot at or kill a deer for another eight months to be scrounging for ammo right now,” Howard says with a laugh, “everybody just needs to take a deep breath and be kind,” while keeping an eye out for their preferred brand and caliber, he concludes.