With the onset of the pandemic last year, ammunition got very expensive and very hard to find.
Now that America is starting to reopen, ammo is slowly starting to reappear on store shelves.
Prices are still sky high, however, and industry leaders estimate it could be 12 to 24 months before the cost of ammunition returns to pre-COVID levels.
“I would tell people who are holding out and thinking the prices are going to drop that they might want to start looking, to kind of turn a phrase a little bit, to bite the bullet and buy the ammunition that you want now, if you can find it,” said Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry trade association.
During the past year and a half, an influx of new gun owners and widespread ammo stockpiling have contributed to bare shelves and high prices, Oliva said.
“5.56 ammunition for an AR-15 used to be about 33 cents a round,” Oliva said. “Now you’re looking at closer to almost a dollar a round. So it is much more expensive and it is much more difficult to find ammunition.”
Oliva said a key thing to understand is that the number of gun owners in America skyrocketed in 2020, as evidenced by a record 21 million background checks for firearm purchases, up from a previous high of 15.7 million checks in 2016.
Surveys indicate that 40% of those 21 million people were first-time gun buyers.
“That’s an injection of over 8.4 million people into the market that wasn’t expected in January 2020, but all of a sudden started showing up in March,” Oliva said. “That’s a huge influx of customers into the market. If you just kind of do back-of-the-napkin math, if you’re looking at 8.4 million gun owners who are buying, say, just one box of 50 rounds, that’s going to be 420 million rounds.”
Of course, people aren’t just buying one box of ammo.
Ammunition supply suffering from the toilet paper effect
Oliva said most new gun owners want to do some target practice at the range, take a marksmanship class or otherwise improve their proficiency with their new firearm.
That takes ammunition, so most new gun owners leave the store with several boxes of bullets. That, in turn, prompts other gun owners to do the same.
Addressing the current ammunition shortage, Oliva said, “People walked into their local gun stores … and they saw that those shelves were getting bare, which caused a lot of people say, ‘Well, maybe I should buy a couple of boxes while they’re still available.’ That has a cascading effect. One guy comes back and grabs two or three boxes, the next guy grabs two or three boxes, and the guy behind him grabs four or five. That just starts snowballing a little bit, like what we saw last spring with toilet paper.”
Jay Woodbury, president of Jay’s Guns and Accessories with locations in Crestview, Baker and Panama City, offered a similar assessment.
“Everybody who buys a firearm is going to want ammo, and then all the people who already have a firearm buy ammo,” Woodbury said. “And then when you had the riots, the COVID scare with the shortages of everything, people went and tried to buy ammo and, of course, there wasn’t any, which made them want it more.”
He said the issue was compounded when second-hand resellers began loading up on ammo to sell at flea markets and gun shows at steeps markups, which in turn influenced retailers and suppliers to mark up their prices. All those issues were worsened by pandemic-related workforce shortages and supply chain issues, which drove the prices “up and up and up,” Woodbury said.
The good news is that it seems as though demand might have peaked.
Woodbury said prices and availability for hunting ammo already have started to stabilize.
“Tactical shooters usually buy a lot more ammo and stockpile a lot more ammo than hunting people,” he said. “When you hunt, you shoot maybe one box a year, you know, one bullet, one deer. But when you’re a target shooter or a tactical shooter, you’re shooting 1,000 rounds in a weekend.”
He estimated the ammunitions that fly off shelves, such as 9mm, 10mm, .40, .45, .223 and .308, would take a lot longer to normalize.
“Before all this kicked off, we were selling 9mm — a good quality brand, 50 rounds — for $15.99,” Woodbury said. “Right now, I’ve got it from $39.99 to $49.99. And, six months ago it was $59.99, so it is coming down, just not coming down as fast as everybody would like.”
The supply of ammunition is “loosening up” a bit
As prices are starting to creep down, availability is starting to creep up.
Andrew Nicolopoulos, the owner of Patriot Arms of NW Florida Inc. at 105 Hughes St. N.E. in Fort Walton Beach, gets his guns and ammo in an allotment from his distributor, so he’s at their mercy in terms of what he can stock on the shelves.
The allotments had been pretty sparse, but they’ve improved slightly recently.
“I’ve got more ammo than I’ve had in probably over a year, so it may be freeing up a little bit,” Nicolopoulos said. “I’m getting a few more guns. It’s still kind of tough on me, but it’s looking a little bit better.”
Prices are still high up and down the supply chain. He noted that “a box of 9mm that, pre-COVID, was like $10.50 a box, now I’m seeing it online for $40-$50 a box. I’m selling it here for $29.99.”
But even though supply is starting to come back, customers aren’t.
“It’s just to the point now where I’m kind of running month to month because the business has dropped off quite a bit,” he said. “Everybody that used to come in here that knew I had a lot of stuff, now they don’t come in because they know I don’t have a lot of stuff.”
Woodbury said on his end, he’s also starting to see more ammo come in, but that it’s not the quality he’d typically stock.
“I have over 50 different distributors and 10 different manufacturers I buy from,” he said. “I can’t pick up the phone to say, ‘I want this,’ they call me and say, ‘You can have this.’ I can’t say, ‘I want,’ I can’t order something, I have have to take what they offer. So right now, I’ve got a lot of stuff I usually don’t carry, brands I don’t consider good brands, substandard ammo in my opinion, but it’s all you can get.”
Oliva, from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said many people have turned to the internet hoping to find quality ammo at low prices.
He advised online shoppers, “Do your due diligence and check out those websites to make sure that they’re legitimate. Make sure that they’re trustworthy and make sure that you’re not getting burned, because we have seen reports of some fly-by-night sites where people aren’t getting the product that they’re ordering. You know, the big guys in the industry who have a good reputation have a good reputation for a reason, because the vendor stands by their customers. So it’s worthwhile to maybe invest in purchasing from those people.”
Manufacturers are producing more ammunition now than they ever have
Oliva said America’s leading ammo manufacturers — Hornady, Federal Premium Ammunition, Remington, CCI and others — have all ramped up production dramatically.
“They’ve put out videos to their customer base to let them know that they are working 24/7, the machines are not stopping and they’re cranking out as much production as they possibly can,” Oliva said.
Still, it won’t be a quick fix.
Based on estimates from manufacturers, “We’re probably looking at the situation we’re dealing with now for the next year to two years,” Oliva said.
Woodbury said part of the problem is that the COVID pandemic has made it difficult to get raw materials such as primers, brass, lead and copper.
“It’s not just here in the United States or Crestview, Florida. It’s a global thing,” he said. “The same materials that they are competing for to make ammunition, they are competing for to make solar panels and batteries for electric cars, so really it affects everything.”
At the end of the day, he said it’s all basic capitalism: supply and demand. Once the demand goes down, the prices will, too.
“Right now ammo is up, but has stabilized. It’s not going up anymore, I don’t think,” Woodbury said. “It’s gonna start coming down a little bit at a time, it’s just gonna take some time because until people stop buying and creating demand and a lack of supply, it’s not going to come way down.”