Inventories vanished and prices rose on 5.56 NATO cartridges after a social media post went viral this month, claiming 30 percent of the civilian supply was about to vanish. The widely shared reports cite an anonymous tip that the administration is suspending Winchester Ammo’s ability to commercially offer ammunition produced at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant (LCAAP). An Oct. 30 statement from the Lake City facility clarified that, "Joint Munitions Command has not changed its policy regarding commercial production at Lake City. Lake City has not cancelled commercial contracts."
Winchester Ammunition took over management of LCAAP in 2020 and, as part of the agreement, is required to maintain a high production rate in the interest of national defense. Those cartridges coming out of the plant in volumes higher than required by the U.S. military, and the excess is then made commercially available.
Identical stories caused a similar shortage in June 2022. NRA-ILA broke that news, through reliable sources, noting the Obama administration’s previous attempt to stem the commercial availability of the cartridges by “ … relabeling them ‘armor piercing ammunition.’” The Biden administration’s 2022 effort ended after intervention by a coalition of 50 members of the House or Representatives.
Internal politics is not the only possible factor for this year’s run, though. As of June 2023, the United States shipped 300 million small arms cartridges to Ukraine. LCAAP likely produced the majority, if not entirety, of that supply. The savage attack on Israel and the subsequent fighting furthers the strain.
Estimates of production at LCAAP’s sprawling 3,935-acre, 458-building Missouri complex vary. It runs at or near full capacity, regardless of demand, to maintain readiness and retain skilled staff, which explains Winchester’s ability to offer excess commercially. The exact number of small-arms cartridges it produces is likely a closely guarded military secret, although in May 2023, the Kansas City Business Journal reported the figure at 1.6 billion annually. That, however, includes 9 mm NATO and .50 BMG, not just 5.56 NATO.
It’s not enough to sustain the U.S. military during a conflict, however, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in July 2005 [PDF]. In fiscal year 2005, after our troops were engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, our armed forces ran through 1.8 billion rounds—200 million more than LCAAP can produce annually.
Any reduction or halt in commercial availability could be an effort to bolster strategic stockpiles at this time of heightened tension with major countries, including China and Russia, along with chronic threats from Iraq and North Korea.
The ammo shortage’s timing, however, may point to another cause. Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and the violence, protests and dangerous rhetoric quickly spread across the globe. The earliest Internet post on LCAAP allegedly suspending 5.56 NATO commercial availability we found was four days later. The Reddit poster didn’t include a link or reference. With self-defense being the No. 1 reason for American gun ownership, there’s no doubt thousands bolstered their ammunition supply after witnessing the violence on nightly TV, causing backorders at the retail level.
The U.S. Army’s adoption of the 6.8 mm cartridge effect future supply, but likely has no impact today. The plant at LCAAP won’t begin production for at least two years with SIG Sauer serving as a second-source provider. In the meantime, 5.56 NATO is the primary rifle cartridge coming out of the Missouri facility.