The Keefe Report: Where's All The Ammo?

posted on December 15, 2020

Photo courtesy of Guy J. Sagi

Consider this a public service announcement of sorts regarding the current ammunition scarcity. I’ve spoken to the top three manufacturers, and if you were/are having difficulty finding ammunition, it’s not because they aren't trying to keep up with demand.

Each one of them reports that they have produced record amounts of ammunition this year. I include Hornady now within that big three, at least until the Remington facility in Arkansas is back up to speed. Just so you know, the Remington plant was perhaps the third or fourth largest ammunition plant in the United States. But more on that in just a moment.

Demand actually was on the upswing before the year 2020 even began. Then the dumpster fire that is 2020 wrought havoc on both gun and ammunition availability. This is a pure demand-driven issue. The government guys who may or may not be in black helicopters are not interested in small rifle primers or .22 Long Rifle. Good luck finding either on the shelf.

How bad is it? Let me give you some anecdotes.

Just two weeks ago, I received a call that probably should not have surprised me.

“Do you have any .30-30?” This was not a question I was expecting. I mean, after all, there might be some parachute-cord-wrapped lever-actions somewhere if they haven’t been snarfed up, but .30-30 ammo? Really?

It seems the friend of a friend was heading out on a hog hunt and left it too late to buy ammunition. Nowhere in northern Virginia could you find a box of .30-30 on the shelf. He was headed for a wild boar trip and had exactly four rounds. I dug into my personal stash to make sure his hunt wasn’t ruined, but this is a symptom of a much larger issue today.

Back in April, one of our field editors received a call from a pretty prominent gun shop asking, "How much 9 mm do you have?" He answered and was told that he would be paid twice what he paid for it, and a truck would be there tomorrow.

A friend at Hornady recently reached out to me to ask that I spread the word. What’s going on with ammunition is nothing sinister, nor a conspiracy. It is simple supply-and-demand. In fact, it's hyper-inflated demand like no one has ever seen. I certainly haven't in the 30 years that I've been paying attention to such things.

Much has been made of the fact that guns, especially guns suitable for personal defense, have been hard to find. It would stand to reason that, with gun sales at an all-time high, ammunition will not take long to follow. At first, it was 9 mm Luger and .223 Rem., with local outages of things like .300 Blackout and 7.62x39 mm. It is not because the ammunition makers are not working all-out. American ammunition makers have all increased output and productivity as much as they can. They are making more ammunition than they ever have before. As soon as it goes into distribution, it is gone.

Despite this, they are being hammered by their customers who ask, “Where is the ammo?“ It’s not being diverted to top-secret government contracts. It’s being bought by your friends and neighbors before you. Hounding manufacturers to the point where they have to pull guys off the machines to answer the phones helps no one. No one at all.

Your fellow gun owners’ buying habits have changed. I watched a guy who typically buys ammunition four or five boxes at a time take cases of Winchester White Box out of the Chantilly, Va., gun show with a dolly so loaded, the frame was buckling.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, protests, riots and then the most rabid anti-gun platform ever introduced being pushed by the Democratic party, it’s no wonder that people have increased their demand for guns and ammunition. When a candidate for national office—even a poorly performing one—utters, “Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15,” what did you think was going to happen?

This is not even attributable to supply-chain problems, with the exception of the Remington ammunition plant in Arkansas. That plant was sidelined by the sale of the company by an Alabama bankruptcy court. Talk about a series of unfortunate events. One of the largest plants in the country couldn’t make ammo at full capacity because of the financial problems of its parent company. The good news is that Vista Outdoor picked up that facility, and the Vista team is very good indeed at making ammunition. I am told after the first of the year, ammunition will be flowing out of that plant, and many of its workers will be rehired.

We have been through conditions similar to this before, but nothing like this. It’s to the point that waterfowlers looking for ammo are having a hard time because people looking for defensive loads have decided that steel BBs are better than nothing.

A friend at a major retailer told me one of his managers was approached by a customer who found a box of .38-55 sitting alone on the shelf. He asked if there was anything in the store that would shoot it, as it was the only box of ammo there.

This is a great year to be in the replica-cowboy-gun business, but for entirely different reasons than usual. I personally watched a fellow who entered the gun shop wanting a Glock and left with a Uberti single-action revolver in .45 Colt simply because it was the only handgun in the store. Once that was gone, the shelves were bare.

I have spoken with representatives of every major ammunition company in the United States, as well as quite a few importers. It’s not that they aren't trying to meet the demand. It’s just the demand is so high that as soon as product enters commerce, it’s gone. There’s an insatiable appetite out there now, and once rumors about ammo being in short supply start leaking out, much like the many primer scarcities we’ve had over the years, the demand increases. Panic begets more panic.

You might ask, "If demand is higher, why can’t these ammunition manufacturers just add capacity?" They would if they could. Expanding an ammunition plant isn’t something that can be done easily. Not only are such facilities expensive to build and maintain, there are a lot of regulations surrounding the manufacture of ammunition, with zoning and environmental regulations being just a part of it. Would you want to live next door to a primer facility?

For example, when Winchester shifted its rimfire and centerfire manufacturing to Oxford, Miss., it literally took years. By the time any company could get expanded production into place, there may or may not be any additional demand. What most of makers have done is increase efficiency within their existing footprints, as well as making sure those machines are running 24/7.

Of course, there are speculators, those who use times like this to inflate prices and increase profit. There’s nothing wrong with selling things at a profit, but if speculators buy up the available supply, you cannot. The manufacturers are not the speculators. While there may have been modest price increases due to the price of raw materials, the makers are not gouging. It’s not Winchester’s fault a guy on GunBroker is trying to charge $5 a round for Ranger SXT 9 mm, so don’t blame the horse and rider.

How long will this go on? No one really knows. But it is unlikely to burst soon—especially as anti-gun bills are introduced at the state and federal levels. Even when the raging floodwaters of demand subside, we will still be looking at a completely empty distribution chain that will take time to fill.


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