There’s a bull market for bullets.
Stacks of ammo, once piled high at gun shops across America, have dwindled. Prices paid by consumers for much sought-after Winchester .380-caliber handgun bullets (a common name for cartridges) have doubled. At weekend gun shows, trailers loaded with boxes of ammunition are drained within hours.
Budget-pressed police departments, which can’t be caught short, have increased their orders just to be safe, and the U.S. military, fighting two wars, has seen its need for bullets quadruple in recent years.
Industry officials say the appetite for ammo in the United States is unprecedented.
Bullets are in demand as the United States’ interest in firearms has spiked. U.S. gun sales are up in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election in which the National Rifle Association poured millions of dollars into advertisements portraying Barack Obama as anti-gun and raising fears that gun sales might be restricted.
As a result, manufacturers are running their plants around the clock, seven days a week. Guns and ammo are in demand, but it is the bullets that are in short supply.
“Nobody has ever seen this kind of demand before,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., which represents the largest ammo suppliers in the country. “Right now, the plants are operating full-bore to get the product on the shelf.”
The foundation estimates that there will be about 2 billion more American-made bullets produced this year over last year’s 7.5 billion. But customers wouldn’t know it by the lack of supply on the shelves at local gun stores.
At the Los Angeles Gun Club, a shooting range and ammo store, customers are limited to buying four boxes of ammo per visit. This is something that owner Elias Yidonoy Jr. hasn’t done in the 20 years he’s owned the club. He doesn’t like the new policy, but if he doesn’t enforce it, the club would be out of bullets – and Yidonoy would out of business.
“We can’t stock enough bullets,” he said. “As soon as we put them out, they’re gone.”
New gun owners tend to buy more ammo, Yidonoy said. “Most of the time they buy more than they’ll ever need,” he said.
This poses a problem for ammo manufacturers. They can pencil in how the market will play out for hunters, range shooters, and other gun owners. But when the market began to boom, ammo became harder to find and more expensive.
From January through July, gun sales increased 22 percent over the same period. Americans’ newfound passion for arms can be traced back to the last year’s political campaign, said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. The NRA raised fears that Obama would “take people’s guns away,” he said.
Although consumer demand is a driving force behind the shortage, the military has eaten into the supply chain as well.
U.S. military demand for small arms ammunition has almost quadrupled this decade, increasing from 462 million to 1.6 billion rounds. The order used to be filled exclusively by military-owned Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo. But as consumption grew, the military turned to private contractors to fill demand.
As a result, there’s less brass, copper and lead available for the commercial market and less ammo for gun shop owners.
“Orders used to get filled in matters of weeks, if not days,” said Richard Moore, owner of Magnum Range Inc., a gun shop in San Bernardino, Calif. “Now we’re talking months and years. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come.”
Remington Arms Co. Inc., Alliant Techsystems Inc., and Winchester Ammunition say they are doing all they can to meet demand.
Cheaper Than Dirt, an online and catalog sporting goods dealer, has also seen its best months in ammunition sales this year. The company has done $20 million in ammunition sales alone, about 30 percent more than last year, said chief executive Michael Tenny.
At one point, the company was selling boxes of .380-caliber handgun ammo for about $50 when it normally sold for around $12.
“Ammunition is like gasoline, it’s a commodity,” he said. “When supply is hard to get ahold of, prices go up. That’s where we are now.”
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