The great American hunting ammunition shortage that started during the early months of pandemic in 2020 is showing no signs of letting up, and hunters who don’t have ammo for their favorite deer rifle by now may be out of luck for the upcoming season.

An informal News Tribune survey of both brick-and-mortar and online sporting goods stores found almost no popular loads in 12-gauge shotgun shells or .30-caliber rifle cartridges, either for birds or big game.

A recent online check of Cabelas found only 1 of 10 calibers of Winchester Super-X deer rifle ammunition in stock (.350 Legend) and no calibers available in Federal Power Shok; “out of stock’’ was listed next to every load.

L&M Fleet Supply in Cloquet had some .223 cartridges available, but no other rifle or shotgun loads on hand. Fleet Farm in Duluth had some turkey hunting loads, but little else.

Some stores report that it’s been nearly two years since they’ve seen any .30-30 ammo at all.

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Pat Kukull, owner of Superior Shooters Supply in Superior, said the ammunition shortage hit with COVID-19, as plants initially slowed or shut down due to the pandemic’s impact on their employees and as supplies from overseas stopped coming into the country. Then the political and social unrest of 2020 sent gun sales soaring, she said.

Shelves are nearly bare at the Duluth Fleet Farm store Oct. 3, 2021. Ammunition shelves at most sporting goods stores and most online retailers have been mostly empty of the most popular rifle and shotgun hunting loads since the pandemic began in early 2020.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
Shelves are nearly bare at the Duluth Fleet Farm store Oct. 3, 2021. Ammunition shelves at most sporting goods stores and most online retailers have been mostly empty of the most popular rifle and shotgun hunting loads since the pandemic began in early 2020. John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

In 2020, there were a record 39.7 million federal background checks conducted for firearms sales, up 44% from the previous record of 27.5 million in 2016. Of the new guns sold in 2020, 8.4 million were to first-time gun buyers, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for the U.S. firearms industry. (Not every check is a sale, but not all sales require checks, either. Sales between private parties or at gun shows don’t require background checks.)

“We have 8 million new gun owners now that we didn’t have before the pandemic and they all need ammunition. There’s just been this huge increase in demand while the supply has been really slow to catch up because of the pandemic,” Kukull said.

Another problem was the bankruptcy and shutdown of Remington Arms, a major ammunition manufacturer, in mid-2020. Minnesota-based Vista Outdoor Inc. eventually purchased the Remington ammunition factories in September 2020, and now has them running again, but the delay helped widen the gap between ammo supply and demand.

Call ahead — plants are making ammo

This fall, instead of getting hundreds of cases of shotgun and rifle cartridges as hunting seasons approached, stores like Superior Shooters Supply have been getting a few here, a few there. Kukull says it's best to call ahead to see if a specific caliber or gauge shell is available. But even if it is, don’t plan on stocking up. Most stores have signs posted limiting sales to two boxes.

“I’m the ammo Nazi right now. No one is getting more than one box, maybe two,” Kukull said.

Kukull said hunters should call in often to see if the caliber they need is available. Both wholesalers and manufacturers are shipping product to her store erratically.

In the Northland, Federal Cartridge ammunition, made in Anoka, Minnesota, has always been popular. Owned by Vista, Federal has been unable to keep up with demand, in part because the great pandemic supply problem kept them from getting all the components they need — much like the U.S. auto industry can’t get enough computer chips to build new cars.

“We continue to produce and ship hunting ammunition for deer, waterfowl and upland game birds every day,’’ Jason Nash, Federal’s vice president of marketing, told the News Tribune. “Like many other companies during the pandemic we face some supply chain hurdles but have increased our production overall and are committed to providing ammo to our customers for the hunting season.”

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Jason Vanderbrink — president of the Federal, CCI, Speer and Remington divisions of Vista — even went as far as posting a video on YouTube to defend his company, trying to squash rumors that Vista is stockpiling ammunition in “secret warehouses,” or has shut down plants to drive prices up. He said all of the company's ammunition factories are running at full capacity.

“I am tired of all the hate mail … about us not trying to service the demand that we are experiencing,” Vanderbrink said in the video. “We’re making more hunting ammo, more than we ever have.”

In addition to being hard to get, prices for what shells are available have gone up 25%-40% on average, industry experts say, when just two seasons ago manufacturers were offering sale prices and rebates to move their products.

Even people who reload their own shells can’t get components. Gunpowder, primer, brass and copper all are in short supply.

“We used to be able to order 1,000 pounds of powder. Now we’re lucky to get an order for 30 pounds,” Kukull said.

Kukull said industry insiders predicted in 2020 that it would take two years for the ammunition shortage to end.

“At first I thought that was crazy. But now I’m thinking that’s right. … Maybe by next hunting season,” she said.

Background checks for new gun purchases slowed some over summer, down 5% in July from 2020. But Kukull said her customers are still gobbling up guns as fast as she gets them in. The hardest part, she said, is keeping a box of shells around for each new gun sold.

“My gun sales haven’t dropped off at all,” she said. “People are still buying more guns, and new people are buying guns. And they all need ammunition.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com.