Ammunition Shortage Report, Pt 1

The 2010 Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show has come and gone and the event owner/sponsor, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), has been quick to declare it a huge success. They announced an overall attendance figure of just over 58,000 people, including exhibitors, dealers and media representatives. That's a bunch of people and second in pure numbers only to the Show in Las Vegas in 2008. Clearly a lot was happening and those of us from Officer.com who attended will be reporting on the interesting things we saw or did.

In my column last month I said that a top priority for me was to talk with the various ammunition manufacturers to try and get a handle on what is happening with the current ammunition supply, particularly as it relates to law enforcement needs. I'll tell you up front, the ammo people don't want to talk about it. Well, not on the record anyway. I spoke with a number of people, both from companies involved and others who at least think they know some of the details of the situation. All of the companies have their prepared statements, which, when distilled down to simple English, all say the same thing: We are producing ammunition as fast as we can. Beyond that, they seem unwilling to publicly discuss details of their production policies, capacities or future plans. Most will say that they are publicly traded companies and therefore have an obligation to make sure they don't divulge any secrets, while continuing to provide an appropriate return on their shareholder's investments, of course. And, shareholders are happy. After all, the ammo business is booming and they are selling all they can make. Who wouldn't like to have that kind of business?

Beyond the business-speak, however, I did have some interesting conversations that I can at least paraphrase in such a manner that individual companies, or their representatives, won't get burned for taking a few minutes to discuss the Great Ammunition Shortage with me. As a result, don't look for direct quotes from identified sources here.

All of the manufacturer reps that I talked with were willing enough to acknowledge that military contract obligations have a big impact on their overall production and ammo availability. All of them also said that they do not give any specific priority to the production of law enforcement ammunition. In fact, it seemed to me that they had not even considered the idea. LE ammo is just another product line and they produce it along with everything else. They may market it as something special, but no one is pushing it out the door ahead of the rest of their offerings. As a result, what affects the overall production, affects the LE ammo. With that in mind, it may be appropriate to begin this discussion with a review of how we got to where we are in the first place, and then look at what we can do to make the most of a bad situation.

The current ammunition shortage really began several years ago. Some say as far back as 2004 and at least by 2005. That was when the effects of increased military consumption began to be noticed. Companies that received military contracts were obligated to deliver on those products on a demanding schedule and production was altered accordingly. For a time, the existing system took up the slack and some increase in production capability was fueled by the long-term and consistent nature of the military demands. In other words, it was worth their while to invest in new buildings, new equipment and more manpower because there is a long term income stream to go with it. This is an important difference from civilian or commercial sales because, even after all this time, they still see the commercial demand as a temporary situation that will not last long enough to support long term investment.

Anyway, after a couple of years, when all of the slack was taken out of the existing production capabilities, the effect began to be noticed in the overall availability of all commercial ammo. At the same time, some other stresses were added to the mix. Foreign military demands increased along with US military needs and the ammo companies pushed to get their share of that market. There have been some hefty military contracts announced within the ammunition industry in the past several years, most of which go unnoticed by the commercial consumer because they are normally only announced in trade publications.

A concurrent and related problem is the shortage of raw materials that are needed to produce ammunition. Copper and lead are the most obvious, but there are many others. The absence of any one component means that no completed product makes it off the production line. We all know about the copper situation. We've been chasing people who have been stealing copper pipe and wiring for several years now. As much as we need copper for ammunition production, ammo requirements are just a drop in the bucket compared to the overall copper needs in the commercial world. Multiply that effect by all of the different ingredients in the ammo pie, and you have a huge stress on the system, even without the military demands. Components have been just as bad to get for the ammo makers as they have been for the roll-your-own reloading folks. It's just a difference in scale. The fact that these shortages came along at the same time that ammo demand was increasing was the beginning of the perfect storm of the ammo world.

Still another element is the fact that modern manufacturing is based on tight supply and delivery schedules. This means that raw materials and components show up at the plants just in time to hit the production line, and finished products are shipped out as soon as they leave the line. Very little is stockpiled. Any interruption in that flow is felt very quickly. What product was sitting around in storage was sucked out of the system in 2007 and early 2008. With that vacuum, any additional stress would create obvious shortages at the consumer level.

That next stress was the tanking economy. Ammo manufacturers may be economically healthy at the moment, but most others are not. People began to fear the effects of the economy on the crime rate, so they started buying guns and ammunition at record rates. Stockpiling began, even though most people have no real idea how they might actually use any of it. Like hoarding food and water, having ammo seemed to be a good idea, so the squeeze continued. Then, by mid 2008, many people saw the political handwriting on the wall. Politicians with strong anti-gun records were gaining strength and we were about to get a President who has an established record of being a consistent supporter of the overall gun control agenda. It was the last straw.

Again, people who felt strongly about individual gun rights, fearing that the political situation would bring new attempts at restrictions, began to stock up on whatever they thought might be controlled by the government. The politicians have actually been too busy with other issues to want to poke the gun control grizzly bear in the butt with a sharp stick right now. However, the focus might change when the other issues are settled. I don't see that happening very soon, but we are living with the reaction to the perception.

Some have recently tried to declare that the ammunition shortage is over. They point to the fact that some big box stores once again have full shelves and greater product selection. I don't think we are there yet. Some ammunition is more available, but not all and not when and where it is needed. I'm also concerned that there are still frustrated people waiting in the wings. They didn't get what they thought they needed when this all started, so they will step forward and start buying up what does become available for a while, especially if the economy improves. No, I don't think it is over yet. Law enforcement consumers will still have the same issues. We still need ammo for training and duty use. We still have requirements we have to meet. We still don't have enough of what we need. What can we do about it? That will be Part 2.



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