The 2020/2021 Ammo Shortage
What's Behind It?
Are Industry Leaders Telling The Truth?
So by now, if you are a typical reader of this journal, you are aware of the current panic buying in ammo and guns occurring these days. But for those who are just catching up on current events, lets us briefly recap;….
As a member of "The Gun Culture", I already had a sense 2 years ago that this year's election might not go well for Trump, and that would bode badly for the future of gun rights. Reactively, that would also mean bad things for PRICES of gun stuff, as has occurred repeatedly over the years when future supply and replenishment are threatened by political winds. People panic, demand increases, stock on hand gets bought out, resupply can't keep up, prices elevate, gnashing of teeth and wailing ensues. I wrote an article here on Freedom's Phoenix about it in January of 2019, trying to warn you all. https://www.freedomsphoenix.com/Article/254607-2019-01-15-firearm-panic-buying-then-now-a-brief-history-and-prediction.htm
In that article, I expressed that the 2018 mid-terms "blue wave" in Congress meant things had changed and gun stuff was under threat immediately and prices would rise. I am glad that I was wrong about that. Congress proved more restrained and the faith of gun owners in Trump more strong than I anticipated (or can be actually justified). Panic buying did not ensue during 2019 like I anticipated.
But then came COVID-19 and Antifa's most violent year yet.
Prior to the arrival of the pandemic on America's shores, preppers and survivalists had been considered by most Americans as tragically comical nerds who'd seen too many movies. People made fun of their concerns about potential societal collapse, implosion of food supply networks, evaporation of the economy. My God;…why would anyone stockpile toilet paper? They joked and laughed and snickered and pointed at town fools.
By April, no one was laughing at them anymore.
The nation had seen their jobs vanish. They had seen violent mobs occupy city centers and the cops paralyzed to do anything about them. In fact, politicians seemed unwilling to, either. Grocery stores were running low on everything. All of the things those whacky survivalists and preppers had been warning about seemed so damned real and likely now.
Americans can be some of the most blind and willfully ignorant people on the planet. Our embarrassing excess of wealth and luxury (compared to the rest of humanity) allows us to be so. But we have in the past also demonstrated a capacity to be among the quickest learners of how to adapt when things go wrong. When things happen that slap us in the face regarding our arrogant complacency,…we as a people tend to wake up and smell the toast burning and do something about it. And so it was about arming one's self for the coming implosion of America.
Or at least, millions of people who previously saw no need to own a gun, now changed their minds, and set about getting one. As nearly everyone obediently went home for 2 weeks to "flatten the curve" and sat around watching TV non-stop, folks who hadn't paused to watch what was going on in the world, now did so. The fear porn peddled by the lamestream media was suddenly enhanced and multiplied in it's regular effect. Millions of previously gunless persons went gun shopping.
As we approach the end of 2020, data and statistics from that time are now coming to light, and the estimate is 8 million Americans became new gun owners between March and August.
I witnessed this take place first hand. Less than 2 weeks into the nationwide shutdown as people stopped going to work, I too was suddenly left with not much to do. So as a gundude, I spent a little more time than usual visiting some of my favorite gun stuff retailers, as well as spending far more time on the gundude forums, which were more active than ever, as more folks were at home with time on their hands. I'll never forget walking into CABELA'S, looking to pick up some gun powder to make custom ammunition. And not only was there a looooong line at the gun counter to purchase guns,…a significant number of the customers did not fit the usual profile. While gun owners are a diverse bunch, it is indeed fair to say that the group skews heavily toward middle class white male Republicans. Call me guilty of profiling, but it was plain that day that there were more women and racial minorities on hand than would be "normal". And over at the ammunition display area, there were dozens of folks pestering staff about looking in the back to see if there was any more 9mm or 5.56mm ammo. Those who were finding what they were looking for were not grabbing a box or two, but 1000-round CASES.
I had seen this type of run on ammo before. In 2012/2013, after the Newtown Massacre and the expected Obama offensive to push for gun control. Back then, not as many folks had a smart phone. Not everyone had mobile messaging or internet access. Neither did I. And for 3 days the panic ramped up before I finally became aware of it. By that time, the prices had already gone stoopid!
But now here I was,…at the beginning of it happening again. I whipped out my own smart phone, took pictures of the lines and bare shelves and unsatisfied customers milling around anxiously,…and posted to my local gundude forum I hang out on. I then texted all my friends what was happening, warning them to get off their butts and go get ammo now before it was all gone. Within 10 minutes I had notified everyone I figured might care. Within an hour, the entire gundude community in the metro area knew what was transpiring. What took 3 days to take hold 7 years before now took only half a day. Normal market prices and conditions were normal that morning, but by close of business, the panic was in full swing.
And a few months later, just as the panic from the COVID and mob violence concerns began to ebb and abate,…the signs that Trump might not sail easily to re-election began to occur. The new gun owners were starting to calm down, but the gundudes were starting to panic,…and the cycle started all over again.
If you are one of the people affected by this ammunition shortage that has occurred as a result of the panic buying, you might be rather upset, either at the lack of availability, the radically increased prices or both. And thusly, you might have heard rumors about "what's REALLY going on". This happened during the other ammo shortages/panics of the last 15 years that I have detailed in my previous article I referenced earlier. Folks began to get suspicious that the shortages were artificially created for profit motives, or by the government or military pressuring manufacturers. All of that has been debunked in the past, but the rumors always return with each new shortage. The producers are continually attacked by angry customers who think they aren't respecting the public. As a result, having gone through this multiple times over the years, this time the CEOs are getting proactive in trying to calm consumers down and allay their suspicions.
Freedom's Phoenix posted here just recently a YouTube video of Jason Vanderbrink, President of one of the largest ammunition manufacturer conglomerates (CCI, Speer, Federal, Remington) wherein he endeavors to tell the viewer how they are running at full capacity, 24/7/365, and that everything that can be done to satisfy the demand is in fact being done. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIgvoJKovIg&feature=emb_logo
But is that true?
Well, Mr. Vanderbrink did not exactly lie,…but neither did he speak entirely truthful. There is much he simply did not address, and likely never will.
Yes, the ammo plants are running full tilt. Yes, they have hired on hundreds of new employees in order to run all shifts. Yes, training those new employees and getting them up to SAFE speed is time consuming and expensive. Yes, all of that is made even harder while trying to deal with virus mitigation protocols to prevent spreading the COVID.
To attempt to explain this all without getting too boringly technical for those uninitiated with the peculiarities of manufacturing ammunition components is a challenge. But in an attempt to do so, let me break down first what those components are, and then explain which is the choke-point or bottleneck in the entire process of assembling ammunition. Upon doing that, you'll then likely understand why simply producing more ammo is not as easy as one might imagine. And if it isn't easy to accomplish, impatient and anxious customers might need to be told some propaganda in order to keep that anger suppressed.
The four components that make an ammunition cartridge are;
The projectile (bullet)
The case (usually just called 'brass')
The propellant (gunpowder)
The primer (miniature explosive that ignites the gunpowder)
Also, there are 2 different types of ammunition, which vary in the manner by which the primer is emplaced within the overall cartridge;
About 90% of modern commercial ammunition is centerfire. But rimfire calibers, typified primarily by the iconic .22LR, are traditionally the most affordable and popular for many reasons. (We'll get into that later.)
Rimfire is the older type of priming a cartridge to initiate the burning of propellant. Priming compounds (of which there have been several over the decades and centuries) are impact-sensitive. In a rimfire design cartridge case, a copper or brass tube is extruded and swaged and formed in such a way as to produce an expanded and hollow rim at what will be the base of the cartridge case once finished. When the finished cases are ready to receive their priming compound, the compound is emplaced within the hollow cavity of the rim. Later, when assembled as a live cartridge, a firing pin will impact the base of the rim, smashing it forcefully enough to detonate the priming compound and igniting the propellant, firing the cartridge.
In centerfire cartridges, the primer compound is essentially the same, as is the way it is initiated by impact from a firing pin. But rather than being emplaced in a hollow rim, the priming compound is instead set into a little metallic cup (usually brass or copper). Carefully pressed into this cup is another piece of metal called the "anvil", against which the priming compound is meant to be smashed and the detonation initiated. This tiny little cup, simply called a primer, can then be carefully pressed into a hole in the base of a cartridge case. Centerfire primers are modular, and thereby make designing and manufacturing a wide variety of calibers and cartridges far more efficient and cheaper across the entire ammunition manufacturing endeavor. In the days of the Wild West frontier, many cartridges were rimfire. And the popular .22LR was designed back then. But centerfire design and capabilities made those other rimfire calibers obsolete and they went the way of the Dodo. But tiny calibers like .22LR and a small handful of others are actually cheaper and more cost effective to produce as rimfire rather than as centerfire, so they have stuck around all this time, despite their "obsolete" technology.
There are bullets of simple construction and bullets of complicated construction. Demand for whichever is a complicated and unnecessary discussion here. Suffice to say that it is actually not all that difficult and there are many, many more manufacturers of projectiles than there are manufacturers of complete ammunition. In the current supply & demand problem for guys like myself who seek to craft my own custom ammunition from components,…although the selection currently because of the panic/shortage is not as good as it once was,…bullets can still be had if you know how to hunt the internet for them. And heck, some guys who don't require modern complicated bullets just melt scrap lead and cast their own.
Most modern centerfire ammunition manufactured outside of the former Soviet bloc is of the reloadable type (known as "Boxer" priming). All American military surplus ammunition is also "boxer primed", as is almost all of NATO. That means most of the cheap surplus ammo popular with American shooters, such as 5.56Nato or 7.62Nato, are reusable to reload into newly "remanufactured" ammo. Gundudes like myself have no problem coming up with spent brass cases to "roll our own". And just like projectiles, listed previously, new manufacture of cases is not really a challenge. Even with copper and zinc (the minerals used to make brass) mining operations occasionally experiencing some work flow issues from COVID, there is enough recyclable material for industrial manufacturers of sheet brass rolls for ammunition fabrication to keep cases pumping out of swaging presses all over the place. So just like projectiles, supply of cases is not a problem either.
Gunpowder has evolved quite a bit since black powder, and with the chemical engineering involved and fire and explosion hazards is a little more difficult and complicated than production of bullets or brass. But is able to be done on such a large scale that once a production facility for propellant is established, it often only needs to run part time to satisfy the needs for which it is established. This is evidenced by the fact that, right now, as a component for a home reloader of ammo like myself, acquiring various selection of gunpowder have not been difficult. Some selection has been reduced, but there is a wealth enough of commercial gunpowders available that I have had no trouble finding what I need. And if little old me can, then certainly the ammo industry isn't having any problem either.
PRIMERS (the actual bottleneck and choke-point)
But when it comes to acquiring primers, however,…now we encounter where things are really difficult to scale up in supply to meet demand.
Primer compound, which is the key ingredient to primers, is a "primary explosive". Other commonly known powerful explosives like C4 are often designed to be made safer to handle and use by being engineered to be less sensitive. While you can actually shoot a bullet into a chunk of C4 without anything happening, you would definitely NOT want to do that with a handful of Lead Azide or Lead Syphnate, two traditional primer compounds, as they are impact and flame sensitive. Even static electricity or friction can cause detonation. These same compounds are used in detonators for military munitions and use of explosives, precisely because they are able to be initiated in these ways.
All of which means that manufacture of primers is the most hazardous part of fabricating ammunition components. So dangerous in fact that in the primer forming room at any facility where primers are fabricated, only 1 person is allowed inside while operations are underway, because safety is paramount. Thus, if an explosive accident occurs, there is only one casualty. Meaning that the bottleneck in centerfire ammunition manufacture is the rate at which a single employee per factory can make the primers. An entirely new building and assembly line at a different location would be required just to have 1 more primer manufacturing capacity, rather than simply adding employees. And for obvious reasons, the employees who make the primers are highly trained and vetted. They are not easily replaced themselves. If Covid has taken any out of the labor force, I don't know. But if Pauly the primer dude catches the virus and is out for 6 weeks,...you can't just take Mike from shipping, give him a day's training and let him loose on the task.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_O9gSKFguU Here's an inside look at one such plant. Just fast forward to the 3:47 minute mark to see what I'm talking about. (Although the entire factory tour is educational and worth a watch.)
This is all EXPENSIVE capital investment, and these companies don't just spend on new infrastructure capacity for temporary market fluctuations.
"But golly," you say. "If demand is so high, and with all those new gun owners, why wouldn't primer manufacturers build out new capacity?" That's a good question, and I'm glad you asked.
This has all happened before. Specifically, the panic/shortage of 2013,…which really lasted all the way into 2016. While everything was scarce and hard to get for at least a year, by the 2nd year, availability had pretty much resumed for everything except .22LR ammo. The other calibers, being centerfire, allowed for the modularity of the production lines to change over completely to and focus on the particular handful of calibers that were most in demand. In so doing, supply was increased to a point where a surplus existed and all demand could be met, which ended the panic. But with rimfire not being modular in nature, just to increase production capacity for .22LR required that expensive capital investment to buy and install new manufacturing space, new machines, new operators and new priming.
From the perspective of the CEOs of the manufacturers, this panic was driven by current political winds, and that was a temporary condition. If they could just keep cranking out at maximum capacity until the temporary emergency passed, panic would subside all would eventually calm down and return to "normal". Not an entirely unsound point of view, to be honest.
However, this attitude also ignored a pre-existing trend. While the percentage of active sportsman shooters consuming .22LR had been trending downward for decades as America became more urban and less rural, there had also been an increase in recent years of female gun owners seeking personal protection. Many had chosen the easy to control and master .22LR as their caliber for their weapon. And during this same time, 2nd Amendment advocates, knowledgeable of the trend in gun owner percentage of the population decreasing, and fearing that would lead to a lessened appreciation of and defense of gun rights, began endeavoring to increase promotion and participation of youth gun sports. Which of course revolved primarily around the .22LR cartridge. So while the ammo makers had not built hardly any new production capacity of note for .22 ammo during the past several decades, and the customer base seemed relatively static,…in the 10 or so years before the 2013 panic, market consumption of .22LR ammo had grown rather well. This had made for the supply vs. demand being rather inelastic, without much capacity to make up any shortfall. But being a rather typically conservative and cautious bunch, the CEOs just hadn't seen the need prior to that time to spend so much money just yet. That would take time to amortize and recoup the investment.
And so it was that this already nearly maxed out manufacturing capacity made it that much more difficult to service the demand during the panic. And the longer the panic went on, the more intense it got, driving even more demand, as shortages tend to do.
It wasn't until towards the end of 2014, when all other caliber demand had finally abated and .22LR was still unobtanium (and the growing anger by consumers) that it finally dawned on the manufacturers that simply waiting it out was not going to cut it. And if new infrastructure was going to be spent on, it might as well happen while demand was still high. So in early 2015 some key manufacturers of .22LR went ahead and dropped the coin necessary to build out new production capacity. And as a result, by 2016, the panic buying had finally stopped as supply had increased enough.
In fact, back in March when all this current panic began, .22LR took quite a long time to become scarce this time around, specifically because there is more produced today then 7 years ago. 9mm dried up first, quickly followed by 5.56mm. But I was able to get .22LR ammo for at least a month after a lot of other stuff disappeared.
So what does that have to do with what is going on now?
Well, even if the COVID pandemic had never occurred, there was still always going to be the threat of socialist attempts at obliteration of the 2nd Amendment and gun ownership. So election season was going to create it's own buying panic anyway. But before the manufacturers could spend the early part of this year ramping up and stockpiling as much product as possible to meet that expected demand, the virus and Antifa burned up that buffer before May, putting the producers behind the 8-ball before the season even really got started. And now, with at least 8 million new consumers,…its fairly clear that the previously failed wait and see approach from the last shortage should NOT be the default this time around either. That new customer base OUGHT to make it plain that long term demand will be greater and investment in increased capacity is imperative and necessary.
However, the government is the wild card here, and the manufacturers know it.
Only the most ignorant and illiterate American is unaware of socialist plans for disarming the population. And if their theft of the election stands, the effort to achieve that shall begin in earnest. While most of the talk about such things revolves around GUN control,…less common (but perhaps even more dangerous) is AMMUNITION control.
So imagine you own an ammunition manufacturing company. You know that you need to and ought to spend money to grow your capacity. You know that's going to hurt in the short run, but can be well rewarded in the long run. EXCEPT,…there is the threat that philosophically fanatical disarmament twats in Congress could easily as the stroke of a pen attack your industry, your market or even your specific individual company,…and at just the time you have expended finances and resources that cannot be reclaimed quickly or easily, if ever, depending on Congress' actions. This isn't your imagination, because the supposed incoming regime and their supporters have all talked openly about finding any possible way to attack your class of industry, your customer base or the mere existence thereof.
Is it truly wise to go forward with spending (or even borrowing) millions of dollars in an environment so potentially hostile and at the mercy of insane collectivists?
Thus, while guys like Mr. Vanderbrink will be happy to tell you they are in full production,…you will NOT hear anyone like him talk about expanding operations or building out new production capacity. And with that being the case, is it really truthful to make the statement they are "doing everything we can" to satisfy the demand?
In my estimation, if Biden is allowed to occupy the White House, the current shortage will continue for the entire 4 year term. If Trump is able to stop the coup, that will unfortunately give the left their perceived excuse to let their thugs off the leash and let violence loose upon the nation,…which will increase demand exponentially, regardless of manufacturing improvement. Thus, regardless of what happens in the next couple of months,…THE AMMO CRISIS WILL NOT END SOON.