Ammunition shelves are running bare in gun shops across America, forcing gun owners to consider other options, like reloading used brass casings, or making their own ammo.
But there’s no way around it. Reloaders face the same supply shortages as consumers who buy their ammunition ready-made. In fact, for reloaders it might actually be worse, because the big manufacturers get priority for the basic materials.
“If you don’t have the components, then you’re stuck, just like with factory loaded ammo,” said Philip Massaro, president of Massaro Ballistic Laboratories and author of ‘The ABCs of Reloading.’ “You’re going to be waiting a long time.”
Reloading is a small-scale manufacturing process for ammunition. Most ammunition is made in factories by manufacturers like Winchester or Vista Outdoor, which owns the Federal, CCI and Remington ammunition brands.
But anyone can also make their own ammunition. A firearms enthusiast with a $200 hand press and other tools like a $150 electric case prepper can assemble the raw components – bullets, primers, powder, brass cases – and make them into live ammunition.
Making your own ammunition might seem like a survivalist’s solution for getting around the nationwide shortage that has cleaned out gun shops since the Covid-19 pandemic swept through America last year.
“Once ammo became very difficult to find, we did see more customers turn to reloading supplies and equipment,” said Ryan Repp, director of content and communications for Brownells, an Iowa-based firearms retailer and ammunition manufacturer. “We are doing our best to keep up, but it’s been a similar story to ammo: demand is outpacing supply.”
But all ammunition needs the same basic materials including bullets, primers, powder and cases. Reloaders are having a hard time finding the components because the ammunition companies that make them are using those components to manufacture millions of rounds of their own ammunition for sale to the public.
“We receive regular shipments of ammo, but in most cases it’s sold immediately, literally within minutes to hours,” said Repp.
Faced with a deadly pandemic and violent outbreaks of civil unrest, Americans have been buying guns at unprecedented rates, according to background check data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and earnings results from gun makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger RGR +2.1%. Last year, the FBI background reported an annual record of 39.65 million background checks. The first two months of 2021 have outperformed the first two months of 2020.
More than eight million Americans have bought guns for the first time since the start of the pandemic, according to the industry group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation. These means that millions of new customers are also buying ammunition, putting a huge strain on manufacturing.
Vista Outdoor, based in Minnesota, has been telling ammunition-starved customers that it’s doing all it can to make ammunition, as well as also primers and other components for reloading. Vista says it’s making ammunition at full capacity and hiring more workers. The company acquired the Remington ammunition plant from its bankrupt parent company last year and recently brought it online to boost production.
“Our teams are working day and night to meet this unprecedented demand for our products,” said Fred Ferguson, vice president of public affairs and communications for Vista Outdoor. “This includes our ammunition facility, which is running 24/7 to support the needs of law enforcement, sportsmen and women and the millions of new and returning recreational shooters.”
Ferguson said the reloading market, just like the shelf-ready ammunition market, is experiencing demand spikes, along with limited supply.
Jason Vanderbrink, president of Vista’s Federal, CCI, Speer and Remington ammunition brands, has explained the shortage in greater detail in a series of online videos meant to dispel rumors that Vista is deliberately causing it.
“As the ammunition demand continues to surge, the primer market suffers,” he said in a company video, while strolling through a bustling bullet factory. “Instead of going to the commercial markets where reloaders can use our primers, that capacity is now going to feed our internal needs to produce all the Remington, CCI, Federal and Speer ammunition.”
Despite customers’ demands to ramp up manufacturing capacity, Vanderbrink said that it’s difficult and time-consuming to “just simply build a new factory.” He said the lag time to boost production can drag on for years.
Manufacturers in the firearms and ammunition industries are a bit leery of expanding capacity, which is time-consuming and expensive, because they’ve been burned in the past. In 2016, a record runup in gun sales flattened with the election of President Trump, as fears of gun control faded away.
Reloading has a long history. The American tradition of making your own ammunition dates back to the Revolutionary War, at least. In 1776, a crowd of New Yorkers and a group of soldiers lead by General Washington tore down a lead statue of King George II and sent it to Connecticut to be melted down into musket balls. Soldiers in the field often melted their own lead in metal ladles and molded their own slugs with hand clamps. Pioneers were also hand-pressing their own bullets at cabin firesides.
Twenty-first century reloaders get into it for different reasons, and enjoy a more sophisticated selection of equipment, including priming tools, reloading dies, kits and presses.
But is it too late for the modern reloader?
“There’s a lot of people trying to do the right thing and learn how to reload,” said Massaro. “But they’re a little late to the game because of supply.”