The 15 feet of shelving reserved for bullets had been ravaged. Not a single round remained.
A sign taped crookedly to a vacant ledge informed customers that they are limited to three boxes of ammunition per day. Even with the rules, bullets could not be found at the Washington Walmart Monday past morning.
“People are panicked,” said Nick Watts, owner of Nick’s Gun & Pawn in Washington.
At his store, he is restricting purchases to one box per customer. His supply is still sparse.
With the shortage, the price of bullets has jumped — it’s not uncommon to see a 100 to 200 percent markup, though it varies by product — since last fall.
“It’s two times as difficult to get ammunition today,” said Roger Langendoerfer, owner of Stone Ledge Pawn & Gun in Washington. He was comparing current sales to those from October 2020.
The shortage has caused 9 mm bullets to reach $50 a box, he said. In 2019, a box of this popular type of ammunition would have cost $15.
Six months ago at Nick’s Gun & Pawn, 500 9 mm rounds would have cost $99. Now, to earn the same percentage he made on each sale, Watts has to price them at $225.
“Eight months ago, you started seeing little increases, maybe starting at a dollar box, 50 cents a box,” Watts said.
The noticeable price jolt started about two months later, he said.
The pandemic is a big factor in the shortage but not the only one, the business owners said.
Recent administrative change is “probably the number one” reason for the shortage, Watts said. With President Joe Biden’s candidacy and inauguration, gun owners have been worried that their guns could be taken.
Jared Smith, general manager of Ozark-based ammunition manufacturer Fiocchi of America, said this is normal with any presidential turnover. As he has seen every four to eight years, this is “the first knee-jerk reaction by society at large."
“What’s most interesting about this time around is that we had a fairly large bankruptcy at Remington happen at the same time,” he said.
As one of the largest ammo manufacturers in North America, Remington had owned more than 20 percent of the market, Smith said. The company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection July 27. With Remington’s products gone, at least one-fifth of cartridges were missing from the shelves.
“Remember, with the pandemic, we’ve had one thing after the other,” Watts continued.
The Black Lives Matter protests and Capitol riot also caused an uptick in demand, Watts and Langendoerfer said.
Then, two months into Biden’s term, the administration discussed potentially banning automatic rifles, the gun store owners said.
This talk galvanized buyers, who already had increased their gun supplies following the onslaught of the pandemic. In March 2020, almost 2.6 million firearms were purchased, according to Statista. That was close to double the 1.36 million guns purchased one month before.
“There have been more stockpiling since the pandemic because of the uncertainty,” Watts said.
On the manufacturing side, there had already been a “slowing tide of imports coming in” from international sellers, Smith said. This was due to the ammunition market’s crash in 2016 following former President Donald Trump’s election win. Bullet material prices have increased as well, he said.
The cost of copper almost doubled from $4,371 per metric ton in March 2020 to $8,631 in February 2021, according to Metal Miner.
Lead prices increased by 20 percent since the end of March 2020, according to Ycharts. The metal cost $2,080 per metric ton on Feb. 28.
“The manufacturer is paying more to get the components. Distributors pay more to get it from the manufacturer. The retail establishment is paying more to get it from them. The consumers pay more to get it from me,” Watts said.
Smith said workers at manufacturing companies like Fiocchi “have never produced more ammunition in their lives.” Fiocchi’s only major difficulty throughout the production cycle has been finding labor. The company’s products are sold throughout Missouri, the U.S. and internationally.
To reassure customers, Watts, Smith and Langendoerfer said supply will return to normal.
The outlook already looks good, Smith said. Minnesota-based manufacturer Vista Outdoor acquired Remington in October, so ammo shelves should start to fill up again.
He said he is unsure if cartridge prices will fall, though, because the material prices are hard to predict. According to Northern Miner, metals such as copper are expected to rise much less sharply in 2022 than they will this year.
“By all means, if you need ammo to protect yourself, have ammo to protect yourself,” Watts said. “But do you need 20,000 rounds to protect yourself? Now, if people would relax and just wait it out, things will come back. They always do.”