Hunting ammunition hard to find as ammo shortage continues nationwide

Danielle Kaeding
Wisconsin Public Radio
Signs point out quantity limits on certain types of ammunition after Dukes Sport Shop reopened, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pa. under the new conditions specified for gun stores. The store had closed last week when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a shut down of non-essential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Tony Blattler of Phillips watched as employees unloaded a shipment of .270 Winchester hunting cartridges recently at the Fleet Farm in Marshfield. People waiting in line pulled out their cell phones. Not long after, around two dozen people had filed into the store, grabbing ammunition as fast as workers could unload it.

"Probably by within an hour or two they were sold out of that ammunition just by word of mouth," said Blattler.

An avid hunter and chair of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Blattler said just about everyone he knows will stop at any gun shop or outdoor store while on the road to check for ammunition.

As the gun deer season approaches, hunting ammunition is hard to find due to supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and surging demand for guns and ammunition. Gun dealers say they’ve struggled to stock shelves as firearms sales have climbed due to unease stemming from the pandemic, civil unrest and 2020 presidential election.

Pat Kukull, owner of Superior Shooters Supply, said they had a shortage of shot gun ammunition for trap shooting over the summer with vendors sending maybe 2 percent of the usual 500 cases they might receive. She said there’s been "absolutely nothing" for those hunting pheasant, grouse or waterfowl.

"Now, we're moving into rifle season, and we haven't had any .30-30 shells in a year to speak of, really," said Kukull.

Kukull has been rationing ammunition to one box per person and tries to keep one box of ammo for every caliber gun they sell. She said .243, .308, .30-06, and 6.5mm Creedmoor are the most popular hunting cartridges right now. The shortage has prompted rumors and conspiracy theories of gun dealers or manufacturers hoarding ammo.

"It's no big conspiracy at all. It's simply there was 8 million new shooters, and the new shooters want guns and ammo," said Kukull. "That started it. And, then with the riots that went on in the (Twin Cities) area, that self-defense (gun purchases) went way up. It's just a perfect storm."

The National Shooting Sports Foundation estimates about 8.4 million people bought a gun for the first time last year. One indicator of the surge in gun sales is that federal background checks for gun purchases climbed 40 percent last year to a record 39.7 million, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In Wisconsin, background checks for handguns surged 174 percent from 139,042 performed in 2019 to 242,330 conducted last year, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Dan Marcon, owner of Marc-On Shooting in the village of Lake Hallie, said he sells an average of six handguns each day. Before the pandemic, he would sell anywhere from five guns a week to several each day during certain times of the year.

He offers training to new gun owners in addition to concealed carry and combat shooting classes. Marcon said interest has grown as people have become more uneasy about the state of society, adding the majority of purchases are by new gun owners.

"There's a ton of people that we teach to shoot that are people (you) would not think carry guns, whether they're soccer moms, stay-at-home dads — they're people that never touched a gun before," said Marcon.

While some are seeking more security, others began hunting for the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, all deer license sales were up 3.5 percent, and the number of female hunters grew 12 percent in Wisconsin.

Marcon said he gets about 100 calls a day for hunting ammunition, and some people are buying new guns just because there’s ammunition available for them.

"We have .308 ammo, and we have 12 gauge. So, guys will come in and buy a $300 to $400 shotgun because they can buy slugs," he said.

Rising demand has prompted the expansion of Rice Lake-based firearms manufacturer Henry Repeating Arms, which announced this month that it’s growing operations with an 84,000 square foot building in Ladysmith. The new property is expected to employ more than 100 people within the next three years.

Ammo, Inc. also announced plans earlier this year to build a $12 million ammunition and brass casing manufacturing plant in Manitowoc. The company plans to open the plant next summer with 150 employees.  

In the meantime, manufacturers are struggling to keep up.

"I'm trying to get new manufacturers to work with us, and everybody's just swamped. I mean, they're running harder than they ever have been," said Andrew Puckett, a gun department manager at The Reel Shot in Appleton.

Puckett said he recently drove to Illinois to get steel shotgun shells for bird hunting, stopping in three cities along the way with no luck.

When people can find ammunition, they’re paying more for it. Winchester Ammunition announced earlier this year that it was raising prices for hunting rifle ammunition 5 to 15 percent due to increased costs for manufacturing. Minnesota-based Vista Outdoors announced price increases of 3 to 15 percent earlier this year for Federal, Remington, CCI and Speer ammunition.

Superior’s Kukull said they’re not gouging on prices. When people call, they don't take orders. She urges them to check back. If they can, they’ll hold a box for them.

"That's all we can do right now," said Kukull.

This story was republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio