It’s no secret that the demand for firearms and ammunition has reached record levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest in cities around the United States, and the prospect of an anti-gun president on the horizon. As with previous surges in ammunition sales, primers are the current weak link in the supply chain. After interviewing several manufacturers, Guns & Ammo has learned that the lack of primer supply is a part of what’s preventing ammunition makers from meeting this unprecedented demand.
We have seen shortages before. When the semi-auto ban was passed in 1994, there was a shortage. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president and again in 2012 through 2013 during the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook School shooting. According to various sources, manufacturers are confirming to us that we are in the midst of the greatest primer shortage of all time.
Bullets are relatively simple to produce. Brass cases can be reused and powder is still plentiful. Hence, primer production is the bottleneck in ammunition production process. Though there are dozens of major and minor ammunition manufacturers in the U.S., only four domestic manufacturers produce primers: Federal, CCI, Remington and Winchester. Those four firms feed the entire primer supply including ammunition sold to the military and law enforcement. Millions upon millions of primers are produced every year by these companies.
Like any product, primer manufacturing is designed to meet the average demand. Just as we saw with toilet paper, when individuals begin hoarding, supply dries-up quickly. When customers who ordinarily purchases 100 rounds of 9mm practice ammunition per year suddenly begin buying several thousand rounds at a time, there is no way for production to keep up with that the effects of that demand. Many warehouses that suffered through the “Trump slump” in sales have been wiped out.
Internationally, primers are manufactured by several firms in different parts of the world. Armscor in the Philippines, for example, Sellier & Bellot in the Czech Republic, Fiocchi in Italy and JSC in Russia are some of the more prominent companies. An industry insider told G&A that several million primers are currently en route from Europe to the U.S. by way of ship, which may help meet at least some of the demand for loaded ammunition. Still, those primers need to arrive, be offloaded, clear customs and then be distributed to the various manufacturers who can use them to produce ammunition. This will take time.
Primer manufacturers are working hard to feed the market. “We continue to operate at full capacity and are committed to meeting the current strong demand for ammunition and primers.” Federal representatives told G&A. Remington is also working overtime: “We are producing at record levels to attempt to satisfy the unprecedented demand for primers in support of the hand loading consumer, our own loaded rounds, and our industry partners loaded rounds.”
In the meantime, customers shopping for ammo are likely to see “sold out,” “product temporarily unavailable” or “out of stock” in stores and on the websites of popular online retailers. Gun store ammunition shelves have been emptied of common cartridges such as .380 ACP, 9mm, 5.56 NATO/.223 and .45 ACP. Ammunition that was available by the pallet load in January is all but unobtainable today. Customers are scrambling for product, so retailers are getting creative.
One company in particular has come up with an innovative solution to the current shortage. Nevada-based Super Vel Ammunition came up with a Bring Your Own Primer (BYOP) program where customers who are able to find primers at retailers such as Brownells or Midway USA can have them shipped to the company’s location where they will be used to load factory ammunition for you. Super Vel told G&A that more than 500,000 primers have been shipped by customers in just a few days.
COVID-19, rioting on urban streets and a historic election have created a perfect storm for firearm and ammunition sales. Don’t expect the demand for ammunition and components to wane anytime soon. If popular polls are correct and Joe Biden is elected to be the next president in November, the real prospect of anti-gun legislation is likely to create even more demand yet. Hang on, folks.