Empty shelves out of ammunition

George Dilles, of Moscow, views scarce ammunition shelves at Tri-State Outfitters on Friday afternoon in Moscow. Because of high demand, ammunition limitations have been set in stores to offset the ongoing shortage since last May. “It’s always nice to have a few extra boxes, but you can’t find them anywhere,” Dilles said.

What is possibly the highest demand for ammunition in a generation is easy to spot at Tri-State Outfitters in Moscow.

The 24-foot-long, 6-foot-tall display where the store stocks ammunition is 90 percent empty, something the store’s general manager, Jennifer Laferriere, hasn’t seen in her 30-year career.

The heightened sales for ammunition began in May just after the store reopened following a closure because of the coronavirus.

Since Tri-State had been closed, it was one of the few places that still had ammunition on the shelves, Laferriere said.

Customers from as far away as Coeur d’Alene and Spokane drove to Moscow, and many of them are still regulars, she said. One of them told her that when he makes the trip, he stops in towns along the way, looking for any business that has ammunition in stock.

“In the past couple weeks, we are starting to see a little more product than we have seen in the last couple months,” Laferriere said.

Like Tri-State, the selection of cartridges is “very sparse” at Schurmans True Value Hardware Store in Clarkston, said Kurt Schumann, a department manager.

Ammunition sellers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the heightened popularity of bullets.

Vista Outdoor, one of the largest ammunition makers in the country, is seeing it too.

The business has increased the number of its employees at its Lewiston CCI/Speer operations to 1,200 and earlier this month still had 100 openings.

People have shown up at the company’s factories, sent hate mail and inaccurately suggested Vista wasn’t making ammunition or was storing rounds in “secret” warehouses, said Jason Vanderbrink, Vista’s president of ammunition, in one of two YouTube presentations.

“I wanted to address those rumors, because every day I hear something new and it’s simply not true,” said Vanderbrink, who oversees CCl/Speer, Federal and Remington, Hevi-Shot and Alliant Powder.

“We are making all of the ammunition as fast as we can,” he said in a video as he strolled through Vista’s Federal plant in Anoka, Minn., grabbing handfuls of ammunition that was waiting to be packaged and shipped to stores. “We really, really feel humbled that the demand is high for our products.”

The reason for the shortages are numerous.

The number of new gun owners has skyrocketed in the last year amid civil unrest, and there has been renewed enthusiasm for outdoor activities like hunting that allow people to be socially distanced to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

There’s also a growing interest in hunting as a way to procure organic meat, Vanderbrink said.

“If we just look back on basic economics, 7 million new shooters since March times two boxes, which is a conservative estimate, is 700 million new rounds of ammunition our three factories have to help produce,” he said. “That is impossible to do in nine months.”

Vista has ramped up production, hiring hundreds of employees and spending months to train them while following all of the extra precautions at its plants required to keep workers safe during the pandemic.

Schurman agreed with Vanderbrink.

“There’s a lot of new shooters,” he said. “They can only make so many (bullets a day). That’s where we’re at.”

Laferriere believes there are other drivers behind what’s happening that are beyond the control of stores or manufacturers.

“The more scarce it is to find, people start thinking, ‘Well I better buy it when I see it,’ and that has increased demand,” she said. “If we receive a shipment, the word spreads like wildfire.”

Tri-State has worked hard to be fair in the unprecedented environment, partly by limiting purchases to two boxes per customer since May.

“We haven’t increased our prices due to demand,” she said. “We’re still operating off the same margins. We feel that is not the right thing to do.”

What retailers and manufacturers can’t control is what happens to rounds after they leave the store.

Laferriere has heard there is a secondary market for ammunition where private individuals are selling cartridges at significantly more than what they bought them for at stores.

Like Tri-State, Vista Outdoor is doing everything it can to meet demand, Vanderbrink said.

“Federal has been around for 99 years,” he said. “We’ve made more hunting ammunition this year than we have in the 99 years of our company. Certainly that wasn’t enough. We understand that, but it’s safe to say we put out a lot more hunting ammo in 2020 than we have in 2019 and any other previous year.”

But some approaches won’t help in the short term, such as building a new factory as has been suggested in comments Vista has received, he said.

The spike in demand for ammunition followed three years where the industry had excess capacity.

“If we made an investment today, it’s several years before we are going to see more capacity,” Vanderbrink said.

Williams may be contacted at william@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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