Surviving the ammo shortage

If your agency hasn’t bumped up against an ammunition shortage in the last few months, you don’t shoot much. This scarcity of factory ammunition is the result of several different factors, the largest being our war on terrorism. During the last few decades many of the military arsenals were mothballed and the commercial factories filled much of their reduced need. Now, however, the military needs have grown dramatically while domestic production capabilities have not. Add into this mix a shortage of many of the raw materials used to make brass, bullets and powder, and the capitalistic rule of supply and demand takes over.

The ammunition shortage is not a myth, nor is it a conspiracy to escalate prices (like some theorists claim for the rising prices at the gas pumps). And, by all accounts, the ammo shortage is not likely to be resolved in the near future. Tight ammunition supplies are likely to be with us for some time, so how do we deal with this problem?

1. Plan ahead

Forget the prior notion that you can call up your regular supplier and get a few cases anytime you want. Those days are gone especially when you want to get more than just a few cases. One major manufacturer is reportedly not taking orders from their wholesalers until “further notice.” Another quoted me immediate availability of .40 caliber ammo, and almost the same for .45 caliber ammo, but is working a minimum of 120 days out for .223 loads. However, from what I can tell, shotgun ammunition is not a problem to obtain.

Get into the habit of placing larger orders on a regular basis. An annual or semi-annual buying schedule allows the wholesalers or direct-sales manufacturers to streamline their production needs and better meet demand. Some agencies have procurement regulations in place that prohibit stockpiling “consumable” items or limit your ability to order more until you are down to a certain “supplies-on-hand” level. One central purchasing entity in the state where I live is so ruled by illogic, that they are sticking to their “no more than 3 month supply on hand” rule, even when their agencies have tried to explain the need to order 6-9 months in advance to get delivery on some calibers. The bean counters don’t really care if you run out of ammunition. After all, they do have their rules. If you have to deal with such a system, keep fighting. Keep appealing to the bean counters’ bosses until some logic can prevail. If necessary, apply pressure through sympathetic politicians. Remind them that United States law enforcement agencies are also part of the war on terror, so peacetime procurement rules are inappropriate.

2. Be flexible

Many agencies fire duty ammunition for all events. Can some of your training be done with non-duty loads? By limiting your hollow-point purchases and substituting full-metal-jacket ammo for some training sessions, you may be able to better round out your supply. Likewise, if you are loyal to a brand of ammunition in short supply, consider an alternative brand. Virtually all of the major manufacturers use duty-grade projectiles that have been measured against the industry-standard FBI protocol for expansion and penetration. Despite the advertising claims, there is really very little terminal performance difference between the police duty loads of the Big 3 ammo manufacturers. If you restrict yourself to one brand of ammunition, you may go without.

Consider a smaller company. My friend Jeff Hoffman of Black Hills Ammunition is a trusted source of industry intelligence as well as a respected producer of ammunition. Smaller producers, like Black Hills and Hornady, often have trouble competing head-on with the Big 3, because they do not manufacture all of their own brass/bullets/powder/primers. Instead, the smaller manufacturers must depend on other vendors for many of the components they assemble. Although some of these companies have excellent reputations for quality, some do not! Check them out before you purchase.

Black Hills is widely respected and has won some large government bids, but still reports ready availability for duty-grade handgun ammunition in most common calibers. Hornady ammunition also has a top-notch reputation for quality and can be an excellent alternative source. Quality remanufactured loads may be a viable option for you, but only as a long-term program for rotating your empty brass for reloading. The high-quality re-manufacturers I spoke with are deeply back ordered in almost all police calibers.

Be prepared to pay more. Both supply & demand and legitimate raw material shortages are affecting prices. In many locales, the state bid prices are still reasonable, but agencies find empty shelves when they place orders. If you want ammo, you may have to pay more than the state bid price to get it ... if you can get it. Here again, we may run afoul of the bean counters who will not allow us to pay higher prices, even if the low bid cupboard is bare. If you need ammo badly enough and have the flexibility to work within reasonable spending limits, you can generally find some of what you need.

A source I have in one of the Big 3 companies explained what may be happening in the state bid shortages. In many (if not all) states, the ammunition bidding process is long and complicated. This can result in a vendor being trapped into a situation where the bare-bones price they submitted many months ago to win the bid would now result in them selling their product at a loss due to increased raw material costs. No company can afford to sell at a loss, so they may be tempted to divert their production to another bid where they can turn a profit. We can’t say for sure that is happening, but it’s logical to assume it could happen. The state of Colorado got around this issue by recently accepting the bids of all major manufacturers. In other words, the approved state bid list is everybody! Each manufacturer is approved at their specified price. If you try to buy the low bid and find it out of stock, you are pre-approved to shop with each higher priced bid until you find what you need. In light of the current supply situation, Colorado’s solution sounds like a good one.

3. All of the above does not apply to .223 ammunition

I was quoted .223 ammunition delivery dates ranging from 120 days to “we’ll get back to you.” As we all know, the US military is the biggest consumer of .223/5.56mm ammunition, so they are creating a more or less permanent shortage in what is available to police agencies. The .308/7.62mm round is also heavily used by the military, but less so by police agencies. I have not heard of any police agencies having problems getting the .308 fodder they need (most commonly in the form of match-grade sniper loads). The answer is to place .223 orders well in advance and get into a 6-month or longer buying cycle. Due to cost volatility, some manufacturers may take your order for a year or more in the future, but few will guarantee pricing that far out.

4. Be careful of cheap alternatives

Foreign made ammunition can serve some of your needs, often at very attractive prices. If you have used ammunition from an outside source and are satisfied with it, you have an answer. Some agencies have discovered issues with imported ammunition that cause more problems than solutions. Be especially careful with foreign ammunition using steel cases as some weapons handle it well and many choke on it. Similarly, the US-made ammunition with aluminum cases is also known to be less than 100% reliable in many pistols. If your agency sells your scrap brass or participates in a remanufacturing program, steel or aluminum empties mixed in with conventional brass casings may sharply devalue your exchange rate.

Fear not, the ammunition well is not dry. But, your regular supply chain may have a few broken links. By planning ahead and being flexible in both ordering techniques and brand loyalty, you can keep your officers on the firing line. Top-notch firearms training has never been more important, so do what you must to keep ‘em shooting.

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About the author

Dick Fairburn is a Critical Incident Training Coordinator, an instructor for the Illinois State Police Academy and a member of The Police Marksman National Advisory Board.

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