Minnesota hunters are scrounging for rifle ammunition and shotgun shells as harvest seasons approach in the second year of an unrelenting ammo shortage.
The scarcity of rounds is changing sporting behaviors, impinging on the youth movement in competitive target shooting and greatly inflating the price of going afield.
"We've never seen it like it is now," said Jim Rauscher, a third-generation family owner of Joe's Sporting Goods in Little Canada. "It's hard to plan a hunting trip when you don't know if you are going to have ammo."
Dealers are as frustrated as customers, Rauscher said. His store placed orders for rifle and shotgun ammunition in 2019 that remain unfulfilled. As partial deliveries trickle in, manufacturers aren't accepting new orders until the old ones are satisfied, he said.
"We're hearing from the manufacturers that fall hunting loads are again going to be hard to come by," Rauscher said. "Everyone is getting a little, but nobody is getting a lot."
Exacerbating the shortage is a new buying mind-set to build at-home inventories for fear of running out. Rauscher and others said it's not like the hoarding seen in the personal defense category. But his advice — especially to rifle hunters who rely on very specific bullets — is to buy them when you see them.
"If you have a supply, sit on it tight,'' said deer hunter Carrol Henderson, a Department of Natural Resources retiree who headed Minnesota's nongame wildlife program. "It's disappointing that it's like this … hunting is so important to our culture.''
Henderson remains a champion of copper and steel ammunition as a replacement for traditional lead rounds that are known to poison raptors and other critters that feed on carcasses of lead-shot game. He said the current ammo imbalance extends to nontoxic loads.
For manufacturers, the ammunition shortage is producing bounty. Manufacturers are enjoying record profits with a combination of eye-popping sales growth and large price increases.
Sportsman's Warehouse Holdings Inc., owners of a distribution center in South St. Paul, said this summer that a big increase in quarterly sales "was primarily due to higher demand across all major categories, led by our hunting and shooting category."
At Olin Corp., maker of sporting and military ammunition, second-quarter results featured record sales and profits within its Winchester business.
And in June, Vista Outdoors, the owner of Anoka's Federal Cartridge plant, reported that gross quarterly profit in its shooting sports business vaulted 115 %. Fatter profit margins for the quarter resulted from "operating leverage, mix and price," the company said.
Scott Rall, a firearms safety instructor and ardent pheasant hunter from the Worthington area, said ammo prices have more than doubled in some categories. Hunters won't cancel trips, he said, but they'll be cutting way back on the shooting practice that precedes those hunts.
He said 12 people signed up for a recent long-range, precision rifle shooting class that he sponsored as a local leader in Pheasants Forever. In the week leading up to the class, seven people dropped out because they were unable to find or afford the required amount of 200 bullets. Entrants paid $750 for the class and about $600 for the ammo, Rall said.
"We're seeing a dramatic change," he said.
When Vista Outdoors announced an ammunition price hike this year for brands including Federal, Remington and CCI, ammunition president Jason Vanderbrink cited rising costs for raw materials, labor and health care.
In a Star Tribune interview this week, Vanderbrink said his company is making more hunting ammunition than ever. Late last year, Vista acquired the dying Remington ammo plant in Arkansas, drastically increasing its production.
He said the overarching reason for the ammo shortage is a glut of newcomers to shooting sports and hunting. "We've added 10 to 12 million new users in the last 12 to 18 months," he said.
At the same time, he added, production teams are dealing with shortages in raw materials like brass, resin and corrugate while trying to catch up to the multimillion-dollar backlog in orders.
Mark Stevens of Buffalo is a national trap shooting coach and president of the Minnesota Youth Shotgun Association. Even before the coronavirus pandemic stirred a boom in outdoor activities such as hunting and clay target shooting, Stevens was involved in the mega-movement by high schools to create trap and skeet teams.
This year, with teams running low on ammo, schools have had to trim participation, sometimes by telling freshmen to wait a year before joining. Besides low availability of ammo, teams that were paying $55 for a case for target loads have since been paying $70 or as much as $90 per case, Stevens said.
He said Federal Ammunition recently offered an exclusive sale of clay target shotgun shells for youth programs. What was advertised as a seven-day sale ended in 48 hours because orders were so great, he said.
"Once again, shells are going to be tough to secure," Stevens said. "It's not going to be normal, and that goes for hunting, too."
With a large network of friends in need of shotgun shells, Stevens receives friendly notifications when ammo suddenly appears on local store shelves. Lately, the notices haven't been fruitful.
"By the time you turn the key on your vehicle, you can bet they're pretty much gone," he said.