The Shell Shortage

The Shell Shortage | Shooting Sportsman Magazine
With ammunition companies loading mostly centerfire rifle and pistol ammo, shotgunners have been experiencing shell shortages. Shutterstock/Joe Arrigo

You’d have had to be living under a rock if you hadn’t noticed that ammunition has become threadbare to nonexistent on most dealers’ shelves and from most online sources. The same can be said for reloading components.

Despite the rumors, it’s not some kind of conspiracy that’s creating the ongoing shortage of ammo and reloading components. It’s record-high gun sales. Here are the details and how it works.

During 2020 the all-time annual record sales of firearms occurred in the US. Background checks, an accurate index of firearm sales, reached nearly 40 million. They had been rising steadily since 2010, during which about 14.5 million background checks were conducted. But last year they really jumped from 2019’s 28.3 million.

As to the types of firearms being sold, what has dominated the US market for the past 20 years has been handguns followed by rifles (largely AR-15 style). A minority has been shotguns—mainly black, plastic-stock, pump or autoloading self-defense-type shotguns. The last big years for shotgun sales in which a large share was wood-stock hunting and clay target guns were 1995 and 1999, during which 1.2 and 1.1 million shotguns were sold. Of the sporting shotguns being sold today, a healthy growing percentage is upgraded wood-stock, high-end over/unders, side-by-sides and sporting clays autoloaders.

It takes lots of ammunition to supply all the new guns being sold. For years gun owners have been encouraged to stock up and have as much as 2,000 rounds of ammo on hand to feed each caliber of firearm they own. Many gun owners have followed this advice, and still more have bought at least several hundred rounds in each caliber. The industry calls this hoarding, and hoarding definitely has contributed to the ammo shortage.

But the big problem for manufacturers has been trying to keep up with the ammunition demand from all the new 2020 gun owners, even after most dealers began implementing limits on ammo purchases midyear. Do the math. If there were approximately 22 million new gun owners in 2020 and they each bought only 50 rounds of ammo, that’s 1,100,000,000 more rounds to load on top of the ongoing several billion per year to keep up with ongoing gun owners’ and military ammo needs.

To try to meet this surge in demand, beginning in 2020 ammo manufacturers began to significantly reduce loading shotshells and turned their production principally to centerfire rifle and handgun ammunition. All ammunition takes primers, and almost all primer production capability has been focused on centerfire primers for many months. That’s why if you’re a handloader, you noticed primers, especially shotshell primers, were the first things to go south on the component availability list. Then shotshell hulls became scarce, as many US manufacturers began loading pre-primed foreign-made hulls to save on primers. More factory ammo also requires more powder, so powders for reloading were the next components to dry up as production became focused on factory-load powders. Reloading wads and shot have been slower to dwindle, but many wads and shot sizes are now also out of stock.

The bottom line is that US factory shotshell and shotshell-reloading-component manufacturing will remain on the back burner as long as manufacturing capacity is focused on centerfire rifle and handgun production. Most US ammo dealers have depleted stocks and have imposed purchase limits on all types of ammo to combat hoarding. Most component suppliers have been suffering intermittent and incomplete shipments of components to resupply their depleted inventories. When they do receive shipments, many are imposing purchase limits on components too.

For some indeterminate amount of time this will be the “new normal.” But we have been through shortages before, and they always have cleared up. I’m confident that they will clear up again; it’s just a matter of when.

New Reloading Manual
In spite of the current components shortage, by popular request I recently completed and published a new reloading manual: Tom Roster’s Advanced Lead & Bismuth Shot Handloading Manual.
This manual is intended to update and expand on my popular Buffered Lead & Bismuth Shotshell Reloading Manual, which is now out of print. Many of the recipes in the former manual are now obsolete, because several of the powders and wads used are no longer manufactured. My new manual presents an expanded list of lead and bismuth loading recipes—many calling for new powders and wads that recently have come to market. It is called “Advanced” because all the recipes either can be buffered to deliver effective, beyond-50-yard patterning performance or can be loaded unbuffered and commonly will produce 80% patterns at 40 yards through most Improved Modified and Full chokes, depending on shot size.
The loading data details nearly 80 recipes covering the 3½" 10; 2¾", 3" and 3½" 12; 2¾" 16; 2¾" and 3" 20; and 2¾" 28. The price is $13.95 (see ordering information at the end of the article). —T.R.

To consult with Tom Roster or to order his new Advanced Lead & Bismuth Shot Handloading Manual, his HEVI-Shot and HW 13 reloading manual, or his instructional shooting DVD, contact Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601; 541-884-2974, [email protected].

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1 Comment

  • Shot shells were the 2nd item that clued me into the current price inflation. I won’t tell you what I paid for 5,000 Euro 209 primers last year!

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