Why We’ve Had an Ammunition Shortage

American Rifleman

Government conspiracy? George Soros? Overzealous preppers? Nah, the ammunition shortage isn’t that simple. Here are some numbers and the facts behind why you can’t find the cartridges you want.

Gun AmmoTrying to explain why there has been a prolonged shortage of ammunition is like attempting to understand why people line up outside stores in anticipation of Nike launching its latest basketball shoe or Apple its latest iPhone. A run on a product—or in this case an entire category of products—is the result of a perfect storm of factors. So, for some much-needed perspective, let’s begin with the big picture.

First, we need to see if demand has indeed outpaced supply. Privately owned corporations aren’t in the habit of giving out sales and precise manufacturing figures for their competitors to peruse, so I contacted the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the trade association representing manufacturers of firearms, ammunition and related products. However, as ammunition made and sold wasn’t much of an issue in the past, the NSSF only recently began tracking ammunition production. Nevertheless, there is another way to understand the trend in ammunition sales. There is good historical data showing how much excise tax on ammunition has been paid annually. (Every time you buy a box of shotgun shells or rifle cartridges you pay an excise tax that was established in 1937 when Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Act.)

Before getting into the numbers, it should be noted that tax revenue raised over time isn’t a perfect way to measure the sale of a category of products. For example, the prices of some premium ammunition have outpaced inflation. Also, commodity prices for copper and other metals over the past few years have generally risen, causing prices to rise for ammunition even faster.

Nevertheless, the tax figure is a useful way to understand overall sales trends. So let’s look at the numbers. In 2000 the U.S. Department of the Interior reported that excise taxes on ammunition generated $68 million, whereas in 2012 that figure was $207 million. With inflation taken into account, that’s approximately a 129 percent increase in 12 years. A lot of that growth has taken place in the past few years. Between 2007 and 2012 excise tax money generated from ammunition sales almost doubled from $108 to $207 million. Tax dollars from ammunition sales were stable from the mid-1990s through 2006, but then started to climb fast as gun sales began surging.

To understand what $207 million represents, it’s helpful to know that in 2012 the NSSF estimated the size of the consumer rimfire, center-fire and shotshell market at about 9.5 billion shells and cartridges. That includes U.S. production in addition to imports minus exports. Last October the NSSF predicted there would be more than 10 billion cartridges and shells made for the American consumer market in 2013 as manufacturers attempt to keep pace with consumer demand.

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