Since the turn of the century, there have been three major ammo panics. They are becoming regular enough that we as shooters just need to accept them and learn to prepare for them. They can either be an annoyance you prepared for, or can bring your gun-related activities to a screeching halt.
There’s a lot of truth in the saying “we can’t predict, but we can prepare.” The more panics there are, the less will be needed to send everyone running to their local gun store to buy everything in sight. There typically are some warning signs though, so I’ll discuss those as well.
Each major bout of panic buying has been a bit different, but the keys to preparation are still the same.
First Things First. If the Shoe Fits, Wear it
I don’t need to ask anyone how much ammo they would buy if it was being sold just above cost. I also don’t need to ask people if they would get into reloading when every single tool is available. How many small pistol primers would you buy if a major retailer marked them down in price and offered free shipping and Hazmat? I already know.
These are the conditions that existed before this most recent panic. Companies were going out of business, unable to make a profit selling various firearm-related products. After Donald J. Trump won the election in 2016, four years of panic buying were canceled. All the stock that was bought up by retailers instantly dropped in value.
And with that drop in value came a complete lack of interest in stocking up for many, if not most, shooters. If this happened to you, my advice is to eat a bit of humble pie and make a commitment to make different choices in the future. There is no point in complaining about the various reason for this current panic. It was entirely preventable on the individual level.
The good news though is it will likely happen again. In previous panics, the mid-term elections have seriously checked people buying habits. As I write this in early 2022, all signs point toward this being the case again. Once boxes of ammo are on the shelf again, many people will stop wanting to buy them.
Why Do These Shortages Happen?
While I could talk about supply and demand, and how it affects prices and availability, I’m hoping you already know about these basic economic principles. There is a bit more nuance to the panic buying that has become common in the shooting community, so I will do my best to explain that instead.
The first and major reason ammo panics happen is because of fear. Gun owners fear legislation that will restrict their rights, and they also fear other gun owners buying up all the ammo and being left with none themselves. To prevent this, they will go out and buy up all the ammo.
Beyond that though, far too many gun owners don’t keep a sufficient supply of ammunition on hand. They will shoot their guns occasionally, and buy just enough ammo to keep up with this demand. The moment they are confronted with the possibility of not being able to resupply for 1-2 years, and they only have 3-4 unopened boxes of ammo, they spring into action.
So if supply is an ongoing issue, why doesn’t supply expand? This is, after all, one of the core principles of capitalism, to find a need and sell a product. The problem is that demand varies wildly. This was learned quickly after the 2008 panic, which I’ll discuss more in a bit.
When the panic hits, production can only be ramped up so much. The existing infrastructure to manufacture ammunition can’t keep up with everyone buying more at the same time. Also, for most of the existing supply, the price can only be increased so much before a business is accused of gouging its customers. And, as with any commodity, once it gets scarce people will begin buying with the sole plan of reselling it later.
For the major manufactures, they don’t want to spend capital to make more factories. Once the panic passes, and demand returns to normal, these ammo plants aren’t needed. With panics typically lasting 2-3 years, they wouldn’t make a return on their investment.
There are Useful Ways to Prepare
The most obvious thing you can do to prepare for the next inevitable panic is buying more than you use. This is obvious, but if I don’t mention it someone will point it out. The time to do this is between the panics as well, when others are complacent.
A far more useful tactic to prepare is to start reloading ammunition. Reloading not only reduces the overall cost of shooting, but distributes the cost over a greater period of time. Primers, which are always the least plentiful component during a panic, can be bought and stored for decades. Powder, pistol bullets, and brass can generally be bought during panics, although at an increased price. Rifle bullets generally fall somewhere in between in availability.
The biggest mistake with reloaders, of course, is not buying enough primers. Many reloaders, especially pistol reloaders, fail to even buy equal amounts of powder and primers. This is because the big cost is the primers, which can cost multiple times more than powder. The true strategy though is to over-buy primers and plan on picking up powder and bullets much quicker during the length of the panic.
The least useful, by far, thing to do is spend all your money on guns. Far too many people own multiple, redundant firearms, but still manage to have no ammo. Before buying that 30-06 to complement your .270 Winchester, consider buying 2-3 years’ worth of practice and hunting ammo. The same goes for buying a .45 ACP after you already own a 9mm Luger.
Just remember, no one can prepare for everything. Once a panic begins, it will largely lock you into using whatever you stockpiled. If you are mostly a pistol shooter and later want to become a duck hunter, you will need to get in line with everyone else.
Don’t Waste Your Time Being a Chicken Little
Once the “ball gets rolling”, there is no stopping it. It is a fruitless endeavor to try to convince others not to buy every last thing they can get their hands on. The only smart person telling others to calm down is the one doing the most buying themselves.
The golden rule of ammo panics is that you are buying what is reasonably necessary and prudent. Everyone else is a moron intent on making things worse.
The Panic as a Child
There is always going to be some event, typically political, that will send people online and to their local stores to start the buying. Regardless of what starts it, how the supply chain works can often send mixed messages. This is also when you will hear many people cautioning you to “just buy to meet your immediate needs”. Their advice, be it well-intentioned or not, is too little too late.
What will generally happen is everything will go out of stock, and then come back in stock in a couple of weeks. This is because very few stores keep large amounts of anything in stock, but there is still a warehouse full of it somewhere. Gun owners will descend upon their local stores, and major online retailers and buy them out of everything. This can be sustained, but only for a while.
When the behind-the-scenes supply runs dry, the high-demand products will stay out of stock for much, much longer. Without any reserves remaining, they will only appear again as they are produced.
The Panic Becomes a Man
When everything shows out of stock and a trip to your local Cabelas show they only have a few $80+ boxes of .300 RUM, you are officially in a panic. If you didn’t prepare at all, it’s time to find a new hobby. All joking aside, it literally might be time to load whatever you have left into the pistol you keep on the nightstand and take up photography.
During a panic, there will always be someone, somewhere, more connected than you. They will be at the store at 3am when the ammo gets put on the shelves, or just buy it straight from their friend who is an employee there. Many of these people are financially motivated, and their main goal is to flip in for a profit.
Unless you absolutely need a new gun, and have lined up some ammo for it beforehand, now is not the time to buy. And just because Academy sports has a few boxes of .375 H&H Magnum on the shelf, it doesn’t mean that is what you should buy. More on that in a bit.
The Panic Matures
After a while, usually a year, things will start to calm down. The panic won’t necessarily be over, but less people will be buying. Also, prices will generally have raised sufficiently to make flipping ammo for a profit almost a break-even proposition. While reputable stores didn’t want to raise their prices by 200% right away, they will have given in. Why sell ammo just to have someone else make all the money?
By this time, many guns will be back in stock for full MSRP. Premium ammo will also be somewhat available, as the people willing to buy that $80+ box of rifle ammo will have run out of money and kidneys. Shotgun ammo will also have made a return, as the machines used to produce it are incapable of making anything else.
While now isn’t a great time to buy, it can be done. Just bring along your wife and her boyfriend along so you can buy multiple times the daily limit.
For reloaders, primers are still going to be an issue, but most powders, brass, and bullets will be available. They may not sit in stock, but you will have a shot at buying them once a month.
Someone’s Got to Pay that Credit Card Bill
After it all calms down, and people start to face financial realities, expect many of the things bought to come back to the market. Bills come due, kids want vacations, that big civil war never happened, etc. The people who were lining up outside of the sporting goods store are 5am every day are going to start needing back the money they invested during the panic.
Hopefully, you waited and resisted buying a $50 box of 9mm Luger on Armslist. Or an $800 Glock. If the people who bought everything up just to make a profit did indeed make a profit, don’t waste your time worrying about it. It’s in the past and can’t be changed.
The year after a big panic is one of the best times to buy new and used guns. Because so many people view guns as an investment and not a tool, they have an inherent interest in keeping them in good condition. Very, very few guns with significant amounts of use ever get sold on the used market.
This is also a reasonable time to buy from people who bought excessive amounts of ammo or reloading components, just don’t expect the deep savings when compared to firearms. As a cartridge is always new, until it isn’t, most sellers aren’t willing to come down too much in price.
2009: 100 years of Backorders
After President Bush left office, and John McCain failed to become the warmonger-in-chief, there was a very legitimate threat of losing gun rights on the national level. Democrats controlled the federal government and the Assault Weapons Ban had expired only four years earlier. This panic was easy to predict with a crumbling economy in 2008 and then-Senator Obama being so confident in victory he was campaigning in Europe. Still, it was the first in a long time and the complacent got caught with flat feet.
With this panic, I will fully admit I wasn’t ready for it. I was just leaving the army, and still living in Upstate NY. I was using guns very infrequently and had exactly zero ammunition reserves. I chose to follow my own advice and just take up other hobbies. I did keep a loaded gun in the house but had virtually no ability to practice with it.
Many shooters went to every possible retailer and put in a backorder for whatever they needed. Businesses were, as far as I recall, happy to take people’s orders but didn’t consider the ramifications of one person putting in 15 different backorders. And it wasn’t just 15 orders with different retailers, it was 15 excessively large orders.
Once people started getting these orders filled, they would quickly go out and cancel all the others. Many people would cancel their orders without any of them getting filled, as they were far too large to begin with. Retailers go hosed. In the end, they were left with huge amounts of stock and not enough people willing to pay full price.
2013: The Little Panic
President Obama won reelection in 2012 and the extremely deadly Sandy Hills shooting took place in early 2013. With that mass shooting, the panic was on. The big concern, which was dispelled fairly quickly, was that Republicans could have weak hands and agree to gun control in an attempt to appease the left.
Thankfully that didn’t happen and buying calmed down “fairly” quickly. There was still a shortage during 2013 and 2014, but by 2015 many items were back in stock.
One of the hallmarks of this panic was adding yourself to a notification list and products came back into stock. It wasn’t impossible to buy things, but you literally had to be watching your email for the alert and then immediately go and buy one specific product. It wasn’t the most efficient, but it was doable.
Retailers, for their part, learned from the past and stopped offering backorders entirely.
2020: The Big One
Now to address the ammo panic we are currently in, and why it has been by far the worst of the three. It has been, in no other words, a perfect storm. Also, it isn’t over yet, though it does show signs of ending in 2022.
Many of us who have been through the last two were cautious in 2019 and understood the election years could start a third panic. Generally though, gun control on the national level had become a toxic issue and leftists themselves were afraid to seriously consider it. Sure, a few politicians in safe districts would talk about it, but leadership was hesitant to address the issue.
COVID-19 changes all of that though. Not only did the early stages of COVID-19 cause all sorts of supply-chain problems, but civil unrest kicked the panic off months ahead of schedule. The non-political aspect of having your house surrounded by the torch-and-pitchfork crowd made a lot of people run out and buy. Lots of people who sat out the previous panics joined the crowd.
And in a way, the chickens had come home to roost. The supply chain hadn’t expanded after previous panics while the number of gun owners was exploding. As many correctly pointed out, just supplying all the new gun owners with a few boxes of ammo was enough to cause a shortage.
To make things worse, Remington went through bankruptcy and the effects of COVID-19 on the global supply chain had made importing foreign ammo more difficult.
Many Trump supporters were also utterly boned, as they were far too sure of his reelection. I don’t plan on rehashing anything that happened between election day and the day President Biden was sworn into office, but none of it helped. In early 2020 new gun owners were scared of civil unrest, and in late 2020 it was the experienced gun owners feeling the same way.
I think this panic is well on its way to being over, but the future is never certain. All indications are the 2022 elections will be a red wave of epic proportions, but the worst still might not be over. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the left is already embracing this idea.
Given we are likely months away from peak desperation, expect some panic buying to flare up again. There has been pressure on President Biden’s puppeteers to act unilaterally since he entered office. Now that his legislative agenda has all but died off in congress, it will only get worse.