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    In Range

    A Seller's Market

    When ammunition shortages strike, primers are like cigarettes and chocolate in postwar Berlin – a world of barter and black-marketeers.
    When ammunition shortages strike, primers are like cigarettes and chocolate in postwar Berlin – a world of barter and black-marketeers.
    Funny how old friends remember you, out of the distant blue, after a year or more of silence, and want to see how you’re holding up during the crisis and, “Oh, by the way, do you know where I can get my hands on some primers…?”

    Yes, gentle reader, it has come to that. Shortages of reloading components are really starting to bite. The friend mentioned above is fairly typical. After an ill-starred venture 20 years ago into the world of custom riflemaking, he cut his losses and now has a high-paying job in the software industry. Somewhere along the line, he decided handloading was just too much trouble, especially given the low cost of ammunition. When you have a .30-06 and a .45 Auto, he figured, ammunition would always be easy to find.

    Not any more. George lives in New Hampshire, and he told me that not only is there no ammunition to be had, there are few loading components either – especially primers, those pearls beyond price. He also reported there’s a curious knock-on effect: Guns of all kinds that sat on dealers’ shelves for years, gathering dust with no takers, are now selling briskly; old clunkers like cut-down Springfields with rusted out bores, or rickety top-break revolvers. The catch is, the buyer wants ammunition to go with these relics. So gun dealers who do have some stocks of ammunition are reserving them to use as inducements to potential gun buyers.

    George thought his local dealer had become a personal friend over the years, and that he could persuade him to part with some of his private stock of, well, anything that would go bang. He thought wrong. That’s when he called me.

    Out in Colorado in early September, I was told by all and sundry that there was no ammunition of any kind to be had in the foothills north of Denver, and presumably everywhere else. At the time, that neighborhood was being threatened by wildfires, which normally don’t cause a rush on gun shops, but it seemed like it was the final straw for many people – the virus scare, the Democrat anti-gun president scare, the mobs in the streets and now this. Faced with being potentially homeless, living out of a pickup, what do you do? The first order of business is to buy ammunition. They don’t have any in your caliber? Then buy a new gun in a caliber for which they do.

    Another trend that’s repeating itself (having occurred in the last years of the President Obama administration, when Hillary Clinton’s shadow loomed like Nurse Ratched in the doorway) is a tendency, if you go into a store and find they don’t have the ammunition you want, to buy whatever they do have even if you don’t own a gun for it. The thinking is that someone out there might be willing to trade some .308 or 9mm for a box of .25 WSSM or some 16-gauge field loads, where they would scoff at an offer of mere money.

    There have also been some frightening references, not from reputable sources, suggesting that in a pinch you can dismantle ammunition, saving the bullets and even salvaging the live primer to reprime your brass. The situation would have to be dire indeed for me to try that, even with welder’s gloves and safety glasses.

    As I have mentioned once or twice, I’ve lived through three – now make it four – serious primer shortages. The first was in 1996. I lived in Canada, and happened to be good friends with the country’s major arms and ammunition importer. Friend Ron imported and distributed CCI, Federal, Winchester and Remington. You’d think I’d be able to get primers. The problem was, Ron couldn’t get primers from his American suppliers. Such was the demand all across the U.S. that manufacturers were running full out to satisfy their big customers. Shipping primers out of the country to a relatively small customer was a pretty low priority.

    Ron’s company reached the stage of rationing – sending a favored gun shop a box of 100 primers, which they in turn doled out five or six at a time. If you weren’t a favored customer who laid out big money every year, you were out of luck. It’s the law of supply and demand – grassroots capitalism – and while we may growl and grit our teeth, it still beats a Stalinist command economy.

    When the next two primer shortages struck – one in 2008, the next in 2016 – they didn’t affect me because I’d taken to keeping a stockpile of all the primers I use or am ever likely to. According to my friend George in New Hampshire, gun dealers there who won’t part with ammunition are hoarding primers as well, for the simple reason that they don’t know when they will get any more and, in the absence of ammunition, more and more people are either starting, or returning to, handloading.

    A few months ago, some friends of mine bought a house closer to the center of the city and decided that, given the rioting and “peaceful” protests, they would each get a handgun. One got a .380 ACP, the other a .32 ACP. So far, so good. I assured them I could provide a decent ammunition reserve, regardless of the vagaries of the market. When I went looking for .380 bullets, however, there were none to be had. I tried Graf & Sons, Huntington Die Specialties, Midway, all the usual suspects: Nothing. Nada. Out of stock, no backorders. Oddly, .380 is a cartridge I don’t stockpile much of, simply because I have only two and I don’t use either one very much. I have a wide variety of .357-caliber bullets (who doesn’t?) but none suitable for the .380.

    Much the same thing is happening with .32 ACP bullets as ammunition goes out of stock at one supplier after another. If you can’t get ammunition, you buy components. If there are no components, there is the black market, which is not really a black market in the strictest sense because that implies illegality. (It’s not like Harry Lime selling stolen penicillin in postwar Vienna, but it’s funny how, in such times, one’s mind turns to movies like The Third Man, or tales of gun smugglers off the Spanish coast.) A last resort for .380 bullets, which are usually 90 grains or thereabouts, is to cast your own. Maybe the next shortage we see will be lead furnaces and bullet moulds.

    As a diehard handloader, I can’t imagine giving it up regardless of how inexpensive ammunition might be at some point in the future. But, with some calibers it’s hardly worth the effort. For example, 9mm Parabellum rounds, in bulk, for informal practice: It used to cost less to buy loaded ammunition than to load my own. So why bother if there is no ballistic advantage? The same was true of .38 Special and a couple of others.

    Then there are calibers like the .380 and .32 ACP, which are small, finicky to load and generally more trouble than they’re worth, especially if you consider the need for absolute reliability in a self-defense gun. In a pinch, however, any ammunition is better than no ammunition. I might not choose a .380 with a lead roundnose for self-defense, but if it’s all you can get, well, it’s all you can get.

    On a happier note, all of the previous historical primer and ammunition shortages have been followed by periods (and sometimes quite long periods) when we were awash in components, and everything was being discounted down to razor-thin margins. Manufacturers ramp up production as if the good times (the seller’s market of shortages and high prices) will last forever, which they never do. At which point, they are left with excess capacity and dwindling demand. Like death and taxes, we will surely reach that point again.

    Meanwhile, primers today are like cigarettes and chocolate in postwar Berlin. If you’ve got a supply, you’re a modern-day Harry Lime.

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