If you’ve been to a sporting goods store or gun shop recently you’ve probably noticed that the ammo shelves are painfully bare. Yep, the ammo shortage (which has a variety of contributing factors) is continuing on with no clear end in sight. The huge demand for ammunition in the consumer market is still outpacing the production capabilities of the ammo industry, and prices are double and sometimes triple what they were a year and a half ago. These issues are only spurred on by the constant threat of stricter gun control measures. While many gun owners have been hoping these conditions would be temporary and that things would go back to normal quickly, it now looks like this is how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.
For many gun owners who want to buy ammunition now, finding it online is their only real option. But buying ammunition online is fraught its own issues. Ammo prices fluctuate wildly, shady pop-up web sites look to scam consumers, laws vary from state to state, and stricter ammo purchasing legislation is being proposed all the time. But the upside is that you can find ammo online, and if you’re diligent and patient, you can find it at somewhat reasonable prices. Here’s what you should know before you go to purchase ammunition online.
It’s an Ammo Seller’s Market
Steve Urvan is the CEO and founder of GunBroker.com, which is the largest online auction site for firearms and shooting accessories in the world. On the site, which launched in 1999, third-party sellers list items, which buyers can bid on or purchase outright. Federal and state laws still govern the sale of firearms and other restricted items purchased through Gun Broker. Urvan says he has seen not only a huge increase in transactions, but also a dramatic shift in who’s buying.
“Our demographic for guns and ammo has traditionally been older, male, and more [experienced]. Now, everybody is buying,” Urvan says. “We’re seeing a huge increase in women [buyers], a huge increase in minorities, a huge increase in sales to the younger demographic: Guns and ammo aren’t just for old men anymore. There’s just been a massive expansion of the overall demographic for guns and ammunition, and it’s going to be a long-term phenomenon.”
Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the NSSF, says the organization’s number crunching shows the shift at GunBroker is indicative of national trends. The ammo-buying surge that began in 2020 was the result not only of pandemic shortages, but also a number of other factors, and the truly astonishing increase in gun sales during the same period is a major one.
“We had 21 million background checks for sales of firearms [in 2020]. We did a retail survey in the middle of the year to see who was buying all these guns and why they’re buying them,” Oliva says. “We found that 40 percent of people were buying guns last year were first-time buyers.”
That works out to an estimated 8.4 million first-time gun buyers, all of whom also began buying ammunition last year.
“If every one of those new gun buyers bought a box of 50, that’s over 420 million rounds,” Oliva says. “That’s just one box of 50. People are still shooting. They’re shooting a ton. And when you inject 8.4 million people into the market, it’s certainly going to have an effect, and we’re seeing that play out.”
In other words demand is high, and that means online prices are likely going to be higher than what you’re used to seeing. Within the environment of an online auction site like GunBroker, sellers set the prices, or the prices are settled in a competitive auction. For example: A quick search for .30-06 ammo turned up a listing for 120 rounds of Remington Core-Lokt with a current bid at $305, or about $2.54 per round. Normally, that same ammo would cost about $1.65 per round. There were still 10 hours left on this auction.
A Ban of Online Ammo Sales Is Unlikely (But Not Impossible)
Yes, the threat of legislation limiting or abolishing online ammo sales is out there. If you want to get worked up, you can read a piece of absurd federal legislation introduced about a month ago by U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), plainly called the “Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act of 2021.” The bill recently got a lot of attention online as it started gathering co-sponsors.
In short, the proposed legislation would all but abolish online ammunition sales by introducing three major restrictions: all ammo sellers would have to be licensed; all ammunition sales would have to take place face-to-face between a customer and a licensed seller; and licensed ammunition sellers would be required to report “bulk purchases of ammunition.”
The bill defines bulk purchases as 1,000 rounds of ammunition or more bought by one person within a five-day period. Purchases exceeding that amount would have to be reported via a form designed by the U.S. Attorney General and sent to the local state police the same day as the sale.
This, of course, would be devastating to online ammunition sales, and ammo sales in general. But how much should gun owners be worrying about this particular bill?
Oliva says while there are some serious would-be gun control laws working their way through the legislature, like H.R. 8 and H.R. 1446, the Ammo Sales Act likely isn’t one of them. It is, however, indicative of what gun-control proponents ultimately want.
“I think these kind of bills are always worth paying attention to, but I also think it’s important that we’re not chasing after every shadow that’s out there,” Oliva says. “There are gun control bills introduced in every legislative session and there are gun control bills that are written by unserious lawmakers and they are unserious bills.”
“However, it’s important to recognize that there are people who are very serious about wanting to end online ammunition sales or buying ammunition straight across the counter, retail,” he adds. “There are people who, if they had their way, would have everyone buying ammunition like they do in California or in Illinois or Massachusetts, with a firearm owner identification card or a background check that goes along with an ammunition purchase permit at the time of purchase. So these are definitely things we need to keep our eye on.”
Currently, there are six states with ammunition sales restrictions that impact the ability of their residents to buy ammo online. California and New York have laws requiring point-of-sale background checks on purchasers, so any online ammo purchase would have to go to a licensed seller, just like a firearm would. Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey require residents to have a license or permit to buy ammo and to possess some types of ammunition. If a site ships to those states (some don’t), it will require that license or permit to be sent before the sale will be processed. A background check is a part of the licensing or permitting process in all four states. Several other states have restrictions on ammo sales to those deemed dangerous persons, or minimum age requirements. Be sure to check all local and state laws before attempting to buy ammunition in person or online.
To avoid running afoul of state laws, many ammo sellers will not process orders from the above states. Most sites will also not sell ammunition or primers to Alaska and Hawaii residents due to shipping restrictions, costs, and fees. There are a number of states with ammunition sales and shipping restrictions that make online purchasing difficult or outright illegal.
- Alaska: This state has heavy restrictions and haz-mat fees for shipping ammunition or primers. As such, most sites will not sell to Alaska residents, and if they do, shipping costs are very high.
- California: Ammunition shipments may only go to: Licensed ammunition vendors with a copy of their license on file; Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders or a Type 03 FFL (C&R) holder with a Certificate of Eligibility (COE); Shooting ranges that keep the ammunition on the premises; Authorized law enforcement agencies.
- Connecticut: Ammunition shipments may only go to those with a valid: permit to carry a handgun; retail permit for handguns; eligibility certificate for handguns; long gun eligibility certificate; or ammunition certificate and legal photo ID. Military, law enforcement agencies, and FFL holders are exempt from these requirements. Additionally, “.50-caliber Armor Piercing or Incendiary” ammunition is prohibited.
- Hawaii: This state has heavy restrictions and haz-mat fees for shipping ammunition or primers. As such, most sites will not sell to Hawaii residents, and if they do, shipping costs are very high.
- Illinois: Most sites require buyers to send a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (FOID) or a valid concealed carry license and a state photo ID prior to the shipment of ammunition.
- New Jersey: Most sites require a Firearm Purchaser Identification card (FPID) or “NJ Permit to Purchase a Handgun” to be faxed or emailed before online purchase.
- New York: Ammunition shipments must be delivered to FFL holders or registers Sellers of Ammunition (SOA) only. If a site allows NY residents to make purchases, it will typically require buyers to send a copy of the FFL/SOA they are using prior to processing the order, like a firearm.
- Washington D.C.: A valid Firearms Registration Certificate (FRC) is required for all ammunition purchases. Additionally, the district considers all ammunition components, such as cases, primers, powder, and bullets as “ammunition.”
How to Not Get Ripped Off
Desperation and the constant “Out Of Stock” messages on ammo retailer websites have caused some folks to try buying ammo from less-than-reputable sources. Often, these shady sites offer amazing deals. Some people have been burned. Reddit gun subs are full of anecdotal reports of bogus sellers, and even bogus ammo websites, looking to bilk people as ammo prices continue to rise.
As with everything on Reddit, these reports should be taken with a mammoth grain of salt, but Oliva says there are plenty of reasons to keep your guard up and be smart when buying ammo online.
“There are people out there who are scalping. There are people out there who are scamming people,” Oliva says. “Try to exercise a little patience and work with those people who are there when the times are good and continue to work with them. The big guys are the big guys for a reason. They’ve built a reputation of quality service by being able to deliver exactly what they say they will at that price.”
Roy Hill, public relations specialist at Brownells, says the larger ammo retailers are the safest bet for online purchases, but urges gun owners not to neglect local retailers.
“Stick to the large retailers, and if they have a ‘Notify Me’ or some kind of alert function, like Brownells does, I’d use it. Instead of taking backorders, now, we have a ‘Notify Me’ function that allows you to sign up for an email alert for when it comes back in stock,” Hill says. “I’d also go out to the local brick-and-mortar mom-and-pop stores if you have them. Because sometimes you can find stuff on the shelves.”
Urvan says scammers aren’t a problem at GunBroker right now. The site’s biggest hurdle is dealing with a long-lasting spike in customer service work that has come along with increased online gun and ammo sales.
“With the increase of volume, and especially with so many new users, customer service has had a hard time keeping up,” Urvan says. “Our team is working very hard and we’ve had to hire a bunch of people and put a lot of effort in, but it’s extremely difficult.”
The Ammo Shortage Is Not a Conspiracy—Demand Is Just Absurdly High
When you’re scouring websites for 6.5 Creedmoor or 9mm at all times of day, every day of the week, and not finding anything in stock, at any price, it’s tempting to buy into the idea that something nefarious is going on.
Oliva confirms the many conspiracy theories out there blaming the ammo shortage and price hikes on this or that are completely bogus.
“I try to tell people, if you’re not the one buying ammunition today, it’s your neighbor. It’s not going into a government warehouse. It’s not some secret cabal of ammunition makers holding back any kind of market. They’re pushing out as much as they can,” Oliva says. “The ammunition you buy today is probably going to cost almost three times what you normally pay on a regular day before the pandemic. That’s just the result of supply and demand.”
Hill says Brownells is receiving ammunition constantly, but demand is so incredibly high, it’s hard to notice.
“All of our product people and merchandise people are constantly going out and looking for ammo anywhere they can find it,” Hill says. “We’ve got great relationships with ammo makers, so we’re constantly getting ammo in. But it will get received, it will get marked ‘In Stock,’ it will go live on our website, and in a couple or three hours later, it’s gone.”
“On Brownells, we typically have 3,000 types of ammo in stock—that’s rifle, handgun, and shotgun. Right now, we have 18,” Hill says.
Over at GunBroker, there are some instances where a buyer might feel like they’ve been had in some way, but in reality, Urvan says, it’s just a consequence of the ammo shortages and the hectic nature of supply chains right now.
“We always try to run a clean marketplace. If somebody bids on something and wins it, we want to make sure the seller delivers,” he says. “Because of the shortages and all the problems with logistics, things have taken longer and some buyers may be unhappy because it’s taken longer to get something. Occasionally sellers will just make an inventory mistake: They thought they had 10 boxes and really had eight. You don’t want to see somebody bid on something and not get it, but when things are like this, sometimes that can occur.”
If a GunBroker purchaser does not receive an item they paid for or if the product that arrives is not what they ordered, they must submit a claim to the site’s Buyer’s Protection Program. According to the site, GunBroker will cover up to $500 on an item and all claims have a $100 deductible. It will not cover shipping costs, transfer fees, or taxes.
When Should You Buy Your Hunting Ammo?
It’s April, and those who aren’t busy spring turkey hunting are starting to get antsy about finding ammunition for the upcoming fall seasons. Some are even starting to worry about September 2022, which, it turns out, is not an overreaction.
There is no deer cartridge more classic than the dependable .30-30 Winchester. Just try to find some on a store shelf right now. You’ll be surprised at how tough it is and the prices on the stuff that is in stock will make you flush.
Still, the wise play is to jump on the hunting ammo you need if you see it, regardless of price. For big-game hunters, this might mean just one box. For bird hunters, a few boxes of good all-around hunting loads will at least keep you in the game. The emphasis here is on the ammo you “need” versus the ammo you “want.” For example, it could pay off to wait for a deal on plinking ammo. Also, now is an unwise time attempt stock piling ammo. If there’s hunting or personal defense ammo that you truly need, however, buy it now.
“It would be smart to do some opportunistic buying,” Urvan says. “You really have to plan ahead and bid on some stuff early. Make sure you’ve got what you need as opposed to trying to wait until the last minute, because we can easily go into the fall in this same situation.”
Oliva agrees and says he, personally, is thinking about ammo for next September already.
“I think everyone is kind of in that same boat. Right now, I would take availability over pricing,” Oliva says. “If you have the opportunity to grab the ammo that your hunting rifle likes best, I would do so, even at the elevated prices. I don’t see the prices coming down for hunting season next year. I think we’re going to be living with this for some time to come.”
Reddit and other social media platforms are chock full of advice about what the right time of day is or the right day of the week to start looking for In Stock notifications. Outside of The Matrix, Oliva says the NSSF has received reports of ammo seekers clocking the deliveries at their local gun shops and big box retailers. They’re ready and waiting in long lines when the doors are unlocked the next morning. “Then they’re wiping them out an hour after they open up,” he says.
Hill said the only real reliable strategy for buying ammo online for finding what you need is to rely on in-stock alerts. He also agrees that if you see the ammo you need, don’t wait for a deal that isn’t coming.
“Speaking as a life-long hunter, here’s how I look at this,” Hill says. “People have to make their own decisions, but say ammo for your favorite hunting gun used to be $25 a box, and now it’s $50 a box. If it’s just ammo for hunting, how many shots are you going to take? The most shots I’ve fired in a deer season was four shots. Is it worth saving $25 to potentially be in a situation where you don’t have the right ammo when deer season comes?
“I’d be willing to pay an extra $30 to $60 to have hunting ammo for my gun that I know I need and that I’ve got a box or two handy, and my season is covered,” he says. “I understand being on a budget, but I’ve been around long enough to know you only get so many deer seasons.”
Is This Going to Get Better? Ever?
The Remington Ammunition plant is back in action at full production after being inactive following a bankruptcy sale to Vista Outdoor last year. That should help a little bit. And Urvan, Hill, and Oliva agree that an equilibrium will be reached at some point. It will just take time. And nobody knows how much.
As the CEO of Federal Ammunition, Jason Vanderbrink, has stated in videos addressing the ammo crisis, it is indeed no simple matter to increase the production capacity of an ammo factory, nor to expand the skilled workforce necessary to run ammo production lines.
“Remington coming back online will be a huge help to the market and fill some of that gap that’s out there and satisfy demand,” Oliva says.” It’s not a matter of shortages at this point. We have the raw materials, we have the brass, we have the primers. We’re also looking at this kind of market for the rest of the year and probably into 2022.”
Because so much expense and time goes into expanding ammo production lines or adding facilities, companies have to be sure the demand will continue long enough to make it worth it, or risk overextending themselves.
“A lot of the manufacturers, both on the firearm and ammunition sides, are really trying to look into that crystal ball and determine what the market demand will be in three to five to 10 years and that they’re making prudent decisions,” Oliva says. “They need to be sure their business will be surviving into those years and that they won’t find themselves in the awkward position some companies found themselves in 2017.”
Hill agrees that gun owners should settle in and accept the new norm, and keep checking for availability, at least for now.
“I don’t think anyone sees any short-term change coming, and any time someone starts talking about banning guns or ammo, sales increase,” he says. “And the more scarce ammunition is, the more demand grows.”